Reflection: Forgiving, and Forgiven

by | May 28, 2019

[Jesus said,] “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:25 

I don’t know if I’ve ever recommended a television show (probably because I didn’t want to admit how much I watch TV), but every time I see this new show on CNN, “The Redemption Project,” I feel the need to tell others about it.  Since I don’t do Facebook or Twitter, you are the ones I am telling.

Each week, the host Van Jones covers a case of “restorative justice.”  Restorative justice is a movement within the criminal justice system where an inmate meets with the victim of their crime, to understand better the impact of their crime, and to offer some information and remorse for the offense.  The results of these encounters have been shown to reduce recidivism (committing another crime after release) and to provide more resolution for the victims.

On CNN’s website, they point to several restorative justice programs, such as the Insight Prison Project, the Ahimsa Collective, the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, the Restorative Justice Project at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, the Healing Dialogue and Action organization or the Hawai’i Friends of Restorative Justice.

I actually knew of this last program, as the church was involved in this movement.  Indeed, the Mennonite Church has been involved in the development of restorative justice across the nation.  This reflects not only their emphasis on non-violent forms of rehabilitation, but also the prioritization of forgiveness as a sign and requirement of the Christian faith.

I have often thought that forgiveness is the hardest and most outstanding sign of our Christian faith.  Too often Christians are not forgiving, even of the most minor offenses.  And yet, we are repeatedly told that we are to forgive, even as a prerequisite for being forgiven ourselves.  Whereas we know that we love because Jesus first loved us, there are several times when Jesus states that we are forgiven only as we forgive others.  Indeed, this is in the prayer that Jesus taught us.  Note that we pray “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—so we are forgiven only as we forgive.

Every time I have seen “The Redemption Project” I end up in tears.  I think it’s because the agreement to have such a meeting seems to come from some desire for forgiveness, often rooted in the Christian faith of the victim.  There is a desire to understand, or make something positive out of tragedy. 

For myself, perhaps the most vivid example of forgiveness happened in response to the murder of five young children while at West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania.  Almost immediately after the massacre, in which the gunman killed himself, Amish neighbors went to visit his family, showing compassion and extending forgiveness to them.  “I hope they stay around here and they’ll have a lot of friends and a lot of support,” Daniel Esh, an Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were inside the school during the attack, said of the family.  At the killer’s own funeral, there were almost as many Amish people attending as in his family.  “It was deeply moving,” said the minister at the funeral, speaking of the condolences expressed by the Amish to the family.  “It was a display of Christ’s love as I’ve never seen it.”  When asked why they were showing such forgiveness, the simple response was that Christ tells us to forgive.

This Christ-like forgiveness isn’t always achieved on “The Redemption Project.”  Most recently, a woman, strengthened by her Methodist church, faced the man who killed her son Nathan while he was driving under the influence of drugs.  She admitted that she wasn’t yet capable of forgiving the driver, but at the end she said,

I hope to get to forgiveness one day.  God forgives us every day.  He asks us to do it all the time.  If I’m able to get to forgiveness, then I can see Nathan.

I do believe that forgiveness is a sign of healing for a victim.  But this woman reflects another outcome of forgiveness, because unresolved anger is like scales in our eyes, blocking our faith, and blocking all that God wants for us.  Christ won for us liberation—from our own sins, but through forgiveness we are also freed from the impact of the sins of others.  It’s hard work to speak our truth and hear from those who have hurt us, but God calls us to it, gives us power to approach it, and it can neutralize the toxicity that so burdens our souls and our world.

May we be forgiven, as we forgive those who have hurt us.  And as we do so, not only are we freed of the hurt, but the world will see the power of Christ in our lives, and the hope he puts in our hearts.