The Rev. Paul Perez points to King’s sermon on having a tough mind and a tender heart as a timely message for those working to build Beloved Community.
Director of Connectional Ministry, Michigan Conference
“A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart”* is one of my favorite sermons by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am certainly captivated by the soaring rhetoric and courageous vision of his “I Have a Dream” speech and the penetrating analysis and prophetic daring of “Beyond Vietnam.” But I often find myself returning to the simplicity and urgency of “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.”
Taking Matthew 10:16 as his text, King reflects on Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to “be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves,” mounting an argument for his Black hearers to adopt nonviolent resistance in their struggle against segregation.
King admonishes his hearers to hold in creative synthesis several opposites. Snake and dove. Justice and love. Tough mind and tender heart.
For King, having a tough mind and a tender heart is not succumbing to a soft-minded complacency and “donothingism” and a hard-hearted bitterness and violence. Instead, it means cultivating a sharp analysis of oppression and an adamant resolve for justice along with a disciplined and humanizing love for self, neighbors, and even the perpetrators of injustice and oppression.
King’s sermon is deeply pastoral and personal, inviting us hearers to assess the toughness and tenderness of our minds and hearts. I find the message as timely today as it was when first preached from the pulpit.
Holding together two opposites in creative tension is a needed word amid our era’s hyperpolarization and increasing ideological segregation.
Fake news, conspiratorial thinking, and algorithms preying on our bias and segmenting us into echo chambers confirm King’s analysis of a gullible soft-mindedness that is all too ready to accept easy answers.
Fear, resentment, resignation, nostalgia, despair, loneliness, defensiveness, rage, disgust, and hubris dominate our contemporary emotional register. When left to fester, these emotions lead to what King diagnoses as a hard-hearted obsession with the self and neglect of the other.
The struggle King and his contemporaries undertook against anti-Black racism continues. While Jim Crow segregation ended legally, it persists today in a “New Jim Crow” afterlife of criminalization, policing, and mass incarceration of Black people and their communities.
King’s sermon asks us to consider the state of our minds and hearts amid these realities. To examine our role in resisting or perpetuating injustice, fostering bitterness or sharing love. To ask if our words and sentiments are merely pious or performances or if they take shape in concrete actions of compassion and justice.
In the midst of this ethical demand, we, in our best moments, strive to be tough-minded and tender-hearted. We strive to be faithful to Jesus. We strive to live in the creative tension. We strive to confront injustice and love those we call enemies. But so often, we fall short. We fail. We get it wrong. We are soft-minded and hard-hearted.
King does not leave us to face this demand alone. Nor, thankfully, does he end his sermon with “three ways for us to live with a tough mind and a tender heart.” There is no simple, neat checklist from the pulpit to assuage our guilt for falling short. Instead, his conclusion is much more gracious. King finishes by preaching about God’s tough mind and tender heart, God’s judgment and God’s love.
In the moments we strive and fall short, we find ourselves in gracious space, embraced between what King calls God’s two outstretched arms—God’s justice and God’s love. We are clearly, sometimes painfully, aware of our failings, and yet, at the same time, we are already assured that our worst moments do not define who we are in the eyes of God. We find ourselves as God’s beloved.
It is only from this gracious space, from this holy embrace, that we have any hope of building the Beloved Community dreamed of by Jesus, King, and countless unnamed saints and prophets. Perhaps, from this perspective of being held in God’s gracious arms, we might even discover the Beloved Community is less a project to be built or a task to be completed and more a gift to be received, experienced, nurtured, and shared.
*“A Tough Mind and A Tender Heat” is published in a collection of King’s sermons entitled “A Strength to Love.” The text of the sermon and various recordings of others reading the sermon may be found online.
Last Updated on January 24, 2023