“Be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ.”Ephesians 4: 32
One thing we know about Christianity is that it is big on forgiveness. Forgiveness is foundational. In the Our Father (The Lord’s Prayer) we pray, “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This prayer seems to say that unless we forgive others, God will not forgive us. What I have come to know is that God forgives us before we do anything to deserve forgiveness. What God expects is that, because we are forgiven, we will forgive others. God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, God’s love always comes first. It is because of that grace that we are able to forgive others.
So, why am I talking about “abusing forgiveness?” It is because I see this kind of abuse all too frequently. Owing to the fact that we are still living in a world where people are ranked and sorted according to arbitrary standards, the people most often required and expected to forgive are those who are subordinate to others. Those at the top are the receivers of forgiveness, but rarely repent of their wrong doing. They abuse forgiveness. The easiest example to share is the wife who is told by her minister to forgive her abusive husband and return to him. She is even told that if she were a better wife, things would be better for her.
There are other examples of people at the top receiving forgiveness while not repenting of the abuse they hand out. Employees are expected to accept wages that do not provide a living, and to do so without complaint, from employers who are hoarding billions of dollars. This is a form of forced forgiveness, for the employees are expected to accept the abuse without resentment or bitterness, or be fired. Persons of color are expected to smile and endure under racism, and to console white people who cry for forgiveness, even while nothing about racism changes. There are other nations being exploited by big corporations and the people of these nations are expected to accept that their resources are being plundered without just compensation. What examples can you think of as you reflect on this abuse of forgiveness?
Dominant classes expect those they exploit to accept that abuse with good grace. I believe that abusers know they are exploiting others and expect to get away with it. In other words, they rely on a forced forgiveness from those they abuse.
We are to be mutually kind, compassionate, and forgiving. In short, it is okay to protest exploitation and abuse and either get out of a situation, or work to change it. We are not required to forgive abuse and let it stand. Forgiveness does not require acceptance and acquiescence to abusive treatment. We have the right to protest and claim just and fair consideration as the children of God. After all, we are working toward creating the Beloved Community where we stand alongside one another, and no one Lords it over others, and this certainly means, no one is to exploit or abuse others. We get to point out abuses and exploitation and name them for what they are.
Forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook for their abusive behavior. It means letting go of our feelings of resentment, bitterness, hostility, and any desire to get even. It can mean walking away and preventing the abuse from continuing. Sometimes it means organizing to change a situation. With forgiveness we are not required to condone abusive behavior. Instead, with forgiveness we give up brooding on the offence in an emotional way, because that increases our distress, and prevents our healing. When we forgive we choose to let those feelings go. Forgiveness is beneficial for the one who forgives as well as for the one forgiven.
However, it is not a matter of “forgive and forget.” Sometimes it is forgive and get active. Through Christ Jesus we have learned who God is and who we are in God, each one of us deserving of dignity and respect. Forgiveness — letting go of those negative feelings and thoughts of vengeance — allows us to move forward and work for justice with clear heads. When we are liberated and healed through forgiveness we can find ourselves motivated to join others to work toward a common goal. We can do so without violence because we are not seeking revenge, but justice. Forgiving others should not make us passive or pushovers, but should liberate us and bring healing.
Sometimes we are stuck in situations of abuse and cannot get out of them, and forgiveness can help us survive. Letting go of negative feelings prevents these feelings from eating us alive from the inside out. Having said that, escape from abuse and exploitation is a good thing and opportunities to escape may appear. Grab them.
Those who find ourselves in positions with power must be extra careful to not abuse that power, but use whatever power we have with and for others. Husbands and wives can share their power with each other so that each one grows to be the person God created them to be, neither one being repressed or exploited by the other. Employers can pay just and living wages. All of us can work to overcome racism and change systems and structures that are holdovers from our past. Bishops, like me, can make sure that decisions for their dioceses are made with the discernment of the whole Church and not handed down as pronouncements from on high. We must not rely on being forgiven for abusing our power. Abusing our power and forcing people to accept that abuse is a terrible thing to do. Those in positions of power must be ready to ask forgiveness when we overstep, which can happen even when we are careful.
My beloved ones, let us be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving.