Friday, July 10, 2015

What Do We Mean by Forgiveness?

In the wake of the killings at Emmanuel AME in Charleston, SC, I've had a number of conversations with people who were surprised/moved/confused/encouraged by the family members of the victims who publicly forgave the shooter just days after the tragedy. There has also been a lot of commentary in the media about their statements, with some people applauding the families and others chastising them because they believe such acts of violence or racism itself should never be forgiven. Others have made statements like "it's fine that they forgave him, but I would never forgive someone who did that."

Forgiveness is deeply tied to Christian theology. By my count, Jesus talks about forgiveness about 30 times in the Gospels. He includes forgiveness as a key part of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12), and tells his disciples to forgive others "seventy times seven" times (Matthew 18:22). He famously cries for forgiveness for those crucifying him from the cross (Luke 23:34) and we even say that the very point of Jesus' ministry and death is to forgive us from sin.

At the same time, forgiveness is often misunderstood by Christians and non-Christians alike and those misunderstandings can stand in the way of the healing and freedom that God means for forgiveness to bring. In light of Charleston, it may be helpful to define what forgiveness is and isn't.

Forgiveness is not forgetting.
We've all heard the phrase "forgive and forget." It's a nice sounding proverb, but it's poor theology. It's next to impossible for us to forget ways we've been hurt and that's usually good, because remembering past pain can help us avoid being hurt in the future. (I don't touch hot stoves because I did that once.) So while God promises to "forget" our sins (what that means exactly could be a whole column or book), that's an unrealistic standard for humans and tying the two together can lead people to think they can't forgive because they still think about the pain sometimes.

Forgiveness is not excusing the sin or crime.
This is a big one and deserves to be repeated: forgiving is not excusing the sin or crime. It's important because many people often equate forgiveness with letting someone off the hook. But no one in the courtroom in Charleston was suggesting that what Mr. Roof did didn't matter or wasn't awful and no one was suggesting he shouldn't face (severe) punishment from the legal system. The victims' families spoke eloquently about the pain and damage that was done to their lives that cannot be undone. I've tried to teach my kids (and myself) not to say "It's okay" when someone apologizes to them and instead say "I forgive you." That's because it's not "okay" to hurt someone. Sin and violence are not okay. They can be forgiven, but they should not be excused.

Forgiveness is not really even about the perpetrator.
People will sometimes say, She doesn't deserve forgiveness. or He didn't ask to be forgiven, so why should I? Often these people think that the only just response is to continue being angry or hating the other person until they've "suffered enough." Whether or not someone wants or deserves forgiveness is beside the point. A wise person once said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison hoping it will hurt someone else. Hate and anger are consuming powers and they can come to define and control us and if they do, we are in some way letting the object of our hate have control over us. This perspective assumes that forgiveness is a gift to be given to the perpetrator, but it's primarily a gift you give to yourself.

This is where we get to what I believe forgiveness actually is. The best definition I've found for forgiveness is making the decision to not let the pain you've experienced control your life anymore. Mr. Roof walked into that church hoping to spread hate and fear and chaos. When those victims' families forgave him, they were saying, You failed. You cannot make us hate. You cannot make me fear. You cannot destroy my life. Forgiveness is sometimes dismissed as a kind of weakness, but those families demonstrated that forgiveness is an act of strength and bravery.

It should also be pointed out, perhaps, that there is one more thing forgiveness is not. It is not easy. Often it takes time. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. So it's important to note that what happened in Charleston was extraordinary and powerful, but it should not be used as the expectation for all situations. To force someone to forgive before they are ready doesn't do any good. It can become a kind of victim blaming and compound the pain and alienation someone may be feeling. Forgiveness should empower a victim and therefore must be his own decision whenever he is ready to make it.

That said, when we do find the time and power to forgive, we release ourselves from a bondage that someone else put upon us. Rather than "giving in," forgiveness is an act of liberation, of new life. One might even say it's a kind of resurrection.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“And the baggage that we all carry around has this way of dragging you down.” -Bill Mallonee, “The Kidz on Drugz (or Life)”

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