The power to initiate forgiveness  

"The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong," said Mahatma Gandhi. 

He wasn't being elitist, just real about what is involved in taking initiatives in forgiveness.

This article is an in-depth look at our attitudes towards power, and the vital importance of empowering people to forgive.

It's quite a full article, so you may want to SAVE & PRINT it.


Contents :

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Taking the first step

"I'll wait and see what he does first"

2 Power and authority

To initiate forgiveness needs power; starting to understand power and authority

3 Jesus and the power of forgiveness

Jesus provides a startling example of forgiveness which is not only reactive but also powerful and initiated

4 Healing and transformation

Healing is not merely restoration; health involves transformation of values and outlook

5 Playing safe in the 'inner' world

How so many people play safe in a purely 'inner' or privatised spirituality, and avoid the vulnerability of public action

6 Using or withholding the power for good

A new model, revealing the larger scale of forgiveness in action

7 The harm of not forgiving

The cruelty of withholding forgiveness, and the attitude of winning people back, not banishing them

8 Power - personal and institutional

The contrast between personal, intrinsic power and 'institutional' power

9 The 'sinned-against'

Powerless people - the 'sinned-against' - need empowerment

10 The 'forbidding institution'

How institutional attitudes kill forgiveness, emphasising that people have to 'earn their way' to merit any attention

11 Cycles of blame and guilt

People are in many differing relationships, and where they are powerless they cannot just forgive;  they need a 'court of just conversation' - and only the powerful can provide it

12 Human power and God-given power

Is all power 'God-given' - or none of it?

13 Empty appointments and intrinsic power

Taking forgiveness seriously means appointing people with intrinsic power to positions of authority



Taking the first step

When someone says that forgiveness isn’t easy – and they’re right to say this – what underlies the difficulty is usually this question: who takes the initiative?  Who takes the first step in forgiveness?  This is surely at the heart of the struggles most of us have with forgiveness – he wronged me so he must take the first step (by showing he’s contrite or penitent).

Why don’t we take the first step in forgiveness?  Sometimes I may simply be too scared of the person who has wronged me, to be able to knock on their front door, or even write a letter.  Sometimes I want the mistrust or silence between us to end … but I want the person who has wronged me to go through the embarrassment of reaching out to me, rather than risking humiliation myself.  Sometimes – or rather, very often – there is wrong on both sides, and since the wrongdoer is getting all the blame at the moment, I don’t want to have my wrongs and inadequacies exposed in the light of love and reconciliation.

The German thinker Helmut Thielicke, courageous in the face of Nazism, wrote:

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This business of forgiving is by no means a simple thing.  We say, "If the other fellow is sorry and begs my pardon, then I'll give in, and forgive him."   We make of forgiveness a law of reciprocity.  And this never works, for then both of us say to ourselves, "The other fellow has to make the first move."   And then I watch like a hawk to see whether the other person will flash a signal with his eyes ... which shows me he is sorry.  I am always on the point of forgiving ... but I never forgive.  I am far too just. (The Waiting Father, p 112)

This article will help us to explore the dimensions of power and initiative in forgiveness, and understand how vital they both are to fully developed forgiveness.


2   Power and authority

One of the key points is that, in order to initiate forgiveness, you have to have power … to be a person of some power in relation to the one who needs forgiveness.  First, what do we mean by power?  We should start with awareness of all its aspects – for example:

  • human gifts and 'charisma,' including human intelligence, creativity, insight, attractiveness, passion, charm
  • institutional authority and the skills and competencies needed to fulfil such an appointment
  • spiritual stature and the humour and goodness of heart to see and make what Barth called a ‘turn to the positive’
  • and the grace of divine ability and power sometimes given to human beings.

We use the words ‘power’ and ‘authority’ in many related ways.   In physics ‘power’ refers not only to having energy but to giving energy – to 'power up' a machine.  At the risk of oversimplifying, let me offer these summaries:  Power means the ability to act upon or manipulate a situation rather than just accept it, whether aggressively or sensitively, bluntly or subtly.  It is largely skill-related; powerful people make things happen.

Authority is connected to real leadership, in the dynamic sense that leaders have followers.  They take people with them.  Authority conveys a further power to ‘take people with you’ in a changing situation, whether as an ‘arm of government’ (the police taking you to jail) or an inspiring speaker (say a Martin Luther King).  Authority is intended to complete or round out a change and move the situation or the view on to a new level or position.  It relates to ‘authoring’, writing a new screenplay for life, in the way that, for example, Jesus was described as the 'author of our salvation/faith' (Hebrews 2.10, 12.2). 

We often speak of authority as representing a group or organisation, but we miss its real meaning if we over-emphasise this.  (And see below, in  �/a>, and .)  At this point let's ask whether, when institutions appoint people to positions of power and authority, they have the personal, intrinsic power or authority to be worthy of their appointment.  (Institutions may also appoint 'our kind of person' to maintain an ethos, or a safe person to satisfy baying voices in the media, and so on.)

the human values which cluster round forgiveness have a very important role in evaluating the use of power and exercise of authority.

Part of the criterion we use to assess their performance will be whether they do show creativity, increase freedom, increase love and reconciliation – or whether they merely lock up prisoners, blame others, sweep problems under the carpet, busy themselves with routines and rituals, etc.  In other words, the human values which cluster round the great human activity of forgiveness have a very important role in evaluating the use of power and exercise of authority.

Both power and authority are needed in order to forgive in the full sense.  Yet our view of forgiveness has been shaped in part by an interest in spirituality which is privatised and 'inner' only, and which thinks of forgiveness in passive and interior terms.  That means either that they hope to receive it from God or from other people, or that if there is any forgiving they ought to be doing, it is an interior work, a matter of letting go or changing one’s attitude or the way one prays.  One of the main factors which limits our view of forgiveness, or how powerful and significant a force it can be in the world, is that the active and external dimension to forgiveness is all but omitted.


3  Jesus and the power of forgiveness

You don't need to be a Christian to forgive - it's a basic human activity.  However, Jesus has a remarkable place in our awareness of forgiveness, and everyone who has a concern for forgiveness needs to learn from his approach. 

And firstly we need to be clear that Jesus certainly lived out the active and external or public aspect of forgiveness.   He viewed forgiveness as a power – an active force for good which he could bring into the situation.  Mark’s Gospel records early on how, when he was asked to heal a paralysed man, Jesus initially responded by saying to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."  In his ensuing dialogue with the scribes he asked what was clearly a vital question for him: "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your stretcher, and walk’?  But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," – he said to the paralytic – "I tell you, get up, take your stretcher, and go to your home." (Mark 2.9-11)

There is no sense in which Jesus had been wronged by the man.  We don’t even know that he ‘knew’ supernaturally what sins the man had committed, although John’s gospel does present Jesus as possessing that kind of knowledge (John 4.18,39). His forgiveness – God’s power in him – was not a reaction to being wronged. He forgave the man because he wanted to bring about a transformation – a dramatic improvement – in the man’s life.  This is a continuation of the extraordinary dynamic summarised in that most-quoted of all Bible verses, John 3.16 ("God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son ...").  Most human wrongdoing was not directed personally to God; yet God initiated extraordinary mercy to help people in a mess.

cloudangel.jpg (16172 bytes)When forgiveness is a viewed as a reaction - a response – then we might want to insist that the powerless can forgive as much as the powerful.  This is part of the trend of an ‘interiorising’ spirituality which we will look at below. But if it is to be an action which changes a situation, it needs power. 

In his public ministry, Jesus powerfully delivered a forgiveness which changed people physically and spiritually.  In the passive mode of his ‘passion’, Jesus’ forgiveness on the cross was a reaction – instead he called on his Father to forgive them. In the ensuing resurrection lifestyle of the early church, God could transform the onlookers’ hearts, and the Spirit of Jesus could bring his own power to forgive.

A profound and helpful Biblical insight comes from Fred Keene, in Structures of Forgiveness in the New Testament, in Violence Against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook, ed. Carol J. Adams and Marie M. Fortune (Continuum).

"There are three words used in the New Testament for the verb "to forgive." (Readers of the original Greek texts would recognise them as aphiemi, charizomai, and apoluo.  Aphiemi = cancel debt;   charizomai = give pardon;  apoluo = release, unbind.)  These three words – especially aphiemi, the one most commonly used for interpersonal forgiveness – are the same words used for acts of absolving a debt or releasing a prisoner.  These are financial and juridical acts, and the capacity to perform them could only belong to more powerful people in the society.

There is no instance in the New Testament of a person’s being ‘forgiven’ by someone lower in the power hierarchy. In fact, it was probably impossible. New Testament society was extremely hierarchical, and someone higher up would be mortally insulted to be "forgiven" by an inferior.  Only someone with greater power in the relationship could perform an act of forgiveness.  Even the Lord’s Prayer, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, asks God to "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

The forgiveness clearly flows downward – from God through the petitioner to the debtor. (And in Jesus’ time forgiving a balance due was no small matter:  A debtor could legally be sold into debt-slavery.)"


4   Healing and transformation

Jewish belief linked forgiveness to God’s mighty acts of deliverance. A human act of mercy was an image of the extraordinary power which God brought to delivering the Israelites from Egypt. It is not surprising that the scribes were described as thinking, as they watched Jesus with the paralysed man, "He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2.7)   As George Eldon Ladd comments:

According to Mark, the conflict between Jesus and the scribes began when Jesus claimed to forgive sins.  Such a claim was nothing less than blasphemy, for only God had the right to forgive sins ... Furthermore, while God was believed to forgive sins, Judaism never solved the problem created by the tension between God’s justice and his grace.   The righteous man was not one who had been freely pardoned by God, but the man whose merit outweighed his debt, the balance between his good deeds and his transgressions ... Against this background one can readily understand the amazement and dismay among the scribes when Jesus on his own authority pronounced the free forgiveness of sins.   John the Baptist had promised forgiveness (Mark 1.4); Jesus fulfilled this promise. (The Presence of the Future, pp 213-214)

Forgiveness is not only possible but also vital outside such a religious context.  However, the Jewish belief in the divine source of forgiveness does draw attention to the crucial issue of power and authority, and also the personal freedom to initiate change. As well as the use of ‘release’ (apoluo / apolytrosis) in the New Testament, which is one of the expressions Keene draws attention to, St Paul made frequent use of the image of a master freeing a slave (eleutheroo), as in:

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Galatians 5.1)

"the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8.21)

or elsewhere, for example, a well-known passage from John "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8.36)

We will ask later in this article whether all forgiveness can be viewed as a divine power, and also whether or not it needs to be viewed in this way. Thus far we can perhaps begin to appreciate the strength of the connection between forgiveness and freedom, and the majestic but definitely ‘top-down’ power involved in setting captives free, delivering from evil spirits, and the whole Biblical panorama of release and forgiveness.

It's worth noting that in this episode with the paralysed man, in Mark 2, Jesus hereby also marked a stronger connection between forgiveness and healing than we might up to now have realised.  He certainly meant that forgiveness is much more important than healing; however:

  • He was not just conveying that forgiveness can and may bring the added benefit of healing. 
  • He was also conveying that those who really want healing (physical, emotional, or spiritual) need and should be ready for a powerful and radical forgiveness as well! 

We may want ‘quick-fix’ healing from a doctor or a church or a god, but are not expecting or willing to have our priorities, habits and values turned upside down at the same time.

That is not very comfortable news for those of us who ‘have measured out my life with coffee spoons’ (to quote T S Eliot in Prufrock).   We may want ‘quick-fix’ healing from a doctor or a church or a god, but are not expecting or willing to have our priorities, habits and values turned upside down at the same time.

When we long for forgiveness we so often tend to long for the past things to be restored, whereas a deeper spiritual engagement with forgiveness directs us towards an increased freedom in the general way we relate with others, which may or may not include freedom with people from the (damaged) past, but will certainly include people for the future.


5   Playing safe in the ‘inner’ world

Too often discussion of forgiveness is limited to the experience of it, and people remain in a tenaciously passive mode when it comes to forgiveness – "nice if you can get it!" – or to an inner spiritual piece of work, like letting go of a hurt, or changing one’s attitude to someone else.   Very many good people do not realise that they also can – and should – initiate forgiveness to those who have been counted guilty, whether personally in their own lives, or institutionally in a career, or financially through debt, or legally by trial, punishment and imprisonment - to bring "freedom to the prisoners" (Luke 4.18). 

But it’s not just a matter of not knowing that they can.  There is also a debilitating hesitancy among ‘ordinary’ religious people to use the spiritual powers made available to them.  Religious institutions often unconsciously try to 'parent' people and keep them in dependency, and the hesitancy of their members is largely about the unwillingness to initiate, which itself is largely about power and responsibility.  We live in an increasingly litigious, blame-orientated society/culture, where people are hesitant to exercise much power in case a mistake rebounds on them and they are blamed and/or punished.  People in authority are slow to take creative risks, in case what seemed creative at the planning stage might turn out to be foolish in its execution.

Earth.Africa-s.jpg (8344 bytes)In an increasingly public world, where everyone is reachable by the media and their performances evaluated increasingly strictly, it is no accident that contemporary spirituality is very ‘interior’, dealing with an inner journey of the mind and spirit.  This is something which prophetic figures like Lesslie Newbigin (in Foolishness to the Greeks), Jim Wallis (in Call to Conversion and subsequent works) or Gustavo Gutierrez (in We drink from our own wells) have identified – and in different ways they have called for a move beyond an ‘interior’ spirituality (which is a good thing) into a public, even political sphere of action, which is an even better thing.  But to move into this sphere means having the confidence and sense of empowerment to deal face-to-face with powerful people as well as needy people, oppressors as well as the oppressed, abusers as well as abused, charismatic leaders as well as couch potatoes, geniuses as well as the disadvantaged.

It is about intrinsic authority, and about the freedom to initiate in what would otherwise seem to be an impenetrable spider's web of restrictive or immovable rules.   In a revelatory passage in his Ethics Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Jesus often seems not to understand at all what men are asking him.  He seems to be answering quite a different question from that which has been put to him, not answering the question but addressing himself directly to the questioner.  He speaks with a complete freedom which is not bound by the law of logical alternatives.  In this freedom Jesus leaves all laws beneath him.  To the Pharisees this freedom inevitably appears to be the negation of all order, all piety and all belief. (op cit p.14)


6  Using or withholding the power for good

Power is the vital ingredient in taking the initiative, and reflects the presence or absence of self-confidence, acceptability, access to helpful resources, etc.  Yes, for many of us forgiveness seemed to be about working through my own hurts and fears, letting go, wishing good things for my enemy.  And it is about those things … but only at the first stage.  The horizons of forgiveness are much bigger than we realise.

Summarised in the chart below is a framework for understanding better forgiving.  It sets out the areas and levels of work which I can undertake in order to forgive, for a simplified situation where someone called ‘X’ has wronged me.  [The quadrant-form may suggest some similarity with the Johari window (Ingham/Luft's disclosure-feedback model).  Both models are concerned with both inner and external growth and change; but whereas the Johari model is concerned with what is known and unknown, our model charts a specific growth in the ability to initiate new forms of action with and for others.]

Notice that, since we may sometimes be affected by someone's wrong even if it was not done to us, the chart also applies to a simplified situation where 'X' has been condemned for a wrong done to someone else.  For this kind of case I will have less work to do at the Internal-Passive area and level: X may have disappointed or confused me, but has not wounded me, and I should be in a position to move into active areas of work quite quickly.

Notice too that like many forms of organic growth the chart forms an ‘N-curve’, indicating the growth in the amount of positive change that is involved in each area or level.


Area of work



Social interaction

2   I can cope with it

I am willing to co-exist with X on a day-to-day basis.

I won’t run away if I meet him/her – if X is a work colleague I am able to work well with him/her.

4   I initiate improvement

I make a special visit or visits to X and 'give-for' him/her.  That is, I present him/her with the gift of positive, creative opportunities, either for restoration or for new relationships and roles for both of us.


Attitudes and intentions

1  I am working it through

X has wounded me – I have to work on my feelings about him/her and about myself, and try to let go of negative emotions, thoughts and resentments , and think positively.

3   I desire better things

I want either a restoration of the past relationship, or a positive new beginning – for both of us. I plan for this, and wish or pray for X’s well-being as well as my own, and see him/her in a larger context.

Passive                                Active

Level of activity


7  The harm of not forgiving

Part of the importance of beginning to appreciate the larger scale of active forgiveness is that a failure to forgive on a bigger scale can cause even more harm to those who are being punished, as well as keeping those who might forgive in a false religiosity and piety.  When Jesus said, "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgiven them, they are not forgiven." (John 20.23), the word translated 'forgive' in the second clause is not the same as that in the first (aphiemi).  To 'not forgive' means to 'retain them'.  Now that may suggest to the more 'bloodthirsty' Christian that if you withhold forgiveness you can say you are ‘retaining’ the sinner’s sins (as if for eternal punishment), but the word used here (krateo) means ‘to keep to yourself’ or ‘to cling on to.’

The rabbinical teaching of Jesus’ time used the word ‘binding’ which appears at Matthew 16.19 and 18.18 – it meant that a sinner’s sin was attributed to him as long as he would not repent.  What this did not reflect, and what Jesus’ greater understanding of forgiveness addressed directly, was that judging can often be a greater sin than sinning!  The thorough Biblical teacher John MacArthur put it simply:

The church cannot set false borders on grace … Someone might protest, "But we want to make sure he will never do it again."  We can never have that assurance.   If he sins seventy times seven, we must forgive him that many times.  Refusing to forgive is a sin. (The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness, p 174)

In other words, you are damaging yourself profoundly if you don’t forgive.   You are trapping yourself in a permanent memory of what wronged you. You become no more than the sin.

To retain someone’s sins is an awful, useless, cruel and cowardly thing to do, and Matthew’s Gospel, for example, spells it out: "If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you" (Matthew 6.15, also 18.21-35).  To be sure, forgiveness is often a complex process which may involve discipline, but it always hopes for restoration and works towards it (Matthew 18.15-17 - see the article The 'no-name' game); and if in the end you must "treat someone as a tax collector" … well, the author of this Gospel (Matthew) knew what a tax collector could become!

To retain someone’s sins is an awful, useless, cruel and cowardly thing to do

That is to say, even if in the end a church has to excommunicate an unrepentant sinner (and it should only do so once it has publicly acknowledged not only his lack of repentance but also its own failure to restore him thus far), it must still reach out to him with the Gospel.  John MacArthur observes about this aspect of discipline:

As far as the treatment extended to (the excommunicated offender) by church members is concerned, this is no licence for hostility or contempt.  In fact Christ’s treatment of heathens and tax collectors is notable chiefly because of how he reached out to them in love.  A similar kind of compassionate evangelical pursuit should characterise our treatment of someone excommunicated ...

The primary goal with regard to the offender is to win him back. 2 Thessalonians 3.15 says, "And yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother."   There is a sense in which you never really let him go.  Though you put him out of the church and out of your sphere of fellowship, you keep calling him back. (Op cit pp 152-3)

Even in something as drastic as excommunication, the proper use of power is not to terminate or destroy, but to empower – not yet through ordinary fellowship but through evangelism.  (See also the article Good judgement and bad judgement #5.)


8  Power – personal and institutional

There is an important distinction to be made when dealing with powerful people – between the people whose power seems to flow from within, and the people who (rightly or wrongly) have been given power to disperse.  Power can be personal and intrinsic, or it can be institutional.  Sometimes (miraculously) it can be both, but the Peter Principle of the way institutions usually promote someone to the level of their incompetence applies here.

Notice that this is not the same as the difference between power and authority, although the words tend to be used interchangeably here.  Authority takes power to a ‘higher’ level, carrying the change through or carrying people with it. A person can have intrinsic power, and/or intrinsic authority (often called ‘charismatic’).  And someone can by appointed to a position of institutional power and/or authority.  The first kind of powerful person – someone with intrinsic power, meaning human intelligence, charisma, creativity, insight, passion – can and should be able to forgive almost anyone.   And if I – as a weaker person – cannot forgive such a powerful person, then he or she should be willing to help me, thereby forgiving me first.

Sadly, the second kind of powerful person – someone obtaining a position of power for self-promotion – is usually slow to initiate, and will tend to not provide the ‘court of conversation’ wherein the words and steps needed to reconcile and restore a relationship can be taken.  If I – as a weaker person – cannot forgive such a powerful person, little will happen except he or she will harden and I will rot away.

when you have been stripped of all respect and dignity, labelled and condemned, it is very difficult to take the initiative towards those who have in their turn wronged you

This means that people with ‘earthly’ authority can – and should – forgive, while those without any (not that this is normal, since everyone has power in some contexts and relationships) cannot, though they can – as appropriate – confess their sins, ask for forgiveness, hope for mercy, and even pray for God’s strength to fill them so that they can be powerful forgivers.  But when you have been stripped of all respect and dignity, labelled and condemned, it is very, very difficult to take the initiative towards those who – so often – have in their turn wronged you.

This is not to say that those who are - for example - victims of sexual abuse cannot hope to receive the power to forgive.  The direction for all of us - powerful or powerless - is towards greater forgiving, not avoiding it, and I would not counsel anyone to give up hope of forgiving a wrong-doer.  But there is no 'should' or 'ought' for a relatively powerless person - counselling, prayer, new relationships will be the steps of empowerment.  The goal of empowerment is not intended to be to perpetuate the survival of the fittest - the use of power to restrict, punish, subjugate or even destroy another - but an equality of power in what was an unequal relationship.

Fred Keene, whose tremendous Biblical insight was quoted above, is a Californian mathematician married to Hannah, who was abused as a teenager by her priest, and he does understandably tend to use his Biblical insight as the basis for giving a victim the permission to not bother about forgiving at all!  Yet he also describes how working with counsellor Marie Fortune helped him balance out his position: she saw justice-making as efforts to "help empower those rendered powerless by abuse so that forgiveness becomes an option."  He recognised that he wanted to take the power away from the perpetrator, and she wanted to give power to the survivor.


9  The 'sinned-against'

A further aspect of this is the dimension which Raymond Fung called ‘being sinned-against’.   Fung first explored this in Good News to the Poor, a paper given to the World Mission Conference in Melbourne, 1981.   His insights stem from his early ministry as an industrial chaplain in Hong Kong, before he became Secretary for Evangelism with the World Council of Churches.  He realised that while evangelical Christianity said a lot about people as sinners, many people who are trapped in poverty and cycles of social and economic oppression could not simply be called sinners, but had to be understood as passive victims as well, and be called 'sinned-against':

A person is not only a sinner; a person is also the sinned-against. Men and women are not only violators of God's law; they are also the violated. ... I would like to report to the churches that the destroyer of the body may not be able to kill the soul, but it can - and too often does - rape and maim the soul.

When Matthew summed up the work of Jesus in the first stage of his ministry he put it this way: "When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matthew 9.36 - see also 14.14, 15.32 and Luke 7.13, 10.33, 15.20)  Compassion for people is only possible when we perceive people as the sinned-against.

Fung writes firstly about the poor - economically and socially - and then by implication shows us that "the middle-class, the not-so-poor, are also the sinned-against."  However, he has no desire to minimise the importance of recognising and confessing one's own sinfulness, particularly since this must include the way the middle-class are usually those who have done the sinning against the poor.   But those who lack power will only come to realise that they, too are sinners in need of God when they are at least empowered to the point of being able to struggle against oppression, and he observes:

Personal evangelism and mass evangelism are (almost) futile among the poor because, among many other reasons, both presuppose a receiving community which is not available to the poor in most of our existing churches today.


10  The 'forbidding institution'

Jesus behind bars.jpg (7573 bytes)Raymond Fung is surely right to expect Christian churches - and perhaps also mosques and synagogues - to be at the forefront of providing 'receiving communities' for empowerment and forgiveness.  (See the article Communities, institutions and belonging.)  Yet as he knows full well, most religious congregations have not even got as far as becoming communities, but are small institutions with smaller cliques within them, dominated by parent institutions. 

The question of how a community can be the seed-bed of real forgiveness and empowerment is one which Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, has addressed throughout his life:

In community it is so easy to judge and then condemn others.   We lock people up in a category: "He or she is like this or that."   When we do that we refuse them the possibility of growing. Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn.  This is the sin of community life.  If we judge, it is often because there is something inside us that we feel guilty about and which we do not want to look at or allow others to see.  When we judge, we are pushing people away; we are creating a wall, a barrier. (Community and Growth, p 36)

The 'them-and-us' mentality (see also the article On not excluding others) underlies all institutions which are not open, and reflects the war-time values of military institutions, which have a profound effect on civil ones.  (See for example People may be expendable.)  In the 18th century it became increasingly common to to view the role of power and authority in mechanical terms, using force to train and 're-form' children, the poor and criminals.   This attitude is still prevalent today, and the media play on it in their portrayals of wrongdoers and socially marginalised people, whether criminals or not.   Historian Michel Foucault, examining the origins and development of the idea of the prison in the 18th and 19th centuries, observes:

Historians of ideas usually attribute the dream of a perfect society to the philosophers and jurists of the eighteenth century; but there was also a military dream of society; its fundamental reference was not to the state of nature, but to the meticulously subordinated cogs of a machine, not to the primal social contract, but to permanent coercions; not to fundamental rights, but to indefinitely progressive forms of training, not to the general will but to automatic docility.  (Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, p 169)

Historically it received its fullest social expression in the bourgeois world-view.  This 'borough' mentality is defined in a dictionary as conventional, unimaginative, self-concerned and materialistic.  When this attitude adheres to institutions which we can reasonably claim should be taking the lead role in making community available to the economically poor - and for most religious congregations it does - they also therefore fail in compassion towards those sinners (the majority) who are also sinned-against - the poor in spirit. 

When you spend time with unchurched people in British society, for example, you find that there is a difference in them between hope and expectation, between

  • what they (still, rather amazingly) hope a Christian would be: which is somebody willing to be original, with compassion, depth, vision and sense of direction, and the insight or ability to go further into hurts and sorrows than most people will; 
  • and what they expect a Christian will be: which is a 'church member' caught up in the affairs and politics of the church, talking religion with a (probably unconscious) way of implying superiority over non-members.

It's not that they then look down on the 'churchy' ones.  It's just that they feel out of it, and expect nothing from them.  "You do your thing, I'll do mine."  It is a clich� of the modern Christian church in its pulpit pronouncements, for example, that "the church is the people, not the building," yet the day-to-day practice of most Christians is tragically a day-to-day denial of the words.

Philip Yancey, editor of Christianity Today, wisely observes that what defines this bourgeois mind-set in almost all society's institutions, from schools to multi-nationals and certainly churches, is "the insistence that we earn our way", so that not only is it economic success which creates our assumed standard of superiority but that more generally our deeds earn or merit their consequences (What's so amazing about grace? p 36).  We earn our rewards, we deserve our punishments.   We judge people almost entirely by what they have done.  He relates how he began to really discover how fundamental grace is to Christianity:

I heard this story from a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago.  He told how a prostitute came to him in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter.  Through sobs and tears she told him she had been renting out her daughter - two years old! - to men interested in kinky sex.  She made more money renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night.   She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. 

My friend could hardly bear to hear her sordid story.  At last he asked her if she had ever thought of going to a church for help.  A look of pure, naive shock crossed her face.  "Church?" she cried.  "Why would I ever go there?   I already feel terrible about myself.  They'd just make me feel worse."

What struck me about my friend's story is that women much like this prostitute fled to Jesus, not away from him.  Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers.  What has happened?   (op cit. p 11)


11   Cycles of blame and of guilt

To say that there is no 'should' or 'ought' about forgiving for a relatively powerless person may seem initially to be a surprising point.  Surely everyone should at least try to forgive?  But no, we need to encourage one another to be real, and to see that it is not about duty or effort, but about power and then also authority – the power to create an atmosphere of trust, or the power to make public pronouncements, or the power to arrange for a meeting, or the power to invite into a community. 

the power to create an atmosphere of trust, or the power to make public pronouncements, or the power to invite into a community. 

A colleague came back from Rwanda after the civil war between Hutu and Tutsi, and he said there could not even be a dream of forgiveness until a court of 'just conversation' could be established.  It requires not only power but also authority to establish this court of conversation - something which the caring world then glimpsed in the extraordinarily lofty aim of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Since in some cases a restoration may be deemed possible only with the condition of a disciplinary action or process, particularly when a profession's standing is felt to be under scrutiny, power will also sometimes be needed to apply a process of discipline and restitution.  And since restoration is not always the right or best step into the future (or that human frailties make it impossible), power may be needed to enable a fresh beginning for a wrongdoer or for a tribe. 

However, the picture of this 'single-step' relationship between 'righteous' and 'sinner' seldom exists in real life, even when someone has publicly acknowledged wrong-doing.  In most cases in daily life, there is not one person who sins, and another who condemns and/or forgives.  There are many cycles of blame, where someone’s wrongdoing is met by further cruelty, incompetence or injustice, by the desire to find a scapegoat or the concern to prove one's own efficiency or competence.  When someone has been labelled as a sinner – and this reflects the situation in Jesus’ own time, when the word ‘sinner’ conveyed the meaning of social outcast – there is very little he or she can do to change the terms under which they are viewed, or the way their words are interpreted or their gestures misunderstood.

And along with cycles of blame, there are cycles of guilt.  We will all know good people who tried to forgive, or who took a small and unsuccessful step in reconciling with someone, and become trapped in cycles of guilt because they feel they ought to be able to forgive and found they can’t see it through.  Let's emphasise again that we all have power in some relationships, though not in others, and we need some insight into ourselves to be honest about which is what, where!  That said, if you are less powerful than the person who wronged you, you are not going to be able to forgive them in any active, situation-changing way until you have first been empowered – by God or by a great love and friendship or by success in a new career or all of these.

So ask yourself again: for this particular relationship/situation, do you yet have the power to create an atmosphere of trust, or the power to make public pronouncements, or the power to arrange for a meeting, or the power to invite into a community?  Those are the kind of steps people take to provide a ‘court of conversation’ in which forgiveness can be effected.  If you have any or all of those kinds of power, then you should be forgiving.  If you don’t … well, do hope, even ask, for forgiveness, but be candid about the complexities of social existence and the lack of time and energy we have to work everything through, give more of your energies to relationships where you do have the power and authority to bring in some element of forgiveness.

Restoration of the past is probably the fullest expression of forgiveness.  But it needs unusually strong and wise leadership to bring it about.  In most cases of active, responsible forgiveness, it’s enough that you are released for a new set of relationships, or a new career or role.


12   Human power and God-given power

What about the query some will raise, about wanting God’s power, and not human power.  (This is connected with the distinction between those who are appointed to positions of power, and those who actually have and can manifest intrinsic power.)

We may find direction in a remarkable example from Corrie Ten Boom, in The Hiding Place:

"It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck.  He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time.  And suddenly it was all there -  the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie's pain-blanched face.  

He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing.  "How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein, " he said. "To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!"  His hand was thrust out to shake mine.  And I, who had preached so often to the people the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.   Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them.   Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more?  Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.

I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand.  I could not.  I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity.  And so again I breathed a silent prayer.  Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.  As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened.  From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on his.  When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself."

5thElement.jpg (11240 bytes)We saw above how Jesus displayed both the power to initiate radical forgiveness, changing situations, and also a more passive longing for forgiveness ("Father forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing") in his passion.   Both God’s power, and human power, are important in forgiveness, and so we need to reflect on the view – set forth clearly in Romans 13 – that those with earthly authority (governors, police chiefs, lawyers, bankers) have been given that authority by God.

Ray Bakke, in his influential journal International Urban Associates, has made available some of the insights of City Leadership Foundations, networks and forums of 'secular' officials and leaders together with religious leaders.  For example, when Atlanta was planning to host the 1996 Olympics, many complained at the vast costs, saying (like Judas) that the money could be given to the poor.  But in the city’s leadership foundation, Pastor Bob Lutz persuaded the housing department to let him have some of the new housing being built for athletes, so that as soon as the games were over it could be used to house nearly 900 homeless people.  Bakke quotes Reid Carpenter from Chicago:

The power and authority of all police departments and mayor’s offices belongs to Jesus.  The same is true of bankers and board chairs.  These people and these institutions represent justice and order in our fallen society.  But for the most part these people have not been told why they are here. (IUA, Fall, 1993)


13   Empty appointments and intrinsic power

Those who are put into positions of power may or may not deserve the appointment.   They may not have, intrinsically, the ability to exercise such power.  And part of the criterion we use to assess their performance will be whether they use the power well – whether they do show creativity, increase freedom, increase love and reconciliation – or whether they merely lock up prisoners, blame others, sweep problems under the carpet, busy themselves with routines and rituals, etc.

Even those who tend to the left and to revolution rather than maintenance can perhaps agree with Paul’s apparently conservative view, once impacted by examples like the Atlanta leadership foundation.  There is a sense in which we may as well say that all positions of human authority are God-given.  This is not at all to insist that those who are not Christian should accept this.  The point is rather that those who do claim a Christian viewpoint need to look at this as another call to stop reducing forgiveness to the merely passive, and to understand the place of power in forgiveness.  Therefore it really matters that people placed in authority are called to fill that position with intrinsic, personal authority as well.

We may want to go on to ask, "Is the intrinsic power God-given?"  The answer is probably Yes again, for the same kind of reason and as viewed by those on a Christian path.   The personal qualities which constitute intrinsic power include intelligence, charisma, creativity, insight, passion, patient depth, openness – and these can be readily be called God-given or God-reflecting. 

Forgiveness is not exclusive to Christianity, even though Christ is a uniquely strong and distinctive source of it.   There is real, active, authoritative and life-changing forgiveness in Judaism, or Hinduism, or psychotherapy, or in ordinary people touched by a moment of mercy and magic. 

The most radical point that we need to see, from whatever background we are coming, is that to initiate forgiveness – to move from passive to active forgiveness – does need real, intrinsic power and personal authority, whether or not this is believed to be from God or to be human, and whether or not the agent of change is in a position of institutional authority, or stands firm on his/her own two feet.



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Last modified  16 April 2005