Saturday, September 10, 2005

The way of forgiveness

I wonder how many people here today remember where they were four years ago today, when they first learned about the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York?  Probably all of us.  The outrageous attack that changed the political map of the world and gave birth to that ugly euphemism, war on terror.  We probably all of us watched that dreadful footage of planes flying into office blocks over and over, wondering what kind of hatred makes that sort of thing possible – and we have watched the mounting tide of global conflict ever since, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, more terrorist attacks in Bali, Madrid, London and the almost daily round of car bombings in Baghdad – as the ideological divide and the gulf of suspicion between developed Western nations and the Islamic world grows deeper and deeper – and on this 4th anniversary of 911 we find ourselves reading Jesus’ confronting parable on forgiveness!  As I started preparing this sermon I found myself thinking, what would it mean to actually confront terror with forgiveness?  What would have to change?  Is it even an option? 

Today’s parable comes at the end of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness that we began to read last week.  Jesus, you remember, has outlined a three-step process for dealing with disagreements in the community, and I think the whole emphasis in Jesus’ dispute resolution process is on making sure that conflicts don’t get set in concrete – making sure that people don’t get locked into hostile positions they can’t back down from.  When a member of the community has offended you, he says, the first step is to go and talk to them privately – and what that means is that you have to be prepared to give up the option of a public apology or public restitution – it means you have to be prepared to be reconciled with the person who has wronged you – you don’t get to play the victim – and then if that doesn’t work then the second step is to take along one or two other people – in today’s jargon maybe that’s equivalent to enlisting the help of a mediator, someone with an objective view who can help both sides of the argument see where the fault lies, and to find the middle ground – but again it is in private, the emphasis seems to be on de-escalation – when neither party gets shamed then there’s less likelihood of turning an argument into a feud – and only when all this fails is the offence taken up in public in front of the whole community.  But even then – what does Jesus say? – you treat the offender like a Gentile or a tax collector? – like somebody beyond the pale?  But how does Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors? –oh! – we’re still not at that place where we can write the offender off, are we?  We’re still at the place where we need to be willing to sit and eat together with people that our culture and the rules of the wider society tell us we should be refusing to have anything to do with – because that’s just what Jesus gets into trouble for, isn’t it?  Eating and drinking with tax collectors, healing those who are outside the community, not just those who are on the inside.  Just where is this sort of teaching on forgiveness going to take us?

And that’s what Peter wants to know – are there any limits to this forgiveness thing, Lord – how much do I have to keep forgiving the person who does me wrong?  It’s a reasonable question, and Jesus comes back with a story that suggests there’s a connection between our practice of forgiveness and our response to the God who forgives us.  This story of the king and the unforgiving slave suggests that unless we practice the way of forgiveness we haven’t really allowed ourselves to be transformed by grace – but it goes further, doesn’t it? Suggesting that what God does might be dependent on what we do, that God’s grace might just get withdrawn if we don’t measure up – hey! is it just me, or is there a bit of a contradiction here?  Be forgiving or God will get you good and proper?  There’s something a bit circular in that, the suggestion that an attitude of true forgiveness can come about by being threatened into it?  There’s also something a bit odd about the analogy between the relationship between the master and the slave – is that really what we are like in relation to God?  Certainly the way Jesus talks about God’s longing to be reconciled with human beings seems a fair way removed from this image of arbitrary power – but I wonder whether the whole point might be that this story is intended to have us wondering just who needs to be forgiven, not only how much we need to be forgiving but who our forgiveness should include – should we be forgiving the unforgiving slave?  What about forgiving the king, who commands such grovelling compliance?

Forgiveness is complicated, just ask Charlie Brown.  There are some wrong ways to forgive, it seems to me.  For example when a story like this is used to make people who are powerless feel they need to forgive perpetrators over and over again, should the victim of sexual abuse or domestic violence keep on forgiving the perpetrator when that means the abuse is going to keep happening?  ‘Oh, but this time he really means it, this time he’s really sorry.’  Really?  Forgiveness isn’t about justifying abuse, it isn’t about justifying unequal power relationships.  Notice when Jesus is on the cross, the ultimate position of weakness, he doesn’t forgive himself but he does ask God to forgive – forgiveness has to come from the one who has the power to make a choice.  That’s the first thing.

The second wrong way to forgive, I think, is when one person has to do all the work.  Either when the person who has committed the offence won’t change, so the victim has to all the work of forgiving – or when the victim puts a whole lot of conditions on forgiveness, unless this is done or that is done, unless I can see you are ashamed or that you have suffered like I have suffered, then I won’t forgive you.

False forgiveness, it seems to be, is when one person has got all the power and even after the “forgiveness” there is still an unequal amount of power.  False forgiveness brings about shame – in the perpetrator, in the victim, or both.  And that maybe gives us a clue about what real forgiveness is like.  Real forgiveness destroys shame because it’s not just something that one person does, it’s something that involves two people at least, or as Jesus suggests in his teaching on forgiveness, maybe the whole community is involved.  Real forgiveness is about dialogue, real forgiveness ends up with the person who forgives and the person who is forgiven, being on the same level.  Just think about what Jesus tells us about God’s forgiveness of us – it ends up with us being in right relationship with God.

And that suggests that real forgiveness isn’t easy.  Certainly, real forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once, like letting somebody off a debt, wiping out the debt by the stroke of a pen.  Somebody once said to me, don’t forgive too soon – and I wondered for a long time how that might be consistent with what Jesus teaches us – but eventually I realised that what my friend was saying amounted to this – forgive just as soon as your forgiveness is real – if you say you forgive somebody when you’re really holding onto the hurt, or when the wrong hasn’t been addressed – then what you’re doing isn’t true forgiveness, it’s avoidance.  Real forgiveness means insisting that what really needs to be changed is the relationship, what really needs to be rebuilt is trust.  Real forgiveness is just something you say, it isn’t a word, it’s a process, it’s a dialogue, and it takes time.

And here, I think, we need to pause and ask ourselves whether there are any patches of unforgiveness in our own lives.  Are there people I can’t forgive, are there things I can’t forgive myself for?  Because if so, that suggests the parts of myself I am refusing to let Jesus be a part of.  The downside of unforgiveness is that I hold on to what isolates me, to what keeps me separate, to the hard undigested knot of unwellness that makes right relationship impossible.  Unforgiveness will eat me up, spiritually, emotionally and in my relationships with others.  On that level, the analogy of the king tormenting his unforgiving slave maybe isn’t so wide of the mark.  That’s why Jesus insists there is a direct relationship between my own practice of forgiveness, and my experience of God’s forgiveness.  Of course, God’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on mine.  But my ability to accept and to live in God’s grace depends on being willing to let go of the one thing that God’s grace can’t penetrate.

What does all this mean for September 11, and the whole dreadful clash of worldviews that ever since has filled our TV screens and our lives with the static of anxiety?  How does the way of forgiveness fit into the war on terror?  Because Jesus assures us that it does.  The way of forgiveness doesn’t seem to have been very widely practiced in the Roman Empire.  It probably looked like a fairly silly option to some, seeing Jesus hanging on the cross.  But the claim Jesus made back then, and the claim Christians have made ever since, was that God’s reconciling love is more powerful than the worst human beings can do.  That the way of forgiveness is capable of transforming the most entrenched and powerful evil.  If we give it a try.