Jesus began his ministry “announcing the good news of God.” We call the accounts of his life “gospels,” good news stories. Those who are his followers strive to live the gospel life, the life of good news. Certainly part of that good news is that we are forgiven. No matter what we have done God is always willing to welcome us back. The flip side is that good news people are also called to be forgiving: even seventy-seven times! However, when you have been hurt, forgiving does not always seem like good news. It’s hard. It can feel like giving those who harmed us a pass. Several years ago, I was interviewing an adult who was a victim of sex abuse when he was a child. Almost the first thing he said to me was, “Don’t expect me to forgive my abuser.” I mumbled something non-committal but as we continued the conversation I came to see what he meant. If someone chops off your leg a simple, “I’m sorry, my bad” doesn’t make it all better. If someone robs you of childhood innocence, forgiveness is not easily given. Actions have consequences that must be taken into account. What does forgiveness look like in the face of ongoing harm? Again, how does forgiveness fit into the Black Lives Matter movement? The desired result of the movement is a more just and peaceful society where all God’s children are treated as the precious creation they were made to be. To get there will require forgiveness: forgiveness for slavery, forgiveness for Jim Crowe, forgiveness for redlining, forgiveness for separate but equal (as if), forgiveness for economic disparity, forgiveness for food deserts and health care deserts, forgiveness for unequal treatment under the law. You can imagine very easily BLM saying, “Don’t expect me to forgive my abuser.” Actions have consequences. So how does a Christian forgive seventy-seven times?
We have a sacrament of forgiveness called Penance or Reconciliation but it doesn’t fit exactly since going to confession we are seeking to be forgiven, not to be forgiving. But since part of the gospel story is to “be compassionate as your Heavenly Father is compassionate” let’s remember the steps of the sacrament to see how we can become forgiving as our Heavenly Father is forgiving. The path to forgiveness in the sacrament begins with an examination of conscience. We recall all those ways and times when we have not measured up to the values of our faith. I like the way the 12 step program refers to this step: making a fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This is not easy or comfortable. It means feeling fear and discomfort. It means taking an honest look at events and seeing how decisions made have benefited me and hurt others. We take the steps toward forgiving others when we realize our own need for forgiveness. Forgiving can begin to happen only when we finally stop pretending and ignoring our own shortcomings.
The next step in the sacrament is the actual confession. Someone seeking forgiveness confesses their sins and offenses – “What I have done and what I have failed to do through my own fault, through my most grievous fault.” The power of confession was dramatically demonstrated in South Africa with the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The post-apartheid government promised a full pardon to those who had committed some outrage but only if they fully confessed what they had done. Forgiving others only happens in an atmosphere of truth. Those who were abused need to have the truth of their pain acknowledged. There can be no forgiving of racism until it is named for what it is and the conditions, structures and systems that perpetuate it are called out. Forgiving demands the truth.
The third step is restitution. You might remember this from your catechism. If you confess that you have stolen something absolution can be withheld until you have restored what you have stolen. If you confess that you lied and damaged the reputation of another you can’t be forgiven until you have worked to restore the good name of the one you harmed. Restitution is an important aspect of forgiveness. Restitution is a sign of true contrition since one has an obligation to repair the injustice that was done. The call for reparations for slavery, therefore, is not a far-fetched idea (although what it would look like is not at all clear.) Reparation is an expression of what is involved in genuine forgiveness – the restoration of what was unjustly taken from another. Another way to make restitution is through what is known as restorative justice where the victim, offender and community all participate in the healing process. The bottom line: however it looks the consequences of an offence must be dealt with if we are to become the forgiving people Jesus calls us to be.
Finally, when we ask to be forgiven we make a firm purpose of amendment – a commitment to act differently in the future. Do we have the right to expect that before we forgive? Is there a tit for tat – so much forgiving for so much repenting? I am thinking of the actions of the people of Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston after the horrible massacre of nine people in their sanctuary during a Bible study five years ago. They as a community forgave the perpetrator despite his continuing racist views. As one member put it: “I believe so many people view forgiveness as letting the other person off the hook. By forgiving in actuality we’re just freeing ourselves from that constant feeling of revenge.” Forgiving frees us from the power the offender has over us and that is definitely good news.
A story: An elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside of people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One wolf is full of anger, resentment, arrogance, guilt, self-pity. The other wolf is full of joy, peace, forgiveness, generosity and kindness.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf wins?” The elder answered, “Whichever one you feed.”