Praying for His Persecutors

January 17, 2018 by

This week, as our country celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and simultaneously realized just how far we are from his vision of racial peace and justice, I was reminded of a film I watched last year. Accidental Courtesy tells the story of one man’s efforts to bridge racial divides – efforts that have been extraordinarily successful.

Most of us have heard Jesus’ words about loving our enemies. But few of us have acted on these words to the extent that blues musician Daryl Davis has. An African-American born in Chicago in 1958, Davis, the son of a US Foreign Service Officer, had traveled the world by the age of ten. Although Davis experienced racial discrimination in the United States, his childhood was enriched by encounters with people of many nationalities and cultures.

Drawn to the blues music of the Mississippi Delta, Davis earned a bachelor of music degree from Howard University and became known as an accomplished boogie-woogie pianist.

Pianist playing a piano

During a 1983 concert in Frederick, Maryland, Davis was approached by a white man who condescendingly complemented Davis on his musical abilities. Joining Davis for a drink at the bar, the man confided that this was his first personal encounter with a black man; as they talked, he revealed that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Davis was momentarily taken aback. But then he asked the man, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”

It’s a question Davis has continued to ask. In the more than thirty years since that initial encounter, he has befriended numerous Klan members in the hope of maintaining an open dialogue with those who hated him. In an August 2017 interview with NPR, Davis explained that by approaching Klansmen with respect and interest he “began to chip away at their ideology because when two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting. It’s when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy... you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you're forming a friendship… I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.”

Accidental Courtesy also highlights some of the opposition Davis has encountered. Surprisingly, his most vehement opponents are not neo-Nazis or advocates of white nationalism, but black activists who feel that Davis is betraying his people by crossing the line. But Davis continues his mission, undeterred.

To date, Davis’s efforts have convinced two hundred Klan members to give up their robes, among them some high ranking Grand Dragons and Imperial Wizards. A poignant conversation in Accidental Courtesy portrays former Mississippi Grand Dragon Scott Shepherd, who now considers himself a “reformed racist,” thanks to the efforts of Daryl Davis.

“If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy, you will find that you both have something in common.”

Shepherd had a difficult childhood. Looking for a place to fit in and prove his worth, he joined the Klan at age sixteen. Since meeting with Davis, Shepherd is a changed man, even publicly apologizing to the family of Martin Luther King for all the terrible things he once said about the civil rights leader.

There are many who criticize Daryl Davis’s unconventional efforts to effect peace and goodwill by befriending his enemies. But, while his mission may seem far-fetched, it also seems to work. Deep-seated hatreds, fueled for decades by fear and ignorance, gradually give way to understanding, camaraderie, friendship, and in some cases, to genuine conversion and repentance for former wrongs.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus instructed his followers to be peacemakers. Later on in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ carries this command one step further:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5: 43-48)

As I watched Accidental Courtesy and contemplated the courage of people like Daryl Davis, I was also reminded of the apostle Paul’s words, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

Daryl Davis stands as an inspiration to all of us. Our efforts to return evil with good may not make the daily headlines, but as Jesus points out, every act of love, extended even to an enemy, increases the force of good in our world, lighting up one dark corner.


About the author

Rebekah Domer

Rebekah Domer

Since Rebekah’s upbringing at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in New York, life has taken her on many diverse assignments, from the...

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  • i am very interested in other people thoughts about views on the bible itself. i am a follower of God the father, the son and the holy spirit. i respect all people's religion.

  • Dear Rebekah, A always, you have found another person who serves as an inspiration. Although I lack his gift, I can see how admirable it is. He sounds like an amazing man. I am sure all who have had the privilege of knowing realize that. God bless him. ~ Rosalie

    Rosalie Gambino