Following an interesting, thought-provoking and moving blog from my Twitter friend, Peter, I wanted to think a little about the concept of forgiveness as I understand it.
Peter’s Blog: http://pme200.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/forgiveness.html
The Lord’s Prayer has us say / ask “forgive us our trespasses (sins, debts), as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The rote repetition of this phrase without unpacking it or finding some personal or social context for it may lead people to be turned off by the idea in much the same way as Peter suggests (I think rightly) that school hymns and prayers might sometimes be a kind of aversion therapy with regard to religion.
Key to Peter’s blog, and linked with his own and others’ stories, is the suggestion that one cannot be expected to forgive someone or something on behalf of another; one can forgive only the wrong done to oneself.
Peter suggests that the concept of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, in particular in the Christian tradition, is lost to the wider community “because so many people are turned off not just by the way it is taught, but the way Christianity is perceived in such negative terms in this country for a whole raft of reason.”
Something of that may lie behind Peter’s view that “for him “another problem with the Christian “forgive everyone, forgive everything” approach is that, …, it’s way too broad-brushed and unfocused. It therefore loses its power …; it’s just a mantra.”
There is danger that words repeated without thought can lose power. Indeed, I sometimes omit the Lord’s Prayer from public worship for that very reason. However, a mantra is a phrase, word or some such that is understood to be capable of creating transformation. Properly speaking, then, a mantra is indeed a powerful tool, a tool of spiritual, and as a result one would hope, practical change.
So, what do I understand by these words? Well, let’s look at them again, “Forgive us our trespasses (sins) as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us).
First of all, that word “as”: Peter suggests that in this prayer “We are asking for forgiveness for things we have done wrong, and saying we will forgive others for wrongs towards us.” I don’t quite see it that way. For me, in openness to, as I see it, the divine in me and in others, I also open myself to the possibility that others shall be towards me as I am towards them. If I am unforgiving of another, I cannot expect another to be forgiving of me. I create something by my actions in the divine economy. For some this will have a final judgment element in that the unforgiving now may be faced with an unforgiving Divine Judge at the day of reckoning.
I think Peter makes a good point here about the need for forgiveness to be personal but the personal has to begin with an attitude and Peter tells a wonderful story about how as a result of a course his attitude changed. In this prayer, I am asking that my attitude be one that is ready to forgive, open to the possibility of forgiveness. I think this is related to Peter’s comment about understanding “the rationale and how to do it, (making it) so much easier.” Forgiveness is not cheap as a result of this, nor necessarily any less costly when given but having readiness to forgive may just add a different dynamic to human relationships.
Second: that word, trespass or sin or debt. Sin is a strange word, not much used in common speech, and perhaps little understood even by those of us who do use it in faith circles. I take it to be a falling short, as I once read, like an arrow falling short of its target, of what we might be. It is something all of us are capable of, many of us would admit to, and I know that to be true for me. I fall short of what I would be, of what I could and can be, sometimes through ignorance, sometimes through laziness, occasionally, if I am absolutely honest, because I will it. Sin is not some narrowly defined act of immorality – though certain of my co-religionists seem to major on one or two aspects of human behaviour to the exclusion of much else. To recognise that all of us are capable of falling short, of missing the mark, and to have a readiness to forgive, is to make it less likely to do what I think some may do, and major on another’s “sin” as a way of avoiding facing up to our own. Jesus had something to say about this in terms of taking the plank out of one’s own eye before getting too hot and bothered about the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye.
Third, is the matter of self-forgiveness, an important aspect of the subject on which Peter rightly touches. For me, to pray on this matter, to say the words of the Lord’s Prayer, specifically, is not to ask for forgiveness from “a spirit in the sky” – few descriptions could be further from my concept of the divine – but to recognise that I share that common human condition of occasionally missing the bull’s-eye is to know that I also share the possibility of a forgiveness which I find in the divine order and which I help to create / recreate by my own actions (or negate / hinder if I am unforgiving). (I am all too aware that some “fall short” spectacularly, and that some might be considered truly evil –forgiveness in relation to such people raises a host of other issues I shall not attempt to deal with here).
Fourth, and Peter recognises this in his blog, forgiveness does have power to transform individuals and situations. There have been a number of occasions in my life where the ability to forgive has allowed me to move on, to let go of something that was hurting me. Holding a grudge has little effect, if any, on the one who has hurt us, but we carry a heavy burden indeed if we cannot let it go, a burden that can sully every new situation and experience.
One often sees the idea of forgetting tied to that of forgiveness. Forgive and forget, we are enjoined. Well, not necessarily so! We can learn from bad experiences, perhaps so that we may avoid repeating them, and we may need to remember those lessons. To forgive, however, is to cease to be a victim, to set oneself free from the bad experience and the perpetrator of that bad experience. “Forgiveness,” someone said, “is setting the captive bird free; then realising you have been the captive bird.” When I work with people who have been hurt we may become aware that we cannot change what has passed; what we may be able to change is how we react to those things going forward, how we live today. The best we can hope for may be to change the way we look at those things. It is true that sometimes this will demand great effort and great cost, but the release may be immense. Peter’s story of the fire-fighter is a powerful example.
To conclude, I am grateful to Peter for his thought provoking and sensitive blog. We are not far apart, I believe. I think, however, that I wanted to respond to the idea that Christianity somehow proposes a “forgive everyone, forgive everything” approach. I hope I have shown it to be far more nuanced than that, and to support Peter’s proposition that the idea and practice of forgiveness, (and for me that would be from the Christian tradition, or others religious or not) has the potential to transform personal and communal relationships for the better.
Thanks Peter, and my apologies if I have misrepresented or done injustice to any of your ideas or comments.
By the way, I’ve ordered one of the books Peter suggested, the Wiesenthal. Maybe I’ll blog later on what I think of it