Have enough sense to dim your lights
January 24, 2022
Martin Luther King Jr. told the story about a time when he and his brother were driving to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. His brother was driving the car. King said, “And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: ‘I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.’ And I looked at him right quick and said: ‘Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody has got to have some sense on this highway.’”
King’s illustration about dimming your lights demonstrates his point that when it comes to hatred, the vicious cycle will never end until someone has the sense to break the cycle with love rather than hate. Jesus was serious when he taught, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Love is redemptive, but hate only begets more hate. King explained in the same sermon in which he shared this story, “Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”
King’s illustration about dimming your lights demonstrates his point that when it comes to hatred, the vicious cycle will never end until someone has the sense to break the cycle with love rather than hate.
King knew personally what it felt like to be hated. Since his time, sadly, the stocks of hatred are rising, fast and furiously. This year. Last year. The whole decade. One recent headline that reflects this trend is “Hate Crime Reports in US Surge to the Highest Level in 12 Years, FBI Says.” Hate spawns ever more hatred, perhaps moving good people of faith to hate the haters. There are some people who seem so evil in their intentions that we hate them. They look to us like evil personified. Oh no, don’t do that, King would tell us. Somebody must have enough sense and morality to cut off the chain of hate, and that is done by love. Jesus of Nazareth and Martin of Atlanta point the way for us, and for all of civilization, to leave the darkness and enter the light. Because of our love for God, we are implored to have enough sense to be polite and kind and to dim the lights, even when the cars approaching don’t bother to dim theirs.
This theology led King to develop his Six Principles of Nonviolence. Principle three is: “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.” While it is never easy to do this—which is why the way of nonviolence is a way of the strong and not the weak—we are encouraged to love the person but hate the deed. Hate the evil act but love the person. Hate the behavior, not the person. A wise parent knows that you never call a child a bad person, but you can tell them that they did a bad thing.
The seething hatred we witness erupting from some of our political leaders and their followers almost makes us want to condemn them as just plain evil people. But, again, the way of love says, Oh no, don’t do that. The way of love modeled by Jesus and King leads us to condemn their evil and to work to defeat injustice but to love the person and see them as loved by God. If we as people of faith don’t cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe, who will?
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Today you will meet all kinds of unpleasant people. They will hurt you, and injure you, and insult you. But you cannot live like that. You know better, for you are a person in whom the spirit of God dwells.” Therein lies the reason we would bother to love rather than hate. When you are a person in whom the Spirit of God dwells, your underpinnings are to love and to forgive even in the face of hatred, injustice, and persecution. Then the task becomes to carry on the work of Jesus and King to defeat injustice and the causes of evil. There will always be some who refuse to dim their lights of hatred, prejudice, and evil behavior, but if we don’t have the sense to dim our lights, “it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody has got to have some sense on this highway.”
Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”