Forgiveness

Japanese print depicting rich man asking forgiveness of the monk Myoren

The Legend of Mt. Shigi suggests that it’s child’s play for Zen monk Myoren to forgive a rich but stingy farmer [when his miraculous flying rice bowl has brought him the farmer’s entire rice granary]

Thinking about forgiveness this morning – why? Because we practiced “Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive” at choir practice on Wednesday? Because of trying to finish The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible for book group? For whatever reason, the thought unfolded something like this:

Forgiveness – the act of forgiving another, the state of having forgiven another – benefits the forgiver more than it benefits the forgiven;
people do claim this;
holding on to grudges takes energy, rehearsing our injuries emphasizes those, and diverts us from whatever healing or wholeness is available;

BUT – it’s a lot easier to say this, mean this, and act on it when the injuries are small;
and there is something monstrous about putting all injuries on a level – treating the injury of many years of abuse at the hands of one’s parent as a child, for instance, as “an injury” like, for instance, not getting seated at the “close family table” at a relative’s wedding or something along those lines;
and there is something especially monstrous about counseling the victims of grave injury, of which I myself have no direct experience, to “forgive your debtors” – as if I’m in a position to give that instruction;
especially if I’m somehow counseling the person to go back into an unsafe situation;
I have a problem with oversimplifying forgiveness!;

although people do forgive others, have forgiven others, for terribly grave injuries – the murder of loved ones, for instance;
of course we are supposed to think of God forgiving us, for everything (“against you, you only, have I sinned;” the lyrics of our anthem in a couple of weeks include “what trivial debts are owed to us, how great our debt to you”);
but God is hardly damaged by anything we do, surely;
(even if we do God an “infinite” injustice in denying God obedience or love – which is a classical theological claim – that infinite injustice doesn’t seem to have any ultimate consequence for God, who remains everything God is, including blessed);
in other words, God’s forgiveness comes from a position of strength (tempted to say “infinite” strength);

same for Jesus, on the cross – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” – presumably, still, from a position of strength (assuming we take seriously Jesus’ reported pre-crucifixion testimony about his subsequent resurrection – in which case, he knows this is temporary, maybe roughly the equivalent of the needle stick when we get our blood drawn);

forgiveness from a position of strength is an entirely different matter from forgiveness from a position of victimization – forgiveness from a position of strength can be un-coerced and genuine, because it springs from a recognition that in the end the injury amounts to nothing.

This makes me think: that those people who forgive grave injuries have somehow gained a perspective that allows them to understand themselves as acting from a position of strength. Somehow they have come to see their injuries and the perpetrators of those injuries as small matters relative to … something else. They’ve already moved on from the experience of victimization in some substantial way. This, I think, squares with the fairly common experience of “forgiving one’s parents” – which the people who need to do it, and who do it, seem to do after they have grown up and healed in significant ways.

This also makes me think: to the extent that the Christian narrative underwrites people’s perception of ultimate strength (say, in the form of recovery, blessedness, new life, etc., which it can: “we are more than conquerors,” we will share in a resurrection like Christ’s, etc.), to that extent it can underwrite people’s non-oppressed forgiveness of grave injuries. So, faith in that narrative may make forgiveness possible in situations where it might not otherwise be possible.

I still think it is out of bounds to counsel people to forgive the unforgivable, as if we are allowed to discount the experience of others’ grave injuries as non-trivial, as if we who haven’t had to do the work are in any position to tell the people who do how long that work is allowed to take and how it has to turn out. But sharing hope for the healing and strength that makes forgiveness possible might not be inhumane.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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