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Forgive and Forget? ~ Luke 23: 13-25; 32-34

It has been more than two weeks since Dylann Root entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C., sat in on a bible study for one hour and then proceeded to shout racist epithets and shoot and kill nine people.

A lot has happened since then. A national conversation has begun about our history; how we remember the past through flags, monuments, memorials, and named buildings.

But the issue that has agitated me most deeply has to do with the “forgiveness” expressed by the family members of the victims to Dylann Root as he stood in court and listened to their words less than 48 hours after the grisly event.

I felt the same way after that Amish community forgave the killer of its children.

How do you forgive evil? Should you forgive that? In 48 hours?
Don ‘t you need repentance before you offer forgiveness?

Just as there is no “cheap grace” there should be no “cheap” forgiveness – mere words said that signify nothing….

How do you forgive one who has abused you? …a cheating spouse? … someone who has hurt you ?

“Forgive and forget?” Well, I think that is foolish – it doesn’t work and isn’t helpful.

Are Jews, or any of us for that matter supposed to forgive and forget the holocaust?
Are African Americans and all of us, supposed to forget slavery?

Can we forget the hurt, should we?

Can I forgive myself?

Self-forgiveness is perhaps the hardest; lingering in the valley of regrets and shame; if only….. Memories of past failures come crashing sometimes.

As Christians, we are called to forgive. When we say our prayer of confession every Sunday for personal, institutional, corporate and national sins, Clover and I declare: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

And each week – the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

It isn’t easy.

You know that there has been some significant reaction to the forgiveness that has been given to Dylann Root.

In the New York Times article Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Root, Roxane Gay (a Catholic) writes: “there are some acts so terrible that we should recognize them as such. We should recognize them as beyond forgiveness.”

Lonnae O’Neal, in the Washington Post, quotes Professor Stacey Patton who wrote that “black forgiveness has become a requirement and black families are expected… to offer comfort, redemption, and a pathway to a new day… When mass killings have been largely white, we have not often heard, or expected, those same calls for forgiveness. When it was announced in May that (the) Boston Marathon bomber was to get the death penalty, many victims and family members cheered and said he should be tortured. One person was glad he was going to hell…. Black people are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances.”

I don’t agree with some of what Professor Patton writes, but it gets complicated.

So here is what I am thinking about forgiveness this morning. It isn’t enough, it isn’t complete, but it is a start for me.

If by forgiveness we mean that we are covering up wrong and not dealing with it, I think we are missing the meaning.

If by forgiveness we mean stuffing our legitimate anger– wrong again.

If by forgiveness we allow criminals to walk, or hurtful remarks and acts to go unchallenged – then I don’t think we understand forgiveness.

I am beginning to think that forgiveness is not a feeling, a kumbaya moment. Forgiveness actually precedes restoration, may preceded repentance.

I am beginning to think you can both forgive AND feel rage!

Verse 34 from Luke has always challenged me: “Then Jesus said: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.”

Here is Jesus making excuses for us! God forgives before we know what we are doing. God forgives even when we do know what is happening. Only God can do that!

There are several Greek words in the New Testament that are translated by “forgiveness.”

Apoluo – to wash away… like ink out of a papyrus so it can be used again

Charizomai – I show kindness, show favor

And then aphesis – Luke’s word – “to send away” “to forgive.”

It is interesting to note that the very verse: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” is not in some of the early manuscripts of this passage. I guess some scribes felt it impractical and impossible and beyond even God.

The power of the act – to declare: “I will never forget this, but I will act now to release the power of anger and retribution, of payback. I may not feel it, but I will fake it until I make it.” That may be the most powerful act that the Christians of Emmanuel AME have put before us: The act of forgiveness as a subversive act of power.

Not inaction, not forgetting, not covering-up. Because it doesn’t mean that there isn’t rage.

But if we learned anything from Dr. King and the movement, it was that forgiveness has more power than retribution, and love has more power than hate.

It was the act of forgiveness in response to the beatings, the hoses, the dogs, that fueled political action that called white and black together and drove us to the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and empowered folks beyond the decades of racial hatred, murders, lynchings and Jim Crow.

As a white man I stand in awe of that.

Forgiveness is power. You will not let the act, or words of another have power over you. In essence, the forgiver is saying “I will give it away before it gets to me!”

As the Professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University’s Divinity School was quoted in E.J Dionne’s op-ed in the Washington Post just last Monday, “the families of the victims demonstrated that there was “something radically different” about their worldview. The act itself “was a radical refusal to conform to what’s expected of you. It’s a way to avoid hating back.”

This is Christ among us!

Maybe Dylann Root will never repent – that’s on him. But the victim’s families are trying the only way they know how to take back control. And if that is the witness of the church – then Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

You shouldn’t forget the horrible and the hurtful – you can’t for those things are part of your life’s tapestry now; as much as a scar on the skin reminds you of the accident. But will you orient yourself towards forgiveness or towards pay-back?

Will you be trying to move towards release or towards imprisonment?

No cheap reconciliation!

Jesus replaced an eye for an eye with “turn the other cheek,” which was an act of defiance to the Roman soldier that resulted in pain.

And we know it is true, as Gandhi once put it so succinctly; “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

It may seem rote, it may sound cheap; but real forgiveness is a determined, holy, powerful act that refuses to allow anything to have control over you.

I have found it helpful sometimes when I am really angry at someone – to hold that person up to God in prayer, to the light – remembering that they are a beloved child of God too, despite everything – and sometimes, not always, but sometimes remembering that judges my desire for revenge and soothes my tension.

I want you to be real – this is not a judgment on how you are feeling.

Forgiveness is hard. But the Gospel is rooted in in the trust, the hope that God forgives you and me, that God forgives those who killed Jesus, that God forgives those who do evil.

A mark of God’s Kingdom and a unique act of kingdom people is to forgive – an inward journey and outward journey. It’s not easy, but it can be redemptive – a way to free yourself and offer a way of freedom for the other.

This is the best I can do right now.

AMEN

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