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.

 

A Miserable Gospel

sideAltarsIcons1Victor Hugo had turned away from the Catholic Church because of its indifference to the poor when he wrote Les Miserables and the book was condemned by the Church when it was published. Yet the novel is deeply imbued with the Gospel and some Church figures are strong witnesses to it. Go figure. Better yet, go see the movie of the musical if you haven’t already.

Jean Valjean, rejected by all as an ex-con, is invited to eat and sleep in the bishop’s house, but still embittered and desperate, he runs off with a silver plate. When brought back by the police, the bishop says the plate was a gift and orders the police to release him. The bishop presents this act of mercy to JV as a challenge to make the most of his second chance at life. The self-sacrifices required of JV to live up to this challenge make it clear that the forgiven life is far from easy or soft. Meanwhile, the police officer Javert, deeply scandalized by the bishop’s forgiveness, makes a career of tracking down the criminal in the name of justice.

A successful factor owner under an assumed name, JV inadvertently fails to protect his employee Fantine from being driven out by her co-workers and corrupt foreman when it is discovered she is an unwed mother. To atone for this, he takes responsibility for Fantine’s daughter while Fantine is dying. This entails bargaining with the venal Thénardiers to take the girl Cosette away to a better life. With JV’s past exposed by Javert, JV and Cosette escape to a convent that gives them sanctuary.

During the 1832 uprising in Parish, two mimetic triangles form around the grownup Cosette when she and Marius, a rich young man turned student revolutionary, fall in love. JV fears losing his daughter and at first hopes the street violence will lead to the young man’s death. But JV quickly realized he must put his daughter’s interests first and he then sees in Marius the son he might have had.  More complex is the triangle of the two lovers with Eponine, oldest daughter of the Thenardiers. Having fallen in love with Marius only to be politely turned away, Eponine protects Cosette and JV from a police raid led by Javert and her father but encourages Marius to join his fellow students in the revolt with the hope she and Marius will be killed. When fatally wounded by a bullet intended for Marius, she repents and tells Marius where he can find Cosette. Renouncing mimetic rivalry is shown to be possible, but costly.

Meanwhile, Javert infiltrates the rebels, is exposed by the street urchin Gavroche (a castoff son of the Thenardiers), sentenced to be killed, then handed over to JV who has joined the rebels to save Marius if he can. With the chance to exact his revenge, JV frees Javert, doing for the self-righteous officer what the bishop had done for him so many years ago. When, after the tragic street battle, JV drags the wounded Marius through the sewers of Paris (a Christ-like descent into hell if there ever was one) Javert ambushes him but can’t bring himself to arrest the convict. Totally disoriented by the prodigal forgiveness offered him, the legalist representative of the law throws himself into the Seine, a tragic demonstration that forgiving love is a tough challenge.

The musical strengthens the Gospel theme considerably in comparison with the book. The streamlining of the convoluted plot of the book puts the law/grace and revenge/mercy dichotomies front and center. The vulnerability of women and children to personal (the Thenardiers) and institutionalized (Javert) violence is stressed through Fantine, Cosette, and Gauvrache. Javert sings a song that betrays his warped mirror-imaging of the Gospel: declaring JV to be “fallen from God/fallen from grace” he reveals himself as a man so fallen. Musically, the singing of JV, Marius, and Cosette (especially as a child) is very soft while Javert is loud and assertive and the Thénardiers boisterous. (Strength in weakness.)  In the finale, JV dies and is brought by Fantine and the good bishop to a heavenly barricade turned into a heavenly chorus of revolutionaries who sing, in a song filled with biblical allusions: “Somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you long to see?”

A miserable, offensive Gospel if there ever was one.