Black lives matter has created considerable controversy over its approach to bringing about needed change in American society. At the heart of the controversy is the age old question of how best to create change. Martin Luther King the most famous of all civil rights activists is well known for his stance of change through nonviolent means. This was in contrast to the position of Malcolm X for example, another outstanding and brilliant activist who is famous for his declaration of change through “any means necessary.”
One nonviolent path to change is the path of forgiveness. King himself declared “forgiveness is not a decision of the moment but a permanent attitude.” Such a sentiment requires a shift in the way we often think about creating change. King was always about the longer view, the greater good. To me, his goal was about creating change not through condemnation but through the total transformation of society. I think he saw that forgiveness is among the most potent means to achieve this end. This type of change demands action that is committed to a better world for all.
How can I as one individual help cultivate a forgiving attitude and how does this help to bring change?
Take the First Step
The essence of Martin Luther Kings’ struggle was to challenge each person to ask the question, what kind of world do I want to help create? Then let our individual actions be consistent with the answer. Every time I make a decision to forgive I make the world a better place. It becomes one drop in an ocean of goodness swirling around the globe. That swelling tide washes over and heals the many gaping wounds of pain and hurt that are constantly being inflicted upon individuals, communities and nations.
This does not prevent us from speaking out against injustice or calling attention to acts of oppression, marginalization and exploitation. Far from it, forgiveness does not deny or minimize such behavior but believes the most effective response must be based upon higher principles of unconditional love, indomitable faith and undying hope. Am I willing to take my first step?
Assess the challenge of forgiveness
Given the fact that I don’t have to forgive anyone for anything I have to decide for myself whether it is worth my while to do this. Cultivating a forgiving attitude is not about what an individual person has done to me but more about the kind of person I want to be. Everything we know so far indicates that having a forgiving attitude makes us better people. It is also about the kind of world I want to live in. That’s why the project of teaching forgiveness to the kids exposed to the extreme violence of Northern Ireland has had such a major impact on healing wounds in that society. Read about that project here. I believe that is that is the sort of thing that drove Martin Luther King’s vision.
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave the bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison” Nelson Mandela. Do I have room in my heart to forgive? Do I have the space for grace? Or am I so filled with the pain of injustice, disloyalty or betrayal that I find myself unable to accommodate the very idea of forgiveness? If this is the case I may need to start with self forgiveness. Research has found that harboring negative emotions can affect us in some startling ways. For example a husband’s depression can promote depression in a wife. Read about that research here. Identify something to forgive in yourself and start there. That will expand your heart and make needed room for the attitude of forgiveness to take root.
Living the Change
Forgiveness is a process that demands perseverance. Working to bring about change particularly positive change is hard; and change through forgiveness is even harder. Jesus died in the cause of forgiveness. Just before he died he prayed for his executioners, “Father forgive them.” King himself lost his life advocating for the same cause.
So, would King support black lives matter? I think he would work to keep the focus on the goal of change but not through violence, intimidation or revenge. I believe he would be quoting the words of Jesus in Luke 6:27-28
27, “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” This is hard work, but Jesus also enjoined in verse 37, “your reward will be great and the process will make you children of God.”