mlk-the-strength-to-love-cover-image1Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. I decided to read some of his writings this week (with the 21st being the federal holiday in his honor), so I began with a book from which I have read large portions before today that I enjoyed. Yet the quotation that I want to ponder is not one I enjoy, so I chose to share it, because my reaction to Dr. King’s words were more defensive than usual. Let me share the quote, then I will tell you why I reacted less favorably that usual, then you can tell me your thoughts in the comments:

“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 cancelling 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.”[1]

Now, I know Dr. King is addressing the love of enemies. I have at least one relationship of which I am conscious that would be challenged by Dr. King, but I don’t consider the person to be an enemy. Rather, I consider this person to be someone who after many years and many attempts at relationship showed disinterest over and over again. So, over time, I decided that if that person did not want to invest in the relationship then I wasn’t going to worry myself any longer, and I quit trying. Honestly, I haven’t missed the person at all. Then I heard from a couple sources that this person has complained about my unwillingness to have anything to do with them, which I found ironic.

If I were pastoring or counseling, and I saw someone being hurt time and time again, I would tell them that one can forgive that person while also putting themselves in a place to avoid further physical or emotional abuse. Whether it was the child of an abusive parent, or the ex-spouse of a scorned lover, it has been my conviction that one can come to a place where one loves that person, prays for that person, hopes the best for that person, and honestly can say that day-to-day there is no hatred manifesting in their hearts or anger in their emotions, yet (!) this person knows that it is best for their well-being and the well-being of the abuser if contact is minimalized, if not ended altogether. It seems to me that Dr. King’s vision of true forgiveness wouldn’t allow for this.

Now, I know Dr. King’s words aren’t timeless. He was a man with a context writing to an audience who shared that context. Much like reading the Gospels or the Pauline Epistles one wonders what Jesus or Paul may have said if someone raised their hand after a discourse on something like loving one’s enemy, turning the other cheek, or something far more practical like divorce, and asked, “What if my child is in danger?” or “What is my spouse sexually abuses my children?” Would Jesus and Paul have altered their answers? If Dr. King was given several hypothetical situations would he stand by his statement’s seemingly universal declaration on forgiveness? I don’t know, but for the sake of discussion tell me your thoughts. What do you think about Dr. King’s statement on real forgiveness? Can one forgive without full reconciliation?


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving your enemies” in Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1981), 51.

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