I had a dream last night that I was reunited with estranged family. Watching them live their lives and being separated from them became unbearable. I sat in my family member’s living room weeping, saying: “I can’t do this anymore.” My not-so-little-anymore niece took me by the hand, in my dream. She walked me to a corner in her room where she laid a prayer cloth on the ground, knelt on her knees facing east, and asked me to offer prayers of forgiveness with her. It stunned me. I woke up.
The saying goes: “To forgive is to set the prisoner free only to realize the prisoner is you.”
Forgiveness is completely counterintuitive. When betrayed, diminished, abused, oppressed, exploited, or erased it is human to want to pay an eye for an eye. Our hearts betray back, diminish back, lead us to abuse back, oppress back (if we can), exploit back, or erase back.
Our world is raging. Destruction is becoming normative. Last week a man filled with anger took a rifle to a baseball field, looked for a political target, and shot a legislator of the opposite party. Majority Whip Steve Scalise is still in critical condition though he is improving.
It is tempting to simplify the story, to erase the wrongs that led to the man’s anger. To simply call him crazy — the traditional frame for white men who commit mass shootings. The more honest thing would be to admit we don’t yet know this man’s story. To refrain from dehumanizing the perpetrator is not to excuse him. It is to choose truth over constructed fiction. It is to choose life over rotten spin.
Anger when wronged is good. It is a sign that our hearts still beat, that somewhere deep inside we still understand our own worth, we still have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, and we still know when things are not right. It is what we do with our anger that makes all the difference. Anger has the capacity to point us toward constructive reformation. It can shine light on the barriers to equity, intimacy, or trust. But when anger inches across the line and claims ”hatred” as its friend or “indifference” as its comforter, then we become the perpetrator. We do violence to “the other” and to ourselves.
I had never actually hated anyone before, then my heart felt hate’s comfort. It was intoxicating. Hate made me forget my own pain. I felt puffed up and empowered — empowered to erase the other in my heart … and it felt good.
What I didn’t realize was even as I was puffing myself up, my heart was hardening, transforming from flesh to stone — no longer human. I was erasing the image of God within myself.
I keep thinking of the image of my niece choosing a prayer cloth, kneeling, and praying prayers of forgiveness. That is what a heart of flesh looks like.
It feels so unattainable, so distant, but all that is really needed is choice.
There is no magical right time to forgive. Forgiveness is not about timing. It does not even matter if the perpetrator has confessed their wrong. It matters even less if they have asked for forgiveness. That is reconciliation. Or if relationship has never been right, the perpetrator’s penitence can be a building block toward just relating. But reconciliation and justice are partner dances. Forgiveness is freestyle. It only requires one.
The first requirement of forgiveness is desire. We must desire a better world — a better way of being in the world.
The second requirement of forgiveness is hope. We must have hope that a better world — and a better way of being — is possible.
The third requirement of forgiveness is humility. We must agree with God that the perpetrator is human — and so are we. We do not know his whole story. We do not know what led her to take the action she took. We do not get to craft their story — only God gets to do that. We are mere flesh and they are mere flesh.
Once we hold desire, hope, and humility, then forgiveness is possible.
Forgiveness does not excuse. Forgiveness releases the other of the debt they rightly owe. In the doing, it cuts the malformed ties between the wronged and the wrong-doer. The wronged are no longer dependent on the perpetrator’s capacity to ante up — to acknowledge what they stole, what they crushed, what they destroyed. Forgiveness frees the wronged from the limitations of the wrong-doer. Free to turn to God, she prays for justice and restoration from the one who is capable of granting it.
I see the other’s humanity.
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