Bryan Maier, colleague with me here at BTS Graduate School of Counseling, has just published, Forgiveness and Justice: A Christian Approach (Kregel, 2017). Over the last 11 years I have enjoyed listening to and debating with Bryan regarding matters pertaining to individual and corporate forgiveness. I now commend this fine book to you for your reading! It is good to see his work in print.
As you likely know, forgiveness is a pretty popular topic these days, even outside of Christian circles. Bryan describes some of these approaches to forgiveness (do it because it is good for your health, do it to restore relationships, do it following a prescribed set of steps, etc.) and lays out a clearer definition of forgiveness and related concepts (justice, empathy, grace, repentance, and more). Without being overly methodical, Bryan examines the processes needed to move to active, other-centered forgiveness. However, along the way he spends a good deal of time talking about things such as the imprecatory Psalms (asking God for justice)–something not often found in literature encouraging us to forgive.
Here’s what I said in my book blurb (inside cover),
Dr. Maier makes a persuasive and entirely readable case that biblical forgiveness happens only in response to authentic repentance. You will find this book clear, logical, and pastoral in its treatment of the concepts of forgiveness, repentance, and justice. Though forgiveness is a popular topic in mainstream literature, Dr. Maier gives a rare treat: cogent definitions and illustrations of God’s view of forgiveness from Genesis to Revelation. Using case studies, the reader experiences not only a better definition of the final acts of forgiveness, but also the necessary pre-forgiveness activities of healing and repentance. Victims of injustice will find comfort and relief in knowing that the focus of the forgiveness process falls squarely on the shoulders of the offender.
Ever had someone hurt you, apologize, but you still felt like something was missing? Did you think it was your problem because you couldn’t forgive? Is it possible that their apology didn’t go far enough? Have you had a chance to hear about Harold Camping’s recent apology for picking dates in 2011 for the rapture to take place? The good news is that he admits what he did was a sin and that he will no longer seek to discover the date when Jesus returns. Read his apology on the Family Radio website.
But there are a few problems with his apology. I mean…problems beyond his attempt to focus more on the good his sin did for the kingdom of God than on actually apologizing for the actual sin. His apology amounts to something akin to, “I’m sorry I was reckless and crashed your car but I got out unscathed and people heard me thank God for surviving it so it’s all good.”
What is missing? Acknowledgement of hurt, willingness to restore
Read his apology again. You will see he fails to repent directly to those he hurt most–the ones who gave sacrificially to fund his insanity. He never names the specific sins committed nor the hurts he caused. Further, and this is most telling, he makes no offer to restore victims of his offenses. If he acknowledges he misled people and in doing so received benefit from his sin, might he not desire to follow the path of Zaccheus? To give back what he took (that would be a start) and even give back more?
He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. Eph 4:28
Repentance is then shown not just in stopping bad behavior but replacing it with behaviors that are righteous and good.
What is restorative justice?
This week I will be in Tennessee speaking on the relationship between repentance and restorative justice. Restorative justice (RJ) is the idea that victims, offenders, and community ought to be in dialogue together to (a) understand the impact of offenses, (b) determine together ways to restore both victim and offender, and (c) to allow the community to have a say in the matter. It doesn’t oppose the rule of law but believes that the judicial approach is not always the best approach and tends to focus on punishment to the exclusion of restoration. RJ does not work unless victims are interested in it and offenders are remorseful. But, in those cases where there may be interest and some remorse, it may allow offenders the opportunity to get the depth of the pain they caused and offer them opportunities to “restore what the locusts have eaten.” (Joel 2:25)
Restoring vs. penance?
If you are like me you may be tempted to swing between to polar opposites when you are confronted with your own offenses: defensiveness or penance. Sometimes we want our apology to be the last word. We want to be forgiven and our offense treated as if it never happened. Other times we want to grovel and do penance so that the offended party will think better of us. During this season of lent, let us be aware of our offenses and the necessary sacrifice to cleanse us. But let us also be willing to seek the betterment of those we harm “with joy.”
Am just finishing up Joseph Sebarenzi’s God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation (Atria Books, 2009). Joseph, A Tutsi, tells his story from childhood experiences of Hutu-Tutsi violence and state-sponsored discrimination to the 1994 massacre (he was out of the country then) and meteoric rise to power where he became the speaker of the parliament and then was pushed out by the Rwandan dictator.
I’m not sure if his story is accurate (about how Kagame tried to have him killed, but I found his views on reconciliation (and the lack thereof thus far) very helpful:
Ever since the genocide, I have asked myself how the nation could heal. How could we live together again in peace? …
Reconciliation brings enemies together to confront the painful and ugly past, and to collectively devise a bright future. It brings together communities in conflict to tell the truth about all past human rights violations and to create a society where they can live in peace with one another….
Reconciliation is in many ways the hardest option, because it requires effort, humility, and patience–whereas revenge is quick and easy. Reconciliation is complicated. it cannot be reduced to retributive justice…nor to forgiveness…. Reconciliation…includes several components: acknowledgment, apology, restorative justice, empathy, reparation, and forgiveness–and several accompanying measures, namely democracy coupled with consensus, peace education, and international assistance. pp 214-215
The author goes on to describe what he means by each of these components (and some of the weaknesses in Rwanda). He subscribes to a rather Christian view of this process. It is not merely Hutu groveling to Tutsi but both listening to each other.
I’ve noticed that the American Association of Christian Counselors has made many of their magazine (Christian Counseling Today) articles available for free on their www.ecounseling.com website. You can search by author or keyword to find what you might be looking for.
My 800 word essay on repentance after abuse can be found here. A longer and very helpful article by another psychologist on the 12 features of spiritual abuse can be found here.
In his 3rd hour last week, Miroslav Volf spoke on forgiveness. I say hour, but really it was only about 40 minutes with breaks and chatting. Here’s some of his thoughts that you can find in both End of Memory and Free of Charge.
1. We tend towards one of three reactions to wrongs: (a.) Revenge (taking mode). Doesn’t measure the response, just reacts, (b) Retribution (exchange mode). Deserving punishments meted out. The eye for an eye. And this mode considers not just what is taken but compensation for the violation itself. (c) Forgiveness (giving mode). Giving the gift of not counting wrongs against the wrongdoer.
2. Modern culture sees forgiveness as a gift to self to get rid of the poison of bitterness rather than a gift to the offender. While forgiveness may have this consequence, to view it only this way is to minimize the gift of releasing the other.
3. Why do we forgive? Because God is a giving and forgiving God.
4. Be careful not to minimize the hard activity of forgiving the offender. Forgiveness names the other as a criminal. It claims an injustice. It is a call for justice. But then follows up the call with a generous deed–not counting the act against the person.
5. Why does God do this? Because time does not run backward. Our misdeeds stick to us and we need freedom.
6. What about forgiving and forgetting? For 2500 years these two were tied together, that forgiveness should lead to forgetting or not remembering the acts done. The modern world has cut them apart. We want to forgive but remember. And yet the most amazing gift would be the forgetting of our sins. “Properly understood, forgetting is the crown of forgiveness.” Volf (in his books) is not unthoughtful about the difficulty in forgetting, but thinks we may be too quick to untie the two acts.
7. Finally, we cannot talk about forgiveness without also talking about the need for repentance. If we do not repent we do not receive God’s gift. If we forgive another, the gift cannot be received without repentance. While you can give a gift unilaterally, it will not reach its full goal without the proper response. Gift giving is a social relationship.
THUS, You can say “I have forgiven you.” But unless it has been received with repentance, then forgiveness hasn’t occurred nor can reconciliation.
On Saturday I attended Miroslav Volf’s 3 hour talk on the topic of renewing grace and forgiveness in a “culture stripped of grace.” The first talk, “A Culture stripped of grace” he had these things to say:
1. Our culture is oriented around satisfying desires. If you ask a person what makes us flourish, you may get get a blank stare, or, they perceive that flourishing means living with satisfaction. Can we imagine flourishing without met desires? Maybe we should speak of “living well” instead?
2. We have lost some of those things that religion teaches us how to curtail desire. We live in a “grab ass/kick ass world” We grab what we can and take revenge on those who try to take from us or block us from what we think we deserve.
3. We tend to live in 3 (maybe 4?) modes
a. Taking mode (get what we want) Notice that life becomes dull in taking mode and so you need bigger and bigger takes. “Opiate for the people is commercialized culture, not religion.”
b. Investing mode (try to get just a bit more than we get)
c. Exchange mode(rough equivalency of giving and getting). This is where we live most of the time and it isn’t bad
d. Gift mode (giving more than we hope to get). Here he made allusions to bad gift giving which he says is worse than exchange mode.
4. What happens when gift mode shrinks in culture or goes away? Human life is impossible w/o gifting. We cannot pay enough to cover the costs from being raised, for example. We begin to see, when gift mode shrinks, that giving is being a fool, a loser, a sucker. In this current crisis we are afraid not of going hungry but of not being able to have what we want.
He ended the talk with the question we wants us to ask: What is our life for? This requires us to think and stop just reacting to desires and culture cues. What is our life for? Is it for me or for giving? How might this current crisis move us to ask this question?
I’ve just gotten notice that the Leadership Institute of the Episcopal Diocese of PA is sponsoring a lecture by Volf on December 13, 1-4 pm at St. Thomas Church in Ft. Washington (poster says Whitemarsh, but it’s just on Church Road not far off 309).
He’ll be giving a talk entitled: Forgiveness and Injury: Moving Forward through Life’s Adversities. He’s a theologian from Yale and will probably be talking some of his experiences of dealing with anger and intrusive memories resulting from his life in Yugoslavia. I blogged chapters of his book, “End of Memory” which you can find here. I imagine the book and lecture will have many parallels.
Cost is $20. I’m planning on attending. He’s a very thoughtful writer so hoping the presentation will be good. Info for directions and registration found here (you’ll need to scroll down to the event listing for the 13th).
Sunday morning, David Powlison gave a plenary talk entitled, “Escape to Reality.” He used 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 as his launch text. It was vintage David, chalk full of many examples of both soft and hard addictions. One could easily take his 10 points (which I don’t have exactly because I was sitting with my son who was lounging across me) and turn them into a 10 week bible study or SS class. As I remember them, he made the following points about the path back to reality:
1. Wake up (to see God, self, and other)
2. Own up (without excuse)
3. Stop the Death spiral (sin, guilt, and shame all tempt us inward. But we see in Christ, someone who is able to stay connected to God and other on the Cross even with the pain)
4. Connect to others (We need others to talk to so that we hear ourselves and get good feedback) SO, ask for help!
5. Ask for forgiveness (and none of that, “If I hurt you…” kind of half hearted repentance)
6. Forgive those who have hurt you
7. Rethink the problem of pain (pain shouldn’t be ignored or used as excuse)
8. Rethink the problem of pleasure (we vacillate between workaholism and overindulging in pleasure. We are made for pleasure but within bounds)
9. Re-evaluate the struggle. When someone shows signs of stopping addictive behaviors. Maybe they only go into a rage 3 times in a week instead of 12. That’s something to celebrate. But of course the struggle continues and there’s more to repent.
Um, I’m missing the tenth. Someone there remember what it was?
Am reading Romeo Dallaire’s memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil, of his time as UN commander in Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide. It is amazing that this man isn’t in a psychiatric ward given his position as “observer” of the genocide and no power to do much of anything, even protect his own troops.
But last night I watched the documentary, In the Tall Grass, the story of a woman seeking justice in the village court (aka gacaca courts). The village turns out to hear her complaint that her neighbor killed her husband and children for being Tutsis. The villagers are asked what they saw and only one or two admit to seeing anything though it is assumed most know. The accused man admits to being present and “participating” in the killings but denies he struck the fatal blows. (They remain neighbors). His story is inconsistent. She claims she will forgive him if he confesses fully. He sticks to his story as being a witness to the events. But one woman stands up and tells the crowd how the children were murdered and where they are buried (the mother did not know this). So, the village goes and digs many holes in the area in order to find the children’s bodies–now 10 years later. They find them and several undertake, on film, to wash the bones and prepare them for proper burial. The accused participates in the washing and this woman watches it all.
I cannot fathom the experiences of 1994, of living next door to those who murdered your family, nor that of watching someone tenderly wash your child’s skull, rib-bones, etc.
Can an apology come too soon? I was listening to an NPR show discussing a national apology for slavery in the US (and reparations). One guest on the show stated that if a government or organization apologizes before there is adequate dialogue about the real effects of that entity’s misdeeds (i.e., support of slavery), it kills further dialogue.
Really? Why is it that if we apologize for hurting someone that we think the conversation is over?
Point of fact: true apologies invite further discussion, including exploration of the effects of the “crime.” When discussion ends because of an apology, we discover that the apology was really cover for, “Will you let me out of jail for what I did to you? Will you forget my bad behavior?”
True apologies are not formed as questions or requests–either explicitly or implicitly. It is offerings of forgiveness that end or at least change discussion regarding criminal activity. When we demand instant forgiveness or apology acceptance we inappropriately tie apologies with conversation endings.
Do you agree with this next statement? The truly repentant do not mind apologizing as many times as necessary nor engaging in conversation about the effects of their misdeeds.
In relationship to slavery, the matter is complicated in that the conversation is happening between those who either indirectly benefit or suffer from slavery. Because of our overemphasis on individualism, we often fail to acknowledge corporate sins and that some of us benefit from those corporate sins. Read Ezra and Nehemiah and you see a different picture. A people repenting for sins done by the previous generation. Now there’s a novel idea.