Remembering, Yet Not Holding Against: Why Forgiveness is Not Forgetting (But Sorta Kinda Is)

You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. (Matthew 5:9 The Message) 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (George Santayana)

Before I say anything, let me just confess that everything I am about to say, I suck at. So, I say it from within the belly of the beast, so to say. 

You’re, no doubt, familiar with the phrase, “Forgive and forget.” It’s used by wellmeaning people to simply say, “Let’s not hold our grievances against each other, and move on.” It’s also one of those phrases that gets used by certain Christians as a misinterpretation of Psalm 103. “As far as the east is from the west, that’s how far the Lord has forgiven our sins! What that means, dear friend, is that if you’ve been forgiven, God no longer remembers the sin you committed.” I’m not denying the Lord’s grace here, but the same book that contains Psalm 103, also contains the scene in John where Jesus shows Thomas the scars in His hands, feet, and side. In other words, it’s a safe bet that Jesus does not have divine amnesia when he looks at his wrists, so that when he sees the scars that bare the evidence of what he did to redeem the world, he asks, “Where did those come from?!?!” It’s a much safer bet that Jesus, being all knowing, remembers even the most insignificant sins that he has forgiven. Instead of forgetting them, he is not holding them against us. 

WHAT’S THAT MEAN FOR US? 

Since I dare say that it is impossible for an all knowing God to forget, it’s equally impossible for us mere mortals to forget whatever was done (or not done) to us. Trying to forget is like asking your brain not to function as it was intended. Asking a wounded person to forget what was done is like asking a quadriplegic to forget their paralysis. But in a sense, it is easier to understand the physically wounded more than the emotionally or mentally wounded; however, all three are wounds nonetheless. And some wounds cannot be forgotten. In fact, I’ll go a step further, and say, some wounds need to remembered!!! 

And that can throw some people for a loop. Whatta ya mean remember? That’s not forgiveness! And that’s when it’s wise to remind such commentators that forgetting is not forgiving. And if forgetting is forgiving, then what does that say about the slogan “9/11…Never Forget!”? 

The hardest thing to grasp about forgiveness, is that it does not distinguish between the easy to forgive and the difficult. Regardless of the wound, forgiveness asks the same thing: Don’t hold the wound over the person’s head. To be sure, it does not deny the severity of the wound, it doesn’t make the wound suddenly moral or ethical, and it certainly doesn’t change what has happened. It is admitting that justice is not necessarily what we think it should be. From experience, I can tell you with certainty, if you are looking for a specific kind of justice, in a specific time frame, you will be looking for a very long time for something that may never come. And you may actually risk becoming the very person who wounded you. 

Hence why we must never forget. 

THE PARADOX OF REMEMBERING 

To give credit where it is due, everything I’m about to say comes from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. I’ve written about this before. Volf saw his country torn apart by a civil war rooted in religious superiority (My God is better than yours, so you deserve to die!) Words cannot describe the atrocities done during that time — in the name of God, no less. And he warns: Be careful that we do not make the oppressed into oppressers themselves, in the name of getting justice against their oppressors. 

Volf describes the paradox of forgiveness. It is both forgetting and remembering. We “forget” so that we no longer hold a person’s sins against them. But we also remember so that such sins do not happen again. For example, it can be said that a sex offender registry is actually an act of mercy for both the offender and the neighborhood. The ultimate goal is to say to both the neighborhood and the offender, “Remember what this person is capable of. Neighbors, be mindful. Offender, keep yourself in check.” Because forgiveness is also not a guarantee that the forgiven will not then do exactly what they’ve been forgiven of, again. Keeping one’s guard up until trust is earned is not being unforgiving, it’s merciful protection. 

Volf does not use the term “forget” in the same sense as those who would say, “Forgive and forget.” Instead, he is saying, “No, no. What they did actually happened, and is reprehensible. But you may not be the best person to pursue a justice that is also just. Hence why Christians, of all people, can only defer to God for perfect justice. It’s an act of divine mercy, and a trust in that divine mercy to say, “Vengence is thine!”

 (Just for the sake of argument, think about the last thing for which you demanded justice. What was the “crime” committed? And what was your desired solution? For me, the crime was a person driving too slow. And my desired solution was to see the car and its occupants blow up in a raging inferno. So I think it’s safe to say that I am not the best person to decide the fate of the one who has wronged me. And how many times have we seen that even the criminal justice system is incapable of a just justice?) 

It takes much more than a simple blog to get into the nitty gritty of this. Someone will always have a worse wound. There will always be the mystery of how to get there. (This is why I’m thankful for God’s mercy, and that his acceptance is not based on our record. Because, as I said before, I don’t do so well with this. And if he accepted me based on my ability to forgive, he wouldn’t!) 

I honestly cannot tell you how to get from Point A to Point Whatever when it comes to forgiveness. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a step by step process for forgiveness. It’s more like the concept of time in Doctor Who (it’s not linear, but squiggly!) But I can tell you that setting your sights on a specific justice, at a specific time is an absolutely fruitless endeavor. It won’t be enough justice. And it won’t be fast enough. To that end, forgiveness is all up to you, while trusting in God’s mercy. I’ve experienced this first hand. 

A few year ago, a pastor and his elders spiritually and mentally abused me. They attacked my wife and marriage, my reputation, and by the end of it all, my sanity and sense of reality. (Check out the term Gas Lighting.) To this day, they don’t think they did anything wrong, so they have not made any attempt at an apology. To this day, they think I am bitter and angry, and am holding a grudge. (One of them even asked a year later why I was having such a bad year — face, meet palm.) What I want to happen has not happened, and probably never will. So what am I supposed to do? I can sit around, and hope that today will be the day, and shake my fists at the heavens its delay (something I have done). Or I can release myself from the responsibility of getting justice. So I have forgiven them. But I will not forget, because I do not want to be their victim (nobody likes using that term, btw) again. “Forgetting”, yet remembering. 

LAST WORDS

I know how hard forgiveness is. I know the tedious redundancy of having to forgive the same person again, because the scars are all too eager to remind you of the damage done. And as I said way back at the beginning, I suck at it. 

But I have also seen way too many people seeking vengeance this year. I have seen way too much tit for tat retaliation. I have seen way too many people berate a person’s character simply because that person called a leader a “disrespectful” name. I have seen way too many people justify their retaliatory actions, because the offender is “stupid.” It’s not easy. But it is well worth the effort. If for no other reason than the health of your soul. Let’s be peacemakers, instead of retaliators. 

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Embracing Our Enemies

“You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”             Matthew 5:9 (The Message)

“As the morning casts off the darkness, Lord, help us to cast aside any feelings of ill will we might harbor against those who have hurt us. Soften our hearts to work toward their conversion and ours. Amen.”                                             (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)

Making Peace is Frickin Hard!

Peacemaking is not the easiest of tasks. It involves taking two sides (maybe more) who are estranged, and making it so reconciliation can take place. It is not, as Miroslov Volf points out in his book Exclusion and Embrace, merely moving the oppressed out from under their oppressor, and exacting justice on those oppressors. This, he warns, very often leads to the oppressed becoming oppressors themselves, which means that oppression has been allowed to continue, just in a different name. Such “peacemaking” is better understood as retaliation. “They did it to us, so we will do it to them.” This is also called warfare.

Volf, being Croatian, does not write about reconciliation and peacemaking from inside a bubble, as I would. I can point to history books, and documentaries, all while living comfortably in my little rural town in North Carolina. Volf saw his country torn apart by civil war. He saw two sides gather in the name of God, and pillage, rape, and kill each other with genocidal viger. The things I saw on tv as a teenager, happened in his backyard, so to speak. So whenever he speaks about reconciling enemies, he doesn’t mean two sides that just don’t get along,  he means enemies.

Enemies Are Relative

Of course, if we’re talking about peacemaking and embracing our enemies, it’s helpful to know who our enemies are. I’d also venture that it’s helpful to know if they are an actual enemy, or nothing more than a perceived enemy. For instance, in my younger, more brash days, any Christian who didn’t share my specific beliefs — within an undefined perameter, mind you — I considered a heretic! (Sorry, Rob Bell.) To borrow from On Distant Shores by Five Iron Frenzy, “And off of the blocks, I was headstrong and proud. At the front of the line of the card carrying high brows. With both eyes fastened tight, yet unscarred from the fight. Running at full tilt, my sword pulled from its hilt…Casting first stones, killing my own.”

But  if experience is any kind of teacher, I’ve come to find that “enemy” is a relative term. (Once again, if that enemy is an actual enemy.) We don’t get to choose our enemies. Nor do we know if and when we’ve met one. But they are relative nonetheless. For some, an enemy is someone who simply makes life a little more challenging. These enemies don’t pose a threat to anyone; however, they are just harder to love than most. And frustratingly, folks who have these types of enemies, are the ones who just love to quote Jesus at people. “Well Brother, I hate that that’s happening, but Jesus said to love and pray for our enemies.” (Yeah, easy for you, buddy. The only thing you’re dealing with is hiding your frustration. Meanwhile, I was just abused by my pastor.) I remember posting a status about this once, and a missionary buddy of mine commented, “Yeah, while some people are dealing with bruised egos, I walk passed corrupt local police who are dressed like soldiers, complete with automatic weapons. Loving them is not simple.”

Thankfully, there are people throughout history who have endured far more than said bruised egos. Volf, as I mentioned above, if not personally, saw it in his countrymen. Likewise, there is Corrie ten Boom, who was a Holocaust survivor. She once said, “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.” And lest it be said that that was easy for her to say post concentration camp, she once told a story of meeting one of the officers responsible for her daily nightmares, years later, and with much internal struggle, still managed to forgive.

Why Say All This?

What’s the point? Well isn’t it obvious?!? Particularly in the United States, we are living in a time of absolute lunacy. Forgiveness is a foreign language, and at this point, may even be banned as a threat to the country! But forgive we must! Especially if you claim the Name of the Divine Interupter, who forgave and gave his life for the very people who unjustly arrested and murdered him. On a Roman cross no less!

We are living in a time when all one has to do is say one criticism of their opponent, and that opponent flies off the comment section handle, and projects every form of vitriol they can conjur. Conservatives are more guilty of this than liberals these days; but liberals, you’re guilty all the same.

The Big Idea of Forgiveness

Whether we are conservative or liberal, climate deniers or protectors, Christian or Muslim, we are all human. We are interdependent of one another. Conservatives don’t have all the answers. Liberals don’t have all the answers. Christians (being one myself I can say with utmost certainty) don’t have all the answers. And Muslims are tired of being blamed for every little bump in the night.

Conservatives, you don’t get to call every opponent a liberal snowflake just because they challenged your thinking. Learn to forgive. And see how you can work with liberals to make this world better.

Liberals, you don’t get to write off all conservatives as brainless morons because they deny climate change. Learn to forgive. And see how you can work together.

There really are bigger, badder, more wicked threats out there than bruised egos. And while we’re busy calling each other names on social media (yes, I do it too!), those threats are rolling on. People’s rights are being stolen for no other reason than their sexual orientation, or that their skin color is different than their lawmakers’ (here’s looking at you North Carolina General Assembly!)

There is a scene in the Outlander Series where Jamie Fraser, who earlier on had been brutalized by his enemy Black Jack Randall, and as he (Jamie) is helping his own daughter forgive her enemy, he comes to his own realization, Black Jack is only a man. Yes, he did terrible, terrible things. But he was only a mortal man. Not only that, but forgiveness is not a one time event, but rather many events over time.

Whoever your enemy is, no matter what they’ve done, they are only mortal. Life is worth far more than spending it hunkered down in bitter hatred because someone doesn’t agree with you.

Forgive as if humanity depended on it.

More to come on this very difficult subject later.