Sunday, October 18, 2009

Asking big questions - on forgiveness

If you haven’t already, do make a note of the question you’ve always wanted to ask but never had the opportunity to.

As you can imagine the questions that appeared at the end of last Sunday’s service are pretty big questions.

It is the way that reading of the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount ends that prompts the first of those big questions.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Happy are you when people insult you, persecute you and tell evil lies against you”

How can we learn to be able to forgive people when they do it to us personally? Not easy.

A big question indeed! And one I hesitate to respond to. I am not willing to tell anyone how to forgive. If forgiveness is important it is one of those things we each have to learn, discover, receive, grow into in our own time, in our own way. And I fear it is something we none of us can do in our own strength, but only in the strength that God gives.

Having said that, I do want to respond to the question.

First of all, I want to make a categorical response. A clear response. A definite response.

The questioner starts with a statement from which the question follows.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Happy are you when people insult you, persecute you and tell evil lies against you.” The questioner then goes on to ask, “How can we learn to be able to forgive people when when they do it to us personally.”

In response, I first want to ask whether Jesus does say that in the Sermon on the Mount. Look again at Matthew 5:11 and 12

Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of evil lies against you because you are my followers. Be happy and glad, for a great reward is kept for you in heaven. This is how the prophets who lived before you were persecuted.

This is my categorical response.

Jesus is NOT talking about people who insult you, persecute you and tell evil lies against you at a personal level, in a personal kind of way.

Having outlined the eight general principles of the Beatitudes Jesus now turns directly to those who have decided to follow him and he gives them words of encouragement they are to hold on to when they come up against people who insult them, persecute them tell all kinds of evil lies against them BECAUSE THEY ARE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS.

These words have nothing to do with personal abuse, violent behaviour.

These words are about the persecution of Christians because of their Christian faith.

Contrary to the view of the little girl in Outnumbered who was echoing the words of a hymn, the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus at the heart of our Christian faith, is not meek and mild.

He is outspoken in his condemnation of those who are abusive and violent.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks in no uncertain terms condemning those who are the perpetrators of falsehood, the lie and such evil behaviour. Woe betide you he says, not once, but seven times.

These words in the Sermon on the Mount have nothing to do with lies, abusive behaviour, bullying at a personal level.

Faced with such a situation Jesus would and did condemn outright the perpetrator of such violent, abusive destructive, bullying behaviour. He would respond and did respond to the victim of such behaviour by bringing healing to the damage that had been done.

That did not always involve bringing people together – it is easy to forget that Jesus also recognised there were circumstances in relationships where such damage had been done that it demanded separation of the people involved, and in the instance of it happening within a marriage, divorce.

The first part of my response to this difficult question is to say quite categorically those words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are not about personal insults and abusive behaviour.

So where does forgiveness come in?

There can be no escaping the centrality of Forgiveness for the Christian.

Forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us

It is very easy to link ‘forgiveness’ with the restoration of a broken relationship. Sometimes the link can be made. Someone does something wrong, shows remorse, is forgiven and a relationship is restored.

But that link cannot always be made. When remorse is not shown, when relationships are broken irretrievably what about forgiveness then? Is it something that is inappropriate? Or is it still something of value?

I wonder whether there is a value in forgiveness for the individual quite aside from anything to do with the restoration of a broken relationship.

I wonder whether Jesus makes so much of the importance of forgiveness because he recognises that inside the individual who is a victim this thing ‘forgiveness’ can actually become part of a healing process for them as a victim.

It is in this context that I want to return to the question.

How can we learn to be able to forgive people when they do it to us personally? Not easy.

Let me share two stories.

At our Ministers conference this year we hosted an exhibition and welcomed someone whose inspiration the exhibition was. The exhibition was simply called ‘The Forgiveness Project’. Our speaker was Jo Berry. Jo Berry’s father was a Conservative MP who was killed in the Brighton Bombing 25 years ago last Tuesday.

She sat quietly and simply shared her story. It was deeply moving and humbling to listen as she spoke of the scale of the impact of what had happened. She spoke of the long long years of hatred, questioning, despair, that had led her to the quest for empathy, understanding … and the recognition of the importance of forgiveness.

Jo Berry's Story on the Forgiveness Project Web site

Roy Jenkins interviews Jo Berry and Patrick Magee on All things considered for BBC Wales.

To some, Lord Tebbitt included, who was so severely injured and whose wife was paralysed as a result of that bombing it was deeply offensive for the House of Commons Committee on Conflict to host The Forgiveness Project and its exhibition and to invite Jo Berry, a victim, and Patrick Magee who had planted the bomb to speak together on the same platform.

Harvey Thomas was interviewed by Ed Stourton on the Sunday Programme last week about the planned event and the importance to him of forgiveness. This is what he said …

An interview with Harvey Thomas.

See the report on the BBC News of this interview and the Forgiveness Project.

Two observations on that story. Harvey Thomas only speaks for himself. In the interview as originally broadcast he went on to speak movingly and supportively and with understanding of Sir Norman Tebbit who considered that meeting inappropriate and called in question the whole purpose of ‘the forgiveness project’.

A second observation. It took Harvey Thomas 12 years before he made the contact he felt was necessary. 12 years. A long time. It took Jo Berry more than 20 years and still she speaks of empathy, understanding, and not so much of ‘forgiveness’.

How do we learn forgiveness? I am not sure it is something to be learned. It is something to be reminded of. That’s why it is good to say the Lord’s Prayer. It is good to come around the table in communion and constantly be reminded of the forgiveness that we are on the receiving end of from God in the wonderful love of Christ, and then to be reminded of the forgiveness that can come in our heart.

We cannot learn forgiveness, we can be reminded of it. And as we are reminded of it, maybe it will creep up on us unexpectedly, in time the kind of forgiveness that can heal up our own wounds can come.

And such forgiveness can be healing.

Another story from the Forgiveness Project web site.

Francis & Berthe Climbié (England)

Victoria Climbié’s life was short and tragic. Born in the Ivory coast, at the age of seven her parents, Francis and Berthe Climbié , trusted her into the care of a relative, Marie-Therese Kouao, who brought her to England to be educated. It was here that she met her death – tortured and killed by the very person who had promised to help her.

Initially, when we first heard about Victoria we could not forgive. We are human beings and no human being is perfect. We were tormented by guilt, anguish and hatred, and could not understand how our daughter’s life could have been destroyed by someone who had promised to take care of her. Victoria was very, very precious to us. We had so many expectations and so much hope for our child. Even so, from the very first day we heard about the death of Victoria, we began praying that one day we would be able to forgive.

If you want to live happily and at ease in this life you have to learn to forgive. It shouldn’t matter if the person is unable to ask for forgiveness or even acknowledge that they’ve done wrong, because forgiveness cannot be based on conditions. So we’re not waiting for Marie-Therese to ask for our forgiveness: whether she asks for it or not we have forgiven her. But while Marie-Therese has shown no remorse, her boyfriend, Carl Manning, did ask for our forgiveness. The sad thing is he hasn’t achieved freedom – not in his body, his mind or his soul. We can’t ignore their culpability. Whatever wrong people do in life there will be a price to pay, but it is not for us to punish. The legal system has its way of dealing with people who are not fit to live among humans.

We have also been able to forgive all those agencies and individuals who were shown through the public inquiry to have failed our daughter. To be locked into a fixed attitude of retribution is to kill a child twice. First, the child is murdered, but if you as the parent then focus only on retribution, you extinguish the very spirit and memory of your child.

Many people in England have asked us why we gave Victoria away. I want to say that we didn’t give her away. In African society children are not just the children of their parents, but the children of their aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters. The greatest privilege of all is for a relative to offer to educate your child abroad. In Africa we are only able to survive because those who are successful feel a duty to help those who are not.

What comfort is revenge? Our greatest desire is that something positive should come out of this tragedy. That’s why we’re opening a school in the Ivory Coast. It will be a centre of excellence providing education for children from all around the world. The sole reason for Victoria coming to England was to get an education. This school is our way of immortalising the spirit and the name of our child.

Let’s keep saying the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s keep remembering the body of Christ broken for us the blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of sins.

Let’s keep reminding ourselves of this thing called ‘forgiveness’ that Jesus shared with us and was convinced could make such a difference inside our own hearts.

How long do we go on reminding ourselves of this forgiveness? Seven times? Or seventy-times-seven times? It may take a life-time and maybe even more. It is not easy.

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