Monday, November 19, 2007

Forgiveness Begins At Home

The Washington Post on-line religion forum, "On Faith", discusses forgiveness today, assembling an interesting array of voices to discuss the topic.

Pamela Taylor, co-founder of Muslims for Progressive Values writes:
Forgiveness is not an easy thing. But it is a necessary thing. It heals the wounds between communities and individuals, but more importantly, it allows us to move on with our lives in productive ways. Without it, we can come to dwell upon the injustices that we have suffered, building outrage and hatred, until retribution becomes the focus of our lives. With it, we can either turn to other matters, enjoying life fully, or we can focus on restoring justice in equitable and humane ways.

Mark Sisk, Epicopal Bishop of New York, writes:
Forgiveness is the path to freedom. If ever we are to live as free persons we must find the way to forgive even when our enemy is unrepentant, even when our enemy is actively pursuing what we find to be their evil intentions. To fail to forgive the repentant, as well as the unrepentant, enemy is to remain their prisoners. Hatred and fear isolate; and isolation diminishes a person.
The journey to forgiveness is not an easy one. Along that way one must stop to recognize the humanity of the enemy. Of equal importance is coming to grips with one’s own faults and failures. If ever a person is to truly and deeply forgive, they must know themselves to have been forgiven. I know of no short-cut on this journey. From within my own Christian tradition the only way that I know to grow in forgiveness is by taking the time to reflect on the deep reality of the other person’s fundamental humanity, to examine oneself, and to hold both, and all, before God in prayer.

One final point: the enormous power of forgiveness to free oneself from the deadly entanglements of anger and hate is a power reserved to the injured party. Forgiveness is not easy – but it is essential to freedom.

The best, and most succinct, statement, however, comes from Martin Marty (which should come as no surprise).
It is hard to measure degrees of atrociousness: all war wounds on the innocents are atrocities, so we have committed many when we bomb cities, yet we do not repent and ask for forgiveness. Yet a nation can shows signs of regard for others made in the image of
God and can seek to restore the enemy to a positive place in world society.

For the Christian, this question is most intense, since in the gospels and the New Testament letters, disciples and others are constantly asked to forgive - and not to claim innocence.

While all the perspectives are notable, Marty's ending is the best because it echoes a Biblical perspective that is often lost in an era when the tossing about of grievance and counter-grievance can create a bulwark of self-righteousness and indignation that blocks any opportunity not just for forgiveness, but real reconciliation.

I wrote a while back, while reflecting of parts of Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace that no one is innocent. This caused consternation among some but those criticisms reflected less a serious position than a species of self-righteous self-justification that is quite common among those who perceive themselves as aggrieved in some way.

Forgiveness begins with oneself. Forgiveness begins with recognizing one's own lack of innocence, one's own complicity in evil, and seeking forgiveness from those one has aggrieved. This can never be done completely, and should be seen more as a process than an event. Once we have embraced our own lack of purity, and done the difficult, but necessary, self-reflection, forgiveness of others becomes much easier to do, even with those who are unrepentant.

One point of disagreement I have is with some of the comments of Bishop Sisk. The Bible tells us that when God forgives, he removes our sin as far as the east is from the west. In other places (particularly the Psalms), it says that when God forgives, the sin is no longer recalled by the God of grace and forgiveness. Bishop Sisk writes:
[T]o forgive does not mean pretending that some evil did not happen. Nor does it mean explaining away the culprit’s responsibility. It does not mean coming to like that former enemy, though that sometimes happens. And certainly, forgiving does not mean coming to trust that enemy. It is entirely possible, for example, for one person to genuinely forgive another while at the same time believing that he or she should spend life in prison.

To my mind, forgiveness actually does mean all those things. That is the radical nature of forgiveness, the revolutionary character of forgiveness. By restoring the humanity of the perpetrator of evil, we are participating in the radical grace of Christ.

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