Valentine’s Day feels like a good time to take a closer look at Love. February is also Black History Month in the US, and lately I have been reading and listening to sermons and speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When you listen to Dr. King speak, his message is more powerful than ever before. As his deep baritone voice melodically rises and falls, you are swept across the tides of time into his eternal message of Love and Will. His gift was to help us touch the human heart and awaken our deeper transpersonal nature. He was a master teacher, leader, and poet – using his voice to conjure truth through the most familiar of images and the essence of everyday life.
“Levels of Love” was Dr. King’s sermon for 16 September 1962 at Ebenezer Baptist Church. I actually found three sermons on this topic. In all of them Dr. King ultimately urges us to love our enemies. As he returned to this topic of love over the years and especially love for your enemies, Dr. King kept deepening and adding new levels to his treatise.
Below I outline the levels of love that he distinguishes. (You can read the entire sermon by clicking here.)
This is love at the lowest level. In this case, you love another for his or her usefulness to you. You depersonalize the person whom you love, and that person becomes merely an object. This love is entirely conditional. There is no I-Thou relationship, but rather an I-it.
This term is used by Plato in his Dialogues to refer to the yearning of the soul for the realm of the Divine. This higher level of love is what King called ‘romantic love’. He said:
“A romantic love rises above utilitarian love in the sense that it does have a degree of altruism, for a person who really loves with romantic love will die for the object of his love.”
While romantic love is beautiful, King insists that it is not the highest form of love, because it is basically selfish. We love another because we are attracted to him or her. Our lover fulfills some inner need in us.
This type of love is on the same level as romantic love. King said:
“Mother’s love brings sunshine into dark places. And there is something about it that never quite gives up. No matter what the mistake is, no matter how low the child sinks, if she’s a real mother, she still loves him. But even this love is not the highest. For a mother loves her child because he is her child.”
This is a Greek word that means intimate affection between friends. King explained the difference between philio and romantic love like this:
In romantic love, the individuals in love sit face-to-face absorbed in each other. In friendship the individuals sit side-by-side absorbed in some great concern, some great cause, some great issue beyond themselves, something they like to do together. It may be hunting. It may be going and swimming together. It may be discussing great ideas together. It may be in a great movement of freedom together. It is someone so close to you that he knows your heartbeat.
King pointed out that even this isn’t the highest love for there is something about friendship that is selfish. Friendship is always based on an affection for somebody that you like, who shares the same interests that you have.
Humanitarian love is broader and more inclusive. This is a love that rises to the point of saying that within every human there is a divine spark. But it still can’t be the highest point because it is impersonal. It says I love this abstract thing called humanity, but this love does not necessarily exist for the individual. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov:
“But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”
Another Greek word, the highest level of love is agape because it is unmotivated, spontaneous, overflowing and seeks nothing in return. King said:
“Agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. And the greatness of God’s love is that His love is big enough to love everybody and is small enough to love even me. The greatness of agape is that you love every man, not for your sake but for his sake. And you love every man because God loves him. Even to the point of loving your enemy.”
Confession of My Search for Agape
Now, I want to testify how difficult agape, this highest level of love is, to willfully achieve. I have a neighbor, whom I am certain God has given me for this very practice! This neighbor is nearly impossible to talk or reason with. He has betrayed me, lied to me, and is difficult to figure out. He is negative in much of what he does and says.
In my heart, I want to love him, because I see how much he is personally suffering. I want to have compassion for him, because I see how difficult he makes his own life as well as the lives of others around him.
But my nature is not so good. It takes tremendous will for me to create agape for this neighbor whenever he comes around. It is much easier for me to fall into negative feelings – not exactly of hatred– but of bad will. As soon as these negative thoughts pop into my head lately, I have been turning to prayer: “God have mercy on all our confusion (mostly mine!) God please help me to be kind. God please help me to have compassion for this person suffering before me and the person suffering inside me.”
Well, it’s working … a little. I need more practice which I’m sure I will have. Neither I nor my neighbor is going anywhere! I have great faith that such love is worth working towards. For Dr. King promises us:
“Love has within it a redemptive power. A power that eventually transforms individuals… Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.
That’s love, you see. It is redemptive. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love you enemies…
For this controlling force of love, this controlling power can solve every problem that we confront in all areas of our lives.”