This is the second of a three-part blog post. I knew that one post could not do the job, so the plan is as follows:
- A response to ‘the pathology of forgiveness’
- The Functional Necessity of (True) Forgiveness
- Humanity and Divinity; Sin and Grace
As stated, this is #2 – proceeding below.
Now, the best thing about reading other people’s ideas and writing responses to them is that if you take this work seriously, you will learn things that you never imagined possible. When I wrote #1 in this series, I was very clear about the potentially dehumanising aspect of enforced forgiveness. But I had not yet encountered a situation in which one might legitimately ask whether forgiveness is actually necessary.
[Yes, I really have begun a blog post by questioning the truth of my own title…]
Richard Wilson had a sister until she was cruelly murdered in Burundi. In September 2014 he was part of a panel convened by The Forgiveness Project for an event that asked this question: ‘Can you move on without forgiveness?’ The following is recounted by one of their staff writers:
Richard then shared his experience and highlighted the key differences from Camilla’s experience, firstly that because he was a secondary victim and did not feel he had the right to forgive on behalf of his sister. He said he didn’t need to affirm that he had ‘forgiven’ those involved in order to begin a process of moving on. He spoke about the pressure there was to ‘publicly forgive’ which can have a damaging impact on those who have been through traumatic experiences – “it’s an absolutist position to assume you can’t move on without forgiveness” and it can even re-victimize. The decision to forgive should be completely in the hands of the victim and their choice must be respected.
Richard spoke of how when forgiveness is taken out of the hands of those directly involved it can be incredibly harmful. He described how in Burundi, the rhetoric of forgiveness has been used by politicians to avoid accountability.
These are very important ideas that will frequently have been glossed over by those who have no experience of anything resembling this kind of circumstance. What is interesting is that the Forgiveness Project is wholly secular – there is not even a whiff of anything resembling confessional Christianity in its origins, ethos and output. So for uncritically-minded traditional Christians there is a real conundrum – if secular people can forgive, then why does anyone need the gospel?
Why does anyone need Jesus?!
It is indeed an absolutist position to believe that one cannot move on without forgiveness.
Just because it is absolutist does not mean that it is not correct. But I would like to do a little more than simply say, “Jesus tells us to forgive. God requires us to forgive if we want to be forgiven. And as we’d all quite like to not burn in hell for our sins, this means that forgiveness is a pretty good idea. In fact, it’s necessary. Yeah? Got that? Good.”
But Richard is of course absolutely right to say that forgiveness must be a choice on the part of the one wounded. If it is coerced from a person in any way, it is a form of manipulation. And that raises the very thorny question of why God insists that we forgive if we want our sins to be forgiven. Because the way in which this is rendered does give the impression that this is a transaction: we humans forgive each other – God forgives us. If we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive us. And for this reason, forgiveness has been forced upon people even in church settings just like the kind of thing that Richard experienced.
I know ALL about that. It is by God’s grace alone that some of my own church relationships have survived some of the spiritual blackmail that I ended up under (but this may also explain why for most of my adult life my closest friends have been secular people, not church peoplem – but that’s a digression, you got me).
Let’s think more rigorously about this.
Let’s take something current and emotive: racism. So, as a black person, I have learned that my people do not respect time, but the world I live in, I have to respect time. And earlier this year I was conducting a massive choral/orchestral project, and various people had not mastered various bits of music, and all this slowed the rehearsal. Result: we finished late.
Some wisecracking white person (whom, for the purposes of this post I shall now designate as ‘the WASP’), seeing the over-running schedule, promptly said aloud: “I see that Alex is running on African time…”
The WASP did not realise who was sitting in earshot, but the long and short of it was that some other white people told me about this, and they were purple in the face with fury at the whole vibe of the situation. They could see that the WASP clearly had no idea of the enormity of the music, nor of the general pressure any conductor – of whatever race – would be under in that context. All they saw was that I was running late.
This is a real situation for ‘reflexivity’ (this word is used in more than one ‘technical’ sense, so I advise you not to assume you know what I mean herewith unless you know the humanities – and even then) even in the moment of writing these words. What is my position regarding this WASP?
I have to confess that I have not forgiven the WASP. I have, however, moved on from the situation. I’ve not thought about it for a good while until I began the conspicuous critical reflection that always accompanies this kind of writing (in my case, anyway). But I remember where I was – and that is (if I’m honest) that I have boxed off the angry feelings because I’ve realised it is not worth it. But this is key: I can quietly nurture a sense of superiority over this WASP who shot his mouth off and cast aspersions on me in an unwarranted way. That makes him less of a human being. I have the moral high ground here. He’s a half-wit who tried to be clever and funny and failed so miserably that it’s laughable. He’s not important. I’m more than that.
I’m more than him.
And now, I’m into that most insidious of human head-spaces – the superiority complex in which I can gently allow myself to feel contempt for this guy.
Well, where else can I go if I don’t forgive him?
I can forget about it, and box it off emotively/cognitively – but that’s a joke. With the right trigger, it will of course emerge. Only by completing a CIA course in How to Tell Lies Effectively might I never be rumbled on the surface – but the only way to not feel contempt for this guy whenever his name comes up is to pretend he doesn’t even exist.
Which is another form of disguised contempt, because my brain knows that he does, and no pseudo-mental-game will obviate that fact…
…which in turn means that when I see/hear him, I cannot but associate him with this particular put-down, and that will make me angry in some way – if I am honest. But the sheer speed with which I can deflect that anger is such that I could easily dupe myself into believing that I felt no anger.
Now, it is of course possible that a counter-argument can be made for all of this, not least including the fact that I am trying to make a categorical universal out of my own experience, and one cannot make a credible argument from subjective to objective.
That’s fine. I have chosen to use my own self as a product in thinking through this question of the necessity of forgiveness because I want that fact to be emblematic of the fact that everyone needs to think through these kinds of questions for themselves. I’d now like to share some thoughts from fellow blogger Andy Schreiber on this subject:
In 1 Corinthians 13, when the apostle Paul wanted to describe and define real love, he included the idea of forgiveness:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, NIV)
And in two of his other letters, Paul tells us that we not only must forgive one another, but that it also must be in the same manner that the Lord Jesus Christ forgave us:
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:12-13)
All of this adds up to impress upon us the importance of Christians forgiving one another. It is a key component of the Christian life because it is a key component of Christian love. And it is a big part of what it means to follow Christ.
Not only that, but it is a reminder that forgiveness will be necessary. In other words, we who are called by the name of Christ are forgiven and justified in Him, but we still sin. A lot. And we will sin against one another. A lot.
Sometimes we will be the one sinned against. Sometimes the shoe will be on the other foot and we will be the offending party.
And when (not so much if) that happens, we must forgive. And we must forgive as Christ has forgiven us.
It is not the presence of sin in the church that necessarily undoes our testimony before a watching world, but the absence of forgiveness and restoration. Because forgiveness and restoration are both based upon the gospel of Christ as well as reflections of it (John 17:20-23).
I think that this is a very important reflection, but of course I can see a potential objection: this is about forgiving fellow Christians! What about everyone else?
I submit to us all that these principles will apply to those outside the church as well. And now we get to a question that I have been building towards: all well and good to talk about those who have wounded me. What happens when I’m the one who wounds someone else?!
One would have to assume that there is nothing that one could do that would ever need forgiveness for this to not apply. And that’s a bust, given that the secular world is just as quick as the church to assert that no-one is perfect. And yet, the media continue to operate with devilish cunning to entrap various celebrities who turn out to be less than perfect. Infidelity. Drugs. Embezzlement. Fraud. Political corruption.
Bill Clinton impeached himself, but somehow still maintains a huge status around the world as one of the most charismatic of recent US Presidents.
So if no-one is perfect, then everyone is going to do something wrong at some point. This makes it highly likely that someone will be hurt in the process. And secular people are still talking about applications and instances of morality while denying moral absolutes – but I digress. The point: at some point, we’ll do something that will force someone to have to decide whether to forgive us or not.
Would you prefer to be forgiven, or not?
Let’s assume that you decide that it is not necessary that anyone forgives you for any wrong you’ve done. You can also deny that what psychologists call closure is even real, much less necessary. But what you cannot deny is that those relationships will be unstable by definition. You could never know how these individuals will react if/when they see you. You have no way to know how to operate if/when you see them. Unstable relationships eventually fizzle out. So, you will need to basically never get anything wrong, because your relational security will only have a first-level basis of security by you never making a mistake…
How does that sound for a way of life?
“I have seen, in warzones across the world, how destructive our human desire for revenge can be. It leads to perpetual conflict and inflicting our own sense of loss and grief on countless others. Marina Cantacuzino’s work, in this important book and beyond, is a reminder that there is an antidote. These tales of forgiveness are the balm that can soothe our all too angry world.” – Dan Snow, historian and TV presenter
Marina Cantacuzino is the founder of the Forgiveness Project that I mentioned in the early part of this post.
Let’s go back to the question of forgiving those who wound us. I now have to take my own words seriously, because as a human being it simply does not work that I see myself as superior to anyone. We are all God’s children – contrary to what some folks believe. All of us are His children by creation. But only some of us are His children by redemption. And if God is ‘no respecter of persons’ (as Peter discovered), then I have no right to see myself as inherently better than anyone else.
The gospel does not merely free us from the curse and blight of sin and guilt. The gospel frees us from ANY sense that we are better than anyone else. As such, it is the worst tragedy ever that folks can become Christians and see this as a ‘status upgrade’ – as a ‘Christian’ I am now at a higher level.
It’s understandable – but not clever – that people see non-faith positions as ‘higher’ than non-Christians – “…I’ve moved beyond all that…”
But forgiveness is one of the ways in which we are regulated out of any sense of unwitting complacent superiority complex.That is more important to God than us merely box-ticking to receive our forgiveness…
…and now, the punch-line.
God’s forgiveness is offered freely, and in one very important sense, it is literally unconditional.
Yes, you read that correctly.
– the real question is whether we have the actual capacity to receive that forgiveness. The (true) story is told of a young man who heard the gospel message, but doubted that God could ever forgive him and eventually he committed suicide.
Look at the elements: he somehow believed in God. But whatever his ‘God-concept’ – it did not extend to seeing God as having the means to save him. So either God didn’t have enough power to save him – or God didn’t value him enough to save him – or he decided that whatever his issues were, God could not save him (there are more possible permutations).
This young man was unable to forgive himself.
When we fail to forgive – and to learn how to forgive – we make it impossible for ourselves to actually receive forgiveness from anyone – including God Himself.
In the end, all genuine human sanity and emotional well-being is contingent on being united with oneself and in oneself.
Unity within oneself is impossible unless we are united with God. But to be united with God, we have to know who we are – and that means we have to understand the reality of ourselves as being people who need forgiveness. But then we discover that we can only receive forgiveness as we actually extend forgiveness to others. So this is not a box-requirement that God has imposed – this is a functional necessity for the preservation of sanity and the ultimate empowerment of shared human dignity. By forgiving another, I affirm their essential worth. This does not mean that there is ‘reconciliation.’ But it does mean that I reduce my status to be the same as theirs once again.
So, I need to forgive this guy who accused me the way he did at that concert. For all I know, that one misjudged remark was more out of character than I could ever know. But even if not – I need to raise him back up to my level, for Jesus died for him too.