With the recent mass shooting in Charleston and the death sentence for the Boston Marathon Bomber we are once again witnessing the spectacle of one who is a purveyor of hate being confronted by those who have survived their brutality and evil. Some say such monstrosity can never be forgiven. Others say that while justice must be done, it is wrong to answer evil with evil. Both are correct.
We’ve seen the survivors in Charleston confronting the unrepentant murderer, and forgiving him. They’ve been lauded as an example of what Christian forgiveness is really all about. But is that true? Doesn’t their forgiveness seem too soon, perhaps even forced?
Lord God, we lift up and rejoice in this morning’s message, may your intent be clearly expressed and achieved through the words I speak here this morning. Help us come to understand the beauty and depth and scope of your forgiveness, and may your loving presence be a living reality in all that we say and do. Amen.
Forgiveness means different things to different people: often confused with ideas like reconciliation, or grace. We are often unclear on what forgiveness is for, and what (or who) it operates upon.
Many believe our forgiveness absolves the guilty of their sin. This may derive from the Parable of the Healed Paralytic in Mark, which we heard this morning, where Jesus tells us that it is not just God who can forgive sins, but also the Son of Man. But, nowhere in scripture does it say that we can make another’s sin as if it had never existed, or did not matter, not even for ourselves – let alone for them, or others. We cannot grant absolution from sin, and our forgiveness does not make it as if it never happened. And yet we are called to forgive, just as we are called to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-49).
Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 18 that we must forgive “seventy times seven” tells us we must forgive repeatedly and unceasingly, because forgiving others is our response to God’s unconditional and unmerited gift of Grace, as the President reflected-upon in his recent eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
The forgiveness offered to the Charleston gunman by the survivors of the massacre in Pinckney’s church comes out of God’s Grace, supported by the knowledge that holding on to anger and grief leaves you “stuck” – unable to grow, unable to share God’s love, unable to be who you are meant to be.
Their oppressor intended for them to be “stuck” in exactly that way – made ineffective in their ministry and lives through his evil. The purpose of his terror was to strengthen the impact and effects of the racism that confronts them each and every day of their lives. But through God’s grace they forgave him.
As persons of color in America, the members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston know about oppression to a depth and in ways that no white person ever will. They know how to forgive, and why. It is the only way they can survive and prosper in the face of the racism they constantly encounter. So on this score, the gunman’s plan failed.
What I see in many of the things said by the survivors in that courtroom when he was charged for his crimes, is that the survivors are leaving no room for hate to operate. They reject it. They will not allow his hate to become part of who they are: they are not his victims. There is far too much hate all around them already, and they will not allow it to consume them. By forgiving him, they are letting go of that pain and leaving his fate in God’s hands, not taking it into their own. They will not hate in return.
Some think forgiveness means we are called to allow those who have hurt us to come back into our lives. This comes out of a belief that forgiveness requires reconciliation. We see this idea at work when an abused spouse is told it is God’s will for them to forgive and return to an abusive relationship. This is not true.
The reverse of that belief is the phrase “Forgive and Forget”, which is often used as a way of gaining the other’s forgiveness without having to do anything in return. The word “forget” in this case means ”forget I have any responsibility for this.” It does not mean “forget the sin and make it as if it never was” – remember, that type of forgiveness is only within the power of God, not us. And besides, while the Bible says the Divine will forget our sins, it never says that God will forget our pain. Otherwise, the life and death of Jesus are not relevant to our walk with God.
A very wise man once told me that I must forgive those who hurt me, but that does not mean I must let them back into my life. If they have not changed, then the pain they brought into the relationship will still be there, unresolved, unreconciled, still festering, and still operational.
Jesus said we must forgive seventy times seven, but did not say we must reconcile with those who are unrepentant or unchanged. Forgiveness does not mean we must make it possible for those who hurt us to do so again. The people of Emmanuel AME forgave the gunman, they have not reconciled with him, and we would not think to counsel them to do so.
Many say that forgiveness is not about those who have hurt us, but is a means of relieving and releasing our own anger and hate. This is true, to an extent, as I’ve already said. But, if that is all forgiveness is about, then it would seem we have the choice of forgiving, or not; since all that would matter is our own spiritual health. We would believe that forgiveness is an option we should choose mainly out of self-interest.
But, Jesus commands us to forgive, it is not an option! Yes, forgiveness is about us, but not just us. And yes, in forgiving others, we are releasing our own anger and pain, allowing God’s grace to manifest within us. But there is much more to forgiveness than simple self-interest.
We can think of sin as breaking the bridge of love and hope that are part of every healthy relationship, replacing it with a gap of hurt and hate. So, to follow this metaphor, forgiveness begins the process of rebuilding our half of that bridge. But whether the other will do the same is up to them, not us. We cannot force the other to accept our forgiveness. We cannot force them to take part in rebuilding the bonds that once connected us. We cannot force the relationship to be reestablished on healthy grounds, but we can open the door to it through forgiveness. Forgiveness begins the process of healing, but is not the goal or endpoint. The survivors in Charleston were not forgiving too soon: they knew it was the start of their own healing, and (they hope) of a beginning to healing for their attacker, too.
For the other to accept our offering of forgiveness means they must acknowledge the pain they’ve caused and take responsibility for it – and in turn seek to mend or atone-for what they have done. In other words, accepting the offer of forgiveness means we recognize our wrong, and wish to repent. Until that repentance occurs, the bridge between us cannot be rebuilt; reconciliation cannot occur.
Reconciliation is the act of meeting the other on that rebuilt bridge: we are not called to build the entire thing and then cross over to their side. Doing so would mean we accept the lie that our pain and anger are imaginary or invalid. Forgiveness is not just an offer to rebuild a broken relationship, but is also a declaration that we have been hurt, and that our pain matters – it cannot be ignored or made as if it never was by the other.
Rebuilding that bridge is also an expression of hope and faith: faith that the other is as much a child of God as we are; and the hope that they are not beyond redemption or reconciliation with us, or with God. By offering to rebuild the bridge that connects us, we are affirming our belief that there is hope for us, and for them too.
This is why, in Luke 17, Jesus says that if the other repents, we must forgive – even if we know they’re going to sin again, and again. Because, if we stop forgiving, that means we hold no hope for them, or for ourselves. Yet, we know that God never gives up hope for any of us. Forgiving another means we are determined to love them despite the pain they have caused, because that’s what God does for us, and for them too.
This doesn’t mean that forgiving is easy, it shouldn’t be. Forgiving the killer of those they loved was certainly not easy for the folks of Emmanuel AME Church. And, I am sure it is equally difficult for the many who are still suffering because of the evil of the Boston Marathon Bomber, as we saw in the angry and pain-filled words so many of them spoke in response to the apology he recently gave at the hearing where he was sentenced to death.
Our faith teaches us that neither we, nor those who trespass against us, will ever be deserving of forgiveness. We are all sinners. We have all fallen short of the Grace of God; and we and God both know all too well that we have hurt others, both knowingly and unknowingly, and both deliberately and inadvertently. We will never merit God’s forgiveness, yet God offers it to us all the time, seventy times seven. Forgiveness merely means we are offering to the other what God is already offering – to them and to us – unmerited grace.
I’ll close with some thoughts on the Parable of the Prodigal Son. …. I had hoped to make this the centerpiece of today’s message, but things never seem to evolve as planned!
The Prodigal Son is irresponsible, a partier, greedy, disrespectful of his father and family. He doesn’t plan for the future, he wastes and despises all he is given, and does not consider consequences until it is too late. And, what does he do as soon as he is forgiven by his father? He parties! In fact, his father encourages him to party, and pays for it! And, you just know this wasn’t the first time he needed forgiveness, and it won’t be the last.
And, what about the elder son? The one who was faithful and did everything right? His father tells him they have to celebrate and rejoice because the younger son was dead and has come back to life: was lost and is now found. So, he should rejoice and forgive too. Does he? We are not told. It is not an easy choice to make. We are left waiting to learn what his choice shall be. I also wonder, who does he need to forgive: his brother? His father? Maybe both? What about forgiving himself?
This is at the heart of Christian forgiveness: knowing that the other is just as lost and flawed as we are. Seeing their failures, pain, and fears; and knowing that they will inevitably stumble again, causing great pain – again – as we have, and will again ourselves. We have no right to judge their sin, and no power to absolve them of it. But, we can extend grace to them as God has to us, and through our forgiveness making the Love of God that works so powerfully in us available to them as well.
Bridging the pain and the hate created by the sins of others is never easy. It can’t be, it shouldn’t be. That said, we are called to do so. It is God’s command. We cannot do it on our own, but we can if God will provide, which is what God has promised to do through the example of Jesus, up to and including his request while dying on the cross that God forgive them – meaning us – for they know not what they do.
We never fully know what wrong we have done until it is too late to take it back, just like the Prodigal Son. Our God is a God of second chances, a God of Healing not just for us, but also for those who hurt us. We cannot deny the pain they cause, nor should we, but we can receive God’s healing. We begin this process for ourselves, and those who sin against us, through forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s love in action.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, July 12, 2015
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)