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Listening to Morris Dees: Notes to Self on "Forgiveness" and Social Action...

6 Places In D C To Reflect On Rev Martin Luther King Jr WAMU

Listening at the Amherst College graduation to: Morris Dees: One Nation with Liberty and Justice for All. It struck me that Morris Dees of the SPLC speaks not as a lawyer but as a prophet. But when he spoke of "forgiveness" and of Martin Luther King, Jr., I found myself thinking that he wasn't expressing what he wanted to say very well—certainly not nearly as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., had...

Forgiveness, you see, is not supposed to be something that you get for free. It is not something you get by claiming to accept some messiah or other as your personal savior. It's not something that you demand from those you have harmed. For them, their forgiveness not a forgetting. Their forgiveness is, rather, a process one of the purposes of which is to engage you in the community. And, so engaged, you then owe the community something very valuable as reciprocity: the free gift of forgiveness leaves you with obligations, that you can choose to meet or not to meet.

What do you then owe the community as reciprocity for being forgiven by those of its members you have injured for your own past misdeeds? What you owe the community is true repentance. What is true repentance? "True repentance" is changing your life.

And here we get to the first of 95 of Martin Luther (1517): Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences: "Dominus et magister noster Iesus Christus dicendo `Penitentiam agite &c.’ omnem vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit..." "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent', he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.... You don't say: I'm sorry; forgive me. Instead, you do. It is not really a saying thing at all.

Thus when Jesus says forgive your enemies "tibi usque septies: sed usque septuagies septies..." not seven times, but seventy time seven times..., that means that one is also making a pest of oneself seventy times seven times: asking that the one being forgiven truly repent—change their life—seventy times seven times.

This Martin Luther King, Jr., understood very well. He never tired of forgiving those who thought they were his enemies. But that was part of the process of never tiring of demanding that those who thought they were his enemies change their lives. And so we arrive at:

Martin Luther King, Jr.: My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence: "An Encounter With Reinhold Niebuhr: The prophetic and realistic elements in Niebuhr’s passionate style and profound thought were appealing to me, and I became so enamored of his social ethics that I almost fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything he wrote...

...I read Niebuhr’s critique of the pacifist position. Niebuhr had himself once been a member of the pacifist ranks.... His break with pacifism came in the early thirties, and the first full statement of his criticism of pacifism was in Moral Man and Immoral Society. Here he argued that there was no intrinsic moral difference between violent and nonviolent resistance. The social consequences of the two methods were different, he contended, but the differences were in degree rather than kind.

Later Niebuhr began emphasizing the irresponsibility of relying on nonviolent resistance when there was no ground for believing that it would be successful in preventing the spread of totalitarian tyranny. It could only be successful, he argued, if the groups against whom the resistance was taking place had some degree of moral conscience, as was the case in Gandhi’s struggle against the British.

Niebuhr’s ultimate rejection of pacifism was based primarily on the doctrine of man. He argued that pacifism failed to do justice to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, substituting for it a sectarian perfectionism which believes “that divine grace actually lifts man out of the sinful contradictions of history and establishes him above the sins of the world.”...

As I continued to read, however, I came to see more and more the shortcomings of his position.... He interpreted pacifism as a sort of passive nonresistance to evil expressing naive trust in the power of love. But this was a serious distortion.... True pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil.... Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power... [but] rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplies the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart....

Niebuhr’s great contribution to contemporary theology is that he has refuted the false optimism characteristic of a great segment of Protestant liberalism.... Moreover, Niebuhr has  extraordinary insight into human nature, especially the behavior of nations and social groups. He is keenly aware of the complexity of human motives and of the relation between morality and power. His theology is a persistent reminder of the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence. These elements in Niebuhr’s thinking helped me to recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the dangers of a false idealism. While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.

Many pacifists, I felt, failed to see this. All too many had an unwarranted optimism concerning man and leaned unconsciously toward self-righteousness.

It was my revolt against these attitudes under the influence of Niebuhr that accounts for the fact that in spite of my strong leaning toward pacifism, I never joined a pacifist organization. After reading Niebuhr, I tried to arrive at a realistic pacifism. In other words, I came to see the pacifist position not as sinless but as the lesser evil in the circumstances.

I felt then, and I feel now, that the pacifist would have a greater appeal if he did not claim to be free from the moral dilemmas that the Christian nonpacifist confronts...

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