What of Forgiveness?

The easiest way to heal the wounds of abuse, some might say, is not to think or speak about them. When it comes to abuse, you just ‘deal with it’ . But ‘dealing with it’ can be toxic. For one thing, it is a lie. You never ‘deal with it’, so why do we pretend that this is possible?

The #MeToo movement is epoch changing. It has given us all, across the generations, permission to re-connect with our pain. On the whole, we do this privately, in our own dark corridors of remembrance, and in solidarity with millions of others to whom this movement has given voice.

Abuse is not an emerging phenomenon. It has been around for centuries. Most abusers have themselves been victims of abuse of one kind or another. This does not exonerate them. Neither does it oblige (still less enable) us to forgive them – as if forgiveness was purely a matter of understanding context, cause and effect, thereby accepting the abuse as inevitable. But this is how women, as well as men, who have been abused in childhood try to come to terms with what a generally abusive childhood or youth still does to them.

There are two serious flaws in thinking that we can ‘deal with’ abuse and the effects of abuse. First, it tends to ignore the fact that abuse is not limited to the sexual and physical. Sexual abuse is more often reinforced by what seems at the time a natural and ‘deserved’ shaming of the person concerned. If an adult implies that we are ugly, stupid and to be laughed at rather than with, we accept it as a given. Patronizing ‘put downs’, the remarks deemed as OK, but which are deeply wounding, enforced compliance with how we should look or behave, all in the context of dishonest and manipulative relationships, build a toxic mix of shame, anger, fear and self-loathing.

Very few abusers will want their victim to feel that he or she is beautiful, intelligent, unique and loved. On the whole, they will either intuit, or possibly know, that their victim has been conditioned to believe none of these things. This makes them fair game. Emotional abuse will, often as not, occur between members of the same sex, first in family contexts and later in social and professional life. By then, it is more commonly known as bullying.

Each time we say the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be forgiven as we forgive those who have sinned against us. To be honest, I find it extremely difficult to pray those words when I think of my own abusers, as well as the millions of women who have come forward in the #MeToo solidarity movement.

What, then, does forgiving entail for us? As I have never really found an answer to this question, I tend to mentally ‘bracket’ the words Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us as I am saying them, but without altogether abandoning the people concerned. Later, I ask God what he thinks those of us who have been sinned against are supposed to do with our recurring memories, with our feelings about our abusers and with our own anger and shame.

Again, there seem to be no answers to such questions. But I do believe that we pray to a God who not only understands, but shares the feelings which prompt them. There are many ways we could visualize this sharing. Being present to the words Why have you deserted me? spoken by Jesus from the Cross is one of them, although his words may not seem that effective when it comes to having our negative feelings about forgiveness validated in the moment. There is a tendency to feel angry and guilty about not being able to forgive while at the same time trying to deal with all these negative emotions.

Perhaps a better way is to see our wounds, wounds we still carry, as making us honored and worthy of the inheritance we have been promised. In them we share in Christ’s glory, beginning with the shame and agony of his suffering and death, but moving with him to his embracing of us in his risen life. This is not a pious metaphor, or some kind of mental cop-out. It comes as a single revelatory moment of profound understanding about the meaning of suffering.

Such an understanding gives us the greatest freedom. This does not mean that we are given permission to indulge in gratuitous hatred and desire for revenge. It means that we too are forgiven for finding it impossible to ‘forgive’. But such freedom brings responsibility. We are now ‘responsible’ for our abusers, lest they fall into the abyss.

This means that we must be willing to receive what is needed for us to have a transfigured way of seeing them, so that we can hold, or ’embrace’ them. It does not mean persevering or reviving destructive relationships. It means allowing ourselves to have deep compassion for those who abuse us or, in the case of historic abuse, for their memory. We ‘hold’ what we know of them, as best we can, in the safe space of the mercy and forgiveness of God, a space which we ourselves are also occupying.

 

The Power And The Glory

Turning into Passiontide. Is this the ‘home run’ of Lent? It may be tempting to think of Passion Sunday as light at the end of the tunnel, at least in regard to Lenten discipline, or to feelings of guilt for having in some way fallen short of the mark, as if Lent were an endurance test qualifying us all for – what?

This is the moment when it is tempting to ask what all this giving up of things is about, whether it is simply an extended self improvement exercise, or whether it presages some kind of renewal, which we all desperately need but find it hard to name.

I rarely blog about the Sunday readings, and never the upcoming one. In fact, I rarely look at the upcoming one before Thursday of that week. The preacher needs a fallow period, however short. Without a Sabbath rest between one Sunday sermon and the next, ideas either meld into each other, at the risk of repetition, or ‘crash’ due to overload.

But this coming Sunday is different. The reading (John 12: 20-33) glimpsed this Monday morning, draws us into itself, vortex-like, through its own compelling force. There is no question of waiting until Thursday to begin to contemplate it more deeply. It is already too familiar, too much with me.

Christ speaks of the glory that is to be revealed in his being ‘lifted up’ on the Cross. He speaks of all people being drawn to him in that moment. The victim’s ‘glory’ is revealed, paradoxically, as he suffers at the hands of the vicious, the vindictive and the cruel. It is profoundly disturbing, shaming to the reader, and yet compelling. The terrible paradox obliges our attention, so that not attending to it becomes a conscious and deliberate act of will, a resistance to that greater driving force.

How can such degradation sit easily with the idea of ‘glory’ and what can such an implausible revelation of glory, through torture and death, have to do with us and with the whole concept of ‘redemption’?  Redemption from what? we ask ourselves. Should we try to domesticate these terms, in order to better understand them perhaps? Or should we do the opposite, categorize them as ‘mystery’ and then move on, untouched, uncomprehending.

This coming Sunday, the gospel coincides with another kind of glory, all too apparent in our world, the glory and competing drive for power between nations. I try to make sense of the glory spoken of in the gospel in the context of the latest parade of nuclear ballistic missiles in Pyongyang and of the rhetoric of Trump, which seems to change from one day to the next. Military strength, volatile exchanges between enemies and among their supporters create their own vortex of fear, their own compelling force.

Viewed against the backdrop of world events, the contrast is such that it makes the glory of Christ seem irrelevant. What can the glory that is ostensibly displayed in abject failure and humiliation possibly have to do with the events of today, or with our difficult and fear driven lives?

But ‘irrelevance’ is perhaps where the whole discussion about redemption and glory needs to begin. After all, for many people the Christian story, and the Church itself, are indeed ‘irrelevant’ – until we sense some unnameable force at work in the story and in the Church when it lives as it should, as the Body of Christ. In the life of the Church there abides a force which overwhelms evil.

Perhaps all this is a little too abstract. It seems to bear no relation to our lives. Perhaps it is indeed ‘irrelevant’. But to whom shall we turn in our fear and despair? In reflecting on this question, it seems we are left with no choice but to return to the ravaged figure dragging the instrument of his own execution through crowded streets, the enduring and ultimate image of failure and disgrace.

Salvation is another word which it is difficult to make sense of, especially in the context of the glory which is the weakness and failure depicted in Christ’s Passion. For certain powerful leaders, salvation is only really effected in the finality of ultimate victory achieved through sheer force. On an international stage, this means enough military strength for whoever wants the ultimate glory to have the last word, even if ultimate glory spells ultimate destruction for the rest of us.

Readers of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker will have a sense of how the world might yet feel 2,500 years after this ‘glory’ has been won by one or other nuclear superpower. What seems to endure though, in Hoban’s post-language futuristic novel, is ‘the little shining man’, his being pulled apart, and the ‘rememberment’ of him. St. John’s gospel is also a kind of ‘rememberment’. It is a ‘rememberment’ of Christ’s being ‘lifted up’. But it is also a ‘rememberment’ of the present. He is lifted up to the place of ultimate disgrace and failure in order to meet all of us, as nations and as persons, in that same place now.

We might still wonder if all of this is still relevant in regard to our collective and private fears concerning the outcome of world events. But the relevance lies in the mysterious glory of the suffering of God’s Son, in the way it meets our suffering, catches it, drops down into it, raises us up through it and by which we see the light of Easter.

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