Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Forgiving as We Have Been Forgiven

Mt 18:21-35[1]

Every Sunday, millions of Christians in this country pray for God to forgive us as we forgive others. I wonder to what extent we really take that seriously. Let’s face it, there’s something very difficult about really forgiving those who have wronged us. On this day, it’s especially difficult for us to forgive those who attacked this country and caused the deaths of thousands of our fellow Americans. And on this day, of all days, the good news of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ tells us that we are to forgive those who sin against us not just seven times but seventy-seven times![2] When I was planning my sermons a couple of months ago and I saw that what the gospel reading was for this Sunday, I knew it was going to be challenging for us.

The last ten years have consumed us with a “war on terror.” Apparently, in some measures we have been relatively successful at thwarting Al Qaeda.[3] And yet, at what cost? Besides the many thousands who have died, there is also the cost in what are essentially intangible measures. We’ve had to learn to adjust to a whole different way of life that is marked by greater hostility toward those who are different from us, greater anxiety about our safety, and greater fear about our future. But perhaps the most pervasive cost to us is that in our effort to make ourselves feel safe we have sold our souls to the gods of war and violence. In the process, we have essentially imprisoned ourselves in a house whose boundaries are inscribed by our fear and anger and unwillingness to forgive.

There’s a story in the 2005 Sydney Pollack film, The Interpreter that I think illustrates our predicament: do we go on avenging ourselves on our enemies, or do we find a way to practice the forgiveness we say we believe in, and in so doing set ourselves free from that awful day? The film is about an interpreter at the United Nations named Sylvia. She tells the story of a ritual of forgiveness in Africa that’s based on the principle that “the only way to end grief is to save a life.” The ritual takes place when someone is murdered. After a year of mourning, the family of the victim undergoes the “Drowning Man Trial,” where the killer is tied up and thrown into a river to drown. The family have to choose—if they let the killer drown, they will have justice, but they will spend the rest of their lives in mourning. If they save the killer from drowning, if they accept that they share a common humanity and that life isn’t always just, then their act of saving a life can heal their grief. Whether there is or ever was such a thing as a “drowning man trial,” I think it serves at least like a parable for us: do we forgive as we have been forgiven, and in so doing find healing for ourselves, or do we seek vengeance and punishment, and so find ourselves trapped in grief and bitterness?

There is a real-life story of forgiveness that comes out of South Africa and the injustice of Apartheid. One person who embodies this story is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was raised in one of the townships—or better shanty towns—where black South Africans were kept. He lived Apartheid—he and his family experienced it firsthand. Several of his friends were imprisoned and even killed in the violence that defined South Africa under Apartheid. When that whole system of oppression ended, the South African people faced a crossroads: would they simply live out the script of every oppressed people throughout history, whereby the oppressed become the oppressors, or could they find a different path that would lead to healing for both oppressed and oppressors alike?[4]

The leaders of the new South Africa formed a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to try to seek that different path. Instead of handing out punishment, the whole purpose of the commission was to give victims the chance to tell their stories, to have their suffering acknowledged, and to confront their oppressors in person. And to give the oppressors a change to tell the truth about their crimes and seek forgiveness and clemency. They had no idea what would happen from this, but as it turns out, time after time, oppressed and oppressor came together and experienced genuine reconciliation based on the experience of crimes acknowledged and forgiven.

One of the foundational principles of this experience is what Tutu calls “Ubuntu.”[5] It is a Xhosa word that stands for the idea that we all share a common humanity. It says that the only way the human family can thrive is together. That means that when we look at another human being, even someone who has wounded us deeply, we cannot see an enemy, but rather a fellow human being, a brother or a sister. It seems to me that, in order to prayer the prayer, “forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” and mean it, we have to practice “Ubuntu”—we have to acknowledge that we share a common humanity even with those who wrong us. When we can look at those who inflict pain on us and see brothers and sisters, then we can begin to forgive as we have been forgiven. Then we can begin to set them and ourselves free from the vicious circle of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and move into the freedom of forgiving as we have been forgiven.[6]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/11/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible 8: 380, where he observes, “Whoever counts has not forgiven at all, but is only biding his or her time (1 Cor 13:5). The kind of forgiveness called for is beyond all calculation.” Cf. also D. A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 537. Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew, 465, where he points out that Peter was asking not about limited forgiveness but whether he was expected to practice perfect forgiveness. Jesus responds by calling for “The most perfect, boundlessly infinite, countlessly repeated forgiveness.”

[3] “Ten Years On,” The Economist 3 Sept 2011, 11-12.

[4] Cf. Desmond Tutu, God has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for our Time, 52-58.

[5] Cf. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, 47; cf. also Tutu, God Has a Dream, 25-28.

[6] Tutu & Tutu, Made for Goodness, 150-51.

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