A Wideness in God’s Mercy, IV: A Wise Dyslexic
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. —Matthew 5:44–45
First, I would like to tell you what forgiveness is, and then I want to tell you what it is not. When I was a seminary intern, I was teaching a fifth-grade Sunday School class. I would have the kids take turns reciting whatever scripture passage we were studying that morning. But there was a young lady in that class who was famous for transposing letters when she was reading anything. Her mother took me aside and said, ‘Please don’t make Brenda read publicly. If you asked her to read Psalm 46 she might say, “Dog is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” I said, “Well, what’s wrong with that? It’s true. Dog is a very present help in time of trouble.” But I capitulated.
One Sunday morning we were studying Jesus’ Sermon the Mount, the passage I just read: “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you.” I asked the children what Jesus would want you to do if the class bully deliberately tripped you on the playground. Brenda raised her hand and said, “Jesus would want us to practice give-for-ness.” She turned it around. Brenda turned out to be a very wise dyslexic. That was about the best definition of forgiveness I’ve ever heard.
That’s how we got the word, you know. According to the dictionary, forgiveness means "to give for." It means to give something up to get something better. It means to forsake the retribution justice demands. It means to give up the punishment you might legitimately have exacted in order to make right a wrong done to you.
A man is unfaithful to his wife. It was a onetime thing; he was on a business trip or something. He takes a room at the Comfort Inn, extended stay. They go to the therapist. Many times. He adores his wife. He begs her forgiveness. She adores him. She decides to forgive.
"I forgive you." What is she saying? What is the subtext of those three simple words, "I forgive you"? She is saying, "I forfeit my rightful claim to my anger and retribution. I will not let this come between us, ever again. I will 'give for.' I will give up my bitterness for our relationship, because I still love you. That love is more important to me than my bitterness. I will give up justice in order to keep you."
So that’s what forgiveness is: it’s give-for-ness. It’s hurling a wrong away. Now what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not fair. Forgiveness is not just. Forgiveness means that someone has agreed to forfeit justice in order to obtain mercy.
In Jesus’ world, fairness is not the ultimate good. In Jesus’ world, the books are kept by an inept CPA. This is not a debit-credit world.
In this world, in our world, we rejoice when justice is meted out. A guy in New Jersey was arrested for drunk driving. It was his fourth DUI, his second in 11 days. The judge threw the book at him: one year in jail, a $4,000 fine, five years’ probation, and 24 years without a driver's license. 24 years. The guy was 40 years old; maybe he’ll be able to drive in time to pick up his first Social Security check. I remember my gut-level reaction to that sentence—hallelujah; he deserved it; keep the streets safe for the rest of us.
Ours is a zero-tolerance world. Show up at school with a handgun and you get expelled—no excuses, no second chances, no questions asked. Zero-tolerance for priests accused of sexual abuse. No more shuffling pedophiles around from parish to parish. We can’t afford mercy. People get hurt.
So that’s one thing forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not fair. It’s also not the same as excusing. Forgiving does not mean that you ignore the wrong or understand it; it is just hurled away. C. S. Lewis says,
Take it first about God's forgiveness. I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me, I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking God to excuse me. Forgiveness says, 'Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.' But excusing says, 'I see that you couldn't help it or didn't mean it; you weren't really to blame.' If one was not really to blame, then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiving and excusing are almost opposites.
Do you see what Dr. Lewis is trying to say? Forgiveness never pretends that the wrong never happened. It’s just hurled away.
Forgiving is also not forgetting. We say it all the time: “Forgive and forget.” But that’s misleading. You can’t forgive something you’ve forgotten. If you’ve forgotten the wrong, the wrong is gone from your brain. There’s no need to forgive something you’ve forgotten.
Or if forgiveness is forgetting, it is forgetting of a very specific kind. You know who Clara Barton is, right? Clara Barton had been a clerk in the U. S. Patent office in Washington until her vocal anti-slavery opinions got her fired. She came back to Washington in 1861 and began tending to the wounded Union soldiers streaming into the city, and then she went out to the battlefields. Surgeons at the Battle of Antietam were using corn husks for bandages until Clara arrived with three wagonloads of supplies. Years later, in 1881, she founded the American Red Cross.
Someone came up to Ms. Barton one day and reminded her of a wrong done to her by another mutual friend. Ms. Barton looked puzzled when she was reminded about this and the friend said, "Don't you remember?" And Ms. Barton said firmly, "No I distinctly remember forgetting that."
So forgiveness is not fair, and it is not excusing and it is not forgetting, but it is integral to our life together in the human community. We cannot live unless we forgive, and we cannot live unless we are forgiven. Forgiveness is a gift to the offender and a gift to the offended.
Last month Bret Stephens wrote a column in the Times entitled “Why Ralph Northam Should Not Resign.” Governor Northam of Virginia, black-face comedian in his medical school yearbook. I winced when I saw that title; at the time I thought he should resign, but Mr. Stephens persuaded me. He asked, “Ever told, or laughed at, an ethnic joke? Ever said, “That’s so gay!” Ever made ugly snap judgements based on ethnic stereotypes?”
Then he says, “Our worst moments and our dumbest utterances shouldn’t define us.... We deserve to be judged by the decency of our intentions and the totality of our deeds. We are entitled to a presumption of innocence, a measure of forgiveness, and multiple opportunities for redemption.” He changed my mind.
George Bush had kind of a wild and crazy youth. He says, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” Was anybody here ever like that?
You remember what Anne Lamott says, right? “Refusing to forgive is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. If you don’t like that image, try Thomas Edison: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal intending to throw it at someone; you’re the one who gets burned.”
The terrorism in Christchurch, New Zealand, brought back terrible thoughts of the murder of nine African Americans at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. Dylann Roof brought a Glock .45 and eight clips of hollow-point bullets into that Bible Study, eight clips because he wanted to have 88 bullets; 88 is white supremacist shorthand for Adolph Hitler.
The police retrieved 77 bullets at the scene, 54 of them in the bodies of the victims, eight in the body of the Reverend Myra Thompson. Myra’s husband Anthony explained that he chose to forgive Dylann Roof, not for Dylann Roof’s sake, but for himself, for his own freedom. “When I forgave him,” he said, “my peace began. I’m done with him. He doesn’t have control of me anymore.”
Mother Emmanuel Church is about 400 yards from the John C. Calhoun monument. John C. Calhoun—unflagging defender of slavery and father of southern secession; it’s 80 feet tall. Seven blocks away there is a museum honoring the Confederacy. I’ll bet Mr. Thompson is willing to forgive all of white America.
Greg Boyle spoke in Chicago a while back. A bunch of us went to hear him. I’m so glad so many of you admire Father Boyle as much as I did. A long time ago Father Boyle was the parish priest at Delores Mission Church in Los Angeles. At the time it was the poorest church in the city.
The parish was home to two huge public housing projects and the most intense gang activity in LA, so Father Boyle started Homeboy Industries. Get it? It’s for the homies, former gang members looking for an exit ramp. They do a bunch of things at Homeboy Industries; they have a bakery; they design T-shirts; the biggest activity though is tattoo removal.
The homies call Father Greg ‘G-Dog.’ He tells about one homegirl with alarming tattoos all over her face. She’s straight out of prison. Father Greg gives her a job running the silkscreen. The first day on the job, she gets into a fight. The second day she arrives high on marijuana. The third day she drives up to the building in a car filled with her homies.
Father Greg says, “This is against our rules. Oh and the car was stolen. This is against, well, everybody’s rules. I suppose we could have fired her. And yet we decided, with all the ‘no matter whatness’ we could muster, that she would give up on us long before we gave up on her. And give up she did. She just stopped showing up. We’ll be ready for her when she comes back.
“You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, the badly-behaved, until the bad behavior is recognized for what it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”
Father Greg says, “There is no question that everybody at Homeboy Industries would be fired anyplace else (including me—just ask my board), but our job is to see in the homies what they don’t see in themselves, until they do.”
No matter whatness. I love that. How much no matter whatness can you muster for those who make mistakes?
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: MacMillan, 1949), p. 122.
Slightly adapted from Bret Stephens, “Why Ralph Northam Should Not Resign: Should We Judge People Only on Their Most Shameful Moments?” The New York Times, February 9, 2019.
Quoted by Mardy Grothe, I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), p. 28.
Jelani Cobb, “Inside the Trial of Dylann Roof,” The New Yorker, February 6, 2017, pp. 20-26
David von Drehle, “What It Takes to Forgive a Killer,” Time, November 23, 2015, pp. 42-68.
Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (New York: Free Press, 2010, pp. 178-179.