How deep is the forgiveness we seek? How deep is the forgiveness we offer? So often as public figures own up to wrongdoing, their carefully crafted speeches are designed to deflect criticism. Do you recall golfer Fuzzy Zoeller’s racially zinging the young Tiger Woods? He apologized with the familiar: “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” As though right and wrong as absolutes aren’t real? Zoeller next offered the pointlessly ineffectual, “I didn’t mean anything by it.” Call me old-fashioned, but whatever happened to, “I did wrong. You deserved better. Will you forgive me?”
When Dan Rather apologized during the 2004 election for questioning President George W. Bush’s National Guard service because of faulty documentation, he said, “We made a mistake in judgment.” Talk about shifting his personal responsibility to some invisible collective “we.”
How deep is the forgiveness we seek? How deep is the forgiveness we offer? If it’s as shallow as that, don’t expect the light of love to shine brightly in your life. Why is that? Because we all hurt people we love and care about, intentionally or unintentionally, just by being in close proximity to them. We target them, neglect them, or elbow them as we cook side-by-side in the kitchen. We can’t change that. It is all part of being human. But forgiveness can put the pain behind us. Talk to anyone close to you about real divisions in their family. Much pain needs to be released.
How deep is the forgiveness we seek? How deep is the forgiveness we offer? My purpose in asking this is to prepare our hearts for Holy Week. Church is meant to be a place schooling us in the art of forgiveness. None of us, individually, are good at forgiveness, because we are all born to blame others for our failures and to claim credit for their successes. We are all born wielding excuses as convenient rationales for why we did wrong as we deny others any access to excuse. But when we get together, tell stories of Jesus, and hold each other accountable, it all changes.
My friend, Rev. Mary Luti tells of a man driving drunk running a red light. He killed the driver in the other car, a young mother of twin toddlers. At the man’s sentencing, the woman’s relatives delivered enraged witness impact statements. Their faces contorted with grief, they screamed at him in open court. On the kinder side of their vein-bulging condemnations was, “Rot in hell!” Watching the news, Mary observed, “I don’t blame them one bit. I would feel the same way…“
Then it was the husband’s turn to speak. He faced the man, and said, “I’m a Christian. Jesus commanded us to forgive. So I forgive you.” Having said that, he let out a wail and slumped over in his seat, as if struck by a mighty blow. Mary felt struck with him. How could the husband forgive him? Was he in denial? Didn’t he need more time, more therapy, more processing of his loss, more something before offering such full forgiveness? Wasn’t that too easy? Then Mary wondered why forgiving the guilty guy felt more alien to her than being mad or vengeful at him.
Forgiveness is Christianity’s most distinctive practice. Some people object when they hear that. Isn’t it love? Doesn’t Paul say love is the greatest of all? I say love is the greatest, yes. But forgiveness is love’s highest expression. On the day when love finally triumphs, we’ll recognize it in the form of some confused, broken guy who has clearly done wrong, inexplicably absolved.