Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Yes, Forgiveness
distributed 4/7/17 - ©2017

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Ed and Gretchen Hawley of Denver, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

One week ago, I wrote about Donald Trump's executive order that will dismantle US action on climate change. I titled those comments, "An Unforgiveable Order".

Three days later, I received an email from my pastor. He said that he appreciated my "willingness to look this ugly thing right in the face." But then he spoke kindly to me with words of spiritual and ethical guidance. He led off with the statement, "It is challenging for me to explore the depths of forgiveness."

In his short email, Todd made two points. He disputed my assertion that those who wrote the executive order "know perfectly well what they are doing." If true knowledge were present, he said, "they would not traffic in this kind of death dealing for they would know their connection to Creation and the ultimate harm their policies will do to their children and all the earth." At that level, one can affirm the words of Jesus from the cross: "they do not know what they are doing." So much for my self-righteous anger.

The second point was made in one powerful statement. "Unforgiveness is heavy medicine that very few of us can administer without some significant cost from our own exposure to it."

This week, I have been thinking, reading, and praying very deeply about forgiveness.

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My best guide through this week's reflection is a small book, "Why Forgive?", by Johann Christoph Arnold. He approaches the topic from multiple angles -- both interpersonal and systemic -- and with a wealth of compelling stories. It is not an explicitly religious or theological volume, but the message sits very well with Christian perspectives.

At the very start of the book, Arnold addressed my hardest struggle with forgiveness. He wrote, "Forgiving does not mean forgetting or condoning a wrong ... But it does mean making a conscious decision to stop hating, because hating can never help."

He developed that perspective more fully in the chapter on forgiveness and justice. In that context, he stressed again, "forgiveness is not about excusing or exonerating people, nor is it about weighing the morality -- or immorality -- of their actions." He quoted from the 1947 writings of C.S. Lewis, when the full horrors of the Holocaust had only just come to light.

There is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. ... if one is not really to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the person who has done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness.

Forgiveness might be impossible for me if it meant that I had accept, in any way, actions that I believe are evil. It has been good for me this week to discern the sharp distinction between forgiveness and accepting or excusing.

Forgiveness and reconciliation, I think, are easier when the one who has caused hurt recognizes their error, and seeks forgiveness with a heartfelt apology. Forgiveness certainly can take place when the offender has not apologized, or could never repent (having died, for instance). But as I wrestle with forgiveness this week, I'm finding it especially difficult to enter into that spirit when the hurt and the damage are ongoing. I am assured that it can be done, but I know that it is not easy.

Indeed, forgiveness may be essential for perseverance in the face of ongoing hurt and injustice. Arnold tells the story of Roberto Rodriguez, who was brutally beaten by members of the Los Angeles police force, and who fought seven years for justice. Rodriguez said,

Forgiveness does not require apologies. Of course this does not mean simply folding one's arms and going merrily home, oblivious of ongoing injustices. It simply means that as one struggles to regain one's humanity and fights for one's rights, one can do so without anger, hatred, or bitterness.

The book refers frequently to the US civil rights movement, and the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr. King knew well that the struggle for equality would be prolonged and difficult. In his book, "Strength to Love", King wrote:

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. Whoever is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power of love. ... Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.

My pastor wrote truthfully when he said that "unforgiveness is heavy medicine" that has a significant cost when it settles into one's soul. That is a point made frequently in "Why Forgive?" Over and over again, Arnold stresses the importance of forgiving for the well-being of the one who has been hurt.

Our forgiveness may not take away our pain -- it may not even be acknowledged or accepted -- yet the act of offering it will keep us from being sucked into the downward spiral of resentment. It will also guard us against the temptation of taking out our hurt and anger on someone else.

Many of the people whose stories are told in Arnold's book speak of forgiveness as the transition point from anger, hatred and paralysis, and an opening of hope, compassion and commitment.

More recently, after the murders at Emanuel AME in Charleston, forgiveness ran through the community, even though the killer was unrepentant. Time Magazine has a long cover story about forgiveness in Charleston, probing questions such as: Can murder be forgiven, and if so, who has that power? Who benefits from forgiveness -- the sinner or the survivor?

I still say that the executive order dismantling climate action is despicable. My analysis from last week of what's wrong with that order still stands. As part of a vast community of action and resistance, I will fight what is being done by the administration.

And because that fight for climate justice will be long, I will seek to find forgiveness. I will try to let go of anger and resentment. I will try to focus my efforts through hope, compassion and justice. Both pragmatically and spiritually, I will try to be strengthened by love, not exhausted by hate.

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A short footnote to these reflections on forgiveness seems necessary this week.

Yesterday, the Republicans in the US Senate changed the rules for confirmation of a Supreme Court justice to eliminate a filibuster by the minority party. As a result, Neil Gorsuch has just been confirmed by a simple majority vote.

It seems to me that this tragic action in the Senate -- which removes yet another element of respect and decorum -- grew from a bipartisan lack of forgiveness. Part (but by no means all) of the Democratic opposition to Judge Gorsuch has nothing to do with his qualifications. Rather, there's an unforgiving anger that the Republicans a year ago refused to even consider the nomination of Merrick Garland. That Republican refusal was just one of many obstructions during the last six years of the Obama administration, when the Republican majorities in Congress seemed driven by a deep-seated anger where reconciliation and forgiveness were rejected.

Forgiveness can "keep us from being sucked into the downward spiral of resentment." That is true personally and institutionally.

As we work toward the beloved community and God's shalom, may we seek to cultivate forgiveness as a way of life.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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