Detail from Order of the Stick #878 by Rich Burlew
Easter is my favorite holiday, by far. It has been for as long as I can remember. As a kid, it had the happiness of candy and a couple small gifts without the anxiety of waiting a month for it to finally come. (I like Christmas a LOT more now that I experience it as "the end of Advent" instead of "the day I get mine.") As an adult, it has the theological weight of a major Christian holiday without nearly as much secular static around it. And, hey, every once in a while, it happens on my birthday.
Each year, I think I appreciate Easter all the more because I am taking Lent more seriously. I said something on Facebook this year about Lent being the Christian season of contemplating exactly how f'ed up the world actually is and which parts we most directly share responsibility for. Since I possess just about every privilege there is--excepting only my unconventional family, my lack of inherited wealth, and my sub-standard neurotransmitters--while living in the most privileged society on the face of the Earth, I have a lot to contemplate. Easter comes as a blessed joy. God has promised me a place in a world where all meaningful differences of power and worth will be stripped away, and not even death itself--let alone my own privileged stumbles into complacency--can stop that world from coming!
And Lent for me and my family, this year, was particularly Lent-y. My aunt died after a brief and unexpected illness. Some things with our son's biological mother we thought were settled got suddenly flipped over. And probably most dramatically, Amy's parents, who had completely rejected our unconventional family for many years, nearly died in a terrible car accident that did kill one other person. In the aftermath, I suppose one could say we've reconciled. I and our son are no longer They Who Must Not Be Named. We've been invited to "pick a day" and all come visit them at their home on the Oregon coast. They haven't apologized or otherwise shown any sign that they think they've been anything but reasonable and righteous, but they accept that their daughter has six other people in her family instead of four, and that's positive.
My reaction to their change of heart is mostly celebration. I've always longed for them to acknowledge me and let me love them. But my celebration is private, and jealous. When other people express their own relief and hope, I feel anger. I want them to have my back. "These people hurt me," I want to say. "They hurt Dave, they crushed Amy, they did harm to our children! Why are you so ready for me to embrace them?" I want them to insist on the rightness of repentance and the wrongness of entitled grace.
Forgiveness is a central Christian doctrine. It is arguably the central Christian doctrine. Although I fail again and again to act out of true love for all my neighbors--and, by extension and less importantly, to love God--still my God is always ready to embrace me. And Christians are called to conform to the image of God within all of us, which we can best understand by studying the life and ministry of Jesus. And Jesus, famously, forgives all kinds of people who never do anything to make up for the harm they have caused.
However, the call to forgiveness has also famously enabled ongoing bullying, abuse and other forms of physical and spiritual violence. (Feminist and liberation theologians have provided the most insightful and detailed critiques; this essay by Rachel Held Evans hits the high points well.) Since the Easter promise has no room for such injustices, it's worth looking a little closer at what the New Testament says about Jesus and forgiveness.
First, yes, Jesus did command his disciples to go above and beyond the contemporary expectations for forgiveness:
Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." Matthew 18:21-22 (NRSV)
But Jesus also included the idea that someone seeking forgiveness should also show repentance:
"If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." Luke 17:3-4 (NRSV)
These days, people have a tendency to define repentance as "feeling really really sorry." If there is no opportunity or ability for someone to offer reparation to the people they've wronged, then that subjective feeling of regret has to be enough. If someone can make reparation, though, they are expected to, as in the story of the repentant self-serving tax collector:
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house." Luke 19:8-9 (NRSV)
(It is also interesting to compare the story of Zacchaeus with the story of the rich young man, to whom Jesus made the more demanding recommendation that he should sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Maybe we need different lessons about attachment than we do about repentance. But I digress.)
For better or worse, the story of forgiveness that is probably told most frequently is Jesus' forgiveness of Peter's desertion after his arrest , with a touching reunion scene on a Galilean beach:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, "Follow me." John 21:15-19 (NRSV)
Jesus forgives Peter, yes, but more importantly, he gives him a job. Do you love me? Aw, you feel bad about denying that you knew me? Fine, then: show me. Take care of my children. Even though it's going to get you killed one day.
I am not a biblical scholar, so I won't belabor the point at the risk of overstating it. I won't even get into comparing and contrasting where the Greek "charizomai" gets translated as "forgiveness" versus the more common "aphiémi" in the New Testament. Even though it's really, really fun! Ahem. What matters is that forgiveness is generally portrayed as the proper response to a genuine attempt to fully repair a strained or broken relationship.
What I am really looking for from other people, then, is permission to still grieve the parts of the relationship that remain unrepaired. I can't deny the power of a good resurrection story, so I understand why people might want to look at Amy's parents and us and say, hallelujah, it is risen--and might expect me to reply yes, it is risen indeed. This expectation is a weight.
Image and quoted words from The Princess Bride
In contemporary American society, we frequently drop the weight of resurrection on people individually and communities collectively. Ever more mainline Protestant denominations embrace the cause of marriage equality, and queer folk are expected to rejoice at the seismic social and theological shift while politely brushing off the damage that these exact same institutions, at every level, have exposed them to for decades. Jim Crow and other official legal discrimination against African Americans no longer exists--we even have a Black president!--and African Americans are expected to praise American progress and move past the empirical reality of generations of mistreatment by law enforcement, banks, schools and other institutions dominated by and historically intended to primarily benefit white Americans. Native Americans...well, okay, almost everybody admits the United States is still a horrible deal for them.
What burdens do these communities shoulder when they are asked to celebrate progress standing next to the people who have thwarted it for so long? Is there room for their pain, anger and reasonable expectation for some kind of reparation from the institutions that have failed them? If not, then we are not talking about seeking forgiveness from them, but submission. Of course, a sadly large number of people don't think our shared institutions have done anything that needs forgiving in the first place. The Gospels have something to say about them as well.
As for my own situation...I guess I am forgiving without expecting repentance. (What, should they join us for four times the number of holiday dinners we missed out on or something?) It is my choice, though, and not my obligation. It is an important distinction.
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