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.

 

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

Banished Messiah

crucifix1Banished Messiah: Violence and Nonviolence in Matthew’s Story of Jesus by Robert R. Beck is an intriguing and stimulating take on Matthew’s Gospel. He structures the book on the structure of the Banished –Prince-Returns-to-Claim-his-Throne story motif. He outlines this motif in animated movies such as The Lion King to make the outline clear before proceeding to Matthew with ongoing comparisons with other classics such as The Odyssey and Hamlet.

The first stage of the story motif is usurpation which Herod has done very well, although ultimately the usurper is the Roman Empire. The royal claim made through the genealogy strikes me as being as anti-imperial as Luke’s song of the angels the night Christ was born. The exiled prince then grows up in obscurity.

The second stage is the imposter. Beck discusses the ambiguous situation of an exiled prince. As with the case of Odysseus, validating the real McCoy from a Pretender is not easy. In this section Beck discusses the struggles with the Pharisees from a post-colonial perspective. The strife between them has to do with how to resist the Empire. The Pharisees tried to broaden recent techniques—making the whole people a priesthood following ritual purity. Jesus went back deeper in the Jewish tradition for the renewal. More important, the Pharisees were complicit with the Empire, as their having coins with Caesar inscribed demonstrated. Jesus’ resistance to the Empire was total, even to the point of not carrying any money issued by the Empire.

The third stage is the Mentor. John the Baptist fulfills this role. Beck discusses the tensions the mentor’s role often has. John the Baptist does seem to have oriented Jesus to his mission and he baptized him, but Jesus broke with John over the question of violence and judgment, preferring healing to divine vengeance. Athena urges Odysseus to kill the suitors and the ghost of Hamlet’s father complains that he is in a sort of purgatory until his death is avenged—a rather screwy view of Purgatory as Shakespeare surely realized.

The final stage is the return and reckoning. Normally this takes place in two stages: cleansing and revenge. Here is where Matthew breaks off from the story motif, defying our expectations. (Think of how many meek and mild literature professors berate Hamlet for not getting the job done!) The entry into Jerusalem is the return. In Matthew, Jesus immediately goes to the temple and cleanses it. This is a non-violent, symbolic act. In a real cleansing, a lot of blood would have been flowing. Instead of revenge, we get the arrest of Jesus who tells Peter to put the sword away and gives himself up to the soldiers although he could have called on ten thousand legions of angels.

Beck brings in Girard at the end but he misreads him on the crucial point, saying that Jesus was a helpless victim while Girard argues for Jesus’ intentionality here as does Beck. It is Jesus’ renunciation of revenge, breaking the revenge story motif that reveals the truth of God. The commission to the disciples at the end of the Gospel is anti-imperial, a commission to create an entirely new style of human community than the power-structure of Empire.

Proving Shylock Right—Or Wrong

ShylockThe first thing that usually pops into anybody’s mind when Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice comes up is the cardboard stereotyped Jew Shylock. After Auschwitz, we cannot slip into enjoying this caricature the way earlier audiences might have if so inclined. On the contrary, we are apt to dismiss the play now that we realize how lethal such stereotyping can be. The second thing about the play that usually comes to mind is Portia’s set of three boxes where it is not the gold or silver covers that lead to her riches, but the unattractive lead cover. Appearances can be misleading and so perhaps it will be worth looking for what is beneath the ugly stereotyping.

It’s hard to find any gold under the ugly exterior of Shylock’s behavior, but it is equally hard to find any gold under the apparently more attractive exterior of Antonio’s behavior. Antonio is noble in that he is willing to give surety to a loan for his friend Bassanio, thus accepting the risk, but the way he treats Shylock is shameful. In one respect, Shylock is offering to do good to an enemy, but in another, he is hoping that the interest-free loan will lead to Antonio’s downfall by the extraction of a pound of flesh. It is important to realize that both men are mimetic doubles, rivals in the quest for increasing wealth for the sake of wealth.

In Shylock’s famous speech, when he is taken to task for his vengeful terms, he insists he is exactly the same kind of man as any of his Gentile rivals:  “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Which is what would happen to Antonio if a pound of flesh is cut out of him. “If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” Shylock’s detractors are trying to distinguish themselves from Shylock because they are merciful, but mercy is conspicuously lacking in their treatment of Shylock.

Meanwhile, Bassanio is often thought to have proven himself wise by choosing the lead casket, which wins him the hand of Portia in marriage. The speech he makes before making the choice, however, shows that he is not wise by cunning and calculating in his own desire for wealth. “Thus ornament is but the guiled shore/To a most dangerous sea.” Bassanio is so used to disseminating that dissemination is what he expects of Portia. And he is right.

The famous trial scene features Portia’s famous praise of mercy: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” This is as golden a speech as any in Shakespeare. But—mercy is—again!—lacking in dealing with Shylock. By the end of the trial, he has lost his wealth, his livelihood and his religion. Portia’s words seem to echo Ecclesiasticus 35:20: “Mercy is seasonable in the time of affliction as clouds of rain in the time of drought.”  But her actions belie the beautiful words, thus proving Shylock right when he says that when wronged, Christians revenge—just like Shylock. Unfortunately, we have a golden casket with nothing rich inside. The words, however, really are golden and invite any of us who rejoice in Shylock’s downfall to open our hearts to accept this gift from heaven.

A Risen Life Full of Forgiveness and Love

crosswButterfliesHere is my favorite thought experiment: Imagine that everybody around you ganged up on you, leveled incredible accusations against you, and rained savage blows on your body. Your friends either joined in the persecution or slunk away, too afraid to defend you. Your attackers pressed on until they had put you to a most painful death. Imagine further that, miraculously, you found yourself alive three days later. Having already died, you could hardly die again. You have become invincible. What would you do to the people who had mistreated you? How would you approach your cowardly friends?

Perhaps this thought experiment can give us an inkling of how amazing it is that, when this very miracle happened to Jesus, he did not retaliate, but instead, invited everybody to a big whooping party that will never end. After rising from the dead, Jesus continued to do what he was doing before he was killed: gather God’s people in peace by peaceful means only. That is, after his Resurrection, Jesus practiced what he preached in the Sermon on the Mount: return evil with good, hatred with love. The fullness of Jesus ‘forgiving love can be as earth-shattering as an earthquake or as gentle as stepping through a wall.

If Jesus were dead and there was a body in the tomb for the women to anoint, chances are that Jesus’ disciples would either have remained in hiding or they would have reacted to the violent act of the crucifixion with violence. But in Luke the young men in white asked the women: “Why seek the living among the dead?” That is, God did not will the death of Jesus, God willed life for Jesus because that is what God wills for each one of us. As long as we stop at Jesus’ death, we also stop at the grief and anger and that leads to violence. If we move on to the life of Jesus, than there isn’t the same room for grief and anger because Jesus is alive and wants us to be alive in Him.

In short order, Peter passes on the same absence of revenge of Jesus’ persecutors and fullness of forgiving love for them when he tells the people in Jerusalem precisely what they had done, sticking to the bare facts and not adding irrelevant insults the way we usually do in such situations. When Peter’s listeners were “cut to the heart” and asked: “What should we do?” Peter extended the invitation that he and the disciples had received from the Risen Lord: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is a far cry from the response we get from most followers of a slain leader. Peter had heard the cock crow, repented and accepted Christ’s forgiveness and love. Peter was a weak human being like the rest of us. If Peter is like us, we can be like him.

See also Two Ways of Gathering and Violence and the Kingdom of God.