Rev. Dorothy Streutker's Sermon July 16, 2017

What Forgiveness is Not

July 16, 2017 ACC

Today, we will consider two scenarios in which forgiveness is a pivotal issue.

The first is Mack’s rage at both his father for abuse inflicted on Mack and his mother by his father, and at the man who kidnapped and murdered Mack’s young daughter, Missy. His anger is easy to understand: Who wouldn’t be angry at an abusive father and a child murderer?

In the second scenario, Jonah’s anger is directed at God! He’d been through the whole belly of the whale experience, and finally got himself to Ninevah, where he prophesied that God would destroy the city. The Ninevites listened and responded, showing contrition and humility and openness to learning more about this God of whom Jonah spoke. Even their king dressed in burlap!

God regarded their change of heart and rewarded them by rescinding his order to destroy the city.

And how does Jonah respond? Does he rejoice along w/ God that Ninevah has been saved? NooOOOOoooo. He throws a genuine hissy fit! “I knew this would happen! You’re so good and forgiving!” That’s hubris! Complaining to God that God is too good and too forgiving.

Jonah is upset that God has decided to spare Ninevah with its over 120 thousand inhabitants and lots of innocent animals, too. Apparently, Jonah had become so wedded to his idea of justice raining down on Ninevah that not only could he not rejoice, but he even asked God to let him die!

We don’t learn whether Jonah ever got the lesson God sought to teach him with the quick-growing tree and the rapacious worm. For all we know, God finally granted Jonah’s wish, and allowed him to die.

Or perhaps Jonah did get it, and figured out that if God could forgive Ninevah, maybe he too could forgive Ninevah. Maybe he realized that the deal he had thrown at God – do what you sent me to prophecy, or I want to die – was at best ironic. Punish Ninevah or let me die. Not a great formula for Jonah. In the capital punishment world, there is a saying that the need for revenge is like buying rat poison to kill rats, but you eat the poison yourself! Again, not a great formula!

A much better formula involves forgiveness, which Mack learns eventually. But first, he must get rid of some preconceived notions about what forgiveness is, and what it is not.

The following passage from The Shack reveals many of Mack’s misperceptions:

[Papa is speaking to Mack:]

“Mack, for you to forgive this man (his daughter’s killer) is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him. “

[Mack}: I’m stuck, Papa. I just can’t forget what he did, can I?”

[Papa]: “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.”

…“So what then? I just forgive him and everything is okay, and we become buddies?”

“You don’t have a relationship with this man, at least not yet. Forgiveness does not establish relationship…. Mackenzie, don’t you see that forgiveness is an incredible power -- a power you share with us, a power Jesus gives to all whom he indwells so that reconciliation can grow?”

“I don’t think I can do this,” Mack answered softly.

“I want you to. Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver,” answered Papa, “to release you from something that will eat you alive; that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly…. I want to help you take on that nature that finds more power in love and forgiveness than hate.”

In this passage, Papa identifies several of the myths about forgiveness.

First, and perhaps foremost, is that forgiveness does not require the forgiver to forget the wrong he or she suffered. As Papa explains to Mack, about forgiving his father for the abuse he inflicted on Mack and Mack’s mother, it is impossible to forget the abuse. In fact, Papa emphasizes that she, being God, forgets nothing. But she chooses not to revisit those transgressions, to not confront or humiliate the transgressor by bringing up past wrongs.

But forgiveness does not require forgetting. This is perhaps the biggest shibboleth that impedes wronged people from considering forgiveness. They believe that forgiving a wrongdoer is to “forgive and forget,” “sweep it under the rug,” “put it behind you.”

While I was practicing capital appellate law, I became involved in what was originally named “Victim Offender Reconciliation Project” (VORP). The name has since been changed to remove the “reconciliation” aspect as too off-putting to victim’s family members. And I learned that the concept of forgiveness is also verboten.

In various training, I brought up forgiveness as a tool for healing. I was chastised for even suggesting it. I’ve since learned that I will not be invited to participate in any victim=offender outreach because I am “too religious.” (Mind you, this project started at Eastern Mennonite University.) “Too religious” is code for “you talk too much about forgiveness.” I tried to reassure the organizers that I recognize that bringing up forgiveness too early in the process – or in some cases, raising it at all – is not my intention, but they have concluded I cannot be trusted to keep to myself my belief in forgiveness as a path to healing to myself

Much of the discomfort with the concept of forgiveness I believe is attributable to the “forgive and forget” myth. Victim’s family members do not want to forget; if anything, they want to remember.

What they’re missing, though, is that forgiveness is not to benefit the offender, but to ease the pain of loss for the forgiver. Let me repeat, forgiveness is not for the forgiven, but for the benefit of the forgiver. In a poignant scene in The Shack, Papa (here appearing as a Native American elder) distinguishes “forgiveness” from “relationship.” Mack asks for clarification: “So forgiveness does not require me to pretend what he did never happened?” Papa replies, “How can you?” Even recognizing the evil in what the murderer did, Mack can let go of the need for revenge.

Papa asks Mack to say, I forgive you. Reluctantly, Mack complies. Papa tells Mack to say it again and again, and explains that it may take many repetitions over many, many days before Mack can honestly, fully forgive the murderer.

Another myth about forgiveness is that it is a gift that must come from a higher power, and is automatic. Boom! You receive the power to forgive. But The Shack, and Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, present forgiveness as a process that takes time, and is a choice, a decision to pursue healing rather than revenge. And it can be done without the wrongdoer being involved. Some forgiveness experts suggest writing a letter to the offender even if he or she is dead or is completely out of touch, as the murderer was for Mack. It does not require a relationship with the offender. That is a different process, reconciliation, that does require involvement with the offender, and requires another process of building or rebuilding trust. More on reconciliation will be coming in a few weeks.

I once met a woman whose relative was murdered, whose method of forgiving was to simply not care about the murderer. She didn’t care whether he was executed, or lived out his days in prison. She just put him out of her mind. She let go of the desire for revenge, which helped her heal, without involving the murderer. Her anger did not dissipate, but she no longer allowed the need for revenge to shape her life. 

Of course, there are the exceptions that prove the rule: Another woman I’ve met, Abba Gayle, perpetuates some of the miracle myth. Her niece was murdered by a deacon in the church. After the deacon was convicted and sentenced, Gayle felt called to reach out to him. She wrote him a letter and since that first contact, she began visiting and last I’ve heard, she has a vital relationship with the man. But Abba Gayle’s experience is definitely not the norm.

Another myth about forgiveness is that it is a weak response to injustice. But as Papa explains to Mack, forgiveness is a powerful choice. Before forgiveness, a wronged person is in thrall to the offender. We see this in victim’s families who are continually on alert for the next hearing in the murderer’s case, for news articles that mention the murderer, for contact from the DA’s office pending a clemency effort by the defense. They have ceded power to the offender, letting their search for justice interfere with their lives. Jonah is an extreme example – so extreme he’s ready to die if fire and brimstone do not rain down on Ninevah! His need for his brand of justice is that great. Think of the good he could have done if he had accepted God’s gift of mercy to the Ninevites and instead ministered to the people, preaching about the God of the Israelites to these people eager to receive the news. God says, leave the question of justice to me. As Paul wrote in Romans, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Or, as Papa tells Mack, sin is its own punishment.

So, there you have it, my list of what forgiveness is not, derived from a variety of sources: It is not for the benefit of the forgiven; it does not require forgetting the wrong that has been done; it does not establish relationship; it is a process, a choice, not a miracle; it does not tolerate injustice; and it is NOT a sign of weakness, but a reclamation of power.

At the end of Tony’s sermon last week, on the tough subject of theodicy – why bad things happen to good people – he invited you all to stay tuned. Now it is my turn to lob the ball back into his court. I recommend staying tuned to Tony’s reflections on what forgiveness is, and later on how reconciliation really can happen.

Oh, and by the way, in my conversations with Papa over the past week, she asked me to tell you that she is especially fond of each one of you!