Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Radical Forgiveness or, What Christianity Can Do For Us

It seems to me that the major outstanding characteristic of Christianity, as compared to the world's other faith traditions, is the extreme emphasis it places on forgiveness. Forgiveness does, of course, find its place in all the major faith traditions, but not with nearly as much clarity or strident insistence as in the Christian teachings. To the extent that Christianity has a relevant message for the people of the world today, I believe it is this: we must forgive. I do not think that all of the world's people should convert to Christianity, nor would I want to see that happen, but I do think we could all benefit from serious consideration of this fundamental Christian precept.

The forgiveness taught in Christianity, through the words and actions of Jesus, is not a typical sort of forgiveness. This Christian forgiveness seems to stretch, and indeed to break, our common-place understandings. It is not just that we should forgive our neighbor for returning our shovel a week late, or our child for staying out past curfew; we must forgive even those who hate us and who seek our downfall and destruction. This is surely a radical form of forgiveness, and it is this radical forgiveness that is so desperately needed in our world today. This message, that we must forgive everyone, even as Jesus sought forgiveness for his torturers as they drove nails through his feet, is the value of the Christian message for today's world.

That this sort of radical forgiveness is necessary in solving crises like that in Israel and Palestine is obvious. That conflict has, it seems, been for a long time nothing but a series of retributions. Grudge is laid upon grudge and retribution upon retribution in an endless cycle of blood and tears. This cycle will, and must, continue until both populations are able to forgive each other their past and current grievances. So long as people of both sides seek just compensation for injuries incurred by the further use of violent means, the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis will continue indefinitely. But even if both sides were to forgo the further use of violent measures, without forgiveness there could never be true peace in the region. The purpose of forgiveness is to allow Love to exist. Hatred is defeated only by Love, and until Love has defeated it hatred finds many outlets for its energies. There are many ways of making war on your neighbor, even if absence of guns.

Forgiveness is a necessary first condition to be filled before there can be Love. This is because forgiveness lets those we have forgiven back into the circle of our consideration, whereas a lack of forgiveness banishes that person (or group) outside the circle of our consideration. Forgiveness makes people human again, in the eyes of the one who has forgiven. While there is no forgiveness, the one we hold a grudge against is seen as inferior, something to be looked down upon, and so not a complete human. We see them as less important, less valuable than ourselves, because they have wronged us and so shone their lack of worth. Until we have forgiven we cannot see the other as an equal to ourselves, and so any question of Love is foregone. We may despise them or pity them, we may even patronizingly try to help them, but there can be no question of Loving them.

Forgiveness does not necessitate Love, however, but it is the necessary first step. Indeed, it is the necessary first step not only for Love, but for any kind of respectful interaction at all. Forgiveness provides the tilled field, as it were, for the growth of whatever may be planted in it. What grows in the ground that forgiveness prepares will be the result of future interactions, but without forgiveness the ground itself remains unprepared, and nothing but more thorns can grow in a thorn patch. If the ground of relationship is not first turned and readied by forgiveness, the old entrenched weeds will remain in sway, no matter what new things we may plant there.

Forgiveness is necessary for waring societies, if they are ever to know peace, and it is necessary for groups within societies if they are ever to know happiness during peacetime. Until we can forgive the poor for their poverty, the rich for their wealth, the Republicans for their conservatism, the Democrats for their liberalism (or conservatism), etc., we will never be able to solve the problems we face because we will never be able to face each other as equals. Each group damns the other, placing them outside the bounds of consideration, and constant internal struggle is the result, much to the detriment of society as a whole and of each of its members. Forgiveness within a society may not lead to the end of politics and differences of opinion, but it removes the walls between groups and allows each person equal standing in the eyes of all their fellows. While the walls remain, each person speaks as an equal only within their own walls, those of the group to which they belong. To those encircled by other walls, their voice is paid no heed and so dialogue between groups and between the individual members of those groups is impossible. Thus the societal in-fighting continues ad infinitum, like the organs of one body fighting over the supply of the body's blood. Until the groups within a society forgive one another they cannot assent to the worth and value of other groups or their members. In such circumstances continuous civil war, whether armed or purely “cultural,” is virtually guaranteed, as each group seeks to prove its worth through the overthrowing and undercutting of rival groups.

On the inter-personal level as well, radical forgiveness is the necessary prelude to authentic and therefore fulfilling relationships. An interaction with another person is never genuine so long as we hold some grudge in our mind. If we begrudge another because of their past deeds, or their religious beliefs, or their lack of intelligence or tact, we belittle them to ourselves. When we belittle the other, we cannot enter into a real relationship with them;they remain, as it were, a level beneath us. Half of relationship is the giving of oneself, and half is the receiving of the other. While we begrudge and belittle those around us, we cannot receive from them because we deny within ourselves that what they could offer us has value. We need not agree that the other is right, but we must be willing to forgive them when we think they are wrong, or else genuine relationship is impossible. The less we forgive, the more we cut ourselves off from the possibility of genuine relationships and the more we contribute to the impoverishment of our lives.

Finally, there is the intra-personal level, the forgiveness of self. If we cannot forgive ourselves, we degrade, not some other this time, but ourselves. We look down upon ourselves, we reprove and reprove and finally despair. We convince ourselves of our own worthlessness and if we persist in this long enough, we make ourselves indeed worthless. When we forgive ourselves our faults, we restore ourselves to full humanity and dignity, we restore value to ourselves. From this firm footing we can then become useful and replace what we had found blameworthy within ourselves with something we find better. Forgiveness of self, then, is necessary in allowing us to fully embody what is best within us.

Forgiveness is most powerful, of course, when all sides forgive each other together, at once, but this is not the usual situation. Even if one side may be willing to forgive, the other may not, and matters may not seem to improve at all. If this is the case, is there any value in our forgiving at all? The answer must be yes, for a radical forgiveness from one side alone may serve eventually to lead to a universal forgiveness on all sides, but the withholding of forgiveness can only serve to prolong hostilities. Jesus himself set the ultimate example in this regard, forgiving and asking forgiveness for those who were participating in his execution, knowing that this would do nothing to change the outcome. It is at least in part this insistence on forgiveness without regard to the actions of the other that makes the Christian concept of forgiveness so radical.

Whether we are Christians or not, we would all do well to attempt with our utmost powers to emulate Jesus in this practice of radical forgiveness. No matter who or what we pray to (assuming we pray at all), we could do worse than to say, “forgive us our trespasses and help us to forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen.

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