A Meditation on Forgiveness

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Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven . . . .–Luke 6:37

This month, there’s been a story in the news that is fascinating to me as a grassroots theologian.  It involves Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia. Many of you know the basic outline of the story: how it was revealed that Northam’s medical school yearbook page contained a photo of one person wearing blackface beside another person wearing a KKK hood, how Northam first admitted he was the person wearing blackface, then said he was not the person in the photo, though he remembered another occasion in the past where he had engaged in similar behavior.Like other high-profile scandals in recent memory, this one provokes questions about the extent to which adults should be held accountable for sins of their youth. When is forgiveness appropriate? Who has the right to forgive another person for offenses? What does this forgiveness look like?This week, Governor Northam’s story was on my mind as I read and reread the gospel reading. This text from the sixth chapter of Luke’s gospel is part of a larger section commonly known as the “Sermon on the Plain.” It has many similarities to a sermon recorded in Matthew that we know as the “Sermon the Mount.”  It’s possible that Luke and Matthew have recorded the same sermon from their different perspectives and retold it for different audiences. It’s just as possible that Jesus preached the same themes many times, and that Luke and Matthew are recording collective memories of multiple sermons. Regardless, it’s clear that the voice each sermon records belongs uniquely to Jesus. The message he preached was nuanced for each audience, but at its core proclaimed essentially the same truth.As others before me have pointed out, most of us can follow Jesus down the path he leads, boldly and confidently, part of the way. But then the path becomes more difficult, and our confidence turns to concern.  There is what we might call the “reasonable” part of the path, and the “radical” part of the path.[1]The reasonable part, the part that echoes the philosophies of many great thinkers in nearly all major world religions, the part that our ears may focus on at first casual hearing, is what we often describe with the label “The Golden Rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Similarly, the Greek philosopher Thales advised “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.” Confucius said, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” Our local Goshen chapter of the Rotary Club, of which I was a member for ten years, regularly recites a four-way test. Standing at attention, its members say, “Is it the truth?” “Is it fair to all concerned?” “Will it build goodwill and better friendships?” “Will it be beneficial to all concerned?” Most Rotarians probably would have no objection to adding the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  It seems like a perfectly reasonable way to live and work in community. If we were to cut and paste pieces out of the Bible to suit ourselves, then this single verse would present no problem.The problem is that this thought appears as part of a larger context in which Jesus preached some rather unique and radical words.

  • Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.
  • Bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you.
  • If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.
  • From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
  • If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
  • Lend, expecting nothing in return.

There are several bankers in the Rotary Club; this single five-word prescription would destroy their business model. From the perspective of a business professional, Jesus’ message seems too radical for a capitalist economy. From the perspective of someone whose work keeps the public safe, it may seem dangerously misguided.Bible scholars and theologians have tried a number of approaches to help us understand and appreciate Jesus’ radical teaching.  Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a famous book appreciated by many political figures, entitled Moral Man, Immoral Society.  Niebuhr contended that nations and other large social groupings always work for self-interest, that Jesus’ words make more sense in the realm of individual ethics. The individual banker may forgive a personal debt and be a hero; but arbitrarily forgiveness of a debt owed to an institution would make him or her a villain. Barbara Lundblad thinks more deeply about the power dynamics between oppressors and the oppressed. She says, “Jesus is not telling people to remain victims, but to find new ways of resisting evil …. This is the ethic that moved Martin Luther King, Jr., to kneel down with many brothers and sisters before water hoses and snarling police dogs. Many people thought he was crazy…. But this was something (the oppressors) hadn’t seen before … victims who refused to fight back with violence … and reshaped the battle completely.”[2]Explanations like those of Niebuhr and Lundblad don’t make Jesus’ radical ethic any easier to practice.  But they do help us appreciate its wisdom and potential power for transforming the world.I’ve read through the Bible many times, a dozen times by age 30, when I stopped trying to count. That doesn’t make me any less of a sinner in need of grace, but it does help me to appreciate some persistent themes in scripture: mind-numbing cycles of sin and judgment, hurt and revenge. It’s against that backdrop that Jesus’ radical message can be better appreciated.When you listen to our nation’s political news coverage long enough, I think you observe similar themes of sin and judgment, hurt and revenge. The cycle never seems to end. In such a context, the alternative path of forgiveness can make more sense.  Former Democratic Congressman Jim Moran, writing for USA Today, says, “These public shamings, where there is a frenzied rush to chew up and spit out the targets of our righteous indignation, can too often serve to push us into our respective corners, or ideological comfort zones, and thus further exacerbate the tribalism that is tearing our society apart.”[3]Dean Obeidallah, writing for CNN, says, “As a nation … I think we should carefully consider the most productive response in situations like this. We should be open to the power of legitimate transformation and redemption …. We should applaud those who sincerely change in the hopes it will inspire others to follow suit …. Of course, words of contrition should also be backed up by actions.”[4]On the one hand, I’m not in a position to forgive Governor Northam because I am neither his victim nor his constituent. Forgiveness can’t be granted without participation of those who have been harmed. On the other hand, when I hear that African-American voters in Virginia forgive him because of his contrition, his record of public service, his desire to grow morally and act ethically, I think such forgiveness is in keeping with the message and example of Jesus.Another story about forgiveness was told this month by Jeff Pegues of CBS News about a man named Matthew Charles.  In 1987, Matthew left the military.  He says he became a lawless person, turned to drugs, and in 1996 was sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine.  During the next 20 years, his life was transformed. In 2016, he was released early, started over in Nashville, worked for a food pantry. Then, an appeals court reversed his early release, and ordered him back to prison. Through the efforts of groups like “Prison Fellowship,” the “First Step Act” was passed by Congress, with a new focus on rehabilitation and reduction of sentences for non-violent offenders.  Obviously, it took the efforts of many people to bring about the possibility of a new life for Matthew Charles. But he chose to focus his thanks on the president who signed the legislation, who invited him to the White House, who gave him an honored place at the State of the Union address. Matthew said, “I’m very honored and grateful that he signed the First Step Act. So have nothing but respect and thankfulness for that.”[5]The interview with Matthew Charles was fascinating. One reason I think I listened to it so carefully was that he felt such warmth toward a public figure whose words and deeds I often find morally repugnant. I suspect that Matthew Charles may not appreciate everything the president says or does, but he was grateful anyway. And I thought that if Matthew Charles can feel that way, after all he has been through, imagine what might happen, if each of us found ways to practice Jesus’ radical ethic. Practicing forgiveness could end cycles of revenge. It could heal old wounds, particularly the wounds we carry around with us in our hearts.Such forgiveness wouldn’t necessarily be easy; in fact, it might be very difficult to do.  In the words of the Study Catechism, which we will read in a few moments, “I cannot love my enemies, I cannot pray for those who persecute me, I cannot even be ready to forgive those who have really hurt me, without the grace that comes from above” … “Yet I am promised that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Thanks be to God!NOTES            [1] Barbara Lundblad suggests this distinction in her sermon “Simple, Yet Not So Simple,” 18 Feb. 2001, http://day1.org/642-simple_yet_not_so_simple, accessed 15 Feb. 2019.            [2] Barbara Lundblad, “Simple, Yet Not So Simple,” 18 Feb. 2001, http://day1.org/642-simple_yet_not_so_simple, accessed 15 Feb. 2019.            [3] Jim Moran, “Why Gov. Ralph Northam should not resign: Former Virginia congressman,” USA Today, 4 Feb. 2019.            [4] Dean Obeidallah, CNN.com, https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/03opinions/northam-should-be-allowed-to-evolve-obeidalla/index.html            [5] Jeff Pegues, “Man freed from prison after Trump signed criminal justice bill to attend State of the Union,” 5 Feb. 2019, CBSNews.com.