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Practice Forgiveness--and Being Forgiven

Coretta Scott King is the president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violent Social Change

Nearly two millennia after the birth of Christ, more than a billion Christians continue to struggle with his message of forgiveness and love for your enemy. “Nothing in this lost and ruined world,” said writer Alice Cary, “bears the meek impress of the Son of God so surely as forgiveness.” From the Crusades to the Holocaust, the record will show that more blood has been shed by self-proclaimed Christians than by the followers of any other religion. There are many exceptions, of course, but the followers of Christ have too often failed to love their enemies and practice forgiveness.

The Christian religion has no monopoly on forgiveness. You can find mandates for forgiving in the Old Testament, the Koran and the holy scriptures of the Far East. Five centuries before the birth of Christ, for example, Buddha said, “If a man foolishly does me wrong, I will return to him the protection of my ungrudging love.”

In more recent times my husband, Martin, said of another Eastern spiritual leader, “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.” Gandhi, for his part, was profoundly inspired by Christ’s urging to love, bless and pray for enemies in the Sermon on the Mount, which Gandhi said “went straight to my heart” and “delighted me beyond measure.”

For people of all religions the road to forgiveness leads to reconciliation at both ends, but it is important to remember that it is a two-way street. As British author Charles Williams explained, “Many promising reconciliations have broken down because, while both parties came prepared to forgive, neither party came prepared to be forgiven.”

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Forgiving--whether on the personal, social or political level--is one of the most difficult challenges that we face. It is a psychological as well as a spiritual problem. As the great statesman Lord Halifax said, “The memory and conscience never did, nor never will, agree about forgiving injuries.”

Yet forgive we must, because the only alternative is unending bitterness, hatred and a consuming cycle of revenge and retaliation that injures the souls of everyone. The healing power of forgiveness breaks the chain of retribution and provides spiritual redress for injury.

“What victims want more than anything else, or at least as much as justice, is to feel whole again,” explains Judith Rowland, director of the California Center of Victimology. To some this may seem like an idealistic vision, given the human proclivity to even the score. But my experience after my husband’s assassination tells me that Rowland is right.

The forgiveness of Christ neither precludes nor requires justice as a precondition. As a practical matter justice or retribution is not always possible, particularly in cases in which the identity of the abuser is unknown. The victim who won’t forgive will often live in psychological bondage to the victimizer, leading to a kind of paralysis. As Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Human Condition,” “Without forgiveness, our capacity to act . . . would be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover.”

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What it comes down to is that revenge is ultimately unfulfilling. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is an essential ingredient for genuine wholeness of societies as well as individuals.

An old proverb says, “The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves.” No one knows this better than the people of Northern Ireland, the Middle East and other areas that have suffered under the yoke of centuries of retribution. The Sermon on the Mount is more relevant to humanity than ever before.

Nearly 20 centuries of Christianity have come and gone. Yet the light of Bethlehem still burns as a bright beacon of hope in the hearts and souls of peace-loving people across the Earth. On this Christmas may we--the people of every nation, religion and race--learn to love, forgive and pray for our enemies.


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