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Newsletter for March 2002

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The touchstone

"Forgiveness is the touchstone for evaluating spirituality and religious institutions.  If they cannot deliver on this, they are using the greatest of words to communicate shallow securities.

And by the same token, beginning to forgive is the key to the profound renewal of these organisations."

from the new preface to ForgivenessNet

Virus damage

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God and forgiving

God doesn't have a monopoly on forgiveness! 

The marvellous Jewish writer Hannah Arendt saw that Jesus made clear "first that it is not true that only God has the power to forgive, and second that this power does not derive from God."  (The Human Condition)

Many religious people believe that 'proper' forgiveness only comes from God.  Christianity, in particular, has become extremely reliant on the assumption that "only God really forgives." 

Yet when Peter went to Jesus and asked, "How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?" (Matthew 18.21), we should spend more time reflecting on the question, before leaping to Jesus' reply ("Seventy times seven," etc.)  Peter asked how many times he himself should forgive, not how many times God will forgive ...

Peter and Jesus began from the view that Peter, and everyone like him, should be doing the forgiving themselves ... and a lot more of it.  The 'proper' form of forgiveness is to demonstrate active forgiving.

Forgiveness: a whole world of 'both-and'


Rivendell.jpg (5965 bytes) 1 Outline : We get a bigger and less simplistic picture of our world from inside forgiveness.  Too often a longing for unity makes us miss or edit out the larger reality.  Rather than relying on a theme of unity or oneness

all the time, forgiveness involves us in seeing two dimensions at once - the faulty and the improved versions!  Contents summary:

2  The vision of unity
3  The corruption of unity
4  Bi-focal, not unified, vision
5  Purity and a zeal for unity
6  Seeing too many 'its'

2  The vision of unity

One of the many strengths of forgiveness is that it provides a wonderful corrective to those errors of organised religion and spirituality which turn inspiration into institutional codes.  We want to look here particularly at corrupted ideas of unity which result from this.  Although unity is a wonderful vision, there is also a zealotry and a tyranny of oneness, which makes it hard to see complexity, ambiguity, etc.

A unified kingdom or social order has historically been the goal of dictatorships and oppressive regimes.  Seeing The Lord of the Rings on the big screen brings home a lot of Tolkien's insights.  He wanted to provide a resonant, 'alive' mythology for British people (well, English!), and imagined a world where - surprisingly - a zeal for oneness is the hallmark of evil:

"One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them ..."

The intrinsic mystery of spiritual longing, hope and vision is that we may only attain unity by not trying to attain it … by concentrating with mutuality on other people and other processes, entering into reciprocal relationships with them. 

We want to give due emphasis to the way that unity, as a vision of final reconciliation, is at the centre of most world religions, and contemporary spiritualities.  It is a wonderful, admirable vision, very different from structured uniformity.  Disparate, free and autonomous beings make no division between themselves, but exchange or share everything.  The aim of such reconciliation is not a single unit - a 'society' or even a 'marriage' - but greater sensitivity and open communion between each other.

And unity seems to be a central tenet for both the deepest and the funniest moralities: Kierkegaard wrote that the centre of ethical life, "purity of heart ... is to will one thing."  The ancient cowboy Curly (Jack Palance) advises earnest, overworked city boy Mitch (Billy Crystal) in Ron Underwood's charming 1991 film comedy City Slickers to find "the one thing" and his life would have meaning and joy.

3  The corruption of unity

However, whenever unity is treated as an end in itself, it becomes corrupted.  We focus too much on the task, and demand loyalty in pursuing it.  Some of today's zealous politicians can treat it as such, for the sake of party unity, as can zealous leaders in any large organisation. 

There is a certain subtlety about this.  Unity is indeed an end, in the sense of a final vision … yet not an end we may actually achieve.  Economic, social, judicial unity are wonderful ideals, but they cannot be worked-out, let alone imposed, except by excluding those who are not yet ready, or ill-matched, flawed, or ‘unclean’.   We think of the Nazi propaganda which turned the Jewish people into non-human vermin - Goebbels called it "the rational solution."

[As a sidenote we can observe that when Jesus said, "The poor are always with you" (Matthew 26.11), he was affirming this paradox.  His belief in a final unity was profound, but not as an achievable human condition … only in the finality of an end-time Kingdom.]

In Peter Jackson's wonderful screen realisation of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's dark riders ride as one, yet theirs is the uniformity of mechanised menace.   They have no independent souls, no creativity or originality to contribute.  They exchange or share nothing.  Such zeal may appear whenever unity is presented as an achievable goal for our striving.  What is brought together under one roof becomes separate from the rest.  In order to establish a form of unity, our world-view becomes that of 'either-or' - either our unified society or the enemy's chaos, marked on ancient maps as "Here be dragons!"

4  Bi-focal - not unified - vision

Some articles on the main ForgivenessNet website introduce the idea of bi-focal vision:

a good image to use here is that of wearing spectacles with a type of bi-focal lens.   One the one hand, we can focus on the scale of the wrong that someone, or we, have done.  Yet - at the same time - we can focus on the life and wellbeing of the wrongdoer(s), as well as on any victims other than ourselves.  

It's a mistake to assume that forgiveness involves 'not judging'  It involves better, more creative and life-giving judging.   Judging without a bi-focal perspective is merely labelling - an easier option ... (from Good judgement and bad judgement 4)

And in his brilliant essay "Forgiveness and Time" Tom Trzyna wrote:

The effective presentation of forgiveness seems to require the ability ... to partake simultaneously of two viewpoints, or of two temporal frameworks, an ability to be within an event and at the same time far away, viewing the event sub specie aeternitatis.  (See references in Art and the difficulty of representing forgiveness.)

[We should note in passing that this is not the same as a dual world-view or metaphysic.  Some oriental worldviews have a duality of yin and yang, light and darkness, in them.   Duality would hold that the light and the darkness are equally fundamental.   Forgiveness operates along a different line, not assuming a basic duality and polarity of equal forces and powers.   It sees with bi-focal lenses, and leads us to work at transforming what was wrong in someone’s life, while, affirming and sharing in the growth of what is creative and loving in them.]

By saying "both-and," forgiveness is a decisive antidote to the "either-or" worldview.  A recent ForgivenessNet e-letter (now online as Taking sides against evil) looked at the attitude of taking sides as an evil in itself, and the "either-or" worldview and attitude is not a dual metaphysic, but a monistic one, seeking to eliminate the opposite side.  Whereas while forgiveness pushes towards reconciliation and unity, it is always pulling us back to the actual concrete messes people and situations are in, and telling us that we have to deal with them, too.

5  Purity and a zeal for unity

We can deepen our understanding of this from a somewhat surprising example from the past: the way that Jesus dealt with beliefs and standards of unity and purity in Jewish society.

Jesus has a seminal role in forming our understanding of forgiveness, which is why Jewish writer Hannah Arendt identified Jesus' teaching and practice as one of the two most formative influences on all western civilisation.  And I want to suggest here that Jesus' unique emphasis on forgiving is a very close reflection of his sustained critique of the Jewish laws' concern for purity.

Ancient Israel's concern for purity may seem a rather remote concern for contemporary morals and spirituality.  Yet whenever an organisation becomes anxious to "maintain its ethos" in face of problematic staff or public lack of interest, it is engaged in a similar concern to the attempt at purity.

It was very important for the Jewish tradition to mark out God as 'one', over against the many gods of other religions.  And the purity laws were intended to mark out biblical Israel as one people, in the belief that the oneness of God should be reflected in human social structures and bodily health.  The original practice of scapegoating stems from these laws, the desire to protect the purity and unity of the people by banishing or cutting out anyone who had sinned.  The dietary laws to maintain the people's purity are better known, but even in cases of illness, oneness is a primary concern. 

For example, in a remarkable passage about skin diseases (named as 'leprosy') the law proclaims that a man with some diseased skin is unclean, and must be removed from the community.  Yet if the man is totally covered in sores, "the priest shall pronounce him clean of the disease, and he may rejoin the community.  (Leviticus 13.13)  Why?  Because the man is not of two colours, but one.  (For a marvellous exploration of this emphasis on purity, see William Countryman's Dirt, Greed and Sex.)

When Jesus set aside the Israelite purity laws, proclaiming all foods clean (Mark 7.18-19), communing with unclean sinners, haemorrhaging women, etc., he also set aside the zeal for unity.  The people whom good society had rejected were for him people who could receive forgiveness and empowerment.

6  Seeing too many 'its'

What I am referring to as a 'zeal for unity' includes attitudes and behaviours that we come across all the time in daily work and meetings.  Whenever we find we are not recognising human complexities, reducing others or ourselves to a single aspect of personality or to a single social process.  We are adopting a monistic view - concentrating on one aspect only - whenever we believe and assume, for example, that there is only

  • one scientific explanation and one cause of an event;
  • one criminal investigation and one criminal to be punished;
  • one personality in oneself and one character trait to be defended and advanced (amidst the complexity of personality traits we all have); and so on.

We then turn complex relationships between people, or complex organisations of many people, into an 'it.'  A single phenomenon, either labelled or bearing the name of an institution - a monolithic agent.

Think for example of the all-too-easy way popular psychology leads us to say that someone "caused his or her own downfall," as if the misfortunes resulting from his or her mistakes or problems were inevitable - an example of a single social, judicial or organisational process.  Stopping to reflect, we would be better able to acknowledge that the co-called ‘results’ are actually our own reactions and behaviours towards the person in trouble, and we bear responsibility for them.  We could choose to try to help the fallen, or the stricken, the nave and the clumsy.  When we choose not to, or avoid considering how we might help, we usually justify our avoidance by retreating into the language of ‘its’ and inevitable processes.

Or when an organisation or one of its managers messes some employees up, misjudging or marginalising them or hindering their work, and they then turn it around and achieve very positive goals, we may say, "Ah well, it turned out for the best."  That is the monistic view again – one process only.   Stop to reflect and we see that, No, ‘it’ didn’t turn out for the best.  A manager behaved thoughtlessly, inflexibly or even cruelly.  Yet sometimes some people can make good things happen out of bad.  Sometimes they don’t, and they get hurt or destroyed.

And there is a larger worldview behind this.  For myself, I was helped hugely by Protestant thinkers like Jurgen Moltmann in the 20th century to understand that the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which had seemed to insist the God is 'almighty,' actually shows us a God who is all-loving, but all-forgiving rather than all-powerful. 

But one does not need to believe in the Christian view of divinity to be aware that we are both more spiritual and more fundamentally human when we see the world as a flow of actions, mistakes and re-creations or new actions.  By 'more' I mean more than relying on either an 18th-century scientific theory of the world as a single, vast mechanism, or as something controlled in its entirety by the hidden will of God.

Burt Reynolds (the actor) said, when asked what he would say to God when he dies, "I've made a lot of mistakes but, boy, you've made a lot more."  Intended as insight rather than blasphemy, that seems to me a profound joke.

Andrew Knock

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