The Discipline of Forgiveness

Over the years I’ve led a few classes on forgiveness, counseled a few people struggling with how to forgive, read the usual array of articles probing the issue, and had a few problems of my own with it.
In the end, I think forgiveness is the act of not perpetuating violence.  It’s a discipline, not an emotion, although the later may be the result of the discipline.  
Perpetuating violence begins with holding a grudge  because it does real injury to the holder, something psychologists and spiritual directors have known for a long time.  The grudge holder might object that I don’t understand the depth of violence or injustice inflicted on them, and they would be right, but holding that grudge is a form of violence committed against the self, and thus a perpetuation of the violence and injustice.
Expressing it outwardly takes on some form of revenge, even if it’s cloaked in the language of justice, in which case the violence perpetrated in the first instance has been used as an excuse, or justifiable reason, for perpetuating violence on the rebound that has a high probability of rebounding again.  That is not to say that acts of injustice and violence should be without consequence.  They always have consequence, but holding grudges and acts of revenge need not be among them.   
Looking at it another way, we condemn gang turf wars and senseless shootings, but, if we are honest about it, they are magnified images of our own, more civilized, turf wars and senseless shootings as we continue the cycle of violence in our families, among our friends, and at our places of work.  We are accomplished at a less visible form of violence because we inflict it with words, and acts of interpersonal sabotage, behind which we can easily hide.  When we inflict physical abuse, we do what we can to shroud it in secrecy, or claim it as an act of self defense.  It’s not uncommon, but it’s crude.  Most of us are far better at inflicting psychological abuse in ways that are harder to detect and easier to cover up.
The excuses don’t matter.  What matters is the continuation of the cycle of violence.  Forgiveness, then, is not an emotion in which the violent act ceases to have psychological power over us.  It is a decision made to not continue participating in the cycle.  It’s what Jesus did, what Mandela learned to do, and what Girard has written about in our own day.  It seems so simple, but when it’s brought up in conversation it tends to elicit one of three responses:  a blank, uncomprehending stare; a “yes but not me”; or a “you don’t understand.”

It’s time for us, you and me, to comprehend, to admit that sometimes we are the perpetrators, and to recognize that others can understand and help.

“Let no evil talk come our of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.”  So says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.  Good advice.

7 thoughts on “The Discipline of Forgiveness”

  1. Meddler!I try to sit here with a \”blank, uncomprehending stare,\” but I think I understand, and believe, what you present. I would say, \”you don't understand,\” but I expect you would understand.I am human. I instinctively, and through cultural training, want to \”get even,\” return the hurt, explain how I've been wronged, …It would be easier to simply disengage, but engagement and healing are in order. Thank you for shining the light on the path of discipline as a way forward.J.D.

  2. \”Not perpetuating violence\”: yes. But then there's a curious twist here given Jesus' form of a proactive response to violence in turning the other cheek.For what does that literally do? Invite the person who just struck you (in whatever sense of \”strike\”) to do so again. It says: \”Here I am\” making myself available for yet another act of violence. Which then does what for the other? For, yes, it's directly provocative. It calls the other out. Says: you thought you were dictating the terms of this interaction, but you are not. There's a wholly other way to be than this way. And here is your chance to embrace that difference.But that's crazy. For now aren't you trying to dictate the terms of the interaction? Aren't you insisting that this other person take direct responsibility for whatever action she or he takes next? For how could he or she not act in response to such a directly personal provocation?Personal to whom? No. For whom? Can I really not care that I've been wronged by this person? Can I really invite this person to wrong me again, not for my sake, but for the ever vanishing possibility that suddenly someone might appear where the wrong-doer had been?

  3. I am going to skip by the question of who is in control, except to observe that the decision to not participate in continuing the cycle of violence may well result in the other taking direct responsibility for whatever action she or he takes next. OK, I’m not going to skip it altogether. I think we are misled by the example of turning the other cheek, since it presupposes a face-to-face encounter with someone who does violence to us. Refusing to continue that cycle may take one out of the arena of the a personal engagement with the perpetrator. As one example, a child who experiences domestic violence in youth may decide not to continue that cycle as an adult without ever physically encountering the perpetrator of his or her youth. What I really want to get to is “Can I really not care…” I think we always care, and care a lot. Caring is not the same thing as deciding not to participate in the continuation of the cycle of violence. As I see it, caring at the most profound levels is what Jesus was all about. God cares.

  4. First, yes, as far as I can see, the point of turning the other cheek is precisely to create a situation in which the other must either take direct personal responsibility for their next action or refuse to do so. Either way the opportunity presented is for him or her to mean it: to mean to strike you again, or, suddenly, to mean otherwise. Which could then invite yet another possibility: a change in the way that person cares.Which brings us back to: Can I really not care that I've been wronged?As far as I can see, and here I realize I continue to need help, the point here turns on how I care. For here is the fact that a wrong has taken place. Everything will then turn on how that fact is acknowledged as the fact it is. How do I take up that acknowledgement? I go: yes, this is wrong, now here are you willing to care enough to acknowledge it as well? For who could do that? Not the person who struck me, then who? And I turn and look him in the face….And, yes, we as a culture are trying our technological best to eliminate such a face to face encounter. But it's always already there in the past to haunt every present and future encounter.And does it help to say that \”God cares\”? In one sense, yes, I need all the help I can get. But in another, no. For, in the end, doesn't God leave it up to my taking the initiative to turn that cheek? Isn't that precisely here how He cares?

  5. Can I really not care that I have been wronged?Well, what does not care mean.The the consequences of the act are so insignificant as to be ignored.The act itself is insignificant compared to whatever else is going on.The consequences of the act may be signifiant to somebody but are of no interest to me.The wrong was imagined and never happened.The event happened but it was misinterpreted as being a wrong.I suppose that to care would be the opposite of things like that, and involves an emotional, and perhaps rational, investment in the wrong that seeks to be expressed in some way.So, if I care that I have been wronged, how best to express it? With a right hook and left jab? Probably not, but turning the other cheek does not mean doing nothing.In my imagination, I see Jesus being mocked and beaten by Pilate’s soldiers, and them deciding the game is no longer fun when the victim doesn’t respond appropriately. Did they go off to the barracks and begin to feel guilty about what they did? I imagine so, but also that they covered it with a variety stories about the crazy man who wasn’t worth it anyway. It’s in my imagination, but not so different from accounts of concentration camp guards (including Guantanamo) who excused their guilt by “reframing” the events to be about mere animals, and evil ones at that. Isn’t that the way Girard sees it? The value of the scape goat. But a scape goat is an involuntary creature that did not choose to be one. Stopping the cycle of violence requires a victim who willingly absorbs the violence, is somehow cleansed of the effects of absorbing it, and is able to make the decision not to pass it on. In our time I look toward a figure like Mandela as an example. The question is, how can the example of a Mandela be made useful to you and me as we encounter less dramatic forms of violence and injustice? How can the abused spouse or child refuse the role of involuntary scape goat, and take on the role of victim who decides not to pass on the cycle of violence to others. Caring about the wrong can also mean, and perhaps must also mean, a commitment to recognize and name the injustice, and do what one can to ameliorate the conditions under which the injustice has arisen. On a personal level it may start with the decision not to continue in the role of victim, to escape and seek protection. The various civil rights movement and civil rights acts of the mid 1960s were an example of a national effort to do that, but I fear they have had a hard time gaining traction, especially now. The death penalty and prison are more popular options, but they are only the legal consequences of a violent act, and the best they can do is remove the perpetrator from our presence for a time. Those we can’t put in prison we scape goat by labeling them as lazy, unwilling to work, unintelligent, alien, and not the right ethnicity or skin color to be considered full fledged members of “us.”It’s here that the Social Gospel, or whatever remnant of it is still around, comes into play. It seeks to change conditions that contribute to the cycle of violence, but it runs up against accusations of being a namby-pamby, weak kneed surrender to violence in a society that romanticizes revenge and calls it justice. For Christians, Jesus stands in the middle, encouraging the one and accusing the other as one who has the ultimate authority to do so.

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