Three Types of Forgiveness: From Outrage to Freedom

This past summer, Dr. Judith Oleson, associate professor of sociology and social work and coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Minor, had an opportunity to stay in the old Jewish quarters of Krakow, Poland. She then visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, where nearly the entire Jewish population of Europe was extinguished. As a result, the Holocaust became more real to Oleson, as did the need to explore the the importance of forgiveness in her work on reconciliation studies. She has also been studying Rwandan reconciliation efforts after the genocide; Oleson referred to both in a chapel talk she gave to Gordon students Monday, October 31. Below is the text of her talk.

“The Kingdom is Like Those Who Can Forgive, Because They Have Been Forgiven”—Based on Matthew 18: 23- 35

By Judith Oleson

The kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wanted to settle his accounts with his servants.  Jesus tells this parable with great detail.   It is quite dramatic.  The servant owes a lot of money (10,000 bags of gold in fact) to the king. He cannot pay up, so he, his wife and children and all he had will be sold.   The servant falls on his knees and begs, “Be patient with me” and makes a promise “I will pay back everything.”  The king takes pity on him and cancels the entire debt.   This is amazing, who would cancel a debt of 10.0000 bags of gold?  But we know the story does not end here – the servant goes out and finds a fellow servant, one of his peers who owed him only 100 silver coins.  He grabs him, chokes him and demands payment.  When the fellow servant says be patient with me, and I will pay it back, the first servant refuses to be patient, and has him thrown in prison until he could pay back the debt.   Then this is the best part I think – “when the other servants saw what happened they were outraged, and whet back and told the king all that had happened.

Now there is a lot of outrage today about debt.  The Tea party has been outraged about government debt, congress is outraged that the banks have been forgiven their debt, but did not pass on their savings to consumers, the occupy wall street is movement is outraged that the 99 percent is indebted to the 1 percent.   Our economy in the U.S. has been based on spending, credit, and more credit.   As a country that has ignored our personal and collective debt for years, we are starting to wake up.  We see the destruction of the abuses of our economic system and we are outraged.  But what is this relationship between debt, forgiveness and the kingdom of heaven?What is it that enraged the fellow servants – so enraged that they were willing to “rat out” their co-worker?  Of course it was the injustice of their co-worker’s actions.  They had seen him show absolutely no mercy to another servant after the king had forgiven his far greater debt.  It is this inconsistency between what we have been so freely forgiven and how unwilling we are to forgive that is the problem. And at the same time – it is exactly where Jesus tells us is the opportunity for the kingdom of God.

I find this very interesting – that the kingdom of heaven will not be different in some respects than the everyday world we live in.  The kingdom is all about how we treat each other.  Jesus tells us, in the kingdom of heaven, there is no room for those unable to forgive others, for God has freely forgiven us.  They will be treated harshly.   Medical studies have shown there are consequences to our emotional and physical health when we hold on to anger and cannot forgive.

Most of us have all grown up hearing about forgiveness as part of our Christian faith.  But this morning I want to challenge you with the notion that forgiveness is not so easy, it is not so common and not always possible (at least for the time being).  But most important, forgiveness is not possible without rigorous honesty – honesty with God, with each other and with ourselves.

I would like to explore three types of forgiveness with you that go beyond debt into other forms of offense : forgiveness for the small stuff, forgiveness for the medium stuff and forgiveness for the really big stuff.

Lets start with the small stuff.  How many of you are perturbed or aggravated with one of your roommates right now for something they are doing or not doing in your joint living space?    How many of you feel like one of your friends owes you more attention than they are giving you?  How many of you are angry that someone in your group – whether it’s a student club, a class group or an athletic team, won’t do things they way you think they need to be done?  How many of you are upset that a boyfriend or girlfriend will not treat you the way you want them to?

Although any of the above issues can become bigger issues I call them small stuff because  they can usually be sorted out.  But first we need to practice rigorous honesty with ourselves.  Is this really a problem, or are my own expectations, or needs for perfection creating this problem?   Secondly am I projecting – am I angry with this person because they exhibit the very qualities I most dislike in myself?  Finally am I jealous, or insecure, or upset because my own needs for control are disrupted?    Jesus tells the Pharisees that they first need to take the log out of their own eye before attempting to take the speck out of another’s eye.    We cannot practice forgiveness with another until we have been rigorously honest with ourselves.  Perhaps, in the process, we will find it is our own attitudes and expectations that need to be addressed, not another’s.

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs, millions of people all over the world have found support in alleviating their addiction.  But this is just the beginning.  Through studying and practicing the 12 steps of recovery, people have an opportunity to learn a spiritual process for healing relationships.   In one of the steps in the process, members are asked to list all the people they have resentments toward; those whom have offended them or hurt them in some way – big or small.  They are asked to write down what the person did, and how it affected them.  Then they are required to write down their part in this conflict.  In other words, how did they contribute to this broken relationship?    As the person practices this rigorous honesty they start to take responsibility for their part – and it is in this practice that people find healing.  In fact, it is called a turn around.

Where in your life are you sweating the small stuff – with whom would Jesus tell you to take out the log in your own eye before trying to take a speck out of theirs?   Where do you need to look at your own resentments, see your part, and experience a turn around?   Often we find that instead of needing to extend forgiveness to each other, we need to forgive ourselves.

But you might be arguing  – what if someone really did hurt me?  What if I truly have been sinned against?  Let’s consider the medium stuff.  The difficult point in a relationship or organization where it is clear you have been deeply hurt.  In several verses before this parable in Matthew, Jesus tells those listening that if your brother or sister sins against you – go and point out their fault – just the two of you.    If they will not listen, then take two or three witnesses, and if they still don’t listen, then tell it to the church; if they still don’t listen, treat them as you would a pagan or tax collector.

Now what I have seen in the Church and Christian organizations for years is the opposite order of events.  If someone harms you, first you avoid them as much as possible, then you go and tell  your friends so they will see your point of view, and be sympathetic towards you.  If it is a group that offends your group – you might quietly refer to them in a church meeting as “those people.”  Finally you might blow off steam in the church parking lot, about the inability of the leadership to do anything, even though you may  have smiled politely and said everything is fine ten minutes ago in the meeting.

Jesus asks us to go directly to the person that offends us, and privately speak to them about the offense .  And yet how often do we practice this direct, rigorous honesty?  Why do we feel a need to talk with everyone else except the one that offended us?     In examining conflict in the Peace and Conflict Studies minor, we study the principle of differentiation.  This is a step in conflict resolution where the parties have to be honest about their differences.  If we do not understand our differences first,  it impairs our ability to find  common ground  or potential solutions.  Being willing to sit down directly with someone and explain how he or she has harmed you is the first step.  Being willing to listen to their different perspective is the second.  There are always two narratives when there are two people with a conflict.

In social work, and peace and conflict studies we take some time to assess our own conflict styles.   The research in conflict analysis says that we tend to lean toward a particular conflict orientation that we learned in our family systems.

Think for a minute how your own family handled conflict:  how did you experience your family members address conflicts with each other?  Was there direct confrontation, persuasion, or avoidance – to name a few styles?  The good news is that through awareness and skill building you can change your conflict style.   You can learn a language that practices rigorous, yet respectful honesty with others.

Who in your life do you need to go and speak directly to, just the two of you, in private?  Who do you need to ask forgiveness for talking to everyone else but him or her?   How can you move from being a conflict avoider to one whom is willing to engage with the other that has harmed you?    Forgiveness is cheap without an honest confrontation of the harm done.  When Christians smile as if all is well, when they are hurt and angry inside, they cannot forgive with an authentic voice.  Jesus challenges us to be rigorously honest with others.

I can hear the “buts” buzzing through your minds right now.  “But I tried to talk to her, and she just denied it.”   “But he told me it was my problem, not his.”  “But she minimized my concerns, or patronized me with an insincere apology.”   Jesus then instructs us to go back with two or three people that can bear witness to our concern.  In professional counseling terms, this is called an intervention; where close friends and family members together lovingly tell the person the impact of their behavior.   This next step, if carefully planned and respectfully executed, can be very effective.  Why are we as Christians often reluctant to practice this rigorous honesty in our communities?

These principles have been utilized in the criminal justice field with the restorative justice movement.  In this program victims and offenders are brought together to discuss the harm done, and the opportunities for restoration.  Instead of a court ordering an arbitrary fine or jail time, the victim proposes restitution that fits the crime, and restores the harm done.  The opportunity for forgiveness can only occur when the community provides a safe space for those that have been harmed to address those whom have harmed them.   And yet in Christian communities we so often lack the capacity for this process – we are uncomfortable with conflict.

Currently at Gordon there are a group of Peace and Conflict Studies Minors that are exploring a student run conflict mediation program, where students trained in mediation could provide a space where other students could, with the help of a student mediator, address a conflict with another student.     Perhaps you will never need this kind of support on campus, but others might.    In this same chapter in Matthew, Jesus says, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”   I always took this as a generic promise but now I see it’s context in this chapter – it is about rigorous honesty – it is these spaces that open up the kingdom of God.

So what about the big stuff?   How do we practice forgiveness when we have been deeply wounded seemingly beyond repair?  Or when it is impossible to address our offender?   What if our feelings of suffering, pain and even hate do not allow us to forgive?  Many of you have been wounded by your parents’ divorce for example. Others have been deeply harmed by parents who stay married, but cannot resolve their differences or were not able to be present to you because of their own emotional struggles.   Perhaps a relative, coach or youth leader has exploited your childhood in some way.   How can you ever forgive someone, especially when the power differential makes it nearly impossible to address the offender, or the shame too great to ask for help?  Even the thought of forgiving this person can make us angry and even worse, blame ourselves as the victim.

Immediately previous to the parable of the king and his servant, Jesus is asked by Peter, “ Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?  Jesus answered, “ I tell you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.  (Or in some translations seventy times seven) Now either way, Jesus, I believe is indicating to us that forgiveness is not a one-time deal.  The greater the wound, the deeper the layers of forgiveness must be unfolded.  Forgiveness for the big stuff comes in lots of small steps, not one fell swoop. .  For some of us it requires the help of a professional counselor or a support group.   Jesus understood the levels of human pain.  It is no accident that the gospel writer tells us it is Peter who asks Jesus this question about forgiveness.   Peter, who would later deny Jesus three times, would need to understand forgiveness, perhaps at a deeper level than the others.

And speaking of the big stuff, how is forgiveness practiced when there is structural oppression , as we are seeing in economic systems today.  What about atrocities such as war or genocide?  How does one address both justice and forgiveness when groups of people have killed others based on identity around class, race or religion?

Last summer I had an opportunity to stay in the old Jewish quarters of Krakow Poland, and then visit the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, where nearly the entire Jewish population of Europe was extinguished.  For the first time, for me, the Holocaust became a real event, rather than a remote historical fact.

I have begun to understand that it is not just those Jews who were murdered, but the generations of thousands of families, and entire communities that could not come into being.  I cannot comprehend the horror let alone know how survivors could  move into the layers of forgiveness.     Many of you have studied the genocide in Rwanda where in 1994 Hutus killed over 1 million Tutsis in a slaughter that lasted only about a 100 days.  This violence was fostered by centuries of Belgian colonial rule that elevated the Tutsi minority over the Hutus majority.  This is considered one of the worst genocides in history, and it occurred while our government, and many others at the UN argued if it really met the criteria of the word genocide.   How does forgiveness apply when we are not directly responsible, but by our collective indifference, in some way complicit?    Some of you will go into international peace work that will struggle with these issues at the diplomatic level.  Others of you will be involved in ministries to bring about healing and forgiveness through reconciliation.

In the course, Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation offered next semester, we will study public apology, truth and reconciliation commissions and community reconstruction and their relationship to forgiveness.  Many faith-based organizations are engaged in facilitating opportunities for forgiveness in post-conflict settings.  I have a short clip from the film “As We Forgive” of one such organization that brings together perpetrators and family members of victims killed in Rwanda.  Remember that Hutus killed Tutsis that had lived as neighbors in the same village, worshiped at the same churches and worked side by side. How is it that people can forgiveness to each other?   How do these communities rebuild themselves, with such a history of violence?   In what ways can Christians start to unfold the levels of both pain and forgiveness?  This clip shows the third meetings between Chantele, and her neighbor John, who killed her father and other relatives during the genocide.  The meeting is facilitated by a faith- based organization, and it is not an easy session.   It is, I believe an example of the many layers of forgiveness needed for the big stuff.

I’ve shown you this clip because some of you are going to be healing agents in other countries, but all of you in your own homes, churches and communities.  It is important to understand that when people have experienced the big stuff, when the offenses are beyond our imagination, there is no cheap forgiveness.  It only comes when honest interactions uncover the layers of pain, and gives way for the offender to move into acknowledging their responsibility, and consequently their guilt.  The collective wounds, particularly when based on identity: race, class, gender or religion, can take generations to heal.

But we become equipped for the big stuff by practicing the small stuff.  I challenge you to rigorous honesty with your selves, to look at your own part in conflict with others.  I implore you to follow the guidelines that Jesus gave us in privately talking to the person that seriously offends us instead of telling everyone else.  I encourage you to respectfully and lovingly bring witnesses or ask for help from your community when you are not taken seriously.  Avoiding serious conflict can be an indication that you do not value or love yourself.  Your willingness to address conflict may break open a space for the kingdom of God to appear.

Finally, let me remind you that in the parable, both servants cried out to their debtors, “please be patient with me.”  In navigating the difficult terrain of conflict and forgiveness, it is important we are patient with others and ourselves.   One of the most difficult layers of forgiveness is to forgive our selves.   Internal conflict, or holding ourselves to a standard impossible to fulfill drives many of us into self- punishing lives.   Living into the kingdom of God means we are willing to forgive ourselves, because we have been freely forgiven.    If there is anything you take from this morning, my prayer is this:  That each of you would realize you are beautiful, unique, and wonderful beings that God created not for perfection, but for participation in fully messy human relationships.   And, that in the intersection of human failing and human forgiveness, you will be like the Kingdom of God.

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