Fields of Forgiveness

Our speaker at Weekly Manna this week was Laura Gilbertson, Program Director of Christian Ministries at Bethel University and a teaching pastor at Westwood Community Church. Her subject was “How does one remember violence today in a way that fosters reconciliation in the future.” She focused on the thought of Miroslav Wolf in The End of Memory to make the point that how we remember wrongdoing matters; Wolf speaks of the need to remember wrongdoing through the lens of redemptive forgiveness.

She began her remarks by distinguishing three levels or fields of forgiveness: forensic forgiveness, therapeutic forgiveness and redemptive forgiveness.

Forensic forgiveness is transactional: one party agrees not to exact what the law and justice require. Someone owes me $10 and I forgive that debt. That is the most surface level of forgiveness, although Gilbertson suggested that there are some people who view God’s forgiveness those limited terms.

The next level of forgiveness is therapeutic forgiveness, which she describes (and she takes these descriptions from from Shults and Sandage’s Faces of Forgiveness) as the psychological process of reducing one’s motivation for avoidance and revenge, and increasing one’s motivation for goodwill toward a specific offender. This is the kind of forgiveness that frees us from the pain associated with failing to forgive, and while deeper than forensic forgiveness, is still not as deep as Biblical forgiveness.

Finally, there is redemptive forgiveness, which manifests and shares divine grace. This forgiveness is fostered by empathy and humility, both of which require letting go of a sharp divide between oppressor and oppressed. Empathy in this context means understanding that the wrongdoer has a story. It does not excuse the wrong, but seeks to understand where it came from. Humility means recognizing that I, too, have the potential to do awful things. Our ability to engage in redemptive forgiveness requires seeing myself as a forgiven sinner. I can forgive because I have been forgiven.

I have not read Volf’s book, but Gilbertson’s description suggests that what he asks of us is challenging. He asks that in time of conflict I remember that I stand at the foot of the cross as a forgiven sinner, that I remember that the wrong done to me has already been atoned for by Christ, and that I remember the wrongdoing through the lens of future reconciliation, even if currently we remain scarred by pain of enmity. And that all of this shapes (or should shape) how I remember past and current harms inflicted on me.

Remembering in this way, protects us against resentment and vindictiveness. I found thought-provoking Volf’s definition of resentment as “seeking to reaffirm my own power and goodness and to ensure my security by disparaging and injuring others.” The definition raises the important challenge of how we find wholeness and fullness other than at the expense of others.

I am grateful to Laura for sharing with us today, and to my friend and colleague Joel Nichols for inviting her to be with us.


Redemption and Forgiveness in This World

Several years ago, I chaired a search committee to find a new director of a non-profit institution. We enthusiastically sent to the board for approval someone we thought was a terrific candidate in so very many ways. We then discovered that he had in the past falsified something on his resume. As I recall, it was something unimportant, some extra degree that would not have made a slightest difference to his getting the job. But, integrity and trustworthiness being necessary characteristics of the position in question, we decided he was disqualified from consideration. I remember struggling at the time with the question, wondering whether our judgment based on his past sin was too harsh.

Another incident occurred more recently that raised the same question. A friend with a high position in his field engaged in a criminal act. Not a particularly serious criminal act (in fact, it was fairly minor), but one that showed bad judgment given his position. When the incident became public, he resigned from his position. He has been unable, as of yet, to secure another position in his field.

The issue I struggle with is how we deal in this world with people who have committed acts we label as wrong (which may or may not be criminal in a legal sense). I’m not here talking about ultimate forgiveness for our sins. We know that God always welcomes us back if we have contrition for the wrongs we have committed. I’m concerned with how we react in the here-and-now.

We Christians talk a lot about forgiveness. When asked how many times one should forgive, Jesusa says, not seven, but seventy times seven. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer that the Lord forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean one offers a position requiring trust to an untrustworthy person. But perhaps it means there is a heavy burden that has to be met before concluding that because one once falsified his resume that he can never again be trusted. And I think it must mean that our presumption is that we give someone who has acknowledged committing a single wrongful act (even a criminal one) a second chance. Maybe there are some acts one simply can not recover from in this world, but that is a conclusion I resist coming to.

If it wasn’t too long a label, I’d tag this post as an “I’m thinking out loud trying to work something out” post. So I’d be grateful for whatever thoughts anyone has on the question.