Forgiveness: Tool Time

April 18, 2021

Series: April 2021

Category: So-called Christian Values

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture: Matthew 18:21-22

Today's Sermon


"Forgiveness: Tool Time"


Matthew 18:21-22

21 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?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

“Forgiveness:  Tool Time”

            What do we do with forgiveness?  “What do you mean?” you might ask.  “You’re making it out to sound like a problem.”  I wouldn’t call forgiveness a problem, but I don’t actually believe it’s thesolution either.  What it is, is a tool.  Today, I begin a series on what I’m calling “so-called Christian values,” because I contend that often there is an incomplete, even harmful, version of the values we supposedly hold dear in our tradition.

            Forgiveness is something even the most nominal Christians, or non Christians for that matter, associate with the faith.  Jesus tells Peter to forgive, seventy-seven times, we’re reminded, or as some of your Bibles will read, “seventy times seven.” The exact number isn’t important. Seven is the holy number of completion. Either way, it’s a lot. 

            You could say forgiveness occupies a sacred place in our secular world.  Psychologist Fred Luskin, founder of the Forgiveness Projects at Stanford, speaks passionately about the importance of forgiveness.  He does so not out of some religious piety, but out of sheer practicality. He has worked in areas of significant conflict and trauma, such as the violence in Northern Ireland.  Luskin says forgiveness, quite simply, “allows you a fresh start,” for as long as you are stuck in the past, there’s a “residual bitterness that influences your capacity for happiness.”[1]He is a brilliant man.

            Yet, one time after hearing Luskin speak and a woman said to me in so many words, “I’m not buying it.”  I asked her to tell me more, and she proceeded to explain how her experience of being a woman was that time and time again she has experienced some measure of abuse or exploitation from men and then carried the guilt-laden expectation, often propagated by the church, to forgive.  Rather than giving her a fresh start, this expectation to forgive kept her stuck and wounded.  Similarly, a black colleague shared something following the shooting at a black church in Charleston a few years ago.  My colleague and other black voices said the culture and media so sensationalize the forgiveness aspect that blacks are effectively taught that their role in society is to receive violence and forgive with grace.  That’s what it means to be black.  This is getting complicated.

            I came across a dialogue between the Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rabbi and author Danya Ruttenberg on this question of what to do with forgiveness in light of some of the complications I’ve just raised.  I’m happy to share that link with anyone.  One mistake Christians sometimes make is to see Christianity as an enlightened correction to an archaic and legalistic tradition called Judaism, which neither really understands Christianity nor Judaism, nor takes into account the ongoing thought and development in each tradition.  Here, the Jews have something to teach us, even as we continue to make our home in Christ. 

            When asked about forgiveness and reconciliation, Ruttenberg in the kind of plain English you and I can understand, pointed to the work of the great Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides of the 12thcentury.[2]  Maimonides said there are 5 steps in making things right, in repenting, when one does harm:

1) First, you have to acknowledge the harm you’ve done in at least as public a venue as the one in which you did the harm. So, if you hurst someone in the company of a several people, it’s not enough to privately acknowledge that harm one on one later. You have to acknowledge it in a setting at least as public.  You own your behavior for yourself, for them, and in the presence of the wider group.

2) Two, you begin the work of transformation. You have to do the work, serious work.  Maimonides says it may be so complete you might consider changing your name.  That’s how deep you’re going.  Ruttenberg says in addition to ancient practices of prayer, we might engage in therapy, rehab and so forth.

3/4) Steps three and four go together:  Make amends—set things right.  If you’ve physically hurt someone, you might pay their medical bills and maybe more to compensate for what has happened.  Then, and only then, apologize, step four.  An apology is hollow if it is merely a knee-jerk response.  Any parent will know this, for children learn quickly to say, “I’m sorry,” when it’s clear they aren’t in a position to be sorry. If you ask them, they may not even know what they’re sorry for, so how could they possibly do the work of transformation or amends? 

5) Finally, step five—and this is how you know it’s worked; remember we’re speaking about the practicality—step five is when you as the original offender are faced with the opportunity to do the same hurtful thing, you make a different choice. The proof is in how you act differently next time around. 

            What about forgiveness?  For Ruttenberg, this is almost a separate question altogether. Forgiveness is not always assumed at the end of this.  In that sense, this process is very victim-centered because it gives back to the victim some measure of control.  Some things may be forgiven, even easily forgiven.  Other things not, even when all the steps have been dutifully followed. Bracket for a moment our Christian expectation around the necessity of forgiveness, and I would say this squares far better with our lived experiences than does the notion that we can and should forgive everything 77 times.  How does the abused hear the call to forgive over and over again?

      Still, this Christian impulse toward forgiveness is strong in us.  The other day someone borrowed a book from me. You’re always welcome to borrow a book not just from the church’s library, but my personal library.  I keep a little log to keep track of who has what…or I should say I started a log.  When I went opened it the other day to note who borrowed the book, I found only one previous entry from a few years ago when I started the file.  That book happened to be Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgivenessdetailing the famous transition from Apartheid to freedom in South Africa, and the tool that built the path out of Apartheid was forgiveness. At least, that’s the story we often tell, and it’s only half-right.

            We seem to forget that the commission that managed this incredible process that produced a kind of mass forgiveness that truly allowed South Africa to have a fresh start the likes of which Luskin touts, and the measure of forgiveness of which Jesus speaks, was called the “Truthand Reconciliation Commission.”  We laud the reconciliation.  We sometimes forget the place of the truth.  I studied this work in graduate school in another field and what gets missed is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up panels in which victims of Apartheid, black South Africans could come and tell their story, tell the truth of what had happened to them in the presence of their abusers, abusers who sat and listened to what they had done and what the effects were of the system they propagated.  Many of those oppressors were granted amnesty.  They were in real terms forgiven, but only after the truth had been told and accepted.  That cannot be overlooked.

            Where does Jesus come up with his call to forgive?  Well, let’s back up.  Like most things Jesus says in the Newer Testament, he is commenting on something from the Older Testament—not always correcting, but wrestling with, like all good rabbis do.  We don’t know the Older Testament the way Jesus’ followers would have.  Jesus is referring here to Genesis 4 in which a man named Lamech, son of Cain, Cain the first killer, has seemingly inherited Cain’s penchant for violence, and pledges to his wives that he will kill a man just for wounding him.  Not looking for a proportional response (an eye for an eye) Lamech says, “If sevenfold vengeance was to be exacted for Cain,” I will exact it “seventy-seven fold” (Gen 4:23-24).  Jesus does, in fact, reverse this because it seems he wants to people to be as committed to mercy as Lamech was to revenge.

            So, after all this, how are we anywhere other than where we started, forgive, always forgive?  Here’s how.  Notice this isn’t a universal commandment Jesus gives here.  Jesus was talking to a particular person, Peter, who had a particular position within the community, a high one.  Peter asks what to do if someone in the church, a community of shared values and commitments, a Jewishcommunity who had expectations around repentance and repair, Peter asks what to do if that onesins against him. That’s very different from Jesus commanding all people in all moments to forgive.

            But, set that aside if you’d like.  Assume Jesus meant it more widely.  What was Jesus?  First and foremost he was a healer.  Just read the Scriptures.  He was about making whole people and whole communities.  Secondly, he was a builder, literally and metaphorically.  He was building the kingdom of God.  Any good builder knows that you need the right tool for the job.  A hammer is the right tool if you’re trying to drive a nail through two boards, holding them together.  A hammer is not the right tool, in fact it ceases to be a tool, if you turn that hammer to the soft flesh of your coworker.  Then, it becomes a weapon.  

            In the end, forgiveness not the project; it’s a tool.  The project is creating whole people, building a whole community.  If a victim wants to employ it to achieve a fresh start for themselves or others, they have every right to do so, if it truly benefits.  If it is employed, perhaps the community should pick up other tools, such as accountability, rehabilitation, and reform. When forgiveness is simplistically mandated—telling the abused “You must forgive”—forgiveness becomes a weapon inflicting harm on the already harmed.  You cannot build the kingdom of God with weapons.

            I hope you come back to discover more about so-called Christian values in the weeks ahead. 


[2] See for a transcript of this discussion.