Salvation as Communal Healing

anointingJesusFeetWe have a tendency to think of salvation as a personal matter. To some extent it is, but the way salvation is presented in scripture, it is never personal in an individualistic sense. In the case of the famous story of “The Sinful Woman,” we easily focus on the woman whose dramatic action is enough to grab our attention. However, her act is a public drama. Moreover, in very few words, Luke paints the social context of the woman’s behavior. She is a “sinful woman.” We are not told the nature of her sinfulness, so that is not relevant to what we should learn from the story. Simon, Jesus’ host at the dinner, assumes that Jesus should have known that the woman was a sinner and he should not have allowed her to anoint and dry his feet with her hair, actions that further proved the woman’s sinfulness in Simon’s mind. Simon may have been expecting Jesus to have supernatural discernment, but he may have simply expected Jesus to know who had a bad reputation and who didn’t.  In any case, it is a social judgment that has labeled this woman as sinful. That is, this woman shows all the signs of being the community scapegoat who helps everybody else feel good about themselves.

Jesus’ brief parable of the two debaters can be understood as presenting salvation in a social context. The two debtors gives us, in miniature, an image of society where everybody is in debt in the sense of being sinful, even if the sinfulness of each person is not equal. We can see this indebtedness on a horizontal level as each person has wronged somebody else. In a religious culture, such as the Jewish one, the notion of everybody being indebted to God would, of course, also come to mind. The problem with Jesus’ parable is that if we see ourselves as parts of a society full of moral debt, then scapegoating one particular sinner ceases to be viable.

Simon’s grudging answer to Jesus’ question that the one who owed more would love more suggests that Simon is beginning to see the implication of the parable and it is making him uncomfortable. Jesus’ proclamation that the woman’s sins are forgiven leads to muttering and outrage from Simon and his other guests. If the moral debt of even one person is forgiven, then how can the community have a scapegoat? Forgiving the scapegoat was totally unforgiveable! The important thing is that it was not just the woman as an individual who was offered forgiveness, but everybody in the social system. The catch was, and is for us today, that we have to renounce the “comfort” that a social scapegoat gives us before our communities can be healed. As with so many of his parables, this story in Luke leaves us hanging. Will Simon and his friends accept forgiveness, or will they remain outraged by it, thinking that they don’t need it. The same question faces us as well.

The Breath of the Trinity

Piero,_battesimo_di_cristo_04There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But math, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.

The Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God when, among other things, Jesus exerted divine power to walk on water and still the waves of the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the math ever since. We shall reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the Sinful Woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7: 47) The Pharisees were incensed because Jesus, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Jesus had, in fact, done what only God could do.  Before he died, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20: 22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2: 38)

The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin and forgiveness. In spite of some outbursts of anger, Yahweh claimed to be a God who was chesed, a Hebrew word meaning full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the Sinful Woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But Yahweh’s hesed did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Jesus and then in the disciples through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the Gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the Gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.

Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own wrath. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s hesed. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.

Christian Community (2)

guestsNarthex1In essence, the kingdom Jesus encouraged his followers to enter is based on peace and forgiveness. In his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus announced that the kingdom was about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor, to use the summary Jesus draws from Isaiah in his inaugural sermon in Luke. The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the Jubilee year, the year that debts were to be forgiven. We should not forget that the petition in the Our Father about asking forgiveness of our sins is also about forgiving our debts. Letting the oppressed go free refers to God’s command to Pharaoh to let God’s people go. This command applies to all of us insofar as we keep even one person in bondage to us in any way, including emotional blackmail. Years ago, at a Benedictine abbots’ workshop, I head a series of conferences on biblical spirituality by Demetrius Dumm, a seasoned monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey. He said with deep solemnity that he was afraid that at the Judgment, we would each be asked one question and one question only: “Did you let my people go?”

These teachings are the primary blueprint for a community based on Christ, what some call Church, but this community that Jesus clearly tried to form did not happen in his lifetime, as recounted in my earlier post. (See Christian Community (1) This suggests that, important and fundamental as Jesus teachings are, they are no enough to form a community based on these teachings. What did form such a community was Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. But it was not just the Resurrection itself that formed the community; it was the radical preemptive forgiveness with which Jesus approached his scattered followers. If Jesus had just bashed in the heads of his persecutors, everything would have been the same and we humans would still have no alternative but to cohere through the persecution of a victim. The church was not founded on the teachings of Jesus; the Church was founded by Jesus himself acting on his teachings. In short, Jesus forgave the Church into existence.

Note that Jesus did not forgive individuals and leave them as individuals. Jesus forgave all of us as the community of humanity. Jesus could stand alone against the persecutory crowd. We cannot. Only a community gathered on a radically new principle can counteract the old human community gathered the old way. This is what St. Paul was getting at when he said we have to become members of a new humanity in Christ.

I am not talking about the church as a set of institutions with their paraphernalia of miters, Geneva gowns, pointed steeples and mega buildings. I am talking about people who consciously seek to gather in the radical forgiveness of Jesus, a gathering that precludes the persecutory mechanism as a means of binding people together. This radical act of forgiveness on the part of Jesus was made for all people at all times. This means that everybody everywhere and any time who gathers in forgiveness is within the Church regardless of what ecclesiastical cards one might or might not carry in one’s wallet. Of course, most of us gather through forgiveness some of the time at best. That means that most of us are partly in the Church and partly outside of it. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is about the world, the institutional church and each one of us. (See Christ  the Rejected Cornerstone among the Weeds.)

The New Testament word for Church, ekklesia, literally means “calling out of.” In this respect, everybody is in the church because everybody, without exception, is being called out of human community based on persecution and called into human community based on forgiveness. Of course, some people respond to this call and some don’t. Actually, most of us respond to the call some of the time at most. Such is the case of those of us who are members of an organized church and those who wouldn’t go through a church door under any circumstances. Not even as unifying an act as pre-emptive forgiveness by the risen Jesus can avoid causing division for the simple reason that each of us is divided by a choice we have to make day by day. There is much more to a theology of Church than this, but without the attempt to gather in the risen Jesus’ radical forgiveness there is no real church at all.

 Go to Christian Community (3)

Receiving Forgiveness

buddingTree1As we have noted several times, granting forgiveness and receiving forgiveness go hand in hand. Although receiving forgiveness wasn’t listed in the process of forgiveness, it is receiving forgiveness that completes the new cycle and breaks the cycle of revenge. In looking at the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we stressed the need to grant forgiveness in order to receive forgiveness. The circle works in the other direction just the same. We have to receive forgiveness in order to grant it.

Receiving forgiveness as a free gift sounds like a good deal until we remember that receiving forgiveness necessarily entails becoming aware of what we are being forgiven for. If we are convinced we have done nothing wrong, then we do not receive forgiveness no matter how often and ardently forgiveness is given us. If somebody tells us we have been forgiven, it implies that we have done something wrong to merit punishment as well as the forgiveness that is given us instead. That is to say, receiving forgiveness only makes sense when one is penitent. This does not negate the peremptory forgiveness given by God and imitated by those who imitate God as deeply as this. God’s peremptory forgiveness reveals the truth of the wrongs we have done and this forgiveness strengthens us to live up to the challenge to amend our lives.

I noted earlier that a major component of granting forgiveness is to renounce mimetic rivalry. The desire for revenge is a desire to win a victory against the person who has “defeated” us through personal injury. It is this desire to “win” that is renounced with forgiveness. There is a similar, but not identical renunciation of mimetic rivalry in accepting forgiveness. In committing sin that requires forgiveness, mimetic rivalry in the sense of seeking to dominate other people is often involved. This quest for dominance is one of the major things that need to be repented of in receiving forgiveness. Just as one becomes a “loser” in granting forgiveness, one becomes a “loser” in receiving it. This is the difficulty that Javert had in Les Miserables. (See A Miserable Gospel.) This gendarme had placed himself in perpetual mimetic rivalry through his determination to catch out Jean Valjean and bring him back to prison. This vendetta started at the moment of his release, without giving Valjean any opportunity to prove himself worthy of his release—or not. This mimetic rivalry on the part of Javert, which was never reciprocated by Valjean, made Javert relentlessly unforgiving and it made him just as relentlessly incapable of receiving forgiveness. He could not renounce his irrational quest to “win.” And so he lost everything.

Receiving forgiveness is essential for one who grants forgiveness. The temptation in granting forgiveness is to claim the higher moral ground over the one forgiven. If we think we have no need for forgiveness ourselves when we forgive others, we put ourselves above those we forgive, which is pride and, more importantly, a short-circuiting of forgiveness. This is why the Lord’s Prayer pairs praying for forgiveness with praying to receive it.

These considerations help us understand the puzzling verse in Romans 12:20. Paul tells us feed our enemies who are hungry and give water when they are thirsty for by doing this we will heap “burning coals on their heads.” Paul is quoting Proverbs 25: 22 here, which only pushes the puzzle back to the Wisdom Sage. If we are truly forgiving one who has wronged us and have renounced the desire for revenge or for someone else (God) to avenge us, then we truly wish to restore connections to the person who wronged us and to enhance that person’s well-being. Feeding and giving water to such as these as much as we give them to our own family and friends is enhancing their well-being. But what of those who cannot or will not forgive and cannot or will not receive forgiveness? Javert is an example of one who experienced a free act of forgiveness as the heaping of burning coals on his head. Valjean’s forgiveness seared his soul. Paul, and the Wisdom Sage before him, realized that forgiveness will burn the person who does not accept it. Such is the teaching of Jesus in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who was not tortured by the master but by his own inability to give and therefore receive forgiveness.

Receiving any kind of gift puts us in an inferior position to the one who gives the gift. Since forgiveness is rooted in God’s Desire, receiving forgiveness as a free gift always puts every one of us in an inferior position before God. Likewise, receiving forgiveness keeps us on the same level with other people as we forgive them and receive forgiveness from them. The Satan’s kingdom, the Empire, is fueled by the cycle of revenge. God’s Kingdom is fueled by the cycle of forgiveness. Both cycles are just as infinite but the cycle of forgiveness is infinitely larger than the other.

 

The Process of Forgiveness (3): Forgiving

yellowTulips1The final step of forgiving is actually to forgive. Simple as that. Or is it that simple? Well, yes and no. It is a simple act, although in some cases it can take years to actually unfold when the hurt is very deep. The thing about forgiveness is that I really don’t think any of us really forgives another; God forgives the person through us. That is to say, forgiveness is an act of grace from God. The first three steps of telling the story, owning the hurt and letting go can be done by us and need to be done by us. Although letting go is not forgiveness in itself, it opens the way for forgiveness to happen. We open the door for the Paraclete, the Divine Advocate for the Defense, to come in.

I have to admit to feeling a bit embarrassed about writing on this important topic. That is because, so far in my life anyway, I have had quite a lot less to forgive than many people I know and know about. When I think of the enormous injuries, such as childhood abuse some have suffered and forgiven, I ask myself: Who am I to tell others how to forgive? The answer to that question is to say that I am Andrew Marr and I have had to do some forgiving. In any case, like everybody else, I have learned much from those who have forgiven monstrous hurts.

Although telling stories is helpful, I do not feel I can tell my own stories of forgiveness except abstractly since other people are involved. Two instances stand out for me. In one case, when a person penitently admitted to sustained acts of deceit, I felt forgiveness move through me on the spot. This did not eliminate the hurt over the situation but it did free me from being caught in the hurt and allowed me to move on. The second instance was a case where it took many years to become aware of how a person was hurting me, albeit without intending it or, as far as I could tell, realizing it, in spite of my frank naming the hurt to this person. At the time that I write this, I have not experienced the same forgiveness work through me as a one-shot deal, but I feel the process working gradually through me.

I find forgiveness to be more difficult when it involves the wrongs done to other people, whether people I know or people I have never seen but who are being hurt and killed through economic injustice and war. It occurs to me that a certain helplessness adds to this difficulty. If a wrong is done to another, it is hard to forgive on behalf of that person. The thing is, God forgives the wrongs done to other people all the time. At the same time, God suffers with all who are suffering these grievous wrongs and is also suffering along with the ruin of the perpetrators themselves. Forgiveness is costly in such cases and as we participate in God’s forgiveness of others who harm other people, we learn in our own hearts how costly forgiveness is.

As difficult as forgiveness is when it comes to trauma, I find forgiveness most difficult with the small things on a day-to-basis. When an emergency comes along, we respond quickly and generously, even when it takes much time and resources, but giving up small bits of time for the benefit of other people is difficult, sometimes excruciatingly so. It’s the same thing with forgiveness. When we get nickel-and-dimed by petty offenses day in and day out, we get fed up with people and lash out at them. When we suffer these little stabs, they are so immediate, compared to the long-term sufferings we endure, that they seem a lot bigger than they are. Here is where we need a habit of letting go that is rooted in humility. St. Paul said that he died daily. Part of that is losing daily, which is what letting go amounts to when these petty offenses come. It’s when we receive a barbed comment on the spot that we want to come back with a retort that gives us the satisfaction of revenge. Swallowing our words in these situations is difficult. And yet, learning to forgive in these small situations strengthens us to forgive the longstanding hurts that we suffer. Letting go is letting go, whether the matter is big or small. In God’s sight, they are all the same size.

The Process of Forgiveness (2): Letting Go

purpleFlower1Owning the hurt of injury is the beginning of letting go of the hurt that strangles us. For some people some of the time, letting go and forgiving happen simultaneously so as to seem like one movement.(See The Process of Forgiveness 1)  For most of us most of the time, the two are distinct, though closely related. This is most clearly the case when a kind of reverse psychology allows a letting go that leads to forgiveness. I have already noted that pressuring somebody to forgive horrendous injury such as childhood molestation because it is the “Christian” thing to do intensifies the pain of the injury with guilt for not being able to forgive it. In such cases, absolving the victim of forgiving the hurt allows that person to let go of it. Letting go removes the hurt from the center of our lives where it has been a major, often the central organizing principle of our lives and gives us the freedom to move on. Letting go does not mean that the hurt doesn’t hurt, but letting go loosens the hold the hurt has on us.

The most important element in letting go is non-retaliation. Here is where the famous admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount come into play: turning the other cheek, walking a second mile etc. It is important to note that non-retaliation, in itself, is not forgiveness. Withholding a counter punch that one is capable of delivering does not necessarily mean that one has forgiven the injury to the cheek. What non-retaliation does is push the pause button on violence that keeps it from escalating out of control, a scenario that makes forgiveness harder for everybody.

Letting go, especially in its form of non-retaliation, is a renunciation of trying to “win” a situation and instead assumes the position of the “loser.” This also makes the renunciation of retaliation a renunciation of mimetic rivalry. Remember that seeking revenge is fundamentally an attempt to “win” a struggle against the other and thus it perpetuates mimetic rivalry. In the heat of battle, winning is everything. When the battle is over and we are scarred more than ever or worse, winning turns out to be nothing but the burden of holding on to the hurt. After all, we haven’t let go and so the hurt keeps us in its relentless grip.

This is where humility comes in. Humility is the willingness to be a “loser” in the hope that we might win the person injuring us. Humility is particularly important here because not retaliating tempts us to think we have taken the higher moral ground. The tricky thing is that we have taken the higher moral ground but if we pat ourselves on the back for that, we become obsessed with ourselves and so turn the situation back into a contest of wills, which is mimetic rivalry. This is a case where it is important that the right hand not know what the left hand is doing.

Proceed to The Process of Forgiveness (3)

The importance of non-retaliation is that it gives us a tangible means of letting go that tells us if and when we really have let go of the hurt. If we slug the person back or sincerely wish we had, we have not let go. If we refrain from slugging the person back and don’t wish we had done it, we have let go. Simple as that.

Non-retaliation has been extolled by some, most notably by Walter Wink, as a strategy for resistance to the Empire. Wink suggests, for example, that turning the other cheek puts the aggressor in the awkward position of having to strike back-handedly. This take is attractive to many and it may be right, but insofar as turning the other cheek is intended as a strategy to muck up bullying behavior, it is not forgiveness. On the other hand, insofar as imperial politics requires reciprocal violence, any act that opens the way to forgiveness is an act of resistance to any Empire.

The most important thing to realize about letting go is that we are not cutting the connection between us and those who injure us. Trying to do that is futile. Our mirror neurons see to that. What letting go does is loosen what had been a tight, strangling connection to the other. Letting go gives each of us room to maneuver and to change the situation. We can’t, of course, take responsibility for what the other person does with the room this loosening gives. We can only take responsibility for ourselves. That is all we can handle anyway. More important, non-retaliation provides room for God to enter into the broken relationship and fix it.

After letting go of the hurt, the next step is to make sure we don’t grab it back and that we leave ourselves open to the mystery of forgiveness itself.

Binding and Loosing

AndrewPreaching1How many of us listen to Jesus’ words about correcting fellow members of the church and think they are about punishing people and casting them out? (Mt. 18:15-20) Checking ourselves for such reactions is a good way of taking note how instinctive punishing and excluding are to us and how less instinctive is forgiving and including and welcoming others. It is precisely this instinct to punish that makes it difficult to have ears to hear what Jesus is saying and hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

If we take a step back and ask ourselves what our instinctive reaction to being wronged is, we find that the first instinct is to seek revenge. If somebody hits you, hit him back. Simple. But Jesus tells us to go to the person and tell that person what they have done to us. This action puts a serious break on the revenge mechanism and moves in the opposite direction. After all, going to the person peacefully and honestly is the first step towards reconciliation, which is the last thing a person bent on revenge wants. If speaking one to one does not resolve the matter, then the circle widens to two or three and then the whole assembly. What is easily overlooked in this process as described here is that it presupposes that each of us is expected to take responsibility for the community and for each other. This is why we should warn a person who is acting destructively, but it is also why we should be open for others to approach each of us to correct us. Of course, anyone who has ever corrected another person knows that this can result in learning about our own shortcomings. One of our favorite slogans at St. Gregory’s Abbey is” “You do it too.”

Treating an unrepentant person like “a Gentile and a tax collector” sounds straightforward enough. We kick the person out and that is that. But that is not that. For one thing, this is not an act of vengeance, or at least it’s not supposed to be. It is an act of distancing, an act that, when used rightly, shows that the reproved person has distanced him or herself from the community. It is realistic in that some people make themselves impossible and a peaceful parting is necessary. But that is far from the end of that matter. Matthew himself was a tax collector. How was he treated? Jesus called him to follow him and be a disciple. We need to keep in mind the context. Immediately preceding this list of instructions for dealing with a delinquent person is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. All this suggests that the way to treat a Gentile or a tax collector is to try to bring them into the Christian community, which entails forgiveness.

Forgiveness? But we are told that those we loose on earth are loosed in heaven and those who are bound on earth are bound in Heaven. Sounds like we have the power to bind other people for all eternity and God’s hands are tied for as long as we want them to be. How much power is that? But not so fast. Why is it that we so easily assume we are being allowed to bind on earth when we are being encouraged to loose on earth? We need to note what follows immediately after this verse: Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive an offender and Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving debtor. If we have to forgive others as God forgives us, and that without limit, as Jesus’ saying we have to forgive seventy-seven times means, then we are indeed being encouraged to loose on earth and are being warned that if we do not loose on earth, we are bound to our resentment for what others have done to us (or we think they have done to us) and we will be so bound even in Heaven since God’s hands are indeed tied for as long as we refuse to let God untie us.

See also: The Sin against the Holy Spirit

The Process of Forgiveness (1): Owning the Hurt

purpleFlower1When I suggest that forgiveness is a process, the implication is that there are several steps to the process and we take them one at a time. It isn’t as simple as that. There are steps that can be articulated to give us a sense of direction for the process, but they are all so closely interrelated that it is more like disentangling a tangle of yarn than a matter of climbing steps on a ladder or a staircase. The image of the tangled yarn, something that often feels more like a tangled rope around our necks, suggests that the process has a lot to do with loosening something that is tight, which is precisely what the Greek word aphesis, a word often translated as forgiveness, is about. Letting go that which has tied us up simply takes time.

Desmond and Mpho Tutu have written a valuable book called The Book of Forgiving that helps us understand the process of forgiveness. In my own reflections I don’t come up with precisely the same list, but it comes close and the four-step process in Tutu’s book gives us something to work with.

The first two steps listed by the Tutus are: 1) Telling the Story and 2) Naming the Hurt. These two steps are so closely related that they feel like one step to me, albeit a more complex step. I am inclined to call this first step: own the hurt. This step seems simple but it can be difficult emotionally because it means facing the pain and that is—well, very painful. It is, however, pain that is necessary for healing just as an infection has to be opened before it can be healed. Community is important as one almost always needs at least one sympathetic listener and often there is need for many more than that. The importance of telling the story is that when another has invaded us by injuring us, we are suffering on the terms of the perpetrator. The first step of suffering on our own terms is to tell the story, to face the truth of what has happened to us. We cannot forgive what we have not seen and faced for ourselves. As long as the truth of injury is repressed, it holds us in its grip. Over the years I have listened to people tell their stories, some of them about childhood sexual abuse. This listening makes it clear that the very act of telling the story changes the story from what it was before. Something moves within us when we tell our stories.

The many psalms of lament model for us this step of owning the hurt by telling the story. There is a communal element to these psalms as they seem to have had cultic use in Israel, and in fact are sometimes collective laments, and they have a long history of use in public worship in Christianity. These verses from Psalm 31 are one sample among many that could be picked out from the Psalter:

I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror[c] to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
                      I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
                   For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life. (Ps, 31: 11-13)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that Bishop Tutu chaired is, to date, the most powerful instant of a communal telling of stories. Everybody who wished was allowed to tell the truth of the injuries they had received during Apartheid. Perpetrators were also invited to tell their stories and were granted amnesty for doing so. Telling the story also makes it clear that much more is at stake that the forgiveness by the victim. Those in South Africa who listened to the testimonials, from the bishop himself to those watching on their TVs, were challenged to forgive what had happened.

There is a danger in telling the story. Doing so does not automatically begin a healing process. It can do quite the opposite. Asking God to blot our abusers from the land of the living (Ps. 69:28) once we have told the story of waters rising up to our necks (Ps. 69:1) hardly moves us in the direction of forgiveness. Telling the story of victimization and listening to it can enrage us and lead us to seek revenge. Worship in Holy Week involves telling the story of Jesus’ sufferings that culminated on the cross. What these observances should do is deepen our compassion for the victim, leading to compassion for all victims. Instead, Jews learned over the centuries that it was dangerous to be walking about during Holy Week if there were Christians around.

This is why I include “own the hurt” as an integral part of this first step. It isn’t enough to tell the story; it is necessary to tell the story in a listening way. That is, we must listen to ourselves when we tell the story. The importance of at least one more person listening is that a good listener can help the teller listen more deeply to him or herself. The mimetic desire to hear the story between two or more people increases the listening that is happening. Since the abuse we have experienced is inscribed in our bodies, we need this deep listening to reach our guts so that the muscles tightened over what has happened can loosen. The act of loosening happens in our bodies before it happens in our heads and we can’t put our hearts into forgiving until our guts have done it. I have listened to enough people to have learned that there is a strong and clear distinction between those who listen to what they are saying and those who don’t. Those who listen well to themselves move towards healing. Those who do not listen to themselves remain stuck with their pain, trapped with no exit until they do learn to listen.

Such deep listening is owning the hurt. Owning the hurt does not make it hurt less and it certainly does not solve any problems, but it is the first step toward healing and forgiveness. Owning the hurt is the beginning of letting go, which is the second step. This shows us how closely related the steps are. We will look at this second step in the next post of this series.

Proceed to The Process of Forgiving (2)

The Sin Against the Holy Spirit

???????????????????????????????????????????The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant takes us to the heart of the question of forgiveness in Matthew’s Gospel. A dialogue between Jesus and Peter sets the stage and gives us a sense of direction for interpreting the parable. When Peter asks if he should forgive someone who offends him seven times, he seems to think he is putting a high ceiling on the matter. Forgiving somebody seven times seems an awful lot but Jesus breaks his bubble by saying that he has to forgive an offender seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven, in some manuscripts. Taking the higher number, one might think that counting up to 491 offenses legitimizes taking revenge after the magic number is passed, but that obviously misses the point. Jesus’ reply is an allusion to Lamech’s savage song where he boasts that if Cain is avenged seven times, then he is avenged seventy-seven times. The working of revenge cycles indicates that the revenge is infinite. Jesus’ counters the infinite revenge cycle by making forgiveness just as infinite.

Then Jesus launches into the parable of the unforgiving debtor. After being forgiven outright a large sum of money owed to the master, the forgiven servant refuses to forgive a much smaller sum by a fellow servant. Having just been forgiven a large debt, the servant hardly has the excuse of being desperate for money. The point of the parable is clear enough: if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven. But there is a small hitch here. The “forgiving” master suddenly becomes unforgiving. The forgiving Father in Heaven is not forgiving either, at least for this offense. Not forgiving is the unforgivable sin.

Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus says that every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven with the exception of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” which is the one thing that cannot be forgiven (Mt. 12:31). It seems odd that God’s hands should ever be tied in any circumstances in forgiving anybody for anything, so what gives? Saying that unforgiving people cannot be forgiven suggests that withholding forgiveness would be the sin of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ final discourse, he promises that when he leaves, he will send the Advocate to guide them in all truth. An Advocate is a lawyer for the defense. So the Advocate Jesus sends is the defender of all who are accused. The Advocate “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn. 16:8). Of course, the world runs by the fuel of accusation and revenge. If we bring Jesus’ words about the Advocate to his words in Matthew, it appears that sinning against the Holy Spirit by not forgiving others cuts us off from our Advocate who would plead our case.

In the parable, the unforgiving servant is handed over to be tortured until he has paid his entire debt. The servant had been invited to a new way of living based on forgiveness and rejected it. Living without forgiveness, which is tantamount to living by vengeance, is torture. It isn’t God who is unforgiving; it is the servant. If refusing the way of forgiveness is the sin against the Holy Spirit, then we do not need to worry about what thing we might do wrong that brings us to eternal damnation. Forgiveness is a process and so is vengeance. Clinging to vengeance in the face of God’s forgiveness tortures us with our vengeance for as long as we are imprisoned in it. All the while, the Advocate continues to defend us, hoping that we will allow the Advocate to prove us wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. Ultimately, Jesus and the Heavenly Father forgive us our unforgiveness in the hope that we will accept this free gift. Likewise, St. Paul says that Christ is at the right hand of God interceding for us (Rom 8:34). Just ahead of the parable, Jesus has told the Parable of the Lost Sheep for whose sake the shepherd left the ninety-nine to seek out the lost. Surely God searches out each one of who tortured by vengeasnce. Then, immediately before this the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus has instructed his disciples about seeking reconciliation and treating delinquent members like Gentiles and tax collectors. Judging by the parable that follows that we have examined, the way to treat Gentiles and tax collectors and all other people is to forgive them. Truly accepting this free gift of forgiveness entails passing this free gift on to others. We are all thrown into the same world together. The question is whether we will be tied up in vengeance or bound by forgiveness.

Difficulties in Forgiving: Joseph and his Brothers

Joseph_and_His_Brethren_Welcomed_by_PharaohThe story of Jacob’s return to Esau illustrates the difficulty of believing in, let alone accepting forgiveness. (See Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau) The story of Joseph and his brothers takes us primarily through the difficulties of forgiving.

As a youth, Joseph is a victim of collective violence. As is often the case with such victims, Joseph has been singled out both for adulation (by his father) and opprobrium (by his brothers). In contrast to the origin of collective violence as envisioned by René Girard there are a couple of cracks in the unanimity to kill the victim. Both Reuben and Judah differ and try to save Joseph but their plans are foiled. If either had had the courage to stand up to the other brothers, each would have had an instant ally and together they would likely have turned the tide and saved Joseph from his near-death in the pit.

Joseph’s serene words that it was God, not his brothers, who had sent him to Egypt and that although they had meant him harm, God had used it for good, taken by themselves, suggest an easy forgiveness on the part of Joseph, but the story is—well—another story.

While Esau welcomed Jacob back with open arms in spite of the harm Jacob had done him, Joseph does no such thing. Like Esau, Joseph has done very well in spite of his brothers’ intent to hurt him, in fact he benefitted in the end from what they had done to him, but Joseph holds back and remembers his youthful dream where his brothers bowed to him. Joseph goes on to play an elaborate series of mind games that amount to torture. It is possible that Joseph’s harsh way of speaking to his brothers was an act, the beginning of an educative process, but I can’t help but feel that the anger was very real and at least a little raw. As a test to see if they can treat the youngest, Benjamin, better than they treated him, it was hardly necessary to lock Simeon in prison for a year and threaten his own family with starvation if they didn’t obey all of the demands that could make little sense to them. Joseph’s father Jacob also suffers because of this treatment, which may also be intentional. In my pastoral experience, I have found that one who was a favored child carries a heavy burden from this favoritism rather than finding it a blessing. Sadly, while Jacob never showed any repentance for the way he treated Esau, Joseph’s brothers have such a guilty conscience that they think that their suffering at the hands of Egypt’s steward is a just punishment for what they had done to Joseph.

As things turn out, it is Judah, not Joseph, who triggers Joseph’s forgiveness by offering himself as a slave to spare Benjamin that fate. Since Judah had wanted to save Joseph in the first place, he is not a reconstructed persecutor but a man showing a compassionate heart for a younger brother that he has always had. The difference is that while Judah was cowardly before, he is brave this time around and his bravery is awarded. Joseph is won over and he forgives his brothers, but not until he has worked through tons of anger on his own part. It was his intention to put his brothers to the test, but in a sense he himself was put to the test by Judah. Fortunately, Joseph had the grace to give up his control of the situation which he had lost anyway and cry on the necks of his brothers.

Following carefully in our own hearts Joseph’s steps to forgiveness: his anger, his pride, his manipulations, and but also his crucial willingness to accept help from a brother when he needed it, can be a way for us to track our own difficulties of forgiving the hurts we have received in life and move through them to an awareness that although certain people intended us harm, God has used these harmful actions for good.

For more on the difficulties of forgiveness see A Miserable Gospel.