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.
When someone says
that forgiveness isnt easy and theyre 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 hes contrite or penitent).
|Why dont 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
dont want to have my wrongs and inadequacies exposed in the light of love and
The German thinker
Helmut Thielicke, courageous in the face of Nazism, wrote:
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.
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)
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
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
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 ones
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.
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. Marks 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 dont even know that he knew
supernaturally what sins the man had committed, although Johns gospel does present
Jesus as possessing that kind of knowledge (John 4.18,39). His forgiveness
Gods 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 mans 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.
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
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 persons 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 Lords 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
Healing and transformation
Jewish belief linked forgiveness
to Gods 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, "Hes 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 Gods 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
"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"
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.
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 ones
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 its 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.
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)
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
can cope with it
I am willing to co-exist with X on a day-to-day basis.
I wont run away if I
meet him/her if X is a work colleague I am able to work well with him/her.
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.
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.
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 Xs well-being as well as my own, and see him/her
in a larger context.
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 sinners sins (as if for eternal punishment), but the word
used here (krateo) means to keep to yourself or to cling on
The rabbinical teaching of
Jesus time used the word binding which appears at Matthew 16.19 and
18.18 it meant that a sinners 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 dont forgive. You are trapping yourself in a
permanent memory of what wronged you. You become no more than the sin.
someones sins is an awful, useless, cruel and cowardly thing to do, and
Matthews 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 someones 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 Christs 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.)
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.
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 Gods 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.
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
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
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.
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
The question of how a community can be
the seed-bed of real forgiveness and empowerment is one which Jean Vanier, founder of the
LArche 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
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
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)
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.
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 someones 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
cant 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.
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 dont
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,
its enough that you are released for a new set of relationships, or a new career or
Human power and God-given power
What about the query some will
raise, about wanting Gods 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
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
And so I discovered that it is not
on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the worlds healing hinges, but
on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the
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 Gods 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 citys 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 mayors 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)
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 Pauls 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.