The Warm Waters

The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister

On Christmas Day in 1957, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies.” It included this passage:

Let us be practical and ask the question, How do we love our enemies?

First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression. The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up with some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning. It is the lifting of a burden or the canceling of a debt. The words “I will forgive you, but never forget what you have done” never explain the real nature of forgiveness. Certainly one can never forget, if that means erasing totally from his mind. But when we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship. Likewise, we can never say, “I will forgive you, but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Forgiveness means reconciliation, a coming together again. Without this, no man can ever love his enemies. The degree to which we are able to forgive determines the degree to which we are able to love our enemies. [1]

When Dr. King preached this sermon, the Montgomery bus boycott had concluded a year earlier almost to the day. Reflecting with the congregation of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on forgiveness was not esoteric or theoretical in that context. The community was at the forefront of a movement that was to shake the very foundations of society and that would lead, ultimately, to the dismantling of many of the legal and social facets of Jim Crow segregation. We know this was a mighty struggle driven by the motive force of love, and we know that it was not only a struggle against unjust laws: it was a confrontation, through love, with ignorance, cruelty and brutal violence. We remember the martyrs of that struggle. So to speak of the warm waters of forgiveness in that context was and remains a radical act, a world-toppling defiance of cultural norms. Forgiveness seeks not only to demolish a vicious and unkind world that needs to be disassembled; it seeks to create a new and better world as a province of what Dr. King called “the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love.” [2]

Those who are devoid of the power to forgive are devoid of the power to love. What is love to us? This is a Unitarian Universalist congregation. What does love mean for us, and what role does forgiveness play in our attempts to lead a life of love? I have been told (though I have been unable to verify it) that this was the very last congregation chartered by the Universalist Church of America before it merged with the American Unitarian Association in 1961. So historically speaking, this church first and foremost has a Universalist heritage. Once this church joined the Unitarian Universalist Association, it also embraced a Unitarian ancestry. Both the Universalist and Unitarian denominations have their origins in American Protestant Christianity. Yet we also know that over a gradual process, both the Universalists and Unitarians moved beyond an essentially Christian perspective and practice. We are still in the process of becoming something new, but we cannot — and should not! — escape the gravitational pull of our history. Yet if we practice forgiveness, it is not because we accept as fundamentally authoritative a scriptural instruction to do so. Do we even have a shared commitment to forgive? Can one be a Unitarian Universalist and not forgive? I might argue that the answer to that question is “Yes” in brief, but a fuller response might be, “Yes, but it’s hard to see why that would be a good idea.” It is actually hard to see why anyone would benefit from not forgiving, regardless of a person’s religious practice. If being devoid of the power to forgive deprives us of the power to love, what good would such an existence be? What could we expect of a life stripped of the power to love other than cynicism, despair, emptiness and meaninglessness? The question for us really should not be whether or not we should love and forgive, but how.

It is not imperative that the person who did wrong ask for forgiveness in order to receive it. We might think this is a better way, and perhaps it is, but to truly forgive requires nothing of the perpetrator. The families of the Mother Emanuel Nine publicly forgave the man who gunned down their loved ones. He did not ask for their forgiveness. This gesture by individuals who were so unspeakably wronged by a spectacular act of savagery is a challenge to all of us. In similar circumstances, would we forgive? Should we? If so, how? How is it possible to find the strength to forgive even the most ruthless cruelty?

In 1898, Spain was defeated by the United States in the Spanish-American War. The decades that followed produced a cultural and philosophical movement of national soul-searching known as the “Generación de ’98.” Spain had been a global superpower in the sixteenth century; by the end of the nineteenth, this once mighty nation was defeated by a young upstart country. The Generation of ’98 wrestled with the questions: Where did we go wrong, and what new directions should we take? I think that we in the United States are now living in something of a similar time. The years and even decades that follow these days may justly become known in American culture as the Generation of 2016, as our country wrestles anew with our centuries-old struggles with racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia and materialism. Maybe we have all been too complacent, too selfish, too lethargic, too resigned to our own shortcomings; maybe the time to take a new and better direction has already passed. But I am not prepared to resign to that. We therefore must find a way forward. And I do not see a way forward for our country without forgiveness. Who am I to speak of forgiveness? Do I have the right to say to those who have been wronged far more cruelly than I have that they should forgive? The answer to these questions is probably no. And yet I don’t see a way forward for this country — for any country, for any society — without forgiveness. Without the warm waters of forgiveness, what is left for us but the bitter chill of despair and dissolution?

We wrestle with forgiveness in religious communities not only in regards to external circumstances, but within the community itself. Only human beings show up for church. Inevitably, we will hurt and disappoint one another. What values do we uphold, and what practices to we put in place that encourage us to forgive? This church, in recent memory, has had opportunities to consider these questions. This church currently has an interim minister because of the resignations of previous ministers, and those were events that occasioned confusion and disappointment and hurt. What has been forgiven? What remains to be forgiven? If forgiveness has been possible, what has made it possible? If there are wounds that remain unforgiven, what remains to be done so that forgiveness can take place? What individual actions can be done, what communal rites can be enacted to so the warm waters of forgiveness can be abundantly poured out among this people?

We Unitarian Universalists speak from time to time of healing the world. Can we do that without practicing forgiveness? No, we cannot. If we truly believe in justice, then we must work toward reconciliation, and if we seek reconciliation, it is not possible without forgiveness.

[1] King, Martin Luther. Strength to love. Vol. 27. New York: Harper & Row, 1963, pp. 50-51.

[2] Ibid., p. 57.