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Because the topic of forgiveness is so sensitive, and has so often been used to bludgeon, silence or guilt those who have suffered an injustice, I want to start off with a few caveats. I don’t think anyone has the right to demand that another person should forgive, or forgive on a certain time line. In my mind, God can give us anger at an injustice as a powerful force to drive personal and societal change. Forgiveness isn’t a more “worthy” or morally correct feeling than anger. Each emotion has its appropriate time and place. Please accept the following thoughts not as a general promotion of forgiveness, but theological reflections on forgiveness in its proper time and place.

My father-in-law Ray was the victim of medical malpractice when he was in his 60s, and the family believes his quality of life could have been better in his remaining years if things had been done right early on. Ray could probably have successfully sued his doctor – and since Ray is a lawyer, he could probably have done it without much cost to himself. But Ray chose not to, saying that he just didn’t want to spend his remaining years in the courtroom. He’d rather enjoy whatever time he had left with his family.

Ray’s decision came to mind after I heard the Norwegian Labour Youth Party’s response to the terrorist who killed 77 people, most of them teenagers, on July 22 this year. Eskil Pedersen, the leader of the Youth party, later said at the party’s official memorial gathering, “We have been changed and marked by what has happened. We will always be known as the July 22 generation. And that gives us power. Because we have the power to decide what the future will be.”

Neither one of these vignettes is about forgiveness per se, but my curiosity was awakened. What, exactly, does the famous Matthew 18 say about forgiveness? Matthew 18 contains the scene where Peter asks whether 7 is the correct number of times to forgive, and Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. Now, Jesus may simply have been saying, “Peter, you dolt, this isn’t something you can quantify. This is about soul and internal transformation, not a set of rules.” However, if he was saying something more generalisable, what could that be?

I started, as usual, by looking at the context. What is going on in the story before and after this particular scene?

The story with Peter is in a collection of parables and incidents that take place just before Jesus goes to Jerusalem and is killed. In terms of relative importance, we are close to the core of what Jesus’ wanted his disciples to know, the heart of what he wanted to accomplish in his life. Immediately before Peter’s question is the parable of the lost sheep, in which Jesus explains that each sheep (person) is too beloved and precious for God to allow him or her to be lost. Before that, the disciples bicker about who is greatest, and Jesus tells them that the greatest is s/he who is most like a child. Immediately after Peter’s question comes the parable of the unmerciful servant, who is forgiven a huge debt he owes his master, but follows up by refusing to forgive a smaller debt that is owed him, and harshly punishes the debtor. The master’s response is to withdraw the forgiveness he had previously granted. Jesus moves on to address divorce, essentially saying that a man can’t just divorce his wife because he feels like it. Then Jesus returns to the topic of children, saying that heaven belongs to children and those who are like children.

In looking at all these stories together, it looks to me like Jesus is addressing generosity, broadly speaking. What they all have in common is that the initiator of the parable is trying to impose some sort of judgment on others, dividing people into categories of greater/lesser or worthy/unworthy.  It is about turning away children, someone who owes money, or a wife one is no longer infatuated with. In each situation, it is the person with relative power in the relationship who rejects the one who has less worldly power. Jesus teaches the person who would judge or dismiss someone who comes to them that they should respond generously and with welcome.

What – the question of forgiveness belongs in the larger picture of generosity and welcome?!

I have always thought of forgiveness in the framework of justice, as an ultimate goal in a journey that involves the victim feeling healed, the perpetrator repenting, making amends, and choosing a better path. Maybe that’s why I could never articulate a theology of forgiveness?! As long as I looked at forgiveness in the context of justice, it seemed to tie the victim to the perpetrator in a relationship of sorts, and the humanly impossible feat of feeling peace about what had happened. It never felt right.

But what if forgiveness instead is about acts of generosity and welcome? Perhaps that is why my father-in-law Ray and the Norwegian Labor Youth’s actions made me want to read Matthew 18. Now, I can’t say anything about how any of them feel – that is not for me to say. They may feel badly done by, angry, and still hungering for an apology,  restoration, or wanting never to have anything to do with the perpetrator ever again. All of those would be very natural feelings. Perhaps they feel peace about it? I don’t know and I don’t think I’m entitled to know, and it belongs in their inner world and their relationship with God.

I do think I am permitted to reflect on other people’s acts. My father-in-law decided not to invest any more of his energy in the doctor and did not sue him. Instead he devoted himself to his wife and family and causes he believed in, creating a better life for all. The Labor Youth likewise decided to more or less ignore the killer. They have decided to put their energy into shaping the future. Their generosity and welcome of Muslims were the policies that got them into the crosshairs of the killer. After the killings, the surviving youth redicated themselves to that vision. Furthermore, they discerned that building social trust – creating a society that allows people’s spiritual, emotional, and physical needs to be met – is the best defense against violence. In other words, they are being welcoming and generous to all, in the hopes it might prevent future killings.  

That looks like forgiveness to me, the kind we read about in Matthew 18. Then we can leave feelings of anger, peace, despair or contentment where they belong, in the private conversations in the heart between the individual and God. 

Query for prayerful reflection: What stirs in you when you think of forgiveness within the framework of generosity and welcome? What do you think of the idea of distinguishing between feelings and acts when considering forgiveness?

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My Easter and resurrection reflections have drawn my attention once again to one of the peculiarly American liberal Quaker/Christian heresies: we are prone to making an idol of “sensitivity”, taking our desire to avoid hurt feelings to an unhealthy extreme. This idol has a companion sin: we commit acts of verbal violence against people if we think they are hurting another’s feelings. We feel justified and righteous in verbal attacks even when it flies in the face of our peace testimony and our belief in “that of God’ in every person. We seem to think we shouldn’t be loving of people who have hurt another’s feelings or are intolerant. We are tolerant of everything, except intolerance.

I write this with fondness and humor, Friends, because I am, ahem, intimately acquainted with this particular heresy and sin. I could write this as a confession of the times when I have been out of balance in my own understanding of what justice required me to do. “Balance” is the key word here: I am absolutely in favor of sensitivity and clearly naming the injustices we see. Quakers are good at being sensitive and speaking truth to power, although as with most groups, there are a few injustices we ourselves commit, to which we are still blind! I’m proud of our commitment to justice, incomplete as it is in some areas, and though we take it a little bit too far in others.

We love and desire justice, and that is good. But these good things can become idolatrous and harmful when taken too far. They become demonic when they arise from an inability to accept the flaws of humans, human institutions, and the world in which we live.

And oh, what joys we miss out on when we put too much emphasis on achieving complete justice instantly! So let me write about the theological components that I believe could bring our desire for justice into balance and give us a taste of God’s own sweet consolation. I came to these conclusions reluctantly. Resisting, kicking, and screaming, to be precise. All of the following statements used to offend my sense of justice. But much as I disliked them, I have found a deeper joy, greater sense of purpose, and more energy for action in accepting them! I encourage you to meditate on each one of these statements:

1. Life is not fair. In fact, as Buddhists would say, “life is suffering”. I think we have an easier time accepting this when it comes to earthquakes and sickness and death. Unfortunately, I suspect this to be the case with human-made injustices, too. No sooner have we done away with one injustice than another arises in its wake, oftentimes as a result of an over-correction in addressing the first injustice (examples: excessive penalties placed on Germany after World War I may have led to the social conditions that laid the foundation for the rise of Hitler and World War II; the UN’s good desire to create a safe haven for Jews after WWII led to excessive demands on Palestinians, whose land and homes were taken away). God still requires us to do justice and love mercy, so acceptance of the inevitability of injustice is not an excuse for inaction. Acceptance of injustice as the way of the world merely allows us to be generous and merciful as we seek to eradicate injustice.   

2. We humans are all fundamentally flawed, and God seems to be able to work with us anyway. Robert Barclay, in his Apology, challenged the theology of original sin and formulated a Quaker theology that says we aren’t sinners until we have sinned. Still, he claims that humans have “the propensity to sin” – not a one of us will avoid sinning. Knowing that God only has flawed human beings to work with is liberating! We don’t need to be perfect, nor do we need to insist that others be perfect. We know God’s work will get done with whatever raw material God has to work with. Jesus routinely despaired at the limitations of his disciples, yet they were his beloved companions and founded the church. Saul was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers – until he was blinded, turned around, and became a leader of the church! So we can be kind and merciful with a person who falls short, knowing it is only a matter of time until we ourselves fail and want to be met with kindness and forgiveness.

3. Brokenness, sin, and death can be sources of new life. When someone suffers, God finds a way to redeem the suffering and bring forth new life. I recently wrote about my daughter’s experience of injustice on the basketball courts here. Not a major injustice in the grand scheme of things, but to me a small-scale illustration of how character and compassion grow forth out of adversity. In my own life, I became deeply depressed and miserable when I learned I was pre-diabetic, but made changes in my life that ultimately made me healthier, more energetic, and more respectful and appreciative of my body than I was when I thought I was healthy. Sometimes we can even do damage if we insist on justice before the process of resurrection has come to completion. 

4. We are just sojourners here on earth, visitors in a strange land. Our true home is in God. As long as we wander on earth, we should expect previews and foretastes of heaven, yes. But we cannot expect that we will see the divine order fulfilled here and now. Walter Wink has done a tremendous service in proclaiming that every human institution is 1) created for a divine purpose, 2) fallen, and 3) redeemable. Rather than berate leaders of institutions when their fallen nature is visible, we can call forth the Divine purpose for which they were created and invite them to strive for redemption. But true joy and peace lies in knowing that we can never be fully satisfied with anything or anyone here on earth, and not to place our hopes in institutions or organisations that cannot truly satisfy our deepest longing.

In all of these statements, our good desire for justice becomes idolatrous when we seek to push outside the true nature of Gods’ creation and intentions, when we want people, institutions, or the world to be something they cannot be.

Query for prayerful consideration:

How do I know when my pursuit of justice becomes idolatrous?

I want to celebrate a funny incident with you, dear reader.

A friend of mine, S,  asked yesterday whether I could help her figure out the story behind Muslim youth rioting in Denmark after a newspaper there reprinted an old cartoon illustration of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him). I explained it as best I could and later told my husband about the conversation I’d had with S. As I was telling him about it, I realized that her questions would have elicited something other than my matter-of-fact response not too many years ago.  

Friends, I realized at that moment that I had reached a milestone in my life in the USA – I have found freedom from the pain I used to experience when I listened for and expected Americans to reveal bias. In the past, I would probably have been offended that S asked me about Denmark, when I am mostly Norwegian. It would have fit the pattern of Americans not knowing the difference between the three Scandinavian countries and failing to remember which one I am from once they knew me. Or thinking that the three countries are so similar that whatever is true of one country is also true of the two others.

One of the ugly fights my husband and I had early on in our relationship was over the question, “Is Finland part of Scandinavia?” This may sound hilariously trivial to you, but it wasn’t to me. What was at stake was the power to define and name. Who defines what Scandinavia is or isn’t, someone from Scandinavia or someone from the USA? Scandinavians and Finns do not consider Finland to be part of Scandinavia, and my position was and is that he as an American ought to defer to me on this. This was at a time when I experienced discrimination against foreigners as very painful and demeaning. For me, the right for myself as a Scandinavian to define Scandinavia was close to being a life-or-death issue.

And now, my husband and I tell the story of our first big fight as one of the funny stories about our relationship. And S can ask this Norwegian about Denmark without me taking offense.

The truth is that as a Norwegian I do know more about Denmark than most Americans, and S knows that. And S knows perfectly well that I am Norwegian, not Danish.

I don’t hear anywhere near as much prejudice as I used to, and I humbly confess that much of the difference is in me, not in what people say. When I was sensitized to prejudice, I heard a lot of it. Each time I heal a little more, I hear a little less prejudice and am wounded just a little less even when I do. And so I find myself a little more able to forgive when someone does make a discriminatory statement. It is also clear to me that, as I heal and find the ability to forgive, it is because of God’s grace, not my own accomplishment. I know experientially that, left to our own devices, there probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of forgiving going on in this world.

At the same time, it is still true that many Americans seem remarkably unknowledgeable of the world when you consider how much power this country wields in that same world. Another factor is that during the run-up to war and during election season, this Norwegian suffers through daily doses of media communication to the effect that the USA is the best country in the world, is the most free, the most democratic, has the best constitution, the best education system, and has sacrificed the most for the rest of the world, is the best country for women to live in, etc. The funny thing is, many Americans – including some of those close to me or in my community – also seem to feel perfectly free to tell me about an aspect of American life that they consider superior, knowing full well that I am not American. Since my experience is that Americans in most other respects are among the most socially graceful people I know, I can only presume that they are unaware that to citizens of other countries, almost all of whom DO love and miss our home culture, history, family, and traditions (whether we miss the socio-economic and political structures or not varies widely), those statements can be insulting – and we are exposed to them through one aspect or another daily.

In the spirit of “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, I think internal US criticism of the war in Iraq has helped my wounds to heal. It is a paradox for me to lament the war and yet see that others’ resistance to the war gives me relief. As I heal, I am aware that I can’t neglect the suffering of others, even though my healing is not the cause of their suffering.

So I celebrate my new freedom, recognizing that part of it has to do with actually being subjected to fewer discriminating statements, and part of it is that God’s grace works to release me from the pain I might so easily experience. In the same way that I have freely received God’s spirit, I become responsible for doing what I can to bring God’s spirit to others who suffer. God’s Spirit makes me one with them.  

Query for prayerful consideration:

How does pain I experience in my life affect what I hear? Are there signs of improvement externally in areas of pain for me? Are there any paradoxes in that situation – is new suffering arising as one group’s situation improves? What implications does any of this have for me as I consider injustices in the world, in the Religious Society of Friends, and lowering the barriers that currently exist?