MLK, Social Media, and Forgiveness in 2021

“Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.” ~Hannah Arendt

Note: The target audience of this post is my fellow Christians.

On January 30, 1956, Coretta Scott King and her fellow congregant Mary Lucy were at King’s home in Montgomery, Alabama when they heard the sound of a brick striking the front porch. They moved to the guest room just as an explosion went off, shattering glass and filling the front room of the house with smoke. Corretta called First Baptist Church and reported the incident; her husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., came home. An angry crowd of his supporters gathered outside wielding guns. Pleading for non-violence, King managed to turn them away.

Can you imagine a public leader responding in this way to injustice today? Or would it be more accurate to say that in our internet-saturated culture, where so much public discourse happens on social media platforms, we’d see reactionary expressions of hatred and calls for radical acts of vengeance?

Of course, reactionary rhetoric is nothing new to the human race. What may be new in our time is how quickly persons who are guilty of some social transgression—and not just recognized public figures, but ordinary citizens—are scrutinized, condemned, and eviscerated by innumerable strangers online. The practice has become so widespread that novelist Salvatore Scibona believes we have entered into an “industrial revolution” of shame, in which the mass production of smartphones has enabled us to lambast and humiliate one another a “previously unthinkable scale.” While tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram give us many blessings, they also incentivize rapid, sweeping judgments that will garner approval from our tribe. Thus Scibona says that when an injustice is publicized, we feel we must take a strong and vocal public stance against our enemies, or else be accused of weakness and moral apathy. Unfortunately, what this does is lead to more vengeance and backlash, bickering and hate.

Various solutions to this problem have been proposed, from refusing to feed the cycle to deleting our social media accounts. These are important strategies but they are difficult to carry out, and ultimately they only go so far in addressing the deeper issue of our inner disposition towards the “Repugnant Cultural Other“: the people in our communities, our very neighborhoods, whose moral and political preferences we abhor. As Thomas Edsall reported in early 2019, one out of five Republicans and Democrats concur with the line that their opponents “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.” Retreating from social media would undoubtedly reduce our exposure to stories that elicit our wrath, but will that really teach us how to reconcile with our enemies—to set aside our bitterness and replace hate with patience, tolerance, and love? It is not enough to put something off; something must also be put on. 

What should that something be? New York Times columnist David Brooks once suggested that in order to build unity in our country, we should recover the Christian ethic of loving our neighbors. As we head into 2021, it is worth applying this idea to our use of social media, focusing in particular on one of the Christian love ethic’s most vital elements: forgiveness. And perhaps few people in the course of history understood the nature and importance of forgiveness better than Martin Luther King.

The Meaning of Forgiveness

In its simplest form, to forgive is to cancel a debt, and, perhaps not immediately but over time, to cease feeling anger towards a wrongdoer. It is the refusal to make a wrongdoer pay whether he or she has repented or not. This is a move which necessarily rules out toxic, retaliatory statements on social media. Wouldn’t this go a long way in breaking the hate cycle that infects social media discourse?

The problem, of course, is that when an injustice is done and a debt is incurred, that debt that does not magically vanish as soon as one forgives it; the forgiver must bear the cost. The wounds are deep and can take years, even decades to heal. There is also a powerful temptation to believe that forgiveness would end up downplaying injustice—the very thing that the informal code of social media forbids. The question arises: is true forgiveness even possible without compromising justice?

In a sermon called “Loving Your Enemies,” Martin Luther King addressed these very questions by expounding on a well-known passage in Matthew 5:43-45:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

King delivered the sermon many times during his career, and eventually included it in a book called Strength to Love in 1963. That he did so at all is extraordinary. King had endured the Montgomery bus boycott campaign from 1955 to 1956, which had become so intense that his home was bombed. Later in 1962, King was arrested for holding a prayer vigil outside Albany City Hall and thrown into prison, where, despite the wretched conditions, he prepared his sermon for book form. It was in the midst of such persecution that he exhorted his listeners to practice forgiveness. His insights have every bit of relevance to modern users and consumers of social media.

King’s first point is that Christians must “develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.” That is, we must no longer allow an act of evil to remain so lodged in our hearts that we cannot seek a new relationship with the one who wronged us. We cannot say, in other words, that we forgive someone and then go out of our way to avoid them, at least not in any indefinite sense. “Forgiveness means reconciliation,” he says, “a coming together again. Without this, no man can love his enemies.” 

Second, King emphasizes that one’s enemies are never the sum total of their wrongdoing. There is “some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.” That would have been a hard word for King’s audience to hear. Most if not all of his friends and fellow black Christians had experienced cruel, even violent racist persecution. This insistence on the abiding humanity of one’s enemies seems just as difficult today when we observe the weaponization of hate and shame online. Think of the headline events of 2020 and early 2021: COVID-19 infections, Black Live Matter protests, the presidential election, charges of voter fraud, a break-in at the U.S. Capitol. As news of these events emerged, there was no shortage of blame and contempt to go around for the awful circumstances of our time, the innocent lives lost, and the terrible division in our nation. Yet King says that we must be able to “look beneath the impulsive evil deed” of our enemy, and remember that “God’s image is ineffably etched in his being.”

King’s third point is that when an opportunity comes to humiliate one’s enemy, forgiveness means refusing to take it. For many of us, this could look as simple as not sharing or responding to a toxic witticism online. For others it could mean making a public statement of forgiveness and urging one’s friends not to retaliate but to show humble kindness. Still for others it may go hand in hand with an extended break from social media, so as to spend the regained time developing habits of love.

Whatever the case, it is noteworthy that King is not advocating some “sentimental outpouring” of love. He distinguishes between the three words used for love in the Greek New Testament: eros (aesthetic and romantic love), philia (reciprocal love of the kind between friends), and agape. He defines agape as an “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men,” and contends that this is the love Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5. Crucially, agape does not require you to like your enemy. It is more profound than that:

An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love men not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love every man because God loves him. At this level, we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed that he does.

King then moves from the how of loving one’s enemies to the why. Having surveyed the lessons of history, he is utterly convinced that no other solution but the Christian love ethic of Jesus can break the hate cycles that afflict the human race. “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? The chain reaction of evil […] must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” Repaying evil in kind can seem more practical, and will certainly feel more satisfactory in the short run. But fighting fire with fire only spreads the flames, and leads “inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos.” Indeed, King says that when we hate those who wrong us, we do violence to our own souls: we can become so obsessed with our victimhood that we turn inward, ignoring the welfare of those around us and losing our grip on reality. Hate is thus an “unchecked cancer” that leads man to “describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.” 

All of these reasons, however, are not the ultimate ones for King. The final, most basic reason for loving one’s enemies is a deeply theological one: “that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:45). Loving one’s enemies is what enables Christians to realize a “unique relationship with God”—a parent-child relationship. “We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.” Here King taps into the ancient Christian belief that God shows his love to us supremely through his son Jesus, who took on flesh to rescue his enemies. Quite simply, this means that those who have received Christ’s forgiveness must turn around and show it to others. The more one understands the lengths to which God went to forgive, the more one grasps the endless beauty of his grace—which in turn motivates the radical act of forgiveness, as well as further acts of love.

The Problem of Justice

But what about the problem mentioned earlier? Can we emphasize loving one’s enemies so much that we become indifferent towards injustice? 

An ardent champion of non-violent protest, King knew all too well that to downplay or ignore evil would be a flagrant distortion of the Christian message. Jesus himself predicted that such distortions would occur, issuing sharp warnings against hypocrites and false prophets who would twist the truth to mask their predatory nature (Matthew 7:15). Furthermore, Christians have long understood the words “love one’s neighbor as oneself” (Matthew 22:39) to mean that confronting wrongdoers is sometimes the most loving thing one can do.

There is an important nuance, however. At the beginning of his sermon, King says that loving one’s enemies cannot be done “without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us.” We must forgive before we can love, and we must forgive even as we demand justice. Otherwise we may be primarily motivated to see our enemies writhe in agony and disgrace—which is no different than the impulse of the social media mob. Evildoers should be confronted and, wherever possible, constrained from doing further harm to others. Unjust laws should be questioned and reformed. But such work must be done because of love, not in spite of it. 

The Strength to Forgive

Practicing the Christian virtue of forgiveness on social media seems to present unique challenges. For one thing, forgiveness runs counter to the incentives of the social media engine. In order to bolster our metrics or identify ourselves with a cause, we are tempted to use judgmental words that reflect our stance on some particular issue. If we ever do express forgiveness towards our enemies, we might really be seeking validation from our peers. This is why Christians who use social media must, to repeat King, “develop and maintain the capacity to forgive”—to make forgiveness a genuine habit, online and offline. Christians have at least two unique resources for achieving this end. 

The first is a series of communal rituals and practices by which Christians immerse themselves in the drama of grace. Jesus did not merely preach a sermon on forgiveness; he embodied it in his life and death. Christians rehearse that drama by taking the Lord’s supper and remembering that Jesus forgave his enemies while hanging tortured and bleeding from a Roman cross (Luke 23:34). They rehearse it whenever they pray the Lord’s prayer (“forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors”) and sing hymns about God’s story of redemption. The very rhythms of Christian worship are meant to orient participants to the truth that all people are made in the image of God, all are broken and in need of forgiveness, and all are freely offered that redemption through Christ. The contrast of this truth, of this way of being, to the vengeful fury and denials of forgiveness on social media could not be starker. 

The second resource was hinted at earlier: God’s divine grace. The Christian message is that individuals do not, on their own strength, have the power to forgive in the fullest sense of agape. The injustice of the world is manifold, forgiving one’s enemies can be utter agony, and one’s efforts to forgive will often go unreciprocated (especially on social media, where snark reigns supreme). But the Christian message is a story of a loving God who sent his own son to die on a Roman cross for his bitterest enemies. Those who believe this story, and who know and experience the love of Jesus in their bones, gain access to supernatural power and motivation to forgive their own enemies—to “meet hate with love,” as King put it. That is a story that no other earthly strategy or abstract philosophical principle can match.

Addendum: The Postmodern Objection

There is yet another objection, a postmodern philosophical one. It goes like this: Is the radical nature of Christian agape even possible given what we know of the complexity and duplicity of human nature? King does not address this question in his sermon per se, so we must look elsewhere if we are to give a satisfactory reply. For that we can turn to a contemporary Christian thinker, bishop Robert Barron, who wrote a 2017 essay on the subject titled “Forgiving Dylann Roof.”

As Barron explains, postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Émile Benveniste argued that unconditional forgiveness is impossible because no human who bestows a gift on another is capable of freeing themselves from motives of self-interest. Even if one were to offer forgiveness with the best of intentions, the recipient would always feel some pressure to repay the debt. So while you could say that you forgive your enemy, you might actually be motivated to obtain some kind of reparation, or you might wish to demonstrate to others how virtuous or morally superior you are. 

Barron argues, however, that Jesus himself was well aware of this dilemma. Commenting on Matthew 5:46 and Luke 14:12-14, Barron underscores Jesus’ intention for his followers to show mercy towards those who are incapable of reciprocating. He then unpacks a telling phrase from Jesus—the same one, in fact, emphasized by King near the end of his sermon. Right after telling his followers to love their enemies, Jesus adds, “that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun to rise on the good and bad, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).

Barron expands on this verse to show that the way God loves is qualitatively different than the way people love. God is fully self-sufficient and therefore fully able to love and forgive without needing anything in return. Although humans cannot break out of the “rhythm of exchange and self-absorption” rooted in their nature, the same cannot be said of God. And, remarkably, God through Christ grants the healing power of genuine forgiveness to those who follow him. Barron observes: 

The kind of love that Jesus commands is possible only in the measure that we have the divine life in us, that we have received a gift that enables us to love as God loves. This is why, for the classical tradition, love is a properly theological virtue, one that cannot come simply through repetition and habituation, but only through grace.

There is, then, a mysterious tension at the heart of Christian forgiveness. On the one hand, forgiveness is indeed a practice that, to repeat King’s phrase, “we must develop and maintain”—to make it second nature, as it were. We do this not only by listening to Jesus’ message, but by immersing ourselves in his story and living it out in community. On the other hand, the forgiving love taught by Jesus cannot be achieved apart from the enabling power of God’s grace.

The good news is that in Christ we not only have a transcendent truth but a transcendent person who accomplished the greatest act of love in his death and resurrection. Throughout his sermon Martin Luther King demonstrates an unwavering trust in this love, calling it the “most potent instrument available in mankind’s quest for peace and security.” Through our union with Christ, we have unique access to the power and motivation to forgive. Even when our efforts to change the hearts of our enemies seem fruitless, we press on in forgiveness, confident in God’s acceptance of us and in the hope that God will one day return to set right every wrong.

King concludes: 

Jesus is eternally right. History is replete with the bleached bones of nations that refused to listen to him. May we in the twentieth century hear and follow his words—before it is too late. May we solemnly realize that we shall never be true sons of our heavenly Father until we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Image Credit: