I had the privilege recently of sitting at the dinner table with Coretta Scott King. It was a larger, more formal table than I'm accustomed to, in a larger, fancier home than mine. Waiters served us - that certainly never happens at my house! - and there were more forks next to my plate than I knew what to do with. Yet for all the grandeur of the setting, it was an intimate evening.
Mrs. King told stories - stories that answered our questions directly in some cases, obliquely in others. But with one exception, the answers weren't what mattered. The places we went, the people we met, the history we learned, mattered. Her eloquence, her elegance, her courage, mattered.
What amazed me even more, however, was not so much what she brought to the table but what she left behind. No trace of bitterness laced her words. No derision, no sarcasm, never a caustic tone. Even when she said, "I always knew someday the call would come" (referring to the call informing her of her husband's death), no rancor strained her voice or pinched her brow.
As the evening progressed, this absence of acrimony captured more and more of my attention. Since my own father's efforts to right social wrongs have, unfortunately, left him a bitter man, I wondered how Mrs. King had escaped a similar fate. She had faced infinitely more pressure and danger and devastation than my dad, yet there she sat, the picture of peace and hope. Finally, I asked, "How can you have gone through so much for a cause that has yet to be fully realized, and come out the other end with hope for the future and without bitterness over the past?"
In response, Mrs. King referred briefly to the strength she derives from her Christian faith. She quickly continued, however, as if that first response were too obvious an answer: "I believe in the philosophy of nonviolence. That has kept me going."
She went on to speak of the power of this approach to change, of its global applicability, of its moral authority. As she spoke, I recalled a book of Martin Luther King's sermons I had recently read. In it, he defines nonviolence as love. Indeed, the title of the book is "Strength to Love."
I put two and two together. If the philosophy of nonviolence - to which Mrs. King attributes her optimism - boils down to love, then the power that kept her from being bitter when her own and her children's lives were threatened, her home bombed, and her husband killed, was love. Pure love.
In her foreword to "Strength to Love," Mrs. King quotes an address her husband gave in 1967. In it, he defines love as "the supreme unifying principle of life" that guides us to "ultimate reality." He continues, "This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: 'Let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God' " (I John 4:7).
Throughout many of the sermons that follow, King elaborates on the demands of love. He writes, for example, that in order to love, we must "know God's image is ineffably etched in [our enemy's] being." That's a tall order, but imagine what the world will be like when we all see God's goodness etched in our enemies.
King also writes of love's rewards. Alluding to part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (see Matt. 5:44), King comments, "The command to love one's enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival." In other words, the chief reward for loving is life itself. I think the Monitor's founder, Mary Baker Eddy, would agree. She wrote in one of her poems, "Love alone is Life" ("Poems," page 7).
Years of living love allowed Dr. King and his followers to triumph over injustice. And after his violent death, years and years of living love have allowed Mrs. King to carry on as mother, ambassador, activist, and lecturer, furthering her own and her husband's dreams and achievements without a trace of bitterness.
I wish my father could have sat beside me at the dinner table that night. I wonder if basking in Mrs. King's radiant love might have restored his hope. It certainly restored mine. To this day, her warmth reminds me that nothing short of loving counts as living.