Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride.
U2 continues with the chorus: “In the name of love / What more in the name of love.” They repeat these words over and over again, astonished and overwhelmed by the lengths to which love calls us to go. From 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, the song bears the title “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and easily slots into my Top 10 list of all-time favorite U2 songs. It’s one of those songs that I never skip when those first rifts from The Edge’s guitar bloom on my radio.
I love this song because it is about a profoundly misunderstood concept, but which U2 understands profoundly in their lyrics. The song is about martyrdom* and the reason someone would die in witness to a cause. For U2, there is only one reason that could ever lead someone down the martyr’s path, and that is Love.
It’s no wonder then that two of the subjects of the song are Jesus (“one man betrayed with a kiss”) and Martin Luther King, Jr., about whom the above verse is written. Jesus is God’s gift of love (“For God so loved the world…”) who demonstrated that the ways of love will always defeat the ways of hate, even if death seems to be siding with the latter. The love Jesus showed us was not simple sentimentality or even feelings of affection, though I’m sure he felt them. No, the love Jesus gave us was the down-and-dirty, stick-with-it, hold her hair back when the flu sends dinner up the wrong way kind of love: Love as commitment, as the promise to remain in relationship even when it hurts, especially when it hurts.**
We celebrate Dr. King today because of his witness to this kind of Love, which he learned from his savior.*** How could he have led a movement that endured what it did without the endurance of Love? The sit-ins, the marches, the speeches, the acts of prophetic defiance – none would have been possible if Love had not been the motivator. The blessed saints of the Civil Rights Movement would not have turned the other cheek when the dogs were let loose and the fire hoses turned on. They would not have remained seated at the lunch counter. They would not have crossed that bridge in Selma or that schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa.
Without Love as the foundation, the hatred of their enemies would have infected them. But MLK knew a better way, the way of Love, the way of Jesus, who knew compassion could ward off the infection of hate: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Dr. King’s death happened fifteen years before I was born, so it has always been a matter of historical record for me, as opposed to a visceral remembrance like it is for so many. I know the date because U2 sings it. In the song quoted above, they bear witness to MLK’s legacy: “Free at last, they took your life / They could not take your pride.”
For the longest time I never understood that line, nor the name of the song (“Pride”) because Pride was my nemesis. It was my great sin, the one that most often separated me from others and from God. Then I became a parent, and I understood the good kind of pride that you can take in your children, which is just another manifestation of love. My great sin was not pride, but hubris, which is self-centered pride that tricks you into thinking you are the cause of all the good things in your life and none of the bad.
The pride U2 says could not be taken away from Dr. King is the former kind. His was the pride of a people claiming the dignity God had given them, but other people had taken away. Dr. King and his companions declared that such dignity could not be wrestled from them, for it was an unalienable right granted by the Creator-of-All-That-Is. And King recognized that his opponents gave up their humanity by trying to deny his; he would not let the Movement go down that same dark path.
My own belated awakening to the continuing struggle of historically marginalized groups has only happened since the election of 2016, thanks to the gentle prodding of friends and acquaintances who have helped me discern the contours of the bubble I’ve lived in for most of my life. Initial shock has given way to weariness in a short period of time. It seems I am not built for the long haul when it comes to fighting for the rights and dignity of others.
Or perhaps that’s my old enemy, Hubris, talking. I used to give up on things when I couldn’t accomplish them straightaway because I was used to being good at whatever I set my mind to. I’m certain this is one of those cases, and I pray for the stamina to stick with it, to learn what I don’t know, to confront uncomfortable truths, to stand against injustice in all its forms.
“In the name of love,” sings U2. “What more in the name of love?” The Love of Jesus in my heart can chase the hubris away, for it is love expressed in commitment, in endurance, in the long road to reconciliation.
Today we celebrate the life and witness of Dr. King. We celebrate what he helped accomplish, and we gird ourselves for the work still to be done.
On their 1988 live album Rattle and Hum, U2 performs “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and Bono invites the audience and each one of us to join in the Movement of Love, calling out with all the fervor in his heart, “For the Reverend Martin Luther King, sing.”
I commit to singing, as one voice among many, until James Weldon Johnson’s immortal words are realized:
Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty.
* For the record, suicide bombers are not martyrs, even if that word gets tossed around in the media from time to time. Suicide bombers are murderers, many of whom are duped and controlled by a powerful authority that convinces them of the righteousness of their unrighteous action.
** Excepting cases of abuse. The hurt I’m talking about is the kind that happens when people truly love each other and hurt to see each other in pain, but stay by the bedside anyway. In cases of abuse, one member of the relationship has voided it by his egregious action, and thus there is no relationship to remain in.
*** The Church celebrates MLK on April 4th, for it is customary to commemorate martyrs on the dates of their deaths.