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Martin Luther King vs. Cool Hand Luke or Love vs. Anger

In my last post I reviewed the classic 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke ( and highlighted its religious symbolism in which Luke is portrayed as a suffering messiah struggling against oppressive forces.  A little while later, I was preparing a lesson on anger and read an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s Strength to Love.  The contrast between King’s resistance to oppression and Luke’s is extremely important and especially relevant in contemporary America’s disastrous cultural and political divisions.

Throughout Cool Hand Luke, Luke suffers at the hands of the authorities.  He antagonizes them in order to show not only that he does not accept their authority but also that he is able to endure any punishment they mete out to him.  It is important to note that Luke apparently accepts no authority as legitimate; therefore, his resistance to authority does not stem from a sense of justice.  On the contrary, his resistance seems to originate from frustration with various failed authorities, such as his parents and ultimately, in his opinion, God.  Consequently, he is not trying to change the oppressors or even the oppressive situation.  Instead, his actions are passive aggressive and express not hope but rather anger.

The contrast with King’s resistance to racial segregation could not be more marked, and his language is so eloquent that it is worthwhile quoting him extensively.

We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  … Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.  We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws.  … Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you.  But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  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.[1]

The above quotation reveals five differences between King’s and Luke’s reason for, and practice of, resistance.

  • The source is not frustration but conscience, a sense justice that demands resistance.
  • The action is not angry defiance against any authority but love for the oppressor.
  • The goal is not merely to prove that one can stand up to the oppressor but to change unjust laws and transform the enemy.
  • The attitude is not one of despair but of confident hope for change.
  • Finally, and most importantly, King claims that “every genuine expression of love grows out of a consistent and total surrender to God.”[2] Luke wavered between doubting God’s existence and doubting God’s love.  King’s capacity to love and to change his enemies grew out of his love for a god who loved and transformed his enemies.

On this Independence Day, 2017 I think that I can safely say that we live in a nation characterized by violent, angry political and cultural divisions.  In an age of the sovereign self (See my post on this concept ( there is no universal standard of truth and justice that can be appealed to.  Ironically, such an appeal would in and of itself be considered unjust because the self would have to recognize a higher authority.  Without a legitimate higher authority our disputes can only be power struggles seeking control.

Furthermore, our dangerously politicized world results in the curse of ideological identity.  A person’s value is determined solely or nearly so by his ideology; that is, his political beliefs and policy positions derived from those beliefs.  In Christianity, however, the human person is defined as being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26).  As such, he or she has an intrinsic worth even though holding to false beliefs and carrying out unjust acts.  Understanding people as being made in God’s image allows for the love of them in spite of their actions and beliefs.  When ideology becomes the determining factor in one’s identity and worth, there are no grounds for love, especially love for one’s enemies.  After all, in such a world he who rejects my ideology rejects me, and I have the right to defend myself against such violence to my person.

There have been understandable calls for a return to civil discourse, but civil discourse is dependent ultimately both on universal truth and justice and the willingness to see some worth in the other person and his reasoning.   Unfortunately, this is impossible in an age of the sovereign self, which denies universal truth and justice, and in an age of ideological identity, which views a person solely on the basis of their political views.

Writing over sixty years ago, King claimed, “For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way.”[3] That way is the way of love, even of our enemies, not the way of anger.  That love however is only possible through “a consistent and total surrender to God.”[4]  May God in his mercy grant us this surrender.

[1] From Strength to Love (New York: Collins Publishers, 1977), 47-55 quoted in Os Guinness, Steering through Chaos (Colorado Springs, Colorado, 2000) 146.

[2] Ibid, 144.

[3] Ibid, 146.

[4] Ibid.

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