Forgiveness is at the core of our Christian doctrine; it's what Christ was all about. (Okay, honestly, He was about so much more than this, but it seems like His forgiveness is central to so much of our preaching about Him, to the exclusion of so many other things. We're not talking about that right now, but it's important to at least recognize here.)
Truth be told, most of us bristle at the notion of being forgiven. We don't like it. We don't like the way it brings to our minds and our hearts the things that we've done wrong. In fact, I think a lot of us have gotten to the point where we can talk about forgiveness as a disconnected sort of idea - an idea that we accept, but we push aside any recognition of our actual need for it. After all, most of us consider ourselves "good" persons, and forgiveness is intended for real sinners.
But forgiveness also gives us a chance to talk about something terrible that we do with religion, with these kind of holy words and holy ideas of our faith. Because forgiveness is far too often co-opted into culture in a way that makes it a stinging half-truth rather than the fullness of the love of Christ.
And Christians are just as guilty of this as non-Christians. (We could have easily said, as well, that non-Christians are just as guilty of this as Christians. Either way.)
Here's what I'm talking about:
Recently, I found out that I've been "forgiven" for something I didn't do. Okay, I did it, but it wasn't wrong. It centers around a truth - a verifiable, independently recorded, much-attested-to truth with an overwhelming amount of evidence to back it up - that someone else didn't like and so based a grudge on. For years, this grudge went on until life, as it does, forced a reckoning. Something happened that drew a line, and the other parties involved had to decide which side of that line they were going to stand on.
I was told later that the other side told someone in between that they have "forgiven" me. Not enough to stand on my side of the line. Not enough to even come toward the line. Not enough to actually tell me so to my face. Not enough to change in any way the relationship that brokenness has dominated for far too long. But just enough to use the language and the word.
As an act of this "forgiveness," said person has found a clever way to both include and exclude me at the same time. And actually, of course, by including me with a remaining act of exclusion, it's not a grace at all; it is, in this case, a permanent remembrance of the bitterness that has existed for far too long.
It's the idea of inviting a leper to your party, then making him stand in the corner. All you've done is make a very public display of him and his leprosy so that, for the entire duration of the gathering, both his presence and his distance are of prominent awareness. You have made a spectacle and nothing more. Especially if you yourself never cross the room to talk with him, either.
This is not forgiveness. This is not the restoration of someone you once considered unclean.
It's a social ploy, and nothing more. It lets you say, "I have taken the high ground. Look, I have invited a leper to my party!" while at the same time, not requiring anything more of you than that perhaps you have to Lysol one corner of your living room a little more diligently after he leaves.
Indeed, when you say something like, "I have forgiven them," you look like the moral party. At the same time, you have thrust an emphasis on the perceived wrong all over again. You have indicated by your righteousness not only how good you actually are, but you've gotten to say one more time how horrible the other person is - they are someone in need of forgiveness. They are someone who had done something so wrong, so terrible as to require you to be the bigger person and to "move on" or "get over it" or "put it behind you."
This kind of forgiveness "display" is not true forgiveness; it's toxic. But we do this in our culture all the time, right? We talk about our acts of forgiveness with others so freely, so calmly, so self-righteously.
Without ever talking to the person we have supposedly actually forgiven.
And I know what you're going to say, as you rightfully should, but there's an answer for that, too. We'll talk about it tomorrow.