September 12, 2017
In response to all that Jesus has said, Peter, in Matthew’s gospel, asks how many times one must forgive a brother…seven times? Jesus responds to this seemingly generous view on the part of Peter with the words, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mt 18:22).
In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a sermon on loving your enemies (“Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, November 17, 1957), and in this sermon he talked about three reasons why we must forgive those who have hurt us. First, he insisted that forgiveness alone can stop the cycle that hurt and violence begin. King wrote, “Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”
Second, he thought that without forgiveness, the person who has been hurt becomes further distorted and harmed. In this vein, King wrote, “There’s another reason why you should love your enemies, and that is because hate distorts the personality of the hater. We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate. He comes to the point that he becomes a pathological case. For the person who hates, you can stand up and see a person and that person can be beautiful, and you will call them ugly. For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.”
King provides a third reason for forgiveness when he wrote: “Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”
We might add two other motivations to Rev. Dr. King’s insights on love and forgiveness of enemies. First, in loving and forgiving our enemies, we imitate Jesus who not only taught about forgiveness, but lived it on the cross. Second, in loving and forgiving our enemies, we become more “God-like” or more “holy” as God is holy. Why? The answer is because this is the essence of God, who continues to love and forgive us no matter our response. God cannot do otherwise. God continues to love and forgive just as God continues to make the sun rise and shine on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.