We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you… One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr., Loving Your Enemies

This week  we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—a leader whose presence on the earth was characterized by the strength of soul from which all anointed leadership emerges. Dr. King’s life was a powerful integration of prayer and real encounters with God coupled with a profound commitment to decisive and loving action in the world. For King, it was never prayer or activism. It was never being in God ordoing something for God. It was never missional engagement with the world or contemplation of the presence of God within. It was both. All the time.  King was profoundly non-dualistic in this regard. “Life at its best,” he believed, “is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony.”[i]

Prayer that Leads to Action
As we celebrate Dr. King’s leadership as a champion for justice, it is good to be reminded that it was his keen spiritual insight and attunement with the heart of God that made it possible for him to know what many Christians and other well-meaning individuals had somehow avoided knowing—that racism is an offense to the heart of God and contradicts the essence of the Gospel.  There is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male and female; for all of you are one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28)  The soul force to which he often referred was the “force” of God-directed action motivated by love and emerging from the soul of a person who was in touch with the Spirit of God.

It was strength of soul that made it possible for King to live within the paradoxes inherent in a non-violent approach to confronting evil. “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”[ii] This is just not easy to do and it was King’s spirituality that kept his activism grounded in such radical truth.  Without strength of soul it would have been impossible for him to live these truths himself, let alone lead others in it!

I’ve Been to the Mountain!
King’s encounters with God in times of prayer kept him in the game. His spiritual vitality was a powerful undercurrent that carried him beyond fear and concern for his own survival to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for him in his own generation.  The day before his assassination, he spoke passionately about being strengthened by what can only be described as a mystical experience of “going to the mountain” and gaining a spiritual perspective on his life and the cause he was championing.

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” he thundered, “but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned with that now.  I just want to do God’s will. And he allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.

“I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

“And I’m so happy tonight! I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”[iii]


Rooted and Grounded in Love
King’s leadership in the fight for racial justice was more than mere human activism; he understood it to be his destiny that history and God himself had thrust upon him. For him, action in the world was an out-pouring of God’s love through the life of an individual who was willing to step into the powerful flow of God’s purposes and step up to do what was his to do.  That action, which was met with severe disagreement and violent opposition, drove him to sink his roots deeper into the ground of his being which was God himself.

And that is where strength of soul comes from.

Continue reading:
Part 2: Inner Strength for Outer Action
Part 3: Love in Action

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Feel free to share this article using the buttons below; please do not reproduce and distribute without permission.

[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 13.

[ii] Ibid., p. 19.

[iii] From “I See the Promised Land” sermon (also referred to as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”), April 3, 1968, Memphis, TN.

Where in your life do you struggle to hold the opposites of prayer and action in fruitful harmony


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