“Forgiveness + Justice = Unity”

Covenant Network Conference, Denver
Cynthia Rigby
5 November 2015

These are Cindy’s lecture notes only; not a full manuscript.   

Part one:  forgive and remember

It doesn’t seem to me to be hard to make a theological case for the importance of nurturing unity. We don’t, after all, believe “heaven can wait” – that we should leave the Kingdom of God to the future/God and to have a different set of standards for the “here and now.”

That would make it easy, actually, if we could just say – oh, well. Schism is OK, here in this world, because God is going to work it out in the end.  Why even try?

We don’t have an escapist eschatology. Our hope feeds the present world – it is our hope for this life, as well as for the life to come.  When we pray, we don’t say “we are looking forward to the kingdom, which we understand will come in due time.”  We say:  “Thy kingdom come! Already.”  Let’s get on with it.  Let’s join in with making it happen.  “Thy will be done.”

How do we go about working on earth for the unity that is the eschatological reality? In this talk, thinking about how forgiveness funds unity when it includes insistence on justice.  This is in almost direct contrast, as we will see, with understanding forgiveness to require “forgetting” injustice.

I think we see this connection between unity and forgiveness in the third article of the Creed (what is it doing there, BTW?) “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”  This connection between the universal church and forgiveness . . . the two go hand-in-glove.  We need to ask ourselves:  do we believe what the creed says?  That the Holy Spirit makes possible our forgiving of one another, in the context of the community of believers?  This is the only way we are going to be catholic/universal/one/united – by living in forgiving relationship to one another.

So say we are willing to give forgiveness a shot. But what is forgiveness, anyway?  There is a lot of bad theology of forgiveness going around.  The worst of it reflects the cultural mantra, “forgive and forget.”  “Forget” what?  Wrongs?  Injustices?  This is seemingly great for the one who has done harm, but not all it’s cracked up to be for the one who has been harmed.  Post-holocaust literature helps make this point.  Wiesenthal (see The Sunflower).  Wiesel (see “A Prayer for the Days of Awe,” printed in the New York Times in 1997; also news reports on Wiesel’s response to question of whether he would forgive Bernie Madoff for robbing his corporation).  Also Kairos Document.

Forgive and forget” doesn’t work, from a biblical/theological perspective, because “forgiveness” is about reconciliation, and reconciliation is about healed relationships, and healed relationships require remembering, repenting, changing behavior and being restored. They require quite the opposite, in fact, of “forgetting.”

We see this in one of the most difficult to interpret but right in our faces passages in Scripture: the story of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18.  What a parable!  Jesus tells it ostensibly to elucidate questions the disciples have about that disturbing line in the Lord’s Prayer:  “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  Does this imply God will not forgive us, if we don’t forgive others?  Retell story.  Explain:  this isn’t about God “taking back” forgiveness.  It is about what forgiveness   It is about stepping into the forgiveness that is ours and living out of it in relation to each other.

Confession of sin, here, is about re-membering, each worship service, who we are – remembering we are forgiven! How can you love a sinner such as I? Is said with joy.  It is Scrooge on Christmas morning, throwing coins off his roof and calling for the purchase of the biggest Christmas goose.

The amazing thing about God is that God remembers everything and still loves us. And we are asked, now, not only to live in recognition of this, but to live out of recognition in relation to others – knowing everything, naming the problems, and still loving.

Would it be possible, in Christian community, to truly name harms done; to talk through changes being made to behaviors; to be united, together, in claiming the truth that sin no longer has a hold on us by refusing to bury it?

What might motivate us: When we forget sin, letting injustices rot somewhere on the side, sin wins.  Paraphrase of Maya Angelou story about the man who was so ashamed of the racist thing he had said that he “hung up” (see Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now).

We have the remedy that makes unity possible, even when there have been wrongs among us. We don’t forget sin.  We name it, and repent of it, and forgive each other for it, and are restored.   And then we live differently.

What are the sins we have perpetrated against one another in relation to our debates about ordination and marriage? And how do we go about re-membering them?  How do we put them back together so they don’t get the best of us, dividing us?  How do we live together as the ONE church that we are (warts and all, as they say) instead of as the (pretend) communion of saints who try to look as though we never need to forgive one another because we are so “saintly”!?

Part two: unity in the forgiving Christ

Our model for forgiveness that is about re-membering (or putting back together); Jesus Christ, the one who restores us by entering deeply into our situation with us, knows everything about us, forgets nothing, and lifts us up.

To think about Christ as the one who unites us, as our cornerstone, as the one who is the head with all of us members of his body, is to think about the event of his life, death, and resurrection. He forgives and reconciles in the entirety of who he is.  Let’s think about this in more detail.

Philippians 2 says he, though in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. And so he emptied himself, and being found in human likeness, he became obedient unto death, even death on the cross.

Christ’s reconciliatory work began with this radical and complete entrance into existence with us. He enters into solidarity with us.  He is tried in every way as we are.   He values BODIES.  He is a body.  He is embodied.  He cares for bodies.  He touches bodies.  He loves bodies as part and parcel of the persons.

He heals the hemorrhaging woman. He makes mud paste with his own spit and heals the eyes of the   He tells the lame to pick up their mats and walk.  He turns water into wine and he raises Lazarus from the dead.  But not before crying at his friend’s tomb.

He offers the Samaritan woman living water for her body (so she will not thirst), even as he is aware of the concrete details of his entire life story. He sits and argues with Nicodemus about the relationship between physical birth and spiritual birth, honoring him as a fellow religious leader.

Jesus never ever gives people a “choice” between body and soul. He loves all of who they are.  He heals who they are.  He never disparages their pain, minimizes their pain, tells them to buck up.  He doesn’t deny his own pain, naming his suffering in the Garden and on the cross (I thirst!  And:  Why have you forsaken me?!).

Jesus, when he begins his ministry, talks about setting the captives free by quoting from Isaiah. To release from bondage.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see,
 that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” (NRSV)

Clearly, Jesus’ work of forgiveness is not about getting us to buck up or lay aside who we are as embodied creatures with stories. He becomes obedient unto death because there is something really and truly broken that he does not brush to the side but takes very seriously.  He takes it up and into his own person.  He takes it on.

But that is not all of who Jesus Christ is and how he forgives us. He enters into solidarity with us, but is not reduced to that solidarity.  It is not the sole, exhaustive, definition of who he is.

Therefore the Father highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus Christ every knee shall bend – in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth – and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

He is lifted up, holy and without blemish, lifting each of us up with him in the process.  We might be beaten down, but he lifts us up to new life.  We are bodies that have souls, and souls that cannot be separated from bodies, but these are also souls that cannot be reduced to bodies.

The work of forgiveness, as we understand it in and through and centered in him, is about always remembering that we cannot be reduced to the brokenness itself, whether we have perpetrated it or it has been perpetrated against us. There is, always, resurrection.  There is transcending the reality of the sin that does not entail forgetting about or neglecting the body.

Even Mary Daly and Carter Heyward, feminist theologians who emphasize never losing sight of the body, talk about the importance of transcending so that who we are is not reduced to the body; to the dynamics of kyriarchies that keep us in certain roles/places/victimizations. (see Daly:  Beyond God the Father and Heyward, “Crossing Over:  On Transcendence”)

Whatever this “transcending” is about, though, it is not about neglecting what has happened to the bodies God created and with whom Christ entered into solidarity.

Students have taught me a lot about that. Jessica, Amy, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer – humor, expressions of hurt, forgiveness. Resisting being bogged down, with hope for what is possible, but really naming the problems.

Part three:  conclusion and challenge

One of the challenges we face, in our ongoing work on being a community of faith united in the forgiveness of sins, is how to name the oppression of bodies without getting bogged down by the failings of one another and this world.

It helps to remember that exaltation/resurrection doesn’t leave bodies behind. We believe in the resurrection of the body.  Whatever sins of this world will never be forgotten, but they will be healed.  They will always matter, but they will not always leave us stuck.  This, I think, is God’s promise to us as Jesus extends his resurrected hands and we can see the scars.

I would like to close by sharing a poem that was written by a friend of mine in response to a story I told, in a class we were in together, about how hard it is to realize how forgiven we are.  I was saying that I think one of the reasons we don’t reach out to forgive others, naming injustices and staying in conversation with them, is because is because of our own shame about shortcomings and sins.

I’ll read you the poem, but first need to tell you the story I told her that precipitated it. (first tell story about [inadvertently but actually] causing a friend to fall down a flight of stairs and cut open her chin, and how difficult it is not to drive her crazy, still, with my apologies).

“Scarred Forgiveness
For Cindy”

Touching that scar on your chin,
I remember that I, in my impatience,
Caused your fall.
The wound is healed,
And I long since forgiven,
But your scar remains.
You smile at my thousandth apology and ask,
“When will you let this go?”
And I reply, “Only when your scar is gone.”

Forgiveness is a paradox
of forgetting and remembering;
A paradox of guilt absolved
And pain remembered.
“Forgive and forget” is not enough.
To forgive or be forgiven
Requires remembrance,
Not to punish, but to heal.

I learned this from a Master of forgiveness
Who swallows up all wounds in Grace.
But like Thomas I, too, am bidden
To come and touch his scars,
And remember.

— Bobbie Sanders, 2015
© Cynthia L. Rigby, 2015
Please do not use this poem without permission.

Bobbie’s poem beautifully illustrates the challenge of forgiveness: we can’t forget, nor should we, because there are still scars on real and beloved bodies.  We can’t forget, nor should we, because our stories are not our stories of redemption if the scars are removed.  We can’t forget either the scars we have or the scars we have caused others because they are right there, in the communion of saints, in the context of the united, forgiving community.  But we have also been lifted up so those scars are not the final word.  They are healed stars.  We are forgiven by God, and we can therefore forgive one another.

May God give us the grace and energy to live not with shame, but with joy. And may we treat others in kind, re-membering our histories and laying claim, every day, to God’s kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven.

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