Proper 19 (24), Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
17 September 2023
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
I remember a moment in middle school when a drama troupe came into our classroom to do role play. I don’t remember much about it. It’s been too long for me to be able to remember the goal of the exercise, should I have thought about it back then. But I do remember volunteering to participate.
For this exercise it was one of the actors of the group and I. We acted out a scene in which he would offend me and I was to hold him accountable. It seemed simple enough. I believe in being accountable and I don’t like people offending me.
It turned out to be harder than I had thought. When I said something like, “Look Man, that was totally uncool and uncalled for,” he would reply with something like, “Man, I am so sorry! I should not have done it. I will never do it again!” The effect on me, at least in the moment was that he took the wind out of my sails. I was unable to express my righteous anger, and being the Christian kid that I was who believed in forgiveness, I forgave and was thus rendered powerless in the face of the offense. It may have been OK had that been the end of it. But the role play wasn’t over. As soon as I had accepted the apology the same scenario played out again and again, with him being seemingly contrite and asking for forgiveness and me granting it. It turned out that with him apologizing I had no tool in my tool belt to fight off the ongoing offense.
I recently came upon a piece entitled, “I don’t forgive the man who murdered my cousin DePayne at Mother Emanuel.” The article is a first person piece by a Christian minister, published in 2020. We do not often hear in our churches that people choose not to forgive. We assume that we forgive as we have been forgiven. After all, we say it in the Lord’s Prayer, and part of following Jesus is to forgive. But assuming that everyone should forgive can make for unrepentant sinners, since forgiveness that is assumed and expected is cheap. It also does not permit us to see how difficult it can be to forgive. Does forgiveness become cheap grace when it is offered too freely?
The author’s cousin was murdered during a bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC in June of 2015 by an unrepentant 21 year old white supremacist. There were 12 people present, nine of them were murdered.
The author writes, “When he entered the room, they did not attach stereotypes to him. They did not judge him or presume he was a threat because of his race. The stranger was welcomed to join in worship, prayer, and fellowship. He was treated as a guest. My cousin reportedly shared a Bible with him and as a result was one of the first to fall to his murderous act.”
A little further on she writes, “Dep (as she calls her cousin) did not get to go home to her four daughters that night. They did not get to have one last dinner with their mommy and confidant. But the perpetrator, who stated that he wanted to start a race war, was taken to Burger King by police officers before he was even taken to jail. My cousin’s body was still on the floor of the church – our family was waiting to claim her body as we mourned for her – while the murderer, in his white privilege, received the courtesy of a free meal.”
She says about the trial, “My family did not (emphasis mine) offer forgiveness in the courtroom. The words of a few became the headline for all, which became in turn a marketable narrative made for television and for profit, for pulpits and for politics, in order to ease the guilt of white supremacy and remove accountability. In the rush to force this false narrative, our society failed to truly engage dialogue on race, racism, and racialized violence that targets black and brown bodies.
I don’t think even President Obama considered the implications when he sang “Amazing Grace” (…), (…) the powerful impact of the president’s presence pushed the narrative further, moving us farther away from a chance to make this moment about addressing racism instead of about the alleged acquiescence of black folks.”
I am glad this piece was written and I am thankful to have read it. Forgiveness is the unquestioned narrative in our churches.
When our children were young we sought to instill in them the importance to apologize when they had hurt each other. It was about teaching self-awareness and empathy, and learning to live in community. A first obstacle was the objection, “But I didn’t mean to.” A second obstacle was when the party that was harmed would say, “That’s OK,” because it wasn’t. To say “that’s OK” invalidates the request for forgiveness, for at least semantically it denies that someone sinned.
When we speak about forgiveness, there are a few things to note.
• There is the desire to have things that are ugly go away, because if they go away, we don’t have to deal with them. But how can we solve a problem of any kind if we refuse to even talk about it? DePayne’s cousin is withholding forgiveness precisely so that the racism that led to her murder and that of eight others will be talked about. As in the role play in Junior High, forgiveness can prevent change and healing.
How often did Christian clergy counsel battered wives to forgive their husbands and to go home?
• The assumption that people will forgive at times becomes a demand. Those who cannot forgive are considered morally flawed.
But one cannot demand forgiveness. Demanding forgiveness denies that forgiveness is a gift to which the recipient is not entitled.
I remember the case of a member of a Lutheran congregation in Ontario about 20 years ago. This man was accused of having participated in the Nazi killing machine when he was in his twenties. Canada eventually deported him to face charges in Germany. Members of his church were interviewed by the media. They had not given the matter much thought. The clip shown on television was of parishioners demanding that people “forgive and forget.”
But what about the victims and their families? And how could one forget the holocaust? In the book The Sunflower Simon Wiesenthal asks whether the living can forgive on behalf of the dead.
To demand forgiveness and shame the victim for withholding it, violates the victim a second time. That can hardly be what forgiveness is about.
The cousin who is withholding forgiveness is not speaking against forgiveness, she is speaking against forgiveness that costs the victim everything and that costs the perpetrator nothing.
It is not my place to speculate whether she is not in fact practising some sort of forgiveness, not a public forgiveness but a private forgiveness, only for her to go on living and not to be destroyed by her anger and her pain.
The parable of the unforgiving servant does not speak of victims forgiving those who victimize them, although on the cross Jesus the victim will pray for those who crucify him, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The parable of the unforgiving servant speaks to those who hold power and are in control. The parable does not speak to the battered wife.
Dr Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is is the Research Chair in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. In 2007 she delivered a lecture at Monash University in Australia about “Radical Forgiveness.”
She begins her lecture by citing Hannah Arendt who says that radical evil transcends human affairs and is therefore neither punishable nor forgivable. Hannah Arendt is best known for her writing on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the phrase of the banality of evil.
But Gobodo-Madikizela’s view of forgiveness is shaped by her experience of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and so the subheading of her presentation is “Beyond Hannah Arendt.”
Gobodo-Madikizela explains that when people are traumatized they experience the event as overwhelming and something that makes them powerless. So holding on to what was done to you and refusing to forgive may simply be to reclaim power and reclaim your identity. An act of violence is so overwhelming that it overwhelms our senses and everything in us is shut down. We speak of atrocities as incidents that are unspeakable. She says this is true both metaphorically and literally. It is as if we are frozen in time. Psychologists speak of trauma as experiences that are timeless. They are timeless because when these experiences are triggered they put us back in that moment. So much for the demand to “forgive and forget.”
Speaking from her experience in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, she says when the perpetrator listens to the victim, the victim is validated and can reclaim power.
Now, not all perpetrators give their victims such opportunity. But if perpetrators do not, can others? Is this a place for the community of the Church?
And allow me to stick with acts that traumatize, for your bad mood, or you forgetting my name, or you stepping on my foot, I can deal with. It is the larger question that interests me.
The transformation of traumatic memory into narrative memory is the beginning of the path to forgiveness because by finding language to speak that which has been unspeakable, victims enter a place where healing is possible. Finding language for the unspeakable is the beginning of healing.
For the woman who tells us that she will not forgive the man who murdered her cousin, her trauma is no longer unspeakable but has in fact become narratable, and as her trauma has been transformed into narrative memory she has regained control over her identity. The reason she refuses to forgive is because she wants the story of racism that led to her cousin’s death to be told. She cannot forgive because that conversation is denied.
And yet. On the cross Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus’ prayer for his executioners speaks that which is unspeakable. By speaking the unspeakable Jesus empties himself of anger and makes room for God, for the Father to dwell in him. Forgiveness is then not saying that something is OK, or that battered wives should forgive to their husbands and forgive them 70 times seven times, nor is it forgiving and forgetting, but it is to articulate the wrong, and to take back control, in the articulation of the wrong.
I am not saying that this is easy. And neither would Gobodo-Madikizela or anyone else who understands trauma. But seen this way, forgiveness then is not a demand that victimizes victims a second time, but it is a promise to live a life not free of the memory, but a memory and a narrative victims control, of moving beyond the unspeakable, and finding words to describe their own lives, whenever they – by the help of God – are able to.
Desmond Tutu, in response to Simon Wiesenthal’s question of whether he should have offered forgiveness to the dying SS soldier, speaks of his own South African experience. In the sight of the forgiveness he witnessed in post-Arpartheid South Africa he says, “Let us take off our shoes, because at this moment we are standing on holy ground.”
 There is a saying that is falsely attributed to St Augustine. It goes like this, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”
However, Augustine, did not regard anger as beautiful. Rather, he viewed even so-called righteous anger – which after all is what all anger takes itself to be because no one who is angry considers their anger to be unjust – as something dangerous that must be resisted.
Here is what Augustine did said about anger: “For anger habitually cherished against any one becomes hatred, since the sweetness which is mingled with what appears to be righteous anger makes us detain it longer than we ought in the vessel, until the whole is soured, and the vessel itself is spoiled. Wherefore it is much better for us to forbear from anger, even when one has given us just occasion for it, than, beginning with what seems just anger against any one, to fall, through this occult tendency of passion, into hating him. …
“For it is incomparably more for our soul’s welfare to shut the recesses of the heart against anger, even when it knocks with a just claim for admission, than to admit that which it will be most difficult to expel, and which will rapidly grow from a mere sapling to a strong tree. Anger dares to increase with boldness more suddenly than men suppose, for it does not blush in the dark, when the sun has gone down upon it” (Letter 39).
 Who asked forgiveness of him, for the atrocities he had committed, simply because Wisenthal was a Jew, a member of the SS who had grown up in a Christian home and joined the SS against the will of his parents. Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower – On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, New York 1997, Schocken Books.
 Ibid. Page 267, Part Two of The Sunflower contains answers to Wiesenthal’s question about forgiveness by theologians, philosophers, writers, and public religious figures.
Image: The New York Times: Design for Charleston Attack Memorial Draws on Pain, Strength and Forgiveness