I have heard horror stories of people in abusive relationships who have sought spiritual advise from their church leaders, only to be told that they should forgive their partners–forgive the verbal, psychological, physical abuse and/or infidelity, for example. They are told to forgive as God forgives (remember the theological model I mentioned in my last post?) The Mystery of Forgiveness & Reconciliation, part 1 People who have escaped relationships of abuse are even sometimes counseled to reconcile. Many years ago, I was divorced, and for years I had recurring nightmares that I was being forced to reconcile with my husband.
Forgiving and reconciling have limits that are dependent upon circumstances and injustice. I learned from my own experience that I forgive so that I can move forward, but nobody–not in dreams or consciousness–can make me reconcile.
Every kind of relationship includes relations of power, privilege, and politics–and these must be acknowledged. In The Politics of Apology and Forgiveness, Joretta Marshall identifies five connections between power and forgiveness that I think are important. 1. The misuse of power invites power into a relationship. 2. The person who has the power to cause harm does not have equal power to require forgiveness—only to apologize and ask for forgiveness. 3. The giving or receiving of forgiveness, like an apology, cannot be coerced. 4. There is a dance between power and vulnerability in the forgiveness process. 5. Forgiveness emerges through the shifting of power in relationship. Forgiveness has its own subversive power in its potential for transformation.
In The Limits of Forgiveness, Norlock and Rumsey unpack the costs and limits of forgiveness, which are to be found in situations where “radical evil” exists. They argue that social and political recognition, including punishment of offenders and provisions for the economic and physical safety of victims, are requisite conditions” (p. 119). The authors demand that we critically analyze what we ask of those we expect to forgive offenders. What is that about? Forgiveness is fraught with complexity, and the existence of radical evil does not allow us the luxury of taking the process for granted.
I also discovered the book, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, by Susan Neiman. This text, which is the kind of reading I do for fun (me = nerd), examines the intentional efforts at “working through the past” by the German people—individually and collectively—in the wake of the Nazi Reich. She argues that the United States—White Southerners, in particular—can learn and take cues from the Germans, although the evil of slavery and Jim Crow is a different kind of evil than Nazism. She explicitly states that this is not a suggestion of comparative suffering or oppression, but one of comparative reconciliation. Thomas Jefferson, the embodiment of questions Americans must ask of ourselves, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just and that his mercy cannot last forever.” When I think about forgiveness and reconciliation, radical evil and sin, power and privilege—and how these fit in the Kingdom of God, I tremble too.
So whether we are talking about relationships at the personal or global level–or anything in between–power relations are maintained and reproduced that are paramount to the nature of the relationship. They also affect the approach, expectations, and limitations in the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. Social categories such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, and cultural background also have great bearing on the process, particularly since these categories are socially constructed, fluid, and flexible.
On our last day together, our F&R class organized our thinking around F&R on the board (see below). These are our findings:
- an ongoing process, as illustrated by Jesus’s metaphor of 70 X 7
- an array of both positive and negative emotions
- effective in an “I/Thou” relationship, such as that believers have with God
- Jesus like
- difficult and takes time
- requires faith
- a gift of mercy–to self, God, others
- an aspiration (most of the time)
- good for us
- Note: “unforgiveness” has psychological and biological consequences
Forgiveness is not…
- the same as reconciliation
- requiring of an apology or repentance
- enmeshment or codependency
- cheap or therapeutic
- just saying “I’m sorry”
- explicitly Christian
- always equitable
- a denial of hurt
- excusing abuse or the perpetrator
- an option
- a feel good fix
- requiring of repentance
- requiring of truth telling
- requiring of solidarity, space, and safety
- interpersonal and intrapersonal
- often mediated by a third party
- a process that requires something of the parties
- an aspirational
- often confrontational
- dependent upon justice
- not always possible
Reconciliation is not…
- the same as forgiveness
- the same on individual and systemic levels
- always fast
- without risk
- a social contract
- accompanied by compensation or reparation
- always possible
I will add that reconciliation is part of the peacemaking process. In my next post, I will share 10 Practices of Just Peacemaking Theory from EthicsDaily.com.
Growing up, when I thought about forgiveness–which is ever present in a practicing Fundamentalist Christian’s life–I thought first about God so loving the world that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. For our forgiveness. When I thought of forgiveness apart from the Cross, I thought about Jesus’s quip to Peter about forgiving an offender 70 times 7 (Matt 18:22). I remember calculating it in my mind, which Peter probably also did.
This semester I took a class with Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, whose new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation, brings Womanist Wisdom “to describe how race and racism work, what reconciliation really looks like, and how faith can help us work toward it” (https://drchanequa.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/my-book-is-coming/). When you stop and think about it, each of those concepts–forgiveness and reconciliation–are huge. So full of meaning and implications that it was and continues to be daunting to me. My classmates and I spent 15 weeks grappling with texts and ideas; now I find it less daunting than profound. What I mean is that it is important to put forgiveness and reconciliation in practice and help others to do so, too. I know it was a good class because we are leaving it with more questions than when we began. Success is often measured by knowing enough to know what you don’t know. Our final project was to create a curriculum on forgiveness and/or reconciliation.
From the time the project was assigned, I began to have trouble with it. I had writer’s block for curriculum development. I realize I still have some sorting out to do with the two-in-one concept, since, as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I don’t know what I think until I red what I say.” In this post, I will briefly sketch an overview of an introductory segment on the concepts Forgiveness & Reconciliation. Should spaces for dialogue ever come up, here is where I would start.
First, it is important to note that Forgiveness & Reconciliation is a whole field of study with a growing body of literature. Typing in the words, “Forgiveness & Reconciliation” on Amazon, for example, yields 437 results. Type in those same words in Google, and more than twelve million results pop up. To be fair, “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” by themselves are intermingled with results for the pair. I found this to be the case in our class, too. The topics overlap, bleeding into each other, as it were, to the point where it is hard to see where one stops and the other begins. Entangled, jumbled. This is not inappropriate.
Dr. Walker-Barnes organized the course into engaging topics, and you can see the intricate threading throughout: Theologies of Forgiveness; Theologies of Reconciliation; Remembrance & Repentance; Power, Apology, & The Limits of Forgiveness; Trauma, Anger & the Failure of Reconciliation; Reconciliation or Liberation?; Reconciliation as a Spiritual Journey; and Psychological Perspectives on Forgiveness. We read texts by Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis; John Paul Lederach, Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians, and Everett Worthington, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Theory and Application. There was a lot to read and talk about. If I were guiding a book talk on the subject, I would use some of the helpful strategies and models from these texts, developed by peace workers who walk the walk. Dr. Walker-Barnes’ book was published after our class had begun, so we only had a teaser chapter from it. It’s now on my Christmas break reading list!
The semester was spent painstakingly unraveling meanings. Here are some key points.
- Christians not only have an obligation to practice forgiveness, we also have a model. God forgives us.
- There are distinctions between forgiveness and reconciliation, even though they are a good matched set.
- Both forgiveness and reconciliation have important and often frustrating limits. If we know them going in, we will not have our expectations dashed.
- Historically–both within Christianity and without–forgiveness and reconciliation have been abused, misused, oppressive, and suppressive. Survivors of interpersonal and/or systemic trauma/conflict narrate the journey to forgiveness and reconciliation. Survivors remind us of the high stakes involved in forgiveness and reconciliation; their voices are critical to how we practice.
To further muddle my thinking, you have to consider forgiveness according to its various levels. Are we talking about forgiving another person? Groups of people? A whole country? What about reconciling? Couples reconcile (or don’t). Friends can too. Different cultures can reconcile–like in South Africa. People can be reconciled to God. I have to reconcile within myself. The scope is incredible.
I will end my overview with this: our participation in the divine life, that is, how believers exist in the world, is wrapped up in the tremendous Mystery. The gift and responsibility of forgiveness–and yes, reconciliation, too–are part of that mystery. And it is part of most believers’ theology. For example, while there are many subjects Jesus never mentioned, he was explicit about forgiveness: do it. So, as complicated and perplexing as forgiveness and reconciliation can be, it helps to approach them as sacred process.
Below is a picture of our white board from the last day of class, where we summed up what we had learned. In my next post, I will summarize them in talking points.
Here is a prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas, addressed to Mary, whom he called on for inspiration and strength in school. Thank you to my McAfee Classmate Benjamin Smith for sharing it:
O Mary, Seat of Wisdom,
so many persons of common intellect
have made through your intercession
admirable progress in their studies.
I hereby choose You as
guardian and patron of my studies.
I humbly ask You to obtain for me
the grace of the Holy Spirit,
so that from now on I could
– understand more quickly,
– retain more readily, and
– express myself more fluently.
May the example of my life serve
to honor You and your Son, Jesus.
I remember as a young girl my Daddy pointing out the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes with age, he said. Well, he finished, it ought to. It occurs to me—I am trying not to worry about it, really—that because of life’s circumstances, there are many “words of wisdom” I have not taught my children and may not ever have the opportunity to tell them. Help me, oh God, put some of them down here.
Be happy with how you look—love your body; it contains your beautiful spirit. Your body will change as you get older; help it along with kindness. You don’t ever have to think of unpleasant or embarrassing moments from your past; banish them as soon as they enter your mind if they bring you pain. Try to forgive your parents; they are deeply flawed. Know that you are loved, and it’s ok to feel the love from generations before you. Fill your life with non-human animals; you already know they love you unconditionally. You can feel it. Carry yourself with pride without being prideful; it just means admire yourself with humility. If you have children, teach them the Bible stories and make them learn some verses; if you have forgotten, learn them again. Don’t be afraid of the dark; don’t be afraid to fly; don’t be afraid to travel. Stay away from negative people; trust your instincts if you have doubts about someone’s integrity.
Never settle when it comes to a partner; never be with someone who is settling for you. Go outside. Go see some old ruins. Go to New York City and Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Go to the Pacific Ocean. Go stand in an old cathedral and an old country church in the woods. Remember to look up at stars. Find a job you like and stick with it. Save enough money, but don’t worry about not having a lot of it. Don’t accumulate a lot of things; curb your desire for things. Let yourself be enthusiastic. Let yourself be awed. Remember that children are raised to grow and go—whether it is you or your children. Read. Pray for guidance when making decisions: let your litmus test be, Will I regret more if I do it or don’t do it? Sing. Learn to do something fun that you are proud of. Eat dessert now and then. Keep a journal. Know that when most people say “happy” they mean “instantly gratified.” Those aren’t the same: be happy. Be kind. Let yourself be a nerd when it comes to learning. Never stop learning. Have integrity. Look at some art, and learn something about it. Take care of earth however you can; we’re using it up and won’t get another. Help people. Take help from people when you need it. Learn poetry. Believe in God so that you can know that God is with you and has been there through all of it.
This is my prayer, God, for my children. Amen.
It is Holy Saturday, God, the day good Christians celebrate Jesus’s body lying in the tomb while his soul descended into hell, the Harrowing of Hell, they call it. Holy Saturday is coming home from a funeral. Everybody is exhausted, and the loss is starting to get real. You have to eat~~people have brought food~~but you are not hungry, might never be hungry again. After Big Mama’s funeral, I sat at the familiar kitchen table with her old friends, who told stories. Those of us at the table laughed until we cried, but the sisters—my mother and Lois and Mary and Judy and Barbara—were in the dark bedroom where their mother had taken her last breath; they did not laugh. They could hardly hold themselves up, so they held each other. It was raw and ugly, and if any of them had dared, they might have cursed you, God. They were groaning in their utter desolation. Holy Saturday started like that, with women holding vigil in their sorrow.
There is another word I first (and pretty much only) heard in the Bible: iniquity. Iniquity is to wickedness what groaning is to grieving. You are good, God, and trust in your goodness outweighs my worry; but my fundamentalist conscience tells me our United States will give an accounting for our iniquity. We sin together, all of us: we are inhospitable to neighbors at our borders, we march in hatred to maintain an apartheid state, and we lay offerings at the feed of corporate gods. We do not merely turn our heads as our poor fight to live—and often lose the fight—but we defiantly jut out our chins at them because they got what they had coming. It helps that they are different colors than we are. We incarcerate young men of color to prove our point. We busy ourselves with what goes on in one room of the house—the bedroom—with little concern with what goes on in the rest of your world. Longsuffering God, batter our hearts, as the poet cried (John Donne). Lay us bare again so that in our nakedness the only place our eyes can turn is to you. On this Holy Saturday, harrow our souls toward reconciliation with you as we keep vigil for the terrifying Resurrection we (don’t) know is coming. Amen.
Holy God, we must speak the names. St. Mary Baptist. Greater Union Baptist. Mount Pleasant Baptist. Louisiana smolders. In the names and the smoke our sin is manifest. We do not speak of their pain because the pain is their own—it belongs to their hearts. We do not get to cry those tears. Theirs is not our story to tell. Our story is a 21-year-old in an orange jump suit staring back at the camera. “His dad has been a sheriff for a number of years, he’s a good fellow,” said a state congressman. “My understanding is the son has had a troubled past.” Yes. Sons of the South have troubled pasts. “Not guilty,” he pleads. It is we who need to plea, yet ours can be no other than guilty. In 1963, two other sets of eyes looked back at the camera, in Birmingham; our pasts are troubled. “I tremble for my country,” Jefferson said, “when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Louisiana burns, God, and we tremble in our transgression. Do you yet sleep?
God, we trust you~~that we are not condemned to forever suffer the consequences of our sin by perpetuating evil. At the hearing, the 21-year-old arsonist’s father, the deputy, left the courtroom in tears. What did he cry for? His “good boy”? A lost youth? A youth lost? His boy took pictures of himself. Pouring gasoline. With a blazing building. Among the ruins. He claimed this.
God of justice, God of righteousness, we trust you and we offer you all praise~~but we do not know exactly what to ask you. Has nothing been asked before? Have we not prayed for forgiveness? Have we not prayed for good relations? Have we not prayed white prayers that our white children would not detect our locked-away resentment of freedom ringing? Correct us. Guide our hearts to pray those prayers. Awaken your justice, God, and direct us toward reconciliation and love—discernible in the photographed eyes looking back at us. Amen.
First, I need to acknowledge my white privilege and citizenship in a colonizer nation. Additionally, I am a U.S. Christian in a missionary culture, which has contributed to colonization. That said, I am also a gay female Christian from a rural Fundamentalist denomination, so I also can speak from intersecting places of marginalization.
In late February, the United Methodist Church voted to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy. This could very well be the issue that splits the UMC; in fact, the fissures started as soon as the vote was counted. The “Traditional Plan” passed with 438 votes in favor and 384 against, 53% to 47%. Yet in 2014, a PEW Research Study reported that 60% of U.S. UMC members believed that same-sex marriage should be accepted. On the eve of the 2018 General Conference, informal guestimates predicted that 66% of U.S. delegates would vote for the One Church Plan, which would allow individual churches and regional conferences to decide whether to ordain and marry LGBTQ members (https://mainstreamumc.com/blog/groups-are-misusing-survey-results/ and https://religionnews.com/2019/02/25/united-methodist-committee-rejects-one-church-plan-which-would-allow-lgbt-clergy/). So what happened?
The UMC has around 12 million members globally, about half its members. Methodists from outside the U.S. are generally more conservative and favor traditional positions on sexuality, reports Christianity Today. At the General Conference, 41% of the 864 delegates were non-U.S, 30% of those from Africa. I don’t even have to break out my calculator to know that without global delegates in the mix, the Traditional Plan would almost certainly have been defeated. (Take a look at the UMC World Map here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodists-lgbt-vote-umc-general-conference-denomina.html).
There are several issues to eventually unpack, such as how to reconcile the U.S. UMC and whether or not it will lovingly include its LGBT members and clergy within its community. Very briefly, though, I want to consider another ethical dilemma the UMC faces: how to be Christ’s universal church when the majority of half its members oppose changes taking place in U.S. culture. “In this case,” says Mercer University ethicist David Gushee, “culture looks more like the gospel than churches do” (Changing Our Minds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oO81hxbmGM). One delegate from Mozambique said the Traditional Plan “is what God Wants in the church in this world” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/february/united-methodist-lgbt-vote-conference-plan.html). Is it? More important here, is it what U.S. Methodists believe?
Gushee, whose book Changing Our Minds gives his account of changing his mind about the inclusion of LGBT persons in the church, notes that he is, “convinced this is not a sexual ethics issue, but it’s about human dignity” (YouTube). He goes on to pose three questions for which I propose the UMC hold itself—locally and globally—accountable. Who counts as equal? Who counts as having dignity? And at a level fundamental to the gospel—Who counts as included within the reach of the good news that God loves human beings in Jesus Christ? After all, he reminds us, sexuality is but a “tertiary concern” compared to issues of the sacredness of life and human dignity.
After nearly 250 years, the Methodist Church has accomplished one of the greatest missionary feats in history—preaching Jesus the Christ throughout the world and adding over 6 million souls to its count. Problem is, in many of these areas, it is not even safe to be “out” as a LGBT Christian. And, the UMC usually holds a mainline, moderate stance on most issues in U.S. culture. In February, the conservative global element nudged the church in a direction against itself. At least I hope that is the case—for herein lies its denominational ethical dilemma. What is the Methodist Church today?
I’ll turn once more to Gushee, who argues if we aren’t in solidarity, we’re part of the oppression. He notes profoundly, “this solidarity will be costly” (YouTube). It will indeed. If the UMC—as a microcosm of the greater church—does not actively seek to recover the broader narratives laid out by Gushee—the Kingdom of God, justice, the example of Jesus, love of neighbor, the Golden Rule, and compassion for those who suffer—then it admits its own ugly complicity in rejecting human dignity. It will have nearly literally have gained the whole world but forfeited its soul (Mk. 8:36). Now is its chance to do both.