Forgiveness 2

Forgiveness: Many Levels and Kinds

I hear there is a Unitarian Universalist church out west somewhere, in a downtown area where parking is at a premium. A lot of people not coming to the church would park in the church parking lot. The church put up a sign:
Church Parking Only.
Violaters Will Be Forgiven.
The congregation didn’t really mind people parking there through the week – and I’ve always thought that was a clever way to advertise the forgiving nature of the church.

Forgiveness is an issue in such a broad range of situations, and you’ll have a chance to explore them in this month’s Journey Group packet (HERE) and at your Journey Group.

There’s the casual forgiveness as a social courtesy, like forgiving people for parking on your lot, forgiving them for being a few minutes late.

There’s also those situations of much deeper emotional hurt, where forgiveness is hard to ask for and hard to give. When we are wronged, it’s normal to be angry and hurt, to rehearse the narrative in our minds. We give over our personal power to the individual who hurt us, continuing to let their past actions dominate our present experience. In such a case, forgiveness is liberating, for in letting go of the grievance, it loses its power over us. Sometimes forgiveness takes the form of unilaterally deciding to stop carrying the weight of that resentment. The other person might not have asked for your forgiveness, might not have apologized, might not know that you forgive them, yet letting go of the anger is something you do for your own sake because the burden of your own resentment is weighing you down.

Other times forgiveness is a bilateral process of two people working together toward reconciliation, intentionally engaged in a process of rebuilding of trust. There’s the kind of forgiveness you can choose to give, and saying the words, “I forgive you,” is all it takes. Then there’s the kind of forgiveness that you can’t choose, can’t make yourself do – the heart just isn’t ready. The head might compel the mouth to say the words, but the heart feels the emptiness of the words because the heart has not, in fact, forgiven. The heart – or, to be more precise, the emotional center of the brain – as always, has a wisdom that bears attending to. The emotions are clued in to some things the upper cortex doesn’t get. In those cases, coaxing the limbic system toward letting go is a different matter from the upper cortex deciding to forgive.

In other words, in those tough cases where the emotions run deep – like how to forgive a father, or a mother, for the years of whatever it was – neglect, abuse, alcoholism, rage, disconnection, over-controlling or under-involvement – if forgiveness does come, if the heart finds that it is able to forgive, then forgiveness is a grace – a blessing that arrives that is ultimately unearned.

There’s the issue of forgiveness considered from the point of view of the person who has been hurt – whether, and, if so, how, to forgive. And there’s the issue of forgiveness from the point of view of the person who has hurt someone else – how to seek forgiveness.

And then there’s self-forgiveness – which some of us, I imagine, experience as harder than forgiving anyone else.

When Gandhi told the man to find a Muslim child and raise him as a Muslim, he was naming a path of restitution that would, we imagine, ultimately lead to self-forgiveness, though the process will be long and slow.

I can speak to you as a man who did find a child – about this high (my shoulder height) – of a different religion, different culture, different language. Yency Contreras was 17 when LoraKim and I met him while offering worship services at his detention facility in El Paso. Our relationship, just over ten years so far, has been many things. We were not called upon, as the man with Gandhi, to actively raise him in a different faith – he had already been mostly raised in a different faith. We did, though, have to grow accepting of the Pentecostal faith he has maintained on his own. One of the things going on in all this – not especially on the surface – has been a sense of a process of partial atonement. We, with our pale skins and middle class US lifestyles, our undeserved privilege, depending as it does upon a constant flow of resources from the rest of the world, and upon global systems that encourage a number of countries, including those of Central America, to adopt policies that effectively impoverish the people and denude the land. Having Yency has been by no means a total atonement, but a step on a path. So there is also the kind of forgiveness which is always in process and never finally achieved. We are always atoning, never atoned – never through with the work of repairing.

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This is part 2 of 4 of 'Forgiveness'
Next: Part 3
Previous: Part 1

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