Saturday, 25 January 2014

Meditation on Forgiveness

I've always found Stephen Cherry's books and insights very helpful. He blogs at Another Angle and I was fascinated by his recent post  The Railwayman - Implications for Forgiveness here   In it, he looks at forgiveness from what I would describe as a 'narrative theology' slant. This avoids the trap of putting all the emphasis on the individual alone, though it emphasises the responsibility of the individual to behave in certain ways perhaps more clearly than many other theologies of forgiveness. He quotes an excerpt from his book Healing Agony - Re-imagining Forgiveness,

'Whether or not you can forgive is not all down to you. Your role is to play your part in the story that unfolds with honesty, integrity, generosity and courage.'

published by Bloomsbury here 

Forgiveness, he argues, is not simply an act of the emotions or the will, it is about the interaction of the individual who has been wronged with the developing situation; as he or she takes their place in the unfolding narrative, they themselves are changed by the situation and they come to hold out opportunities for change to others. Whatever happens at a deep level is achieved by persistent integrity which eventually bears fruit at the intersection of these sometimes complex narratives. So forgiveness is better seen as a process in which the people involved travel a lengthy journey, perhaps beginning from a place where forgiveness seems unimaginable and gradually moving to a place where it becomes something to think about and work for - something that begins to be meaningful and that finally, over time, becomes a reality. The Railwayman offers an example of such a story in which the threads of different lives slowly become interwoven in ways that lead to a place of forgiveness that would have been inconceivable at the start.

Last week, I also came across a blogpost by Marie Fortune on the Faith Trust Institute website here The Institute works to end sexual and domestic violence. Fortune discusses the problem of confusing forgiveness with passivity in the face of evil or injustice. She takes the example of Nelson Mandela's life. In his life, she sees forgiveness lived out as a 'strategy which no doubt required great discipline'. Having refused all offers of conditional release from gaol until the South African government was ready to begin talking about dismantling apartheid, Mandela awaited his moment; once the conditions for justice were beginning to emerge, he moved. Instead of calling for vengeance, he and Desmond Tutu set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a mechanism by which truth about what had happened came, at least in some measure, be revealed.

'Forgiveness is about remembering the past in order to strengthen our efforts not to repeat it.'

Remembering (perhaps in the sense of 're-membering' - seeking to reconstruct the fragmented bits of the past in narrative form) and truth-telling lead to a sense of justice that does not look necessarily to extract recompense but which can set a person free into the release of forgiveness. Even imperfect or incomplete justice can begin to create the conditions that make forgiveness a real possibility. The attempt to speak and hear truth facilitates this.

In Mandela's story, we see forgiveness as a process that involved one man at the same time it involved a whole nation - a highly complex political and personal narrative where forgiveness meant not only giving and receiving at a personal level in ways most of us find hard to imagine, but motivating a nation to do the same. It's too early to say for sure whether the process has been truly successful in allowing whole generations of the South African nation to forgive. There are some who see the current violence in South African society as a warning sign that the truth telling did not penetrate deeply enough into the nation's psyche. There are others who postulate a degree of transference from the need to confront expressions of racial hatred by violence to sexual violence. 

In our society, forgiveness is often trivialised and romanticised. It is always very costly, always calls for discipline, almost always takes far more time than we expect. Preaching on the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) in Advent, on the Sunday after Mandela died, I was struck by how closely the persona of the suffering servant fitted Mandela's circumstances.

'A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots." The coming Messiah is described as a tiny, fragile new branch growing out from an old stump - something that could so easily be snapped off and broken. Mandela spent 27 years in various gaols - he could so easily have had his spirit crushed, he might never have recovered his physical strength, he might have become intractably bitter. 'But the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him - the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.' Mandela's story is one of sheer discipline over a great deal of time, of profound discernment and of waiting (it must have seemed endless) to grasp the moment for change when it came. It is a story, like the story of ancient Israel and the Suffering Servant, about political storms, exile and seemingly impenetrable disaster upon disaster with an individual caught in the cross current in a way that would destroy most men and women. But Isaiah 53 also has that very strong metaphor of the peaceable kingdom at its heart - the impossible-to-imagine kingdom where leopard and lamb lie down together and the child plays over the hole of the deadly snake. There is something here about forgiveness, reconciliation and the peace that proceeds only being possible through the lives of those who submit to the storms of injustice, unfairness and outrage that life throws at them and those around them absolutely refusing to allow that the storm itself is the whole story. The Servant of the Lord does not 'judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear but with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.' Mandela, the Suffering Servant and those of that illustrious company enter so fully into the narrative of their time and circumstances that they are able to let the storm do what it will to bring change both to them and, through them, to their people and time.

I am indebted to Stephen Cherry for his reminder about forgiveness as the story of more than just the individuals who are in conflict. The story of the Suffering Servant is rich ground indeed for understanding the complex processes by which God's Spirit turns situations of grave conflict into opportunities to grow health and peace from the seedbed of painful, challenging, non-vengeful truth-telling. It reminds us that theologies of the atonement should be understood less as explanations for the wrath of God and more as explorations of the way in which evil leads inexorably to death without the costly intervention of God's Spirit in the lives of people committed to truth-telling and peace.    


  1. Janet: Thank you so much for mentioning Stephen Cherry's new book. This is awesome. Do you think this would be a good book for congregational Lenten Reading?

  2. Yes I do very challenging, though and quite deep.