(You may view video of this sermon here)
Forgiveness can be a tremendously freeing and empowering and humbling experience, both when we are the ones forgiving and when we are the ones being forgiven. At the same time even just mentioning the word – Forgiveness – brings up a lot of deep and fraught stuff, you know, pain, woundedness, guilt, shame, anger, resentment, questions of morality and justice and fairness, and deep questions about the nature of ourselves and the nature of God.
Last week we heard some moving testimonies from you all about experiences of finding freedom through forgiveness, as well as real honesty about the struggles that we all have with the question of forgiveness. And I just am so grateful and humbled by the wisdom you all have to share.
One thing that several of you raised in different ways was about how Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness are too often misunderstood or even willfully twisted. I wanted to give this it’s due in my reflections today, especially because forgiveness can get twisted into the service of abuse.
So let me be clear:
No one should ever feel forced to forgive.
As one of you said
“Forcing forgiveness is not helpful …not what I think Jesus said”.
Forgiveness shouldn’t become some kind of authoritarian commandment that keeps someone in an unsafe situation.
We shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed if we haven’t get gotten to the place of forgiveness – it can take time and distance.
As one of you said,
“I think forgiveness can be confusing for many of us, if we can’t move on when the fear of another victimization exists. That gray, foggy twilight place forces questions. Am I still angry? Am I just fearful? Am I really past it? Did I forgive? Can I forgive? Is it safe to forgive? When we feel safe it’s easier, still unsafe not so much.
I think we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we are still fearful.”
Anger too can be a legitimate feeling when we’ve survived harm – The challenge of forgiveness shouldn’t make us feel guilty or ashamed for being angry, just more aware that we are feeling angry. So, we can ask, Why are we feeling angry? Is it because something happened that was very deeply wrong? That’s totally legit. And then, How has that anger affected our lives? Is it helping us or harming us, helping other or harming others? What would it be like to live a little less in its grip?
Forgiveness, especially the forgiveness of God, can also get twisted into a way of dodging accountability. One of you who responded to my question about forgiveness began by saying,
“Several evangelical friends growing up tried to lure me to church by explaining forgiveness as a magic release from responsibility. Roughly quoted, “you could shoot everyone in this place and still go to heaven.”
I learned of the hypocrisies of Christian violence and domination through history. This also made the prospect of a holy forgiveness suspicious to me. I still think it is a notion and a reward that people use to justify their own misbehavior.”
This is all too common. And it’s the opposite of the truth. Any Christian saying this sort of thing hasn’t read what Paul has to say about it in Book of Romans, Chapter 6.
The gift of Grace is free, but that doesn’t make it cheap.
And, let’s look at what Jesus taught.
Jesus famously said that we should forgive someone not once, not twice, not seven times, but seven times seventy-seven times. But we can’t take that quote out of context. Here’s what he said just before that word about abundant grace:
“If some companion does wrong, go have it out between the two of you privately. If that person listens to you, you have won your companion over. And if he or she doesn’t listen, take one or two people with you so that every fact may be supported by two or three witnesses. Then if he or she refuses to listen to them, report it to the congregation. If he or she refuses to listen even to the congregation, treat that companion like you would a gentile or tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-22)
What does that mean?
This is Jesus addressing the question that we heard bell hooks raise in the reading we heard earlier: “forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
What Jesus is saying is that people need to be confronted with the reality of the harm we cause, we need to have opportunities to be accountable. But if someone refuses, after their community gives them multiple opportunities, they are to be treated like a “tax collector,” meaning someone who is outside the trusted circle of the faithful. Tax collectors betrayed the Jewish people by serving as agents for the Roman occupiers – and they got rich doing it.
Now, Jesus, was famous for treating tax collectors with mercy and humanity. He got in trouble for it with the people who wanted to treat tax collectors like pigs. But Jesus offered them mercy and humanity. And sometimes that mercy and humanity moved a tax collector to accept that forgiveness and follow Jesus. And when they did, they became accountable for the harm they had done – they made reparations. The chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, we are told, gave half his wealth to the poor and paid back multiple times everyone he had defrauded.
The gift of Grace is free, but it ain’t cheap.
In the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, there wasn’t some kind of blanket amnesty for the people who had committed atrocities. People had to confess publicly, and aid investigators in uncovering the truth of what happened. And on the side of the victims who came forward to tell their heart-wrenching stories, the Government committed to reparations.
Now, the reality of how it all played out isn’t a clean Hollywood story. South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world, which is a direct result of apartheid policies. But the heroic Truth and Reconciliation effort came because the wise people who rose to lead a multi-racial democracy after they toppled the apartheid regime knew that it was only through the giving and receiving of forgiveness that the nation could hope to escape vicious cycles of violence.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu who oversaw the Truth and Reconciliation process wrote,
“Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking, but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end dealing with the real situation helps to bring real healing. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing …
In forgiving, people are not being asked to forget. On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.” (“No Future Without Forgiveness, 270-271).
I’ll end with the words that one of you shared about forgiveness:
Forgiveness is what religion teaches…no matter denomination or category, I think. We say, “On the night in which he was betrayed,” as communion preparation. How do we let things go? It is my understanding that in sign language you open your arms as though letting go of a load. What is hard to forgive tends to stick and cling. In interpersonal relations we may need some sort of outside help to forgive. In the political realm we may need truth and reconciliation. It is infinitely easier when the other person, group, nation, etc. apologizes. When the other denies responsibility, it is harder…a lot harder.
I don’t think denying something terrible has happened and “just getting on with it” helps. Terrible acts have to be acknowledged. Some thinkers have said that is why Germany is doing well now. We, the US have yet to acknowledge many of our atrocities. We are just now coming to terms with slavery, Jim Crow, treatment of indigenous people.
The thing is there is a cost to hurting others; to them; to ourselves. We both pay. Real forgiveness, along with reparations in some cases, is what heals. It builds compassion. That is when we can get on with things. Time frame can be minutes, years, decades, or centuries.
May it be so. With gratitude for the Grace of God as manifest from Christ Jesus, I say, Amen