Texts: Psalm 130, Ephesians 4:25-5:2
In April of last year, PBS aired a film series called Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate. The film provided an intimate look into the spontaneous outpouring of forgiveness: from the Amish families for the 2006 shooting of their children in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania; the struggle of ‘60s radicals to cope with the serious consequences of their violent acts of protest; the shattering of a family after the mother abandons them, only to return seeking forgiveness; the legacy and divisiveness of apartheid and the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa; the penitential journey of a modern-day Germany, confronting the horrific acts of the Holocaust; and the riveting stories of survivors of the unimaginably brutal Rwandan genocide. One of the featured stories was that of holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel was 14 years old when he was taken, along with his mother, his father, and his sister, to Auschwitz in 1944. After the war and liberation he was the only member of his family to leave Auschwitz alive. For ten years he never spoke about these experiences. But a little more than ten years later he wrote Night, an accounting of what he went through. In the book, he talks about his anger toward God, asking God, “What could we possibly have done to deserve this? What evil could we ever be capable of that we all should die?” His anguish and overwhelmed senses threatened to end his faith in God. Reflecting on his experience in Auschwitz and in working through his own understanding of forgiveness and his Jewish faith, he says in the film, “Yom Kippur is translated as the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is plural. Why in the plural? Because it’s a double forgiveness. Just as we ask God to forgive us, maybe we should forgive [God].” In 1997, for Rosh Hashana, Wiesel published a riveting letter in the New York Times that read in part, “Mr. God, let’s make peace. We’ve quarreled long enough. Let’s make peace. You thought I would forget, but I won’t forget. Let’s make peace.” What is forgiveness and what is it not?
I remembered the PBS film series and Elie Wiesel’s words when I read our lectionary texts for this week and started thinking again about forgiveness. The very word itself elicits so many emotions. I read and re-read the psalmist’s words, “If you, O God, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you…” Reading those words, I questioned my own understanding of God’s forgiveness in my life. Do I truly feel God’s forgiveness? If so, from what? Then, I turned to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and read: “…be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I wondered, “How forgiving a person am I?” I thought of stories of forgiveness in my own life and, for a brief moment I thought about sharing one. But it felt too vulnerable – too exposing. It felt safer to stay with Elie Wiesel’s story. I have learned that there is an intimacy to forgiveness that is private and personal, even when it is a communal act.
There are so many dimensions to forgiveness – all seem rather complex and complicated. The psalmist speaks of God’s forgiveness towards us. That notion alone is confounding. It raises the question of whether there is some inherit wrong within us for which we need forgiving. And for what are we seeking God’s forgiveness? Are our iniquities toward one another ultimately against God? In the Ephesians text, Paul speaks of our forgiveness towards one another. What does it really mean to forgive another or to be forgiven by another? It can’t mean just forgetting the hurt another has caused us. Or believing that the words “I’m sorry” can make everything better. Or can it? Forgiveness isn’t necessarily about reconciliation, either. Often by the time we forgive, it is too late to reconcile. Could the real heart of forgiveness be about making peace with ourselves, thus having very little to do about our relationships with one another? These questions or wonderings may seem rhetorical, but they’re not. They are real and honest questions of faith and of forgiveness.
Over the years, I have circled around this notion of forgiveness much like someone trying to herd cats. Just when I think I have a handle on what it means to be forgiven and be forgiving, I realize just how unmanageable forgiveness can be, or at least feel. I think I have forgiven someone for a hurtful word only to realize later that I am still holding on. In my mind, I have asked another for forgiveness then realized it is myself that I need to forgive. In speaking of my faith, my words affirm that I believe I am God’s beloved, forgiven and redeemed; and yet, there is something inside me that says I must keep busy doing in order to earn God’s love and forgiveness. You see what I mean? It is easy to intellectualize forgiveness – to make it a theological idea for discussion, but it is much more complicated to integrate forgiveness into our daily interactions and experiences.
One of the reasons I think forgiveness is so slippery is because of the theology we have constructed around it. In its traditional form, Christian theology has attached forgiveness with the idea of original sin and our need, as a humanity, for the atonement of that sin. In its most basic form the reasoning goes something like this: humans are born into sin, we are in need of forgiveness because of our innate sinfulness, and thus Christ had to die as an atonement for our sin so that we may be forgiven in order to be in relationship with God. Forgiven for what? For simply being born? Or for bearing the mark of free will and choice? While such theology is still prevalent among many Christians, I suppose it to be bad theology. It is a shaky foundation on which to build a practical and compassionate theology of forgiveness. It predicates our relationship with God on the idea that loving God and being in relationship with God is all in pursuit of a pay-off; it is based on the idea of love as a deal, and forgiveness as a bargain. And with that as a starting point, it makes sense that we feel a certain ambivalence about forgiveness and how it functions in our lives and our relationships.
Jesus, in his own ministry, somewhat shifts the focus of forgiveness from our need of forgiveness from God, to that of our relationships with one another. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks often of the importance of Christians forgiving or showing mercy toward others. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the best-known instance of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also spoke of forgiveness saying, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” In Mark 11:25 we read, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that God may also forgive you your trespasses.” It is true that Jesus often related our willingness to forgive our fellow human beings to God’s willingness to forgive us, but I find it significant that Jesus’ teachings were rooted in our ability to practically and compassionately forgive one another. It is love as relationship, and forgiveness with the expectation of reciprocity.
There is a second way that I believe traditional Christian theology has failed us in its teachings on forgiveness. Historically, the church presents forgiveness as, in Martin Luther King’s words, “an occasional act.” This way of thinking presents forgiveness as a time-based, event-specific reaction – we are either in need of forgiveness because we have done something wrong, or we are offered forgiveness because of someone else’s wrongdoing. It is forgiveness as transaction. Yet, the very nature of forgiveness is that it transforms – it accepts and acknowledges the pain of those wronged. It may or may not heal, but it opens the door to healing. And it holds the pain of the offender – that inevitable gut-wrenching knowing when we have hurt another – and again, offers the hope of healing. These are not simple transactions. Even if they could be done quickly, they could not be quickly accepted. Peter asked Jesus, “How many times must I forgive someone?” Jesus responded, “Seventy times seven.” I wonder if somehow we have taken Jesus’ response as a directive of duty and obligation rather than as an invitation to practice daily forgiveness? Jesus knew that such forgiveness was not a simple transaction, but rather a way of living – something that he knew we would need to practice daily and approach with intentionality.
So, what does a new theology of forgiveness look like? The lectionary group this week was clear about one thing: forgiveness is less about forgetting and more about letting go – letting go of hurts and disappointments, letting go of anger and resentment, letting go of the wrongs we do to others, those done to us, and the wrongs we do to ourselves. In his best-selling book, The Shack, Paul Young writes: “Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat [sometimes your own]…You may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely. And then one day you will pray for wholeness…” What do we really mean when we say forgiveness is about letting go? It may not be the best image, but I think of the Native America wise tale told by an elder in the community about two dogs. It goes like this: “Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is bad. The other dog is good. The bad dog fights the good dog all the time.” When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied, “The one I feed the most.” Letting go is about not feeding our anger and resentment and hurt. Rather, it is about feeding our compassion, for ourselves and for others. I don’t want to leave you thinking that anger is altogether a bad thing. It is not. But when we feed it and focus on it, it turns inward and begins to erode our spirit and soul. Letting go is about letting our anger and hurt and disappointment pass through us with awareness, while resisting the human urge to hold on and even feed it.
For me, a new theology of forgiveness is about shifting our understanding of forgiveness from an occasional act to a daily practice; from forgiveness simply being about a transaction that occurs in specific moments when we feel wronged or when we have wronged another to a practice of how we live our lives. It is about, in Paul’s words, allowing our words to give grace to others. It is about original blessing not original sin; it is about feeding God’s compassion within us. A new theology of forgiveness will teach a new generation of seekers that forgiveness is a process that takes time and patience; that it is not a simple transaction, but rather a way of living. It will focus on grace, not a cheap grace but an accountable grace that has the potential to transform how we live and move and have our being in this world. It will teach our children that God’s love is not a deal and Christ’s forgiveness is not a bargain. It will teach them that “seventy times seven” is not a duty or obligation but rather an invitation to practice forgiving their friends in times of hurt and disappointment. It will teach them that forgiving is not so much about forgetting as it is about letting go.
If you google “the power of forgiveness” you will find the website about the PBS film series on forgiveness. On that website you will find a tag labeled, “How forgiving are you? Take the quiz.” If, like me, you are wondering about just how forgiving a person you are, it’s not a bad place to start. And from there, consider how your life might be different if you thought of forgiveness not as an occasional act, but rather a daily practice.