How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone? On Thursday morning I met with the group of Ohio Conference Mennonite pastors who get together once a month and one of them asked this question. Our official meeting was actually over and we were eating lunch together before we went our separate ways. We were having a casual conversation, and then this pastor asked us all how we would answer this question on forgiveness. The question had actually come from a member of his congregation, directed at him, just a few days before. This member was familiar enough with forgiveness, but wasn’t sure he knew how to think about it. The member had told the story about how his mother had worked for many years to forgive someone who had wronged her, had even begun praying for that person, and tried to speak well of that person and say that she wished them no harm, but whenever she would speak about this person her hand would begin to shake. When has she forgiven them? When she decides to wish them no wrong in return? When she prays for them? When she feels it deep enough in her body that she no longer has a visceral, nearly uncontrollable bodily response at the thought of this wrong that has been done to her? How do you know when you’ve forgiven someone? Well….how do you know?
If forgiveness is equal to forgetting, then we can have a fairly clear answer to this. The degree to which we have successfully stopped remembering an incident where we have been wronged is the degree to which we have forgiven. The stronger that deadbolt is holding up in the compartment of our brain where we have put up a sign “Do not enter,” then the stronger our forgiveness. Whenever we have thoughts of anger or depression or a sense of injustice about the situation then we have relapsed in our forgiveness. If this were what forgiveness were all about then it could be easily calculated and measured.
But if forgiveness has more to do with a new way of remembering, a different way of seeing a person and a situation, then it is quite a bit more fuzzy. How do we measure that? How do we know we’ve forgiven from our heart?
We do know Jesus taught forgiveness. He taught it often. He taught his disciples to pray that their sins be forgiven, even as they forgive others. He taught that to ask forgiveness of God one must first be willing to live one’s prayer by forgiving others. He lived forgiveness in his final hours, by telling Peter to put away his sword and not retaliate against the soldiers who were arresting him. Some of his closing words on the cross were “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
I appreciate the wisdom of all the world’s religions and find many commonalities between great teachers and spiritual leaders, but one thing I’ve discovered is that nobody does forgiveness quite like Jesus. You won’t find the same kind of front and center emphasis given to forgiveness in other traditions. Which makes me wonder all the more what Jesus was getting at in all this.
Forgiveness is the topic of conversation with Jesus and Peter in Matthew 18. This is right after last week’s scripture when Jesus taught the disciples to confront someone who has wronged them and be willing to forgive them. Peter has a way of being the one to speak up in these kinds of situations and he asks Jesus a question that probes deeper into what Jesus might mean by forgiveness. Here’s how the exchange goes: “Then Peter came and said to him (Jesus), ‘Lord, if my brother or sister 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.’”
Peter appears to be trying to quantify forgiveness. How many times should I let a person off the hook before I really start counting it against them? He has a pretty generous offer. Seven times? This is far more lenient than the three- strikes- and- you’re- out rule. If we would take the three strikes, then double that, and then add one more for good measure then surely we are being merciful people. Jesus answers with another figure, but one that is intended to do away with any kind of calculating and score keeping. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” The problem isn’t that Peter has selected too low of a number, it’s that he’s chosen a number in the first place. Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is not a calculation. It’s not a matter of quantifying mercy. It has no end. It goes on and on.
That’s part of the nature of forgiveness for Jesus. But there is another story behind these numbers seven and seventy seven that gives this conversation between Jesus and Peter greater weight. The story behind the story being accessed here helps fill out how big a role forgiveness plays in the way that Jesus is offering. Something fundamental to the coming about of a new creation, a new way of being human that begins to unwind the tangle of sin and wrongs that have accumulated over the millennia. The story behind this story happens just after the first creation and sets the stage for human history and puts in on a certain trajectory. It’s a story we could call, “A brief introduction to vengeance, according to Genesis.”
Here’s how it goes: After the human creatures leave the garden of Eden, there is immediate conflict between the two brothers Cain and Abel. In Genesis 4, Cain, the older, brings his younger brother Abel out into a field, and murders him. The portrayal of the first murder as a brother killing a brother is a way of showing that all murder is fratricide. To kill another human being is to kill a brother or a sister. God hears the innocent blood of Abel crying out from the ground and comes down to have a talk with Cain. God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” to which Cain answers, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” to which God could have answered, “Uhh..Yeah!”
At the beginning of Genesis, God seems to be learning right along with humanity about how all of this is going to work out. These creatures God has created are turning on each other. Now that Abel is gone and Cain is a known murderer, how can Cain be protected against those who want to take his life in avenging Abel’s death? If Cain killed Abel, then Cain should die in a one for one exchange. God’s idea is that Cain will be protected through the mark of increased vengeance. God says, “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a seven-fold vengeance.” So now the person who would kill Cain must recognize that the stakes have been raised. None of this one life for one life business. Cain’s potential murderer is putting himself and seven of his family members in risk of being avenged. At first it appears that this deterent is working well. Maybe the humans will realize that the cost of violence is too great and will live peacefully. Cain marries, has children, and grandchildren, and there is no report of his life being sought by others. But several generations down the road, just several verses after the declaration of seven-fold vengeance for Cain, we get an update on the direction things are going. A descendent of Cain’s named Lamech, says this. This is 4:23-24, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me, If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.” The logic of vengeance gets taken one step further in Lamech seeking to protect his own life. If anyone were to seek his life, he essentially declares all out war on their family. If seven-fold vengeance wasn’t enough of a deterent, then surely vengeance times seventy-seven is. But as the story goes, soon the whole earth is filled with violence and God is sorry to have begun this whole humanity project in the first place. The mark of Cain has failed to protect the human family from each other and has actually served to exponentially increase violence. The story of vengeance seven times and then seventy seven times set in motion one trajectory of human history. A trajectory that is inherently self-destructive. Soon enough God starts a parallel story with the calling of Abraham and Sarah. Their mark, their mission, is to be one of exponential blessing. Through this one family, all peoples of the earth will be blessed. This is the calling of the people of Israel and all people who claim Abraham as a spiritual ancestor.
So when Peter and Jesus converse about forgiveness seven times and then seventy seven times, it is a clarifying of this calling of blessing. One that stands in direct contrast to the logic of vengeance. As if Jesus would like us to think of forgiveness as revenge in reverse. One unending practice of seventy seven to undo the other seemingly unending practice of seventy-seven that has been passed down through generations.
This phrase, revenge in reverse, comes out of a recent article in the magazine The Marketplace put out by Mennonite Economic Development Associates. The article tells the story of Harry Giesbrecht. He was born in the Mennonite colony of Lichtenau in central Ukraine and was forced to flee when the communist party came into power. His father was taken as a political prison and forced to work on the Trans-Siberian railroad and his mother fled on foot with him and her six other children. Harry lived in povety for several decades and eventually made it to Canada where he became an engineer and business man. In the mid 80’s he was one of the first western business men to work with Russia and he decided to commit his life to rebuilding the country. On one occasion early in his time there he and other western business men were invited to a villa in the Caucus Mountains and during the festivities he gave a word to his hosts. This is how he reports what he said: ““I told them I was going to say what was really on my mind. I said, ‘You probably know all about me. You know that you took my father away, that you destroyed my family. You took my oldest brother in 1937, never to be heard of again. You know all of this. And now you’re inviting me, as a businessman, to come and invest in your country. You know what I will suggest? I suggest you build a bridge across the Atlantic Ocean and that we meet on the middle of the bridge, throw our arms around each other, and say we are brothers. Our world is so small that it took Sputnik only 60 minutes to travel all the way around. Why are we enemies?” http://www.meda.org/NewsPublications/TheMarketplace/Archives.html He says he thinks about his work as an act of forgiveness through revenge in reverse and that out of all of his many projects across the region he is especially fulfilled in the rebuilding of his home town of Lichtenau.
It’s interesting that the subject of forgiveness comes up in the gospel reading on the same time that we observe the anniversary of the wrong done to our nation in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentegon. A response not even on the table as far as our nation was concerned. Not on the table, not even in the room or in the building. We readily accessed the religious notions of bringing the evil doers to justice and fighting for the righteousness of our cause….alright….but bypassed the also religious discipline of forgiveness. I wonder what could happen among us if we live out this notion of forgiveness as revenge in reverse? An active, engaging form of remaking our broken relationships.
It’s a frightful thing to try and speak about forgiveness because there are some wounds that cut so deep that the possibility of engaging the guilty party is nowhere on the near horizon. There is a whole process of inner work that we undergo right along the outer work of relationship that happens. I started with that inner work and then moved to the outer work, and let me end by returning to that inner process that’s always going on in the act of forgiving.
One of the comments at our pastors meeting that I found especially insightful was when someone compared forgiveness to the grieving process. We know that there is a process, a cycle, that everyone goes through when there is a loss in their life. There is initial shock and maybe some denial. There is protest and anger, there is disorientation and emptiness, there is a reorientation to living with the loss and establishing new patterns of behavior. These are often experienced in sequence but there can be any moment at any point when the initial loss and emptiness feel just as heavy and present as the very beginning. The hope is to eventually settle into a more steady acceptance of the loss, and to find meaning in one’s new situation and new ways of relating with one’s community. So, are you ever completely done grieving? Are we ever completely done forgiving? Doesn’t forgiveness also have to do with dealing with a loss? Something outside of our control that has been taken from us? And the best way to work through this is not by forgetting, but remembering in a new way — learning, slowly, to see with new eyes. And eventually finding peace in our own hearts and engaging the world out of that peace.
I think one of the reasons forgiveness is so hard is that it works against the grain of most of human history in how we deal with injustice and loss. It is more natural to will seventy seven times vengeance than seventy seven times forgiveness. But that’s what is getting worked out in our lives. This slow emergence of the new humanity that Jesus ushered in. Through God’s grace, we will learn how to live as forgiven and forgiving people.