This has been a week of remembrance of the events of September 11, 2001. A friend of mine from my Positive Psychology course remembered her dad this week and her last phone conversation with him, shortly before he was killed in the Twin Towers attack. She was able to give thanks for him and all that he was to her; to “re-member” him, affirm her connection with him and the ways he is still a part of her. That is the very best kind of “re-membering.”
It has been said that we are a nation that “never forgets, never forgives.” (Walter Brueggemann, Journal for Preachers, Pent. 2014, p. 2) So how timely that today’s gospel reading from Matthew should be about Peter’s question about how many times we are to forgive and Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness.
The image on the top of one of the websites I turned to this week was of that familiar way of counting–4 vertical lines side by side and then one line drawn diagonally across them, each little clump a group of 5. “Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” One clump of 5 plus 2 more lines. “Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words, off the page, forever, over and over.
Peter had thought he was being pretty generous, offering to forgive an offender 7 times, but Jesus said, “Forget about seven. Forget about keeping count.” Really? “Ask a child to apologize,” someone has suggested, “to admit his or her wrong-doing, and you will discover the early limits of our empathy.” [Eric Barreto, workingpreacher.org, 9/14/14] This whole forgiveness business is hard work, for children and adults. “Being corrected is painful, asking for forgiveness requires humility, and granting forgiveness is challenging.” (Barreto, op cit.) And at what point do you have to say, “Enough!”? Does forgiving mean letting the abuse continue, allowing the serial killer back on the streets, the terrorist to try blowing that plane up again?
“Forgiveness,” writes Bruce Epperly, “…doesn’t mean forgoing justice or putting an end to the legal system. Crimes need to be addressed and serious criminals need to be taken off the streets. But, even the serious criminal is kindred: the culture that supports us economically and in terms of privilege may also have influenced her or his poor decision-making. There is no one completely innocent or guilty…” [Epperly, adventurouslectionary.org, 9/14/14]
“How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” It’s not about keeping score. It’s about staying open to the endless reservoir of grace, much bigger than our imagination or even our notions of justice, though imagination and justice are within that reservoir. “Do not despair,” St. Augustine said, “one of the thieves was saved.” He then observed, “Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.” [cited by Dan Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, 9/14/14] Just keep forgiving.
Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Forgiveness, we could say, is not an act but a habit. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
In the 1950’s 6 year-old Ruby Bridges was the only African-American child in an all-white school in New Orleans, LA. She single-handedly integrated that school. Ruby walked to and from school every day with 2 federal escorts in front of her and 2 behind her, “while an angry crowd of white adults heaped abuses on her little head,” as one woman describes it. “Child psychiatrist Robert Coles noticed her lips were moving as she walked, and asked her, in her home, what she was saying. She said she was praying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Her parents hoped, by giving her this prayer, she could shield her mind and heart, and walk unscathed through her daily hell.” “We are what we repeatedly do. Forgiveness is not an act but a habit.” [Nancy Rockwell] First we shape our habits, then our habits shape us. It takes about 30 days to shape a habit, positive psychology tells us. Give it a try.
“Russell Banks, in [his book] The Sweet Hereafter, has school-bus driver Dolores Driscoll confide to us how she waits everyday for the same three siblings, who are always late. Time and again she had chided them, but when nothing changed in them she changed herself, turning those extra minutes into a meditative time for sipping coffee and thinking about her life. And so she forgave them, and set herself free.” [Nancy Rockwell, the bite in the apple, 9/6/14]
Because, you see, that’s what forgiveness does. It’s not so much what it does to the offender, it’s what it does to us–it frees us. It frees us from the past, so that we can live spaciously into the future. “Forgiveness [writes David Lose]…is ultimately a decision about the past–the decision to accept both that you cannot change the past and also that the past does not have to hold you captive.” [inthemeantime, 9/7/14]
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is one of the most powerful examples of forgiveness. It named the truth of the many unspeakable wrongs committed mostly by white South Africans against black South Africans. They were not to be forgotten. But the incredible wisdom of this commission was its recognition that South Africa would have no future if it couldn’t move beyond its past.
Now retired, Bishop Tutu has written a book with his daughter Mpho on forgiving, and includes in it not only lessons about forgiving others but also about forgiving oneself, sometimes just as hard, if not harder, than forgiving others.
Learning from the past [the Tutus write] is not the same as being held hostage by what we have done [or by what someone else has done to us]. At some stage we must let go of the past and begin again. We have said repeatedly that no one is undeserving of forgiveness, and this includes you…I know it can still be difficult to offer ourselves the forgiveness we can so freely give to others. Perhaps we hold ourselves to a higher standard than the standard to which we hold other people. (If we think carefully, we recognize this double standard as a small piece of arrogance: I am a better person than he or she is, so I should behave better.) [cited by Anna macdonald Dobbs, ekklesiaproject.org, 9/10/14]
The servant in the parable Jesus told Peter about forgiveness also seemed to hold himself to a different standard than he held others. After being forgiven by the king for a debt equivalent to around 15 years of labor, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money, –a debt he could never repay–he turned around and “put the screws,” as Peterson puts it, on another slave who owed more like 100 days worth of labor. After being forgiven from a deep reservoir of grace, this servant goes back to the ledger, counting offenses. The harshness of his punishment at the end–being “tortured until he would pay his entire debt”–is more a description of the world created by such offense-counting and returning than it is a prescription for those who don’t forgive.
“Forgiveness is grounded in interdependence and holy relativity,” Bruce Epperly writes. (Ibid.) We must decide how we will be related to one another–tied up in knots, or connected by strands that stretch and weave–for we are connected. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” Jesus us taught us to pray. “Untangle the knots within so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to each other,” is how Neil Douglas-Kloz prefers to translate the Aramaic. Or “Detach the fetters of faults that bind us, like we let go the guilt of others.” We are all inter-related, interdependent. How do we make those connections life-giving instead of strangling and death-dealing?
So we pray not only for forgiveness but also for the ability to forgive, because sometimes it seems beyond our ability. The creeds and testimony of the truest parts of our tradition attest that forgiveness is the work of the Spirit. “In a society that ‘never forgets, never forgives,’ [writes Walter Brueuggemann] the work of the Spirit is to interrupt the cycles of hate and fear and vengeance and violence with forgiveness. The urgency of forgiveness–in families, in congregations, between haves and have-nots, among nations–is certain. It is the Spirit who breaks such cycles of deathliness. It is that Spirit who makes new ways possible. Forgiveness is hard, steady, demanding work.” [Brueggemann, op. cit.]
What more important work is there, than to be part of the Spirit’s work of making new, breaking the cycles of deathliness and violence, not simply by pronouncing forgiveness, but going deep into the places of alienation, woundedness, and delusion that feed those acts that offend and sometimes inflict so much pain.
Hear one final testimony of the power of forgiveness to set free, this from the mother of a yet another teen-age African-American boy named Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed by a middle-aged white man named Michael Dunn. Dunn was acquitted of the murder. After the verdict, Lucia McBath, the young boy’s mom, was interviewed, and the reporter marveled at her grace and generosity–
Don’t think that we aren’t angry. [Ms. McBath said] Don’t’ think that I’m not angry. Forgiving Michael Dunn doesn’t negate what I’m feeling and my anger. And I am allowed to feel that way. But more than that I have a responsibility to God to walk the path He’s laid. In spite of my anger, and my fear that we won’t get the verdict that we want, I am still called by the God I serve to walk this out.
In another article, this same journalist reported Jordan’s mom telling him–
I am praying for him [Dunn] and my church is praying for him. I forgave him a long time ago. I had to. It’s not just about Jordan. And I would not stand and wait for him to apologize. I don’t need his apology. I had forgiven him pretty much in the first 30 days. I just knew that was what I was supposed to do…I remember one of the first interviews we did…And after, I was walking past St. Patrick’s Cathedral with my friend Lisa and I said, ‘Lisa, I have to go in there.’ And I went in and I was just sobbing for 2 hours. And the Lord helped me forgive [Dunn] right there. In those 2 hours, I came out and felt like, ‘OK, I’m done.” [Anna Macdonald Dobs, op cit.]
We may not want to think of forgiveness as simply obeying the law of God, unless we trust God’s ways enough to know that living in that Way is ultimately the way to Life, and Joy, Freedom and Wholeness. So let us pray for those who have sinned against us, those who have offended or harmed us. Let us pray that we ourselves might be forgiven the ways we have offended or wronged others, even for the harm we have done to ourselves. Let us re-member. The web that connects us all is living and full of Light and Life. Don’t keep score. Just throw yourself into the game. Give thanks to the One whose reservoir of grace and mercy is deep and wide. May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark