What do you think about Dr. King’s statement on real forgiveness? Can one forgive without full reconciliation?
This was a question from my friend’s blog post that was posed after writing about a quote by Dr. King on forgiveness.
“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt. The words ‘I will forgive you, but I’ll never forget what you’ve done’ never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing it totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, ‘I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.’ Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies.”
I was recently reading Miroslav Volf’s book, Exclusion and Embrace and within his writing, Volf offered a thought on this concept of forgiveness & forgetfulness. As he explored the concept of reconciliation between the oppressor and the oppressed, the culprit and the victim, one of the things that really challenged me was Volf’s point to say that forgiveness requires forgetfulness In consideration of what it means to forgive, I think Jesus’ words to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us is perhaps one of the most impossible demands for anyone. Consider even the one that has wronged you in a small transgression, it is even difficult to fully forgive one that has cut us off on the freeway or even embarrassed us before others.
Yet Jesus’ in His words in Matthew 5:43-48 calls us to a love that transcends anything this world has to offer. He not only asks us to love (not in such a passive bearing sort of way), but in a way that even asks us to petition to the infinite God in prayer (which is perhaps the highest action we may do for another besides loving them). But why do we do this? It is because it reflects our relationship as sons to our Father in heaven (5:45). I think the kicker in Jesus’ statement is the hypothetical questions that follow in 5:46-47 that essentially pose the question to the listener/reader about how are we truly different than others that are able to love their loved ones or friends who love them too. If the world can love those who love them, then when we love those that love us… isn’t that what everybody is expected to do?! The calling to love then is one to love the worst of your enemies and I believe anyone in between. If you can love your enemy, you can love anybody… and Jesus ultimately showed this upon the cross in Luke 23:34 when he not only loved those who were crucifying Him (us)… and he prayed for them to His Father. In ending this passage, Jesus makes the impossible statement… “you therefore must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). What an incredible statement, right? Let us be honest and realize that it is impossible to fulfill this call as the imperfect sinners that we are! Yet, why this call then? I think it is this that constantly reminds us of the divine grace that has cleared our sins … forgiven our mistakes and forgotten our transgressions… and why the process of sanctification is one of hope and growth and maturity.
Volf then quotes Jurgen Moltmann saying this about our Lord’s Prayer:
“With this prayer of Christ the universal religion of revenge is overcome and the universal law of retaliation is annulled. In the name of the Crucified, from now on only forgiveness holds sway. Christianity that has the right to appeal to him is a religion of reconciliation. To forgive those who wronged one is an act of highest sovereignty and great inner freedom. In forgiving and reconciling, the victims are superior to the perpetrators and free themselves from compulsion to evil deeds” (Moltmann, 122).
Volf then points out that the very idea of forgiveness reveals that there is justice. If there’s no justice, then there’s no need for forgiveness.
Truth is that “strict restorative justice can never be satisfied” (122). Since no deed is completely irremovable, the original offense still remains. It is also then because that original offense remains that we are always tempted to reciprocal revenge/violence. By truly forgiving, one keeps to reveal justice. But as Volf points out and quotes Bonhoeffer… it is only those who are able to perceive and confess their sin to Jesus and have given their lives to Him… that are capable of relentlessly pursuing this true justice without falling into the temptation to return to acts of violence (123).
How do we then truly forgive? Volf points us to the prayers and Psalms. He points us to the crucified Messiah… whom we must all stand before God and place our enemy and ourselves before God… the vengeful self that we are… before a God who loves and does justice. It is only then as God pierces with light into the deepest cores of our hatred and desire for revenge that spreads that we realize we are excluding the enemy from his humanity but calling out their sinfulness, that we also excuse ourselves from our own sinfulness and connection to the community of sinners. It is there that we start to see our hypocrisy and our desire to exclude the other that leads us to sin, but before the God who is love… which is greater than sin… we all start to see ourselves included with our enemies before God in enmity to God’s justice and our own sin (124).
We ultimately learn from God and the cross of Christ that in the cross is the example of that space that is created by God to allow the offender and sinner into His embrace (125-126). Christ’s self-giving love and this creation of space in himself to received estranged humanity is shown through the interaction of the Trinity (127-128) and its mutual connectivity and support that we start to emulate this example that is manifested in the divine Trinity of how God has loved us and others. This then leads to the ultimate final difficult act as Volf points out… which is that “certain kind of forgetting”… it is this impossible task to forget as the victim the wrong done by the perpetrator. As long as we carry this thought and harbor it…. what Volf points out is that “the memory of the wrong suffered is also a source of [one’s] own non-redemption. As long as it is remembered, the past is not just the past; it remains an aspect of the present” (133). You will continuously bring another’s sin into the present by carrying it through good and bad times. If the person doesn’t sin again then it is stored… but if the person fails, this memory of that original sin will come roaring back as additional affirmation to that person’s wrong and evilness. Augustine offers the big picture comfort that it all ultimately works out for God’s glory and plan for the future. This hopeful thinking is kinda shot down by Volf as he points out is that the memories of one’s suffering … these open questions crave a solution (134). What must happen then is ultimately we must go from mourning to non-remembering — in the arms of God (135). What Volf points out is that there needs to be a sort of forgetting… that God ultimately… “will forget the forgiven sin” (136). God is going to do a new thing… and he calls his people not to “remember the former things” … promises to blot out their transgressions out of God’s own memory (Isaiah 43:18-19;25; cf 65:17) (136). Why is this ultimately possible?! Ultimately it is at the cross of Christ that we see the reminder… that upon Himself, Christ has borne the sins of all humanity and placed them upon Himself (Rev. 22:1-4; Jn. 1:29).
When I consider Volf’s words, and think about what MLK Jr. is saying, I truly believe that this is essential to forgiveness is our forgetting and reconciliation Truth is that this is impossible apart from God and the reality is we are more prone to cycles of memory (holding it and storing the transgression)…. and likely to respond as the world would… through violence and revenge. What Volf shows is that through the cross of Christ, we are given the means to reconcile and forgive to truly forget another’s sins. What MLK Jr. says is true, but absolutely impossible apart from the transcending and work of Christ on the cross for all of humanity’s sin and the hope that comes from His resurrection. Ultimately, we must consider the Gospel in order to find and to truly reconcile and to forget, which then leads to forgiveness.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving your enemies” in Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1981), 51.