“Only Love Can Do That” – In Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

People worshipping by Edwin Andrade - Martin Luther King appealed to our Christian roots

Praying Without Apology

Years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, attended Unitarian churches. King was drawn to liberal religion for “its devotion to the search for truth, its insistence on an open and analytical mind, and its refusal to abandon the best lights of reason.” [1] When they chose a tradition to align themselves with, however, the Kings chose African-American Christianity.

In her article, “To Pray without Apology,” Unitarian Universalist minister, Rosemary Bray McNatt describes a meeting she had with Coretta King. At that meeting, McNatt commented that she was a Unitarian Universalist minister. King said that she and Martin had attended Unitarian churches in Boston. Then she added, “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.” [2]

People worshipping by Edwin Andrade - Martin Luther King appealed to our Christian roots

I doubt King could have built a mass movement of any kind if he had been Unitarian. Although ours isn’t a secular organization, Unitarian Universalism is too rational, too cerebral to galvanize the kind of energy necessary to stand up to hatred, threats, and violence. Our creedless and humanistic tradition doesn’t have enough God to propel a mission or inflame a social movement.

In Grace Without God , Katherine Ozment explores this through the story of Erin, a politically active Christian. Erin has noticed that leaders in the movement for justice come from religious communities. She tells Ozment that faith “gives people resilience for the kind of struggle that it is to bring about social justice.” [3] Ozment concurs. “God,” she writes, “is a remarkably galvanizing force for groups: perhaps this is why philosophical humanism has never reached the heights of the three great monotheisms in terms of group organization and dynamics.” [4]

Unitarian Universalist Reformers

Even in Unitarian Universalist circles, the most fervent reformers built their movements on the foundation of faith in Jesus. These included Julia Ward Howe, who worked tirelessly for women’s rights; Dorothea Dix, who lobbied and campaigned for humane treatment for the mentally ill; Theodore Parker, an ardent abolitionist. Certainly there have been secular revolutions: The French Revolution, the Marxist Revolution, and Nehru’s rise to power in India, for example. Yet not only has there been religious push-back in some of these cultures, [5] but I think Ozment is right that, in the United States at least, important social movements have drawn on the power that a belief in God can give us.

It is not just a belief in God that gives us strength. Shared stories and rituals bind us together, even when we are spread across continents. For most of our country’s history, the story of a Jewish prophet who was victorious exactly because he submitted, surrendered, and even failed, was known by all of us, even if it isn’t unanimously believed. Although young people today may not even have heard of Jesus, when King was building his movement, he could proclaim that “Justice will roll down like water,” and almost everyone would understand the reference. Today, even when we appeal to religious stories, we might not be universally understood.

Secular Revolutions

Perhaps this means religious revolutions will no longer be effective or even necessary. Certainly there have been secular ones: revolutions in France, Russia, and China, for example, and secular movements in India and Algeria. The Occupy Movement has had some success in creating change, and while King and his supporters were mobilizing for change, students were protesting the Vietnam War.

Yet Michael Walzer, in The Paradox of Revolution, makes the case that after a successful revolution, an ultra-conservative religious uprising will take place. He points to the orthodox Jews who have come into power in Israel and the Muslim backlash in Algeria. [5] In our own country, a conservative uprising is dismantling the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Using the same religious tradition to frame its agenda that King used, the conservative right interprets it differently. Instead of proclaiming love, they preach judgment, exclusivity, and punishment.

Our Religious Brains

That secular movements give rise to religious ones shouldn’t surprise us. In The Accidental Mind, David Linden explains that our brains are perfectly suited to develop religions. For instance, our brains create coherent narratives, even out of disjointed input. Linden writes that, although our individual religious choices are influenced by our culture and upbringing, we share a “human evolutionary heritage” that is reflected in a brain predisposed toward “long-term pair bonding, language, and music.” These same traits predispose us to “religious thought,” because the belief in a higher power so perfectly reflects our understanding of nature, relationship, and magic. [6]

Underlying all of this is our need to tell stories. Through story, we understand ourselves, one another, and our culture. As we listen to stories, we learn about our world, incorporate values, form personalities, and, if told the right stories, develop empathy. Stories draw us together. For thousands of years, religions have told stories and myths that unite cultures and communities.

Ultimately, the message of faith, at least at its best, brings us comfort. Christianity’s essential message reminds us of a God who loves us completely and fervently. The Christian story tells us of a man, born through the body of a woman, small and weak, who grew and lived and loved and died for us, a man who, in his submission, became the Messiah. Martin Luther King understood the lure of such a savior. He realized that a shared story grounded in love would do more to compel us to defend justice through nonviolence than any number of ideas and ideals that lacked a mythic frame.

How Can Unitarian Universalists Respond?

Secular resistance is possible, of course. It happens throughout the world. Yet the methods, values, and techniques of nonviolent revolutions have roots in religious teachings. We can cut the God from our stories, but we learned about beloved community and nonviolent resistance from the religious traditions of our forebears.

Unitarian Universalism, with its intellectual explanations and rational questions, is not likely to galvanize a nation. Many Unitarians and Universalists have influenced the world through art, music, poetry, and education. We proclaim the value of mercy, service, and justice. We claim that love drives our social action. Yet what is our story?

Though we can speak of martyrs like Michael Servetus, the Unitarian king John Sigismund, and the prophetic preacher Hosea Ballou, that’s not enough. Perhaps the answer, at least for Unitarian Universalists, lies in reclaiming our Judeo-Christian heritage. These two traditions have long histories of speaking out for and demanding justice for the oppressed, the wounded, and the suffering. The most important message in both scriptures is that God is love.

It’s All About Love

Rabbi Hillel, a Talmud scholar from the first century, understood that. He said, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is the explanation of this.” [7] The Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, understands it. He paraphrases Jesus as saying that “the whole law, and the prophets too, are summed up in the two great commandments, to love God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and to love your neighbor just as you love yourself.” [8]

In Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans tells the story of a church she and some friends started that ultimately folded. Talking over the richness and the sadness of the moment, one of the co-founders said about the church, “[M]aybe it was the start of a movement, a movement to embrace love over legalism, regardless of the cost. After all, isn’t that what Christ came to teach us?” [9]

Reading that, I was struck by its truth. Yes, Jesus was born to teach us “love over legalism.” The law might help us stay safe or maintain order so we can get on with our lives. Law isn’t all bad. Yet Jesus taught us, and other religious leaders teach us, that whatever the cost, whatever we lose, and whatever we gain, the work of our lives is to love.

Martin Luther King and a Movement Based on Love

Christianity speaks of a love that prevails over oppression, violence, and hatred. It’s no wonder that Martin Luther King, who built a nonviolent movement based on the ideals of love and justice, chose Christianity as his platform. These days, we need such a religious voice. These days, instead of proclaiming the power and grace of love, we glorify the one who torments, humiliates, thrashes, threatens, and even kills. Power is measured by how many people you can order around, interrupt, taunt, torture, and destroy.

The Christian story, though, reminds us that love prevails over that kind of power. King said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

For a time, evil may triumph, yet behind the power of evil lies weakness. Evil comes from fear, insecurity, and the deep, deep shame we relegate to the darkness of our subconscious. If we cannot see our own shame, we reflect it onto others. We act shamelessly. We rage, cry, bemoan, punish, and cajole. Afraid of who we really are, we blame everyone around us for what we’ve done. When shame is at our core, we can’t forgive, because forgiving requires that we recognize our own failings.

The Love that Heals

Yet love heals shame. That’s why love defeats every form of oppression, anger, violence, and hatred. Aggression wounds. Such as easy thing to do, to hurt someone. To heal – that is the miracle, yet it doesn’t take God to create it. Every one of us is capable of spreading that miracle through our love. Every one. If we allow ourselves to see truth, to listen to the stories beneath the pain, if we allow ourselves to feel our own hurts and enter that place of darkness where growth is nurtured, we will learn to love.

King understood this. He said, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” He knew the richness of that deep, dark soil where compassion grows. As he famously said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Whether we find comfort in a god, a myth, a ritual, a community of humanists, or the tender glow of the moon, our work is to face the pain that lies within us and allow love to heal our shame so we can find a way to heal the world. The strategies Martin Luther King used might not work for us in this day of social media and disconnected communities. Yet let’s remember his message. If we fight hatred with anger and judgment, we will only create more hatred. Love can drive out hate, for love has a power and a force stronger than anything in this world.

In faith and fondness,



  1. King, Martin Luther,  “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Christian Century, “How My Mind Has Changed,” April 13, 1960, p. 1. Republished in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume V: Threshold of a New Decade, January 1959-December 1960,” eds Clayborne Carson, Tenisha Armstrong, Susan Carson, Adrienne Clay, and Kieran Taylor, University of California Press at Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2005.
  2. McNatt, Rosemary Bray, “To Pray Without Apology,” UU World, November/December 2002, http://www.uuworld.org/articles/why-martin-luther-king-jr.-wasnt-uu.
  3. Ozment, Karen, Grace Without God:The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, New York: HarperCollins, 2016, kindle edition, location 614.
  4. Ibid, location 1111.
  5. See Walzer, Michael, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. A review of the book can be found at Fathom.
  6. Linden, David, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007, 232.
  7. Brombacher, Shoshonnah, “On One Foot,” Chabad.org. See also Sharon Barcan Elswit, The Jewish Story Finder , Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2012, p. 33, number 42.
  8. Rohr, Richard, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, Sounds True Audiobook, 2010.
  9. Evans, Rachel Held, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, New York: Thomas Nelson, 2015, 229.

Photo Credit – by Edwin Andrade from Unsplash

Copyright © 2017 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved