“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” Martin Luther King Jr.
When an autopsy was performed on 39 year old Martin Luther King Jr after his assassination, autopsy revealed that King’s heart resembling that of a 60 year old. The biographer Taylor Branch concludes that this is due to the extreme stress of his 13 year dedication to the Civil Rights movement.
Although he had suffered unjustly in so many ways, at such great depth, for so long, King captured the universal response we have towards being wronged: to drive out darkness with darkness. This darkness, although sometimes enacted as revenge, is usually a darkness that resides within us. It is the hurt we continue to carry around with us, that ties us to how we have been hurt or wronged by someone else.
As King states, in order to win over the initial hurt, we need more than simply more hurt, within ourselves or towards others, to heal us. This is the concept of forgiveness; that although we have been wronged by someone, instead of wronging them back, we release them, and move forward. This is to fight darkness with light, or to fight hate with love.
Forgiveness exists in the vocabulary of most people, but it is a difficult concept to describe, and even more challenging to embody or apply. There are two metaphors that can help us understand and then practice forgiveness. The first metaphor is of debt. When someone has mistreated us, it is like they owe us a debt that we have the right to collect. When we forgive that person, it is like we are assuming the debt that we are owed—like we are cancelling the debt. This means that we accept the cost of what the other person has done, and don’t hold the debt over the other person, in spite of our right to do so.
If we continue with the monetary analogy of debt, we can understand how it may be easier to cancel the debt, if the debt is small. For example, I lent you a dollar, but you don’t pay me back, I can remind myself that in life, it is only one dollar, and this doesn’t have a significant effect on my bank account. Another possibility is that people try and forget the debt when it is impossible to repay. For example, a person has taken a million dollars and will not ever be able to pay you back. You might say “I have to forgive you, or cancel your debt, what other choice do I have?”, meanwhile burning with resentment because forgiveness, or debt-cancelling, seems like the only option to move forward. In this case, real forgiveness has not occurred, because there has been no choice or shift in the attitude of one’s heart. Since there has not been real cancelling of the debt through a true acceptance of the ‘cost’ of the wrong act, no real peace will result. Sue Monk Kidd describes forgiveness by saying it “is a painful and difficult process. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s an evolution of the heart.” In this way, it is when we truly see the ‘cost’ of what we have lost, or what has occurred to us, and choose to accept and release the debt we are owed, that have we truly forgiven, and will feel real peace.
The second metaphor is that of a judge. When someone has wronged us, we are in a position of power over them, as we have the power to punish them, or make them pay back their debt. We see examples of this in the Old Testament style of justice. Examples of this include vengeance, like ‘an eye for an eye’, which aims to equalize the parties involved, to make the wrongdoer suffer in the way the victim suffered. After all, isn’t this the only way to equalize a situation in which there has been wrongdoing?
It may seem like a good idea, until we consider that there is another way – the way Jesus showed us to respond to wrongdoing through forgiveness. There is no less justice in forgiveness, even though it is not punitive. Because he is in the position of authority, and because we have wronged Him, He gets to choose what is a fair punishment for us. Unlike us, Jesus is a perfectly just and fair judge, and has decided that He will be merciful and compassionate towards our wrongdoing. As victims, because we are in a position of power over the wrongdoer, we also have the opportunity to be merciful and compassionate. Instead of inflicting punishment to even the score, we can wipe their record clean. It is difficult, when using this analogy, to remember that justice may not always fit with our logic. When a judge pronounces a sentence, whether it’s logical or not in our limited human concept of justice, it is still justice since the pronouncement came from the jurist’s bench.
We all regularly practice forgiveness, and this demonstrates that we know how to do it. When someone accidentally steps on our toe or spills water on us and apologizes, we can say ‘not a problem, it’s fine’. We do this while rubbing our sore toe, and cleaning up the water, and move on with the rest of our day. We don’t spend time looking for the perfect opportunity to step on his or her toe, or humiliate the person by telling everybody at the office how clumsy he or she is. In that moment, we ‘did’ forgiveness. Forgiveness is much more challenging when the hurt was on purpose, or the harm more significant. It seems then, much more difficult to ‘accept and let go’, and ‘move on’. But, the ‘how’ of forgiveness is essentially the same. This doesn’t mean that it is easy to ‘accept’ and ‘move on’ but the internal attitude and action needs to be the same. Kidd’s quote, after all, reminds us that true forgiveness can be painful, and more like a process. This is especially true when our wounds are deep, and the wrongs were so pervasive that they have shaped our identity, and the way we live in this world.
We don’t have to forgive. But we do have a choice to make when we have been wronged. We can choose to remain angry at the person who hurt us, or we can choose to cancel their debt to us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t hurt any more, or feel the weight of the debt; it means that we make a choice to release them from paying the debt back, because they will never be able to do so. It is not an easy choice, but forgiveness is the only path that leads to peace. It may seem like a path that is murky and unclear at first, but in time, commitment, and anchoring ourselves in the grace and mercy of Christ, we can continue to walk towards forgiveness.
No one was able to capture the oppression of African American people better than Martin Luther King Jr. And yet, in being able to understand experientially and intellectually that struggle, he chose to lead people in a non-violent movement, with forgiveness at its heart. He urged people to “develop and maintain the capacity to forgive” as being “devoid of the power to forgive [means being] devoid of the power to love”. In this statement, King captures a kind of love that we can only really understand when we look at Christ’s work for us on the cross. In knowing Christ, and His great love for us, we can then forgive others, as we have been forgiven.
Written by Hillary McBride and Alex Kwee