Forgiveness and Overcoming
I apologize for the delay in writing my latest blog!
Our local newspaper covered OMG last Thursday, and I have been grateful for the busy-ness that the article created. A special thanks to Jill Callison for taking the time to visit in the very nifty OMG office.
My mind is on forgiveness, these days, because, well, as a Christian, the season of Lent will do that to a person.
CNN’s iReport has a section on amusing church signs, one of which says, “Forgive your enemies. It messes with their heads.”
Forgiveness does mess with us, I think.
There is a long tradition of forgiving only if someone asks for it, repents of it, and a little groveling wouldn’t hurt either.
On the other hand, there is a long tradition of forgiveness itself being a sign of grace. You can’t forgive someone who ‘deserves’ forgiveness, because clearly a person doesn’t deserve forgiveness who has wronged another. Forgiveness extends to the undeserving something that they don’t deserve.
Through linguistic twists and turns, the word ‘forgiveness’ comes from the Latin word perdonare (“to give wholeheartedly”), which itself comes from two words: per-, meaning thoroughly, and -donare, which means, ‘to give.’
What needs to happen (if anything) before a person should be forgiven (namely should have something given wholeheartedly), and what does forgiveness look like?
Luther whittled down the Roman Catholic sacramental list to two (baptism and Holy Communion), but he was awfully on the fence about Confession. He was all over the idea of confession as being an opportunity for cleansing and new beginnings. However, he also was convinced (and here I think he is absolutely right) that we have no idea of all of our sins. “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” We sin all the time, and it is an impossibility to confess all of them, let alone know all of them.
Still, believed Luther, God forgives us, even without our ability to confess our sins, let alone repent of them.
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” said Jesus on the cross. On one level, they knew exactly what they were doing. On another, they–we, did–do, not.
Things get even more interesting based on current research on brain chemicals, stress, family systems, exhaustion, mental illness, and so forth. What scientists are finding out is that many people who commit apparent offenses are, to some degree, swimming in cocktails of distress, despair, irrationality, self-protection, and disease.
The more one learns about context, history, and their relationship to choices, the more one is led to compassion…and also to the question of accountability.
Yet even if one is determined to be accountable in one measure or another, the question can still be posed: to what degree should accountability (and recognition of accountability) play any role in the offering of forgiveness?
Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, writes that not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. It’s an interesting thought, that forgiveness might be as much for the forgiver as for the forgiven. To hold onto resentment is, I think the case can be made, a manifestation of death continuing to have hold.
Sometimes, however, withholding forgiveness camouflages conceit and mistaken superiority. It presumes that we ourselves might be above need for unmitigated grace, or that we ourselves have never/could never do any act on any such level.
In short, the matter of forgiveness is a fantastic question for systematic theology! On what basis do you give or withhold forgiveness, and is it consistent with your understanding of God and God’s agenda?
As it happens, I am of the mind that forgiveness does not mean forgetting, but overcoming. It is a sacred act that necessitates drawing upon compassion, humility, and an intentional tap into the well of grace, extending it to the Other, and to the Self.
What do you think?
Forgiveness is about reconciling. Not in the sense of reconciling harm and harmd-doer—at least, not yet. Forgiveness is about reconciling the existence of God with the existence of evil in the world. Maimonides, the preeminent Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle ages wrote on this issue of theodicy: the philosophical attempt to answer the question of how can good and evil be reconciled if they emanate from the same source? “Or even worse,” as a student once asked in a workshop, “if it’s a tie.”
How can we who are created in the image of God behave in evil ways? We are harmed and in turn we harm others and they are harmed and they harm others who harm others who harm us and we in turn… How did the cycle begin? How does it end? From whence does it emanate? I don’t know. What do I know? We are all damaged goods but not beyond repair. And there is that other thing: free will and free choice. If we start there we can get back to Maimonides who writes in his “Guide for the Perplexed” (the first self-help book ever?) How do we do it? When should we do it? Who has the ‘right’ to forgive?
There are many perplexing questions concerning forgiveness. Do I have the right to forgive on someone else’s behalf? When is it appropriate for me to forgive? (Hint: when the stone you are carrying on your back bends you down so far you cannot look up.) Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves; the perpetrator does not have to earn it. He or she can make it easier for us to forgive but it is for us, not for them.
In my forgiveness work the toughest nut to crack is always always always self-forgiveness? I’ve seen too many who say, “I’ve moved on. I know God forgives me. I’ve forgiven myself.” Can it be that cheap?
In the film Levity (near the top of my long list of forgiveness films)the character of Manual Jorden (played by Billy Bob Thornton) has killed a man. The drama opens upon his release from the penitentiary. He can never be forgiven by the victim. He will not be forgiven by the victim’s sister. He is a man haunted by the question that haunts all of us. We are good. We do evil things. How can we wash ourselves? How is that possible? There are many, in my opinion, who never figure it out and walk the world as haunted spirits, like Jorden is at first.
But Jorden, following Maimonides unawares, demonstrates that it is possible. The film gracefully illuminates the path for those of us without ears. As Jorden/Maimonides tells it, “you first gotta start by ‘admitting to what we’ve done.’” We need to demonstrate sincere remorse. “Thirdly, we make things right with our neighbor.” (He, like Maimonides also makes it clear that if not the neighbor we hurt who may chose to have nothing more to do with us then with the neighbors who all have suffered undeserved harm at the hands of some other.) Then, “Fourthly, you gotta make things right with God? How? I don’t know. I guess that would be like a prayer or something. God, I messed up your world and I can’t put it back the way it was.” Then, “Fifthly and lastly, you find yourself in the same place as before: but this time you make a different choice.”
It’s been said forgiveness is about grace. But grace as a verb.
John, thank you for your comments.
For those of you who do not know him, John Gehm focuses his vocational efforts on restorative justice and on forgiveness. You can find a bit more about him here: http://restorative.wordpress.com/category/victim-offender-mediation/
I think we’re in for a good conversation.
John, I think we mostly agree.
Systematic theologian that I am, though, I am left wanting to ask you on what basis you believe the way you do about forgiveness! What is your driving principle, what grounds your views?
Here’s why I ask:
1. I was struck by your notion that forgiveness is not about reconciling between the wronged and the wrong-doer. That is curious to me. I think you are right when you go on to say that forgiveness is about reconciling good and evil. I think that your belief in mutual brokenness lends a hand in your view here: when we recognize that sometimes the two are even intertwined, we are left with humility and compassion toward the other, and toward the self. But that’s partly why I think I’d like a little more help understanding what you mean when you say that forgiveness is not about reconciling between the wronged and the wrong-doer.
2. You mention “free will.” The Lutheran in me says “What do you mean by ‘free will’?” The more I learn about how tragedy, abuse, and depression affect people in the present moment and in moments long after a given event, the more I wonder about how free people are. This, of course, brings up the notion of accountability, which is tricky. But statistically, those who are rapists, for example, have a higher rate of having been sexually molesterd. Abusers grow up to be abused. Chronic care givers have a higher rate of exhaustion and emotional distress. One study has even determined that low blood sugar levels affect one’s ability to resist temptation. My wise sister says, “AHA! Eat more cream puffs so that you can avoid more cream puffs!”
In other words, I am not as ready to concede as you are that many of the events which cause the need for forgiveness are only, or even mostly, a matter of free will. To the degree that that is true, the “forgiveness dynamic” changes.
3. I am also of the mind that many people who make “poor choices” are doing so because they feel as if they have no choices. That is, they are stuck, alone, and afraid. They are acting out of desperation. While it is awfully easy to single out a wrong-doer, it is much harder to recognize communal culpability, to share the blame. As long as people do well and stay on the straight and narrow, the notion of “moral support” is in favor. But when people mess things up, suddenly they have never more been an individual, wholly accountable for their actions.
I’m not convinced.
And it makes asking forgiveness and offering it all the more complex.
4. The question of “who has the right” to forgive is interesting. For example, can a murderer ever be forgiven since the murdered can not issue it? And who else ought to forgive in this instance than the very one who cannot?
It’s a good point, but leads me to some measure of despair. Evil rarely affects only one person. What if there are those who can’t forgive–and themselves are in need of forgiveness because they are trapped in their rage? What if there are those who don’t know that they have been wronged, and are in a position where they could forgive a wrong? And what if one is trapped in a system that engages in systemic evil, and they can not extricate themselves from it? Capitalism, for example, is linked with powerful evils. Who can escape from it?
5. My Lutheran heart squirms a bit with your last paragraph. While I like where you end up, I hear a lot of “law,” of imperatives: You have to admit, you need to demonstrate remorse, you must make right with neighbor and God, and then not mess up again.
We Christians hear a lot of law that is veiled as grace: Repent, confess, believe, have faith. I’m not knocking these words, nor am I knocking remorse, making right, and so forth. But I am concerned that it seems like there is a set of pre-reqs to forgiveness.
Luther’s favorite psalm was 130. “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord…If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.”
The forgiveness comes first. Recognizing that there is unconditional forgiveness frees one to turn around, to trust the wronged one to not continue an assault. It is to trust mercy and the fruits of mercy.
I have no doubt that there will be a comeback, John! I’m looking forward to it.
Pardon the delay. I’m a little confused as to where it makes the most sense to carry the conversation forward. It is truly a conversation worth continuing! Is it possible to keep the focus clearer? (I’m speaking to myself, not you!)
For example, one might, theologically, talk about what it means to be forgiven by God and what the implications or responsibilities might be.
One might also discuss forgiveness from an ethical or philosophical perspective. Is the decision to forgive similar to a socially desirable trait like selflessness, courage, and honesty and thus something to be encouraged among society as a moral good? Even a moral imperative? And its absence a moral failing? Is the common practice of forgiveness (like honesty) essential for the good society?
I don’t want to be dismissive of the theological (more on that later, anyway) or the ethical dimensions, but I have always been partial to those questions where the rubber meets the road:
2.How can we learn to forgive?
3.What prevents us from forgiving?
4.How does the forgiver benefit?
5.How does the forgiven benefit?
6.Are human beings ‘wired’ for forgiveness or revenge?
7.Sociologically, how has the concept of forgiveness evolved across time and culture? Why?
8.Can we forgive ourselves?
9.Should forgiveness ever be withheld? If so, under what conditions and upon whose authority?
10.Regarding purely interpersonal forgiveness, what is the proper role of confession, penitence, atonement and absolution?
11.How do we forgive an organization?
12.How does one forgive a one no longer present? Or who refuses to recognize the need to be forgiven?
13.What is unforgivable?
14.Is there such a thing as political forgiveness? If so, what does it look like and how is it accomplished?
And yes, I do believe forgiveness is integral to understanding the concept of free will. Which is always to me a choice between ‘God’ and ‘not-God’. As I see it, God has freely chosen to forgive all without condition. Each and every choice thereafter is our choice. Redemption has been settled. God’s plan for humanity’s salvation is not revealed through our choices and our decisions. Humanity’s salvation IS free choice through the exercise of free will. It’s over. It’s done. Thus each choice to forgive must be ours and ours made freely. Not because we ought to or are commanded to—but because we CAN. Before you this day there is good and evil. Life and death. Choose life that both you and your descendents might live. (Excerpts from Deuteronomy, Chapter 30)
Perhaps greatest challenge in talking about forgiveness is deciding what part of it we are talking about? There can be so many questions all made more complicated by our infinite life experiences.
So where shall we begin?
John, now it’s my turn to apologize for the delay!
To answer your last question, I think we should begin by recognizing that we pose similar questions, but in different ways.
Your first question, namely “Why forgive,” can only be answered, however, if there is mutual understanding about what ‘forgiveness’ means to the dialogue partners.
In order to figure that out, we need to consider from whence our definition, our standards come. That, in the end, I think is a theological question. We have to mess with what we understand God to be if we want to figure out what forgiveness means, if we believe that our notion of forgiveness is modeled on God’s posture toward forgiveness. For example, if God withholds forgiveness until there is repentance, that ought to be an acceptable model. If God forgives in a manner that says, in effect, “No worries, it doesn’t matter,” than that would be the model to follow. And so forth.
Then many of the other questions you list here can be fussed with knowing that the conversation partners are more or less in mutual understanding, if not agreement, of each other’s beliefs about forgiveness.
You and I do disagree, I think, about the degree to which someone can choose. Sometimes someone chooses something thinking it is the nearest thing to God that they can see or trust. When “God” appears to be absent–and the argument can even be made that God is–one grabs for whatever lifeboat one can. That is not a matter of choice, but rather of survival. When untainted water is unavailable, is drinking tainted water a bad choice?
So “choose life,” as you noted above, might not be so simple or clear. Life is messy.
To return to your last question, then, I hate to be a theological stick-in-the-mud, but I’d like to begin by figuring out two things: 1) what grounds your understanding of forgiveness; and 2) to what degree do you believe that people make free choices? That latter is worth a separate blog posting, I think!