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On Forgiveness

I had an email exchange with a friend about forgiveness. My friend vaguely referred to someone with whom he had had conflict. My friend "turned that person over to God" and let go of the conflict. My friend accepted the other person, stopped trying to change them, and then tried to avoid all interaction with them. My friend asked, "Is that forgiveness?"

There's a saying floating around in our culture: "Forgive and forget." I didn't bother to research its origin. When we forgive someone for something they did to us, what does that mean? If the state forgives (by action of a court of law), then an offender no longer owes any punitive debt, whether a fine or prison time. But expunging the record is a different thing. If the record is expunged, then the state has no memory of the offender ever having done anything. There is no place to look up the fact that the debt is zero; the debt doesn't exist to begin with. Forgive is the pardon; forget is the expungement. Pardon does not necessarily require expungement.

So how does that impact our practice of forgiveness? It means we can forgive without having to forget. My friend may have forgiven the other person, but did not forget. The offender established a pattern of not changing, and my friend learned that this person would not change. Our culture has another saying: "Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." The remedy to "shame on me," in this case, is memory. Remember that this offender acted unreliably last time so that you are vigilant this time, so that you are on guard to prevent being duped this time.

I think forgiving (and separately, forgetting) is also affected by the power dynamics of your relationship. If you are a shop owner, and an employee is caught stealing, then you are the one in the power position in the relationship. If you know something of the hard life that employee is leading, you might forgive them and be on guard for next time. You might or might not let them know that you are aware of the theft. Letting them know that they were caught and forgiven might make them grateful. Not letting them know might save them embarrassment and give them a chance to do right on their own. You might forgive them personally, but fire them anyway.

What is the point of these various options? One point is that you are navigating the nuances of the particular situation in order to find the best for both the offender and your shop. Another possible point is to emphasize the relationship. This might involve forgiving, letting them know, getting involved in their life, becoming their friend, supporting them as they go through difficult times so that they don't have to steal. It can be a lot of work, and forgiveness, though difficult, may be the easiest part of it. Our hope as Christians is that the relationship is the most rewarding part of it as well as the hardest work.

What about the other way? What if the offender is the person in the power position? As an example, think about a case of sexual harassment. A woman works for a boss who creates a hostile work environment. Does she forgive him? This might be very difficult. Does she forget? In this case (actually in both cases), justice also comes into play. If the woman forgives, that might be because of the strength of her character, but if she forgets, then justice cannot be pursued. Can she forgive, but still report him to the human resources department? Can she forgive him personally, but still press charges to prevent others from being injured? This also is an issue at a societal level, not just an individual level: think about the post-Apartheid South African "Truth Commissions."

After separating "forgive" from "forget," and acknowledging the role of power dynamics (both ways), and including the need for justice, the last issue I'll bring up is the nature of the ongoing relationship. Say you've decided to forgive, to remember, to either prosecute or drop the issue for justice (personal relationship justice or societal justice). Now you have one last decision: do you stay in relationship with the offender or do you cut off relationship with the offender? My friend, in the situation we were talking about, chose cutoff. Like I said, it takes a lot of work to continue a relationship, especially when you keep getting re-injured. Victims of domestic violence might forgive, but should NOT forget, and for the sake of justice should prosecute the issue, and for the sake of their own safety should NOT stay in relationship. Even when there's non-physical injury, emotional injury and trauma should be considered.

What choices does God make? In Leviticus, the priest makes "atonement" for particular people who bring sacrifices for that purpose. It turns out the word "atonement" in Hebrew is related to the word "cover" used in Genesis to describe Noah covering the ark with pitch. Our sins are "covered over" so that we can stand in the presence of our Holy God. Luther picks up the theme in the Reformation, saying that our sins are covered as with a cloak, but they are not forgotten; we are simultaneously justified by God's legal fiat, and at the same time still sinners.

The occasion for the email exchange with my friend was his comment on a Richard Rohr devotional email. Rohr says,

Forgiveness doesn’t nullify or eliminate offensive actions. It acknowledges and radically names and exposes that sin, evil, and fault did indeed happen—and then lets go of it! Forgiveness does not, and cannot, undo it. It can’t. Sin and evil happened. God does not undo the sins of humans or of history, but from an infinite Source, forgives them.

God chooses to forgive, but the offense, and the consequences of the offense remain. I am forgiven, but where my sin caused harm to others, that harm remains. God loves me and forgives me, but God also loves the person whom I hurt. God holds onto justice, but also offers grace. When the people of Nineveh repented in response to Jonah's proclamation, God also repented of the destruction planned for them.

Where is God in the power dynamic? For us in the Reformed theological tradition, it's inconceivable to think of God as being anything but entirely in control of the universe that God created. In that regard, we want to say that God has ALL the power. But look at this another way. God became flesh in the human Jesus Christ. When tempted in the desert (in Luke), Jesus rejected the power of self-sufficiency, the power of authority over kingdoms, and the power of allowing his special relationship with God to give him divine privilege and protection. We like to think that, having rejected all that power, Jesus lived a sinless life, and we'd be right about that, but Jesus also died a victim. Having given up all that power, Jesus took on the role in the power dynamic of solidarity with the powerless. From that position, while hanging on the cross, he said, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do," and forgave the repentant criminal who was crucified with him.

God also chooses to stay in relationship with us. The people of Judah went into exile in Babylon, but they found that God was still their God even in a foreign land. God returned them to their home and restored them to their right relationship as God's people. Even Jonah knew that God was a gracious God, abounding in steadfast love; that means always loving and always in relationship. As people were taunting him on the cross, Jesus took the position of solidarity with them when he prayed for their forgiveness. When he was raised from the dead, he sought out his companions and showed that he was still in relationship with them. In Matthew he said "Lo, I am with you always." In John, he gives the Holy Spirit to walk alongside us.

What is forgiveness? Pardon for sin, but not undoing the sin. How does God do forgiveness? God finds a way to accomplish justice, love the victim, forgive the offender, and stay in loving relationship with all of us always.

--Chas

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