Charlottesville: When Forgiveness Is a Trap

Today we’re going to talk about forgiveness. We’re going to talk about what it is and what it’s not.

We’re going to talk about when forgiveness is the combination of hard-won humility and the grace of the Holy Spirit, and when it’s abused as a pacifying and dominating tool to cover up legitimate grievance and sweep conflict under the rug.

We’re going to talk about it in scripture, in our own hearts and lives, and we’re going to talk about it in terms of what happened in Charlottesville.

In the gospels, Jesus talks about forgiveness constantly—on 41 separate occasions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke alone.

The word “forgiveness” appears 46 times in the Hebrew scriptures, and 18 times from Acts through Revelation.

It’s a really important topic in the Bible, and in fact, the very first mention of it in the scriptures is at the end of our incident in Genesis today, when Joseph forgives his brothers.

Joseph’s brothers had plotted to murder him, and only at the last minute were talked into selling him into slavery. They tried to ruin his life, and would have succeeded without God’s intervention.

There are some important parallels here in the historical relationship of White Americans to Black Americans.

So what enabled Joseph to forgive his brothers?

How do we untangle our complicated emotions around justice and peace, reform and reconciliation, when forgiveness is holy and life-giving and when it is a cop-out from conflict?

A big part of the problem is that the Church has told us our whole lives to forgive, but has really never explained how to do it.

“Just forgive,” we’re told. Well, how?

What does it mean to seek forgiveness? To offer it?

Whom do we need to forgive, and from whom do we need to seek forgiveness?

Forgiveness is the basis of one of the seven sacraments, Reconciliation of a Penitent or Confession, and most of us have very little idea of what it means.

It’s mostly a vague and frustrating ideal that we assume will come easily to us when we one day “attain holiness.”

So let’s start with the basics.

Forgiveness is not a one-time event. It’s a process.

Forgiveness has multiple components.

From the perspective of the person seeking forgiveness, it proceeds in the following steps: acknowledgement of fault, penitence or contrition, which means regretting what you did, repentance, which means committing to seeking forgiveness and changing, confession, asking for forgiveness, commitment to amendment of life, absolution, and finally, amendment of life.

That’s a lot of steps!

It’s a complex and deeply demanding process to seek forgiveness.

It requires a fundamental humility and vulnerability.

When we approach God or one another committed to seeking forgiveness in its fullness, we are agreeing to let ourselves be changed.

We are saying yes to Jesus’ redemption in our lives. That’s major.

Forgiveness ideally is a relational encounter.

It has two parties, the person seeking forgiveness and the person bestowing it.

God is always present for us to seek forgiveness from. And we can always forgive ourselves after we’ve repented.

But things aren’t often so neat and tidy with one another.

What happens if the person you need to forgive or need forgiveness from is dead?

What if they’re alive but won’t admit they’ve hurt you?

Can you forgive someone who will never repent or seek amendment of life?

The answer is yes, but it is an epic spiritual journey and you will never need God more than you need God when you struggle with forgiveness.

Because the road to forgiveness can have many stumbling blocks.

What prevents us from forgiving or receiving forgiveness?

Anger, self-righteousness, lack of repentance from the other person like we talked about.

Loyalty to another party can get us stuck—have you ever tried to forgive someone for deeply hurting not you, but someone you love?

It can feel like you’re abandoning the hurt person if you forgive the one who caused their pain.

Sometimes we fear looking weak if we forgive, or fear we’ll somehow be diminished if we let go of our anger and pain enough to forgive.

The reason forgiveness is so demanding is because it calls us to give up our security.

When you forgive, you are risking being hurt again by entering back into relationship with the one who hurt you.

You are giving up a grudge, and there are few things we cherish more than our grudges.

You are saying, “I will no longer hold this terrible thing over you,” and by doing that, you are giving up power.

The place of forgiveness is a place of vulnerability and risk unlike almost any other in the spiritual life.

It’s terrifying.

It’s so much easier to just hang on to our anger and pain.

But when we’re the ones who need forgiveness, we can’t see that about the other person.

In our own need for absolution, we can demand forgiveness with no thought at all about whether the other person is ready to offer it.

This is particularly dangerous if we are in a position of power.

So if there is someone you have wronged and you are more powerful than they are, prematurely demanding forgiveness victimizes them even further.

It takes someone who is already vulnerable and in pain, and forces them to go to an even more powerless and vulnerable place, all to salve our own conscience.

Do you see how problematic that is?

And here is where we come to Charlottesville. Forgiveness is absolutely an end goal of the American quest to grapple with racism.

But after a crisis like we had last week, it can be tempting for those of us troubled by these events to rush to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.

Most of us in this room are white, middle-class Americans, and that makes us the most powerful people in the world.

Regardless of the fact that none of us personally have enslaved people of color or denied them their civil rights, we are part of the class that did and does do those things.

And so we must approach reconciliation and forgiveness with the knowledge that we are not in the driver’s seat.

That is part of our commitment to amendment of life. We don’t get to decide when people of color are willing to offer forgiveness for the sin of white supremacism that has poisoned our nation.

We can ask for forgiveness, and try to contribute to the conditions of change that might make it possible, but it’s not up to us.

It’s up to the people who have been wronged.

And that goes for all relationships between oppressors and oppressed.

Every single person in this building has experienced oppression at some point in their lives, and every single person has perpetrated it.

But the identity we were born into, our gender, ethnicity, sexuality and all the ways we identify ourselves, will probably lead us to stack up more in one column than another.

Now hear the words that are coming out of my mouth: if you have more oppressor roots in your life than oppressed, it does not make you a bad person. It does not make you responsible for the deeds of other people. You do not bear the weight of sin of your ancestors.

What we do have is a moral imperative to be aware of our privilege.

We have the responsibility to ask to be taught where our blind spots are, to be guided by oppressed groups and individuals in how best to address the systemic problems, and to have the humility to wait for forgiveness as long as it takes.

Look how long it took Joseph to be ready to offer forgiveness in our scripture today after he was sold into slavery.

It was years and years and years, and took a great deal of distance from his brothers who had done it to him.

And let me say something rather pointed here: if there had been statues and monuments all over Egypt of the Ishmaelite and Midianite traders who enslaved him, he might not have been so ready to greet his brothers with tears of love and forgiveness.

So, this has been a pretty hard-hitting sermon. I haven’t pulled any punches here.

Some of you may be feeling like I’m the one who needs to ask forgiveness from you after getting in the pulpit and talking like this!

Some of you may feel that I have gone too far, and some of you may feel that I haven’t gone nearly far enough.

But I’m preaching this because I trust you.

I trust you to hear my witness without fearing that it compromises your own.

And here’s another important reality: if we as members of Christian community never need to seek one another’s forgiveness, we are not a true Christian community.

For all that forgiveness is so difficult, it is a sign of true intimacy.

You cannot be truly be hurt except by someone you trust and love.

The need to seek and offer forgiveness is the sign of a real and profound relationship, and that is what we are seeking as fellow disciples.

We all have so many complex emotions over what happened in Charlottesville, and what it means for our lives together as Americans.

And I’m sure there’s a range of feelings among us over what I’ve said today, and the areas of your own lives where forgiveness is a particularly thorny and tender issue.

So I’ll end by telling you that when I talk about forgiveness, I am preaching out of my own poverty and pain.

I crashed and burned in my first job as a rector. I had a very bad conflict that led to a very bad ending with my first church, and I was consumed with anger, pain, guilt, and shame for years afterwards.

How could I find forgiveness for them and forgiveness for myself in the aftermath when I was so tangled and trapped in conflicting emotions over what happened?

And even more so when the pastorally responsible thing to do was to leave them alone to move forward?

Because of the way things work in the church, I couldn’t even stay in relationship with them in a meaningful enough way for us to pursue forgiveness together.

And even closer to home for me than that is my own sister.

Some of you know that my older sister died of a drug overdose in 2010, and I was estranged from her for two years before she died.

The things that she did were so terrible that I could not be in relationship with her until she was able to admit and seek absolution for her actions, and she never did.

And then she died, and with her death died any chance of repentance or reconciliation.

Between those two situations and other smaller ones where I have both needed forgiveness and struggled to offer it, the better part of the last eight years of my prayer life have gone toward wrestling with forgiveness.

God knows I need forgiveness every single minute of every day, for everything from being a smug laptop liberal all the way up to denying the presence of the Holy Spirit in people around me.

The struggle of forgiveness has been the road into the Cross for me, and the road to Resurrection.

By no means am I any kind of expert, but it has demanded that I go into uncharted territory within myself and with God.

And the most important thing I have learned is that the indispensable ingredient of forgiveness is empathy.

Unless and until we are able to get in touch with the pain of the person who has wronged us, we will never be able to forgive.

And opening ourselves to the pain of someone we have hated and blamed may be among the hardest things we ever do.

It is humbling, and unsatisfying, and requires a radical vulnerability and trust from us, in the very place where we have been the most powerless and trapped by our pain.

Now think of that. Think of what true forgiveness for deep wrong requires.

And then think of God.

The fact that the central aspect of God’s relationship to us is the transformative forgiveness of Jesus’ work on the Cross reveals God’s radical poverty.

God may be all-powerful and all-knowing, but not on the Cross.

God gives it all up for us right there, and this is the price of forgiveness—or rather, the free gift of forgiveness.

When we feel totally unable and unequipped to seek or offer forgiveness, when the wrong seems so extreme as to preclude even bringing the word up, remember the Cross.

The Cross shows that however poor we feel, God is even poorer.

However much we must give up to seek or offer forgiveness, God gave up more.

However shaky and untethered we feel to step off the cliff of forgiveness, Jesus entered a freefall even more extreme.

And it was all for the radiant and unquenchable love of us.

We know that love undergirds and supports and blesses even our smallest and most mixed-up steps onto the sacred and terrifying territory of forgiveness.

When we forgive or ask for forgiveness, we feel like we’re falling.

But when we fall, we land in love.

The most important truth of this entire conversation is here: we the oppressors and we the oppressed, we the confused and vulnerable, we the angry and belligerent, we who cannot agree on the truth and cannot atone for our sins, who hide from our conflicts and hide from our ability to resolve them—we are forgiven.

And in the end, that’s all we really need to know.


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