A Theology of Forgiveness

Luke 17:1-4
August 19, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

This past week, the news was once again full of reports about sexual abuse, about powerful men using their positions to force unwanted intimacy upon others, but this time the perpetrators of the abuse were not politicians or rich Hollywood producers; they were priests, and the people protecting them were bishops and archbishops, leaders in the church who claim to have given their lives to serving Christ.  The stories of the abuse perpetrated by these priests were horrific, disturbing, and especially heart rending because nearly all of their victims were children.  For most Catholics, it was not just the sins of the priests that wrenched their hearts but the silence of the Church that aided the mens’ abuse.  Instead of naming the abusers’ offenses, instead of removing them from leadership, and seeking restitution for their victims, the church hierarchy quietly shuffled the deck and moved the offending priests to new locations where parishioners would not have heard the whispers and rumors of the kind of man their beloved pastor truly was.

But it wasn’t just the Catholic church that was rocked by sexual allegations this week: at the same time the Pittsburgh press was releasing the names of hundreds of priests involved in sexual abuse, the Chicago press reported that Willow Creek Church, the 25,000 member mega church which is the rock star of churches in the evangelical community, had quietly paid over $3 million in the past year to settle lawsuits brought by the families of two special needs boys who had been abused by their youth pastor.  This report came hard on the heels of the news of resignation of the church’s pastor and founder, Bill Hybels after accusations unwanted sexual advances toward women on his staff and in his church.  Like the Catholic church, Willow Creek’s initial impulse had been to protect the abusers, cope with the charges quietly, and even belittle the claims of the victims and as the extent of the church leaders’ culpability has come to light, members of the Willow Church have grappled with their disbelief and heart sickness at the behavior of people they believed to be servants of Christ.  Like many Catholics, some evangelicals have questioned their faith in the church, their faith in its leaders, and even some, their faith in God, ultimately leaving the church and rejecting Christianity as hypocritical and toxic to the soul. 

We think of sin as something between ourselves and God to be confessed in the privacy of prayer and ultimately affecting only our own personal relationship with our Savior but sin is always relational.  Sin is any act which damages our relationships whether it is to God, to our neighbor, or to our community at large, and so some sins are more grievous than others.  Like spreading stains, some sins don’t stop at the singular relationship between ourselves and one other person but can go on to affect that person’s other relationships as well.  If, for example, we tolerate bigotry against a person because of their skin color or their religion or their sexual orientation, we have not only damaged our relationship with that person but have contributed to a web of injustice that will go on to hurt people we will never personally encounter.  If we remain silent about unjust policies — if, for example, we accept the rejection at our borders of refugees whose lives and whose children’s lives are in physical danger, who have come here hoping to find safety where their children can grow up in peace — we not only hurt those we turn away but rob untold numbers of people of the hope they may have had for escape from the hell in which they live.  Likewise, when someone abuses another person emotionally, physically, or sexually, their victim is hurt not only by the abuser, but may find it difficult to relate in a healthy way to others in their own lives, people the abuser will never meet, will never know, yet who will ultimately be tainted as well by the results of that abuse and so the stain of the sin continues to spread ever outward.  And even if we do not commit the sin ourselves but refuse to name the injustices we see as wrong, remain silent before them, and ignore the hurt of the victims, we have participated in the sin because our silence damages relationships too; our quiet acceptance of injustice is a blow to the heart of its victims, and in the case of the church, a blow to the faith of fellow Christians.   

Jesus has particularly harsh words for these sorts of sins — the sins that refuse to remain our own personal failings but insidiously erode the faith of others.  He says, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”  And yet in the very next line, Jesus appears to soften his judgment by holding out the possibility of forgiveness.  

“If another disciple sins,” he says, “you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church could claim — has in fact in some instances claimed — that they were following the commands of Christ by offering the offending priests the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.  While their sins may have been great, Jesus calls us to a greatness of forgiveness, church authorities said, accepting the repentance of the sinner seven times seventy times if that is what is required.  So too, evangelical leaders have been known to counsel the victims of abuse to move quickly from the sin to forgiveness, accepting the apologies of their abusers and offering them the possibility of reconciliation because it is the “Christian thing to do.”  One church reportedly arranged for meetings between “repentant” Christian leaders and the children they had molested, telling the children to demonstrate their forgiveness by hugging the men who had abused them.  We may be aghast at the heartlessness of such actions but what would you say to their claim that they are just following the gospel command to forgive?  Christians of all types struggle to understand the relationship between sin and forgiveness, between the commands to pursue justice for the innocent and the equally pervasive commands of the gospel to be agents of reconciliation and peace.  There are people in our own pews — you may be one of them — who have themselves been in an abusive relationship whether sexual, physical, or emotional and who have grappled with the commands to forgive those who hurt them. 

In the #MeToo era, we as Christians must look at what we are teaching and ask the hard questions:  What does forgiveness mean in an abusive relationship?  How does forgiveness square with justice?  When is reconciliation desirable and when does talk of peace and reconciliation simply become a tool in the hands of the oppressor silencing those who might cause fractures in the community by their accusations?  As professing Christians, we are the face of Christ in the world, and so it is crucial that we make sure we are preaching an accurate gospel of forgiveness, that we ourselves understand the nature of the forgiveness and reconciliation Christ proclaims so that our words don’t continue to damage others but offers instead the possibility of genuine healing. 

I don’t have the answers to all of those questions but let me suggest some places to begin sorting this out.1  In fact, I suggest that you take out a pen and some paper and write some of this down to think about throughout the week ahead because this isn’t something that should be left at the doors of the church when you leave here today.  Your assignment this week is to figure out a theology of forgiveness that doesn’t invite abuse but offers real healing.  

So write this down:

1.  Forgiveness includes blame.  

We often think of forgiveness as a gentleness that refuses to blame others for wrongdoing, that says, “It’s OK.  It’s not your fault.  We all make mistakes.”  While it is true that we all make mistakes and that we are all a mix of good and bad, there are some actions which are more hurtful than others, or have the potential to spiral beyond the moment affecting the larger web of relationships and leaving scars that will not heal easily.  Forgiveness begins by assigning blame, by naming the wrong doing and proclaiming the culpability of the wrong doer.   We actually know this instinctively — Imagine you were standing on a street corner minding your own business when suddenly a child came barreling down the street, knocked you over, and fell, breaking his own arm in the process.  If his mother, upon seeing the scene, said to you, “Don’t worry, I forgive you,” what would be your reaction?  Wouldn’t you protest, “You forgive me?  It wasn’t my fault!”  If someone forgives us when we have not asked to be forgiven, we are upset because we know that forgiveness requires the assignment of blame.  In Luke 17, Jesus says, “Be on your guard and if someone sins, rebuke the offender.”  The first step in forgiveness then, as counterintuitive as it might seem, is to name the sin, assign blame, and accuse the wrong-doer of doing wrong.  The one who forgives can not be quietly acquiescent to injustice because they are hesitant to call someone wrong or cruel.  This is why President Trump’s statement after Charlottesville last year, that there are good people on both sides, was misguided.  He was actually right in saying that we are all a mixture of good and bad; but what people instinctively realized at that moment was that some wrongs are worse than others, some sins are more pervasive, more insidious, and more hurtful than others.  Forgiveness doesn’t require that we pretend that we are all equal in our failings and so nothing really matters but forgiveness actually requires that we acknowledge the unique harm that results from particular actions.  Forgiveness requires that first we assign blame and accountability to the one doing that harm.

2.  Forgiveness that forgets is not true forgiveness.

Just as forgiveness is not a gentleness that refuses to assign blame; so too forgiveness is not a quick acquiescence that promises to put the past aside and seek peace at the expense of true change.  If a man hits his wife and then brings her flowers the next day, he is asking her for what theologians have termed “cheap reconciliation.”  In essence, he is asking her to forget the past and pretend it didn’t happen; he is asking her to reconcile the relationship without requiring that anything in the relationship change.  Cheap reconciliation is the willingness to ignore past hurts, downplay injustice, and choose silence over confession in exchange for a preservation of the status quo whether it be the preservation of a relationship, of a social order, or of an institutional such as the Church.  The motto of cheap reconciliation is “Forgive and forget.”

If, however, one were really able to forget the past then forgiveness wouldn’t be required because there would be no memory of hurts to forgive.  Have you ever had a person say to you, “For years I have felt terrible about what I said to you that day, and I really hope you can forgive me,” and you didn’t even remember the incident?  Maybe you said, “Sure I forgive you,” but what were you forgiving?  A ghost of an echo of a lost memory?  I don’t know that you will get any stars in heaven for forgiving a hurt you don’t even remember.  Real forgiveness names the sin and the sinner, and names the pain that results.  Real forgiveness is accompanied by the searing memories of the suffering we have endured and the injustices perpetrated by that sin.  If the pain isn’t real, the forgiveness can’t be either.

3.  Forgiveness is not a feeling but an act of will.

To forgive is not to try to engender warm fussy feelings toward the person who has hurt you.  When church leaders asked children to accept the apologies of those who had molested them and hug them to show their forgiveness, they were not only ignoring the real hurt that had been done to those kids and seeking cheap reconciliation; they were also confusing warm feelings with forgiveness.  No one can manufacture kindly feelings toward someone who has hurt them but fortunately, forgiveness doesn’t require that you must suddenly want to hug your abuser, or that you want to go out for a beer with the bigot who trolled you on your Facebook page.  Forgiveness is an act of will.  Forgiveness is the choice to knowingly relinquish your right to do to the other as they have done to you.  

“You may hate me, but I relinquish my right to hate you back.  You may have oppressed me and hurt me but I relinquish my right to oppress you and hurt you back.  I will pursue justice but not vengeance, and I will seek a path that might lead ultimately to freedom for both of us.”

When we realize that forgiveness has little to do with what we feel, it makes it easier for us to remove ourselves from abusive situations.  When Jesus says, “Forgive someone seven times seventy times,” he wasn’t telling you to keep coming back to an abusive person giving them the opportunity to hurt you over and over again.  He was talking about continuing to refuse to return hate for hate and hurt for hurt, seven times seventy times if that is what is required, and frankly the best way to be able to do that often is to get out of the situation.  

4.  And all of these points adds up to the final one:  Forgiveness seeks change.

The whole purpose of forgiveness is to open the door to change.  If we believe the gospel promise that everyone is loved by God and everyone can be redeemed, then we also must keep open the possibility of redemption for even the worst of sinners.  This is the reason that Jesus preached forgiveness in the first place and the reason that Jesus called each of us to put forgiveness so squarely in the center of all we do.  The problem with the way we forgive is just that we jump to the hope for change too quickly skipping over all of the stuff I have talked about up to this point.  Change cannot come to someone who has sinned grievously unless first the sin is acknowledged and the sinner held responsible for the consequences of the sin.  Change cannot come if the suffering resulting from the sin is ignored, or if reconciliation is bought through the silence of those harmed.  And change cannot come if the abuser doesn’t admit the depth of the hurt the abuse has wrought.  All of those things must be part of the process of forgiveness if forgiveness is to have any true power to heal.  When, however, we are able to stand before the person who has caused such harm and say to them, “In light of all you have done to me, I know I have the right to hurt you as badly as you have hurt me, but I choose to relinquish that right and set you free from my heart.  I choose to refuse to hate you and hurt you as you have hated and hurt me,” then you open the door to the possibility that that person might recognize the true power of love, and they might one day walk through that door to be healed themselves.  

But if they choose not to walk through the door, if they choose to remain mired forever in their denial and hate, forgiveness will still bring change because you yourself will be freed.  No matter how much you have suffered or how badly you are hurt, with the help of Christ and the support of friends, you can bear your brokenness and learn to live in wholeness again, in joy and peace, but when the harm that has been done against you turns to hatred and a thirst for vengeance, that hatred will enslave you as surely as it corrupted the heart of your oppressor.  By forgiving — by knowing and willingly relinquishing your right to return hate with hate and hurt with hurt — you will be freed to love and live in the fullness with which God intended. 

Forgiveness has the potential to heal hearts, but the first heart that it will always heal will be your own.  


Footnote:

  1.  Although I researched this topic extensively, an article by Miroslav Volf, professor of Theology at Yale University, called “Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Justice: A Christian Contribution to a More Peaceful Social Environments” was most instructive and heavily influenced my conclusions.  You can read it in its entirety at http://www.livedtheology.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/20010208PPR.01.pdf