In November and December in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered five lectures for the renowned Massey Lecture Series on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), released initially as Conscience of Change, and then as The Trumpet of Conscience. His polemical, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” was first delivered at Ebenezer Baptists Church where he served as a co-pastor. On Christmas Eve, in 1967, the CBC aired his sermon as part of its 7th annual Massey Lecture.
It made sense that Martin Luther King, Jr. reached out to other, often international, audiences given the growing scope of his message for world peace through the mobilization of united people around the world. Further, King thought highly of Canada, praising the country for its role as a haven (Canaan land) for the escaped slave: “So standing today in Canada I am linked with the history of my people and its unity with your past” (Trumpet 3). Moreover, while King, Jr. is often remembered for his approaches to civil liberty through nonviolence, the Massey Lectures display how his approach towards justice became more radical and layered, avowing civil disobedience: “Massive civil disobedience is a strategy for social change” (Trumpet 55).
Some attribute King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, to his outspoken stance against the American government as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (24), stating that the “war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” (32). In his “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” he articulates his vision of peace as antiwar, criticizing then President Johnson for his hypocritical stance towards achieving peace:
Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends. (73)
As the above passage shows, King’s “Christmas Sermon” is more global in vision than his powerful 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech.” Many applaud the King who was opposed to violence, but then ignore the King who called for massive nonviolent demonstrations to end war and poverty in America and throughout the world. As he says in “Christmas Sermon”: “I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had, and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare” (78). That nightmare came just a few weeks after King’s speech when four innocent black girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Once the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, of which King was present and instrumental in bringing about, he noticed that while much had changed in America, the larger racist and globally oppressive systems of injustice remained intact. Hence, in “Christmas Sermon” his ideological compass was much more international, as he described how more “than half a million sleep on the sidewalks of Calcutta every night,” declaring: “No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world” (70). King’s new message, which still related to his hope for fraternity between humankind and God, was ecologically and theologically based on the notion that all life is related. In the same speech he said: “all life is interrelated. We are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (71). Given the global economy we now live in, and depend upon, King hit the nail on the head with the lightning of prophecy.
He optimistically argued that solving these ever growing problems was perfectly achievable, since the wealth of the United States alone makes the elimination of poverty perfectly practicable. His overall message always remained the same, which was that love overcomes all. He didn’t mean love merely in the romantic or friendship sense, but in the Greek language usage of the word, Agápē, which basically translates as “unconditional love.” He describes Agápē as “understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill towards all men. Agapē is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return” (75). For King, this love was tied to the love of God operating in the human heart.
And how hard is it to love our enemies, or those who disagree with our viewpoints? King’s message was built on the teachings of Jesus who didn’t say, “like you enemies,” which King distinguishes as an imperative difference, “because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. Liking is an affectionate emotion, and I can’t like anybody who would bomb my home. I can’t like anybody who would exploit me […] We must work passionately and unrelentingly for first-class citizenship” (76). Like Gandhi, King was someone able to match others capacity to inflict suffering by his capacity to endure it and love them in return. Even though King became “personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes” (79), he chose to go on loving.
King’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” remains as powerful as when it was delivered 46 years ago today. He argued that in Christ there is neither male nor female, communist or capitalist, but human beings as one in the love of God. I am no longer a practicing Catholic, but I find his message of acceptance and the will to help those who have less than us an overwhelmingly powerful one, especially during the time of year when many of us reflect on how much we have compared to those who have so little. Imagine if we thought this way throughout the year?
There are those who try to label King as non-subversive, but Malcolm X and King are really two necessary sides of the same coin. Many Christians fail to remember that Jesus was a radical in his time, a man who hung around lepers and prostitutes, was anti-public prayer (Matthew 6:5), was anti-wealth, and who never once mentioned abortion or birth control, and who was not white. Too often people judge others based on the colour of their skin, their sexual preference, religious or non-religious beliefs, rather than choosing to love them unconditionally.
King’s love was unconditional enough that he was willing to die for it. In Canada, King’s notions of what he termed The Just Society greatly inspired Pierre Elliott Trudeau who was the only candidate to mention Martin Luther King, Jr. King and Trudeau’s notions of The Just Society present an opportunity to negotiate disorder and fragmentation by embracing difference and trying to come together as a holistic group. There are only people and the hope, to quote the late and great Martin Luther King Jr., “that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” (“Mountaintop”), whatever that land might represent for us now, and the hope of a still more free future. Every year my wife and I listen to King’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” Its message of goodwill and peace on earth through “cosmic companionship” (78) is a vital trumpeting amid the hurly-burly atmosphere of the holiday season. Agápē.
You can view the full transcript here.
Audio is available, from here.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” The Trumpet of Conscience. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. 67-80. Print.
—. “I Have a Dream.” 28 Aug. 1963. American Rhetoric. Web
—. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” 3 April. 1968. American Rhetoric. Web.
Feature image is of Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking against the Vietnam War, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota, from Minnesota Historical Society.