What Dr. King Taught Me About Parenting and Religion
“When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, don’t!”
My 6-year-old daughter, Quinn, came home really upset because one of her classmates kept mocking her. Quinn was looking to me for a solution. I asked her if she’d told her teacher. She told me the substitute teacher said she shouldn’t tattle. The girl wouldn’t stop. So I told her “Well, Quinn, just mock her back.” Quinn was stunned. I had never given her that type of advice. Hell, I was shocked at myself and frankly even a little nervous that I encouraged her to practice an “eye for an eye.”
I don’t like confrontation—it scares me. In fact, I wish I were more confrontational. Between catholic guilt and Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” philosophy, I’ve spent a lot of time as a doormat. Nothing good ever came of my meek personality. So, I am triggered by religion, the rules it imposes, the guilt it places on its people, and the eternal judgment. I cringe at the thought of me “turning the other cheek” when someone was mean to me. “Not my baby,” I thought.
I wasn’t going to let her become what I consider a weakness, so I encouraged her to stoop down to her classmate’s level. However, as Martin Luther King Day approaches, I stop to think about his legacy. I think about Quinn’s experience as one of the only black students in her white Catholic school in an area of Texas known as “The Bible Belt.” Instead of resenting religion, how can I use Dr. King’s example? A man who used his faith to propel a movement of justice and love -and did so by famously “turning the other cheek”.
I realize that my religious upbringing is the basis of so much disdain. At the same time, however, Catholicism has informed who I am. I have always strived to be kind, to understand the people who have wronged me, to give to those who are less fortunate and to love those who’ve not loved me. But, I also know how religious institutions have controlled, oppressed and spewed hatred in the name of God. It’s hard for me to stand firmly on a faith that has been used to justify the belittling of an entire race. A religion that has covered for priests who abuse young children.
Personally, I can’t trust a church that tells me I should continue to love others and make sacrifices at the expense of my own well being. In my 35 years of life, the whole “do unto others..” bit has never worked for me. Is that selfish? Maybe. But I cannot have that for my daughter. An incessant internal battle. I want Quinn to love others, I want her to be kind, but I don’t want her to love others so much that she forgets herself. I don’t want her spending her life desperate for another’s love so much that she gives them more than she has to give..
Let's Not Be Trash is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I know that a classmate bugging her in the first grade is a small obstacle in the grand scheme of things, but it’s the perfect time to plant a seed. Did I choose the right one? As I wrestle with my own spirituality, I turn to one of the greatest spiritual leaders of this century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I spent the day listening to his church sermons to try to understand religion from a different lens. And truthfully, part of me just craves for something to believe in again. I listened back to three sermons, and came to a shuddering realization; Interconnectedness is the root of all goodness.
The first one I listened to was Dr. King’s sermon on “loving your enemy.” Here’s what I learned:
“Love” your enemy sounds cute in the bible, but it is an actual thing. A very hard, incredibly inconvenient thing, but a thing nonetheless. I actually have the innate power to do that. Never for a second did I think it was all it’s cracked up to be. I love people—to this day—who the other part of me thinks I should have no business loving. Life is a paradox, though. Two things can be true at once. But Dr. King, in his “Loving your enemies” sermon of 1957 found a way to “make it plain,” a statement you’ll hear one of the churchgoers yell out through the recording.
King references the verse in the Gospel of Matthew that says -“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” At this point I’m still rolling my eyes. “Here we go with the biblical mumbo jumbo,” I thought. Then he broke it down. He explained the how and the why. The first step, he says, is to “analyze self”
Let's Not Be Trash is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Oftentimes, we are so busy feeling resentment or bitterness towards others without focusing on how we’ve participated in wrongdoing or what shortcomings we should be focused on fixing. We fail to ask ourselves, “how can I be better?” Second, it’s important to find the good in your enemy, because as he so eloquently stated “ among the best of us there is some evil, and among the worst of us there is some good.” Then he gave us steps to take to go about this:
The first step, “When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, don’t!” It was at that moment that I had to clutch my imaginary pearls. “Come again, Dr. King?! I’ve always been afraid of confrontation, but I get great satisfaction from watching the villain in any movie get exactly what they deserve. Well to that thought, King responded “Jesus said love your enemy, not ‘like your enemy.” Touché. He went on to explain that hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. We have the responsibility to break the chain. And here’s the real kicker; “hate distorts the personality of the hater.”
The person who hates, according to Dr. King, ultimately damages him or herself from the inside out. They can’t see straight, think straight, “For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does… The symbol of objectivity is lost.” It's human nature to ride the line between good and evil—adding hate to that mix can be detrimental to our emotional development, overall wellbeing and will affect the way we see others. It will affect how we see ourselves. It also blocks the possibility for a positive transformation in your adversary.
Dr. King advises that we should love our enemies because hate cannot change someone’s heart. Love can. Enemies can be transformed by our love. So, telling Quinn to “mock her back” was probably not the wisest choice. The question still lingered, what she should’ve done (or said) instead? Should she have let the girl keep pestering her? I still didn’t feel comfortable with that option.
So, I went on to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “But if not” sermon of 1967, where we learn that Faith requires courage. Having faith is easy when things are going well. Activating Faith when you’re stuck in the mud seems almost impossible. That’s the real test. This is why this was the most revelatory sermon of all because it taught me that the most important time to have faith is when you can’t see the light. Dr. King references the story of King Nebuchadnezzar in the bible who created a golden image and ordered his people to worship and bow down to it. Three young men said “absolutely not!” Well, here’s what they actually said:
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this manner [sic].
"If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
"But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
My guys said, “Nope, you can’t make us. We don’t care about your punishment because God’s gonna save us anyway.” I felt my chest rising, feeling hopeful and empowered for these young men. Then they said “BUT IF NOT, oh well. We’ll take the L for God” It was at this point in the recording that I had to take a water break because I knew that from that moment on, whatever he said, was going to make me hold myself accountable.
For years, I’ve been bitter about how non-confrontational I am. I’ve let whoever say whatever and have said nothing back. I know deep down that its a result of a deep-seated fear of rejection and not being loved. This whole time I thought I was practicing how to be more like Jesus, but Jesus didn’t say “turn the other cheek AND shut up!”. I now realize, I wasn’t being like Jesus at all. Jesus knew who he was! Jesus stood up for himself and for what he believed. You say and do the hard things, from a place of love, trusting that God will be with you. It doesn’t mean “keep quiet and get stepped on.” Faith calls you to speak the truth even when your voice shakes. Faith instills bravery. I had it backwards.
Dr. King so beautifully called on us to reflect on the true meaning of faith, “though things go wrong; though evil is temporarily triumphant; though sickness comes and the cross looms, nevertheless! I'm gonna believe anyway, and I'm gonna have faith anyway; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof, the LORD of hosts is with us.” Doing the right thing is an ongoing challenge, but like Dr. King says, “Ultimately you must do right because it's right to do right. And you got to say "But if not." You must love ultimately because it's lovely to love. You must be just because it's right to be just. You must be honest because it's right to be honest.”
I know I have to encourage Quinn to muster the courage to confront her classmate and talk to her teacher. Not in a vengeful way --that’s actually the easy way out. So I went back to listen to the Dr. King’s last Sunday Sermon in 1968 that called us to “wake up”. He did this sermon at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, in 1968. Before he even uttered a word, the mere fact that he, a Baptist activist/theologian was speaking at a Catholic church (infamous for being part of the racial issues in America tracing back to slavery) opened my heart up to the possibility of interfaith communities and belief in humanity.
He referenced the story of Rip Van Winkle, about a man who went to sleep with the picture of King Goerge III of England hanging on his wall. Twenty years later, he woke up to see that the picture of George Washington had replaced it. He’d slept through the revolution. Dr. Martin Luther King called on us to wake up and take action in the midst of injustice. We are all inextricably linked, and as a result, are all responsible for each other’s destiny.
“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be,” King exclaimed. Then, similar to the sermon before, I experienced a gut punch so deep I almost lost my breath. King went on to say, “we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and…wait.” We need to stand up to injustice, no matter where it’s happening, who it’s happening to, or why it’s happening.
I think about the genocide happening in Palestine and how heartbreaking it is. I think about all the times I’ve wanted to say something and haven’t because there’s a real fear of not wanting to offend the Jewish community, even though I know two things can be true at once. It is true that the Jewish community in Israel suffered a huge loss in October. It is also true that all of Palestine does not and should not have to pay for the actions of one terrorist group.
They should not be subjected to the inhumane torture that Isreal is placing on the Palestinian people. I think of all the times I wanted to post and decided not to because I wanted to avoid conflict. A luxury so many people don’t have. There is a part of us in all of us. I have to do better at remembering that and I have to do better at modeling that for my kids. I want Quinn to say something when her boundaries are being crossed, but I’m the proudest mom when she says something to stand up for someone else who is being mistreated.
Remaining silent is not the answer. That was my modus operandi for a while. I’m getting better at this with age, but watching my daughter shut down and live through similar struggles makes my insides turn. Especially since I know how that turns out. Lucky for me, there is another way and Dr. King, “made it plain” yet again:
“to acquiesce and to give in, to resign yourself to the oppression. Some people do that. They discover the difficulties of the wilderness moving into the promised land, and they would rather go back to the despots of Egypt because it’s difficult to get in the promised land. And so they resign themselves to the fate of oppression; they somehow acquiesce to this thing. But that too isn’t the way because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
You don’t keep quiet; you stand up for what is right every single time. They say ignorance is bliss, but also self-serving. Ignorance is easy. Love is brave. Non-violent resistance forces us to remember that we are all connected to one another. I should’ve told Quinn to tell her classmate that she was making her uncomfortable. Then I should’ve told her to go back to the teacher who said “it’s not nice to tattle” and respond “it’s not nice to have my boundaries crossed. Please ask her to stop.” Because she has the right to feel comfortable in her learning environment. While this is a small moment, this is where the learning begins. Maybe I should try this out in my interactions more often--it might be easier for her to see it than for me to tell her.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has radically shifted my perception of what it means to love and have faith. I am overwhelmed with hope after spending a day with his recordings. Life is a paradox. You must have faith, but it will take courage. You must love, but that must include your enemies too. You must stand up for what is right, but it should be done with love and respect. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personified all of those ideals. He fought for justice and had enough faith to know that the battle was not fought in vein. He had the courage to love and moxie to protect truth at all costs, even if it cost him his life. And it did. Thank you, Dr. King for showing us that spirituality, truth and the undeniable fact that we are connected can propel humanity towards the greater good.
“We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world a new world. We will be able to make men better. Love is the only way. Jesus discovered that.”