Religion on the Level: #3
What is the Use of Jesus? [Continued]
I preach about forgiveness a lot, but would I be able to practice it if one of
my children had been abducted and murdered or if they had been gassed in
Auschwitz along with Ernie Levy, the man we thought about in the last
lecture? How can anyone forgive in those circumstances? This brings us right up
against the central dilemma. The world is dying because of lack of forgiveness,
but we don't want a forgiveness that cheapens the evil we do to one another; we
don't want a forgiveness that denies the claims of justice or ignores the pain
of the endless procession of victims.
This is tough enough on the individual level, but it becomes a thousand times
worse when we try to think about situations where whole communities stare in
unforgiving hatred at one another, as they still do in Northern Ireland,
Yugoslavia, the Middle East and other places too numerous to list.
Who is to do the forgiving there? How can it even start? All the sides have
inflicted terrible wounds on one another, so how can anyone even begin the
process? Who is to bring back the dead to speak the words of release and
reconciliation? Wouldn't forgiveness cheapen the lives that have been lost
and diminish the responsibility of those who took them?
This is certainly what we hear whenever the Secretary of State for Northern
Ireland releases another group of what their own side call political prisoners
and the other side call terrorists. Cheap grace it has been called, this
forgiving of others, this letting them off, this turning the other cheek.
They should be brought to account, should pay for it, should burn in
hell, should stay in goal till they rot, the voices cry, because
they have taken joy away for ever from our lives.
The inability or refusal to forgive is understandable, but it also seems a
terrible mirror-image of the punishment we hand out to the offenders. It keeps
us in prison as well, locked up in our own hatred, endlessly working the
treadmill of our own bitter memories.
This is certainly the impression we get when we look in on those
intractable disputes in Israel and Northern Ireland. We get a wearying sense of
communities who are imprisoned in their own history, dying in their chains and
unwilling to stand up and shake them off. The sights frustrates us from the
comparative calm of our own situation, but we can enter imaginatively into their
minds if we try to feel the outrage caused by the death and maiming of loved
ones during the long years of conflict.
So we would probably all agree that at some stage in the process the offence,
the sin, has to be admitted if the forgiving is to do its work on the one who
needs it. Surely we can't receive forgiveness till we acknowledge that we need
Behind that claim lies the ancient human conviction that we are
responsible for our own actions, have freedom, could have chosen otherwise.
That's what gnaws at use in those times of guilt and remorse when we look
back at our lives. A little more self-control here, a slight change of direction
there, and things could have been different and we would not now be eaten up
All that is true, and there could be no moral life is it wasn't true, but it
does not seem to be the whole truth. The men who hammered the nails into the
hands and feet of Jesus must have known what they were doing, must have had some
responsibility, yet he prayed, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they
do". Maybe he just meant the executioners, the ones who did the dirty work,
not the real agents of the crime, Pilate and Caiaphas - but I doubt it.
I think everyone was included in the forgiveness he prayed for because he
recognised that none of us is completely in charge of our lives. To a very great
extent we were made what we are by factors that were not in our control. The
crushing weight of the past is there behind us, forming and molding us, so that
it is sometimes tempting to believe that our choices are hardly ours at all.
Much of what we are comes straight from our animal past. It is true
that consciousness gives us some control over our instincts, but it is far from
complete. We all know the experience of moral powerlessness: "I couldn't help
it", we say, "something got into me".
If this is true of many of our private choices, think how much truer it is
when people get caught up in historical tragedies over which they have no
control. If you had a bitter childhood in a Palestinian refugee camp it might
make you what the world calls a terrorist. If you spent your boyhood in the
divided streets of Belfast it might make into the kind of man who could be
persuaded to pick up the gun.
We know how formative early childhood experience is in making us into what we
later become, for better or for worse. When we think about it, therefore, the
human situation is actually quite complicated. Yes, we know we are responsible
for our own actions, have free will; but we also know that other
people's choices have influenced and helped to form us, so our freedom is a
qualified thing at best, and some people have been dealt a hand that hardly
offers them any choice at all.
I think this is why Jesus was a strange combination of anger and
compassion, as though he carried this contradiction in his own heart. He
hated and challenged sin and its effects, but he had an enormous
compassion for sinners and the helpless predicament they found
themselves in. He forgave the men who hammered in the nails, just as he had
previously offered Pilate sympathy for having to condemn him to death!
The paradox of the anger of Jesus was that it was poured out against
those who refused to acknowledge their sin, while to those who
admitted the confusions of their lives he was filled with love and
compassion. Perhaps forgiveness was so central to his message that he was made
angry by those who denied themselves the opportunity to receive it by the
blindness of their own condition.
Of course, we do not have a systematic treatment of the practice of
forgiveness in Jesus, but all the elements we would require for such a
treatment are present. What there can be no doubt about, however, is his
conviction about the importance of forgiveness to everyone.
To begin with, let us leave the offender on one side and notice how
important forgiveness is for the healing and growth of the forgiver. If there
is no forgiving, the original offence can keep growing till it takes over the
This is what happened to a woman in the United States. Her daughter had been
murdered, the killer convicted and waiting on death row. The mother hated him
with a consuming hatred and planned to be present at his execution, but she also
wanted to confront him before his death with what he had done, so the
prison authorities arranged for her to visit him.
As she spoke to him on death row she started crying, found herself
forgiving him and a great weight feel from her. She herself was no
longer imprisoned in bitterness and hatred, no longer wanted the killer killed.
She continued to visit him and one day, in tears, he confessed his guilt and
asked for the forgiveness he had already been given. He has since been executed
and she now campaigns against capital punishment; and her life has been given
back to her.
We should notice one or two things about this case. It was because he had
already been forgiven that the killer was able to repent. The forgiveness
melted his defenses and helped him to see and own his
crime for the first time. This is how the radical forgiveness that Jesus
taught seems to work: the father of the prodigal forgives his son before he
gets a word out, and it is that act of grace that melts his selfish heart into
I know that from my own experience. Judge and attack me and I'll
defend myself with anger and violence; offer me love and understanding and
you'll break my heart into sorrow for the way I've hurt you.
Forgiveness can release honesty in the offender; more importantly, it
liberates the person who has been offended, so that she is no longer trapped,
caught up in the continuing horror of the event, and can move away from it into
a new future.
I can see now how forgiveness works, but I still can't say where
people find the generosity for great forgiving, for letting go of
monstrous wrongs. This is why I have to recognise that people like me have no
right to call other people to forgive, though I may be able to remind them that
at some time or other everyone is in need of forgiveness, and those who refuse
forgiveness may be destroying the very bridge that one day they may have to
Nevertheless, it is true that the most effective exponents of forgiveness are
the ones who themselves have been wounded. Only the wronged can really preach
forgiveness, only the crucified.
This is why Christians say that the crucifixion of Jesus is a saving event,
something that can bring healing to us in our broken humanity. At the centre of
the maelstrom of violence and cursing we hear the voice offering forgiveness to
us for all the things we have ignorantly or knowingly done. It is a voice that
pleads with us to pause and reflect on the way our lives can be consumed by
hatred and bitterness so that the past, like an implacable tyrant, controls
the present and destroys the future.