Repair, reconcile, resurrect
Reform | On 14, Jul 2013
Forgiveness is inescapable, but reconciliation, sadly, is not. Lawrence Moore reflects on breaking and mending
Simon Wiesenthal, who became a Nazi hunter, was a prisoner in Lemberg concentration camp when he was called to the deathbed of a dying SS agent who had been involved in the massacre of Jews. The dying soldier wanted Wiesenthal to hear his confession and (as a Jew) grant him forgiveness. Wiesenthal recounted in his book The Sunflower: On the possibilities and limits of forgiveness, how he listened to his confession, but then walked away in silence, because “no one can forgive a murderer on behalf of the victims.”
There is a vital truth here. Forgiveness belongs together with resurrection. When relationships have been broken and destroyed beyond repair, forgiveness is the word of grace that creates new life out of the ashes. “I forgive you” is the word of re-creation. It is the gift of the victim that acknowledges no just resolution is possible; it is grace alone that makes any future possible. Forgiveness frees both the victim and the perpetrator from the tomb of failed, broken relationship. That freedom depends on the victim being prepared to bear the pain and consequences of the offence in order to make reconciliation possible, rather than to retaliate.
Reconciliation lies at the heart of God’s salvation of creation in Jesus, and forgiveness makes it possible. Sin destroys our relationships – with one another, God, and the created order. What we cannot do, God does in Jesus Christ: God takes on the burden of reconciliation. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the cross: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” insists St Paul, “…and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Forgiveness “brings heaven down to earth” (as Jesus taught his disciples to pray) by unleashing a whole new set of relationships that are predicated on unconditional forgiveness rather than on justice and fairness. This is the world of the Kingdom – the New Creation that is ushered in by Jesus’ resurrection.
Talk of resurrection brings us back to Easter. And the question I find myself asking is: “Why the cross? Why can God not simply forgive?” As a parent, I have been faced at several points with the stark choice: either I freely forgive my son and restore our broken relationship, or I insist that somehow we “make it right” and find that our relationship is smashed. I have chosen to give him a “free pass” because I love him and want to stay in relationship with him. If I can do that, why can God apparently not?
What the cross tells us is not that God is less willing to forgive than we are, but that there is a power that must be smashed and a cost to forgiveness that needs to be borne in order to unleash the transforming power of resurrection.
The Bible writers use different images to describe how the cross “works”. At the heart of all of them is the idea that the process of sin reaches a climax in the Jesus’ crucifixion, its destructive power is played out once and for all in the rejection and murder of Jesus. Jesus becomes the victim of our sin.
We need also to recognise what is happening between Jesus and the God whom he calls Father. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” means that God is not punishing Jesus for our sin, but suffering with Jesus because of it. God too, in Jesus, becomes victim of human sin, bearing its consequences. And as victim, God is able to pronounce forgiveness.
So who is able to forgive the murderer on behalf of the victims? God is – because the crucified Jesus dies in solidarity with every victim: “Whatever you do to the very least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do to me!” (Matthew 25:40)
Jesus offers forgiveness from the cross for his murder. God’s response is resurrection. This is the New Creation, where forgiveness rules in place of sin’s addictive, enslaving, destructive power. The chains that bound us to the endless cycle of death and despair have been broken.
The Christian Church is to be the visible sign of this new world. What ought to make it clearly different from the rest of human community is the freedom and transformed relationships that come from and are expressed in unconditional forgiveness.
But is forgiveness really unconditional? Doesn’t it depend on the repentance of those who offend us? Easter says no. If we are forgiven unconditionally from the cross for crucifying Jesus, how could we be any less unconditional in forgiving “those who trespass against us”? Forgiveness is the grace offered by the victim to create the space for reconciliation (which does require remorse, repentance and restitution); it does not wait for something else to effect the change in the person whose actions have smashed relationship.
We have unhelpfully thought about sin and forgiveness primarily in “legal” terms. This overlooks the importance of healing broken relationships. It is not God’s honour that needs satisfying, but God’s broken-heartedness at the damage done to God’s beloved children.
Forgiveness is the catalyst in a process of grace that (hopefully!) converts the offender. The victim’s “I forgive you” opens up to the perpetrator a whole new set of possibilities – restoration, and freedom from guilt, defensiveness and a continuing cycle of vengeance and despair.
That reciprocal response leading to reconciliation is not inevitable. Les Miserables charts the intertwined stories of Jean Valjean, who is converted by being forgiven and forgives in return, and Javert, the police officer pursuing him, who commits suicide rather than accepting Valjean’s forgiveness. This is the terrifying truth about sin: forgiveness can be resisted and reconciliation can fail. At this point, says the Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf: “The sin hangs in the space between forgiveness and unforgiveness,” and is therefore made to be unforgiveable.
The world of unconditional forgiveness is a fearful one. We instinctively resist it lest we be exposed and taken advantage of. And yet it is the way of the cross – the only road that leads to life in all its fullness.
Lawrence Moore is director of the Windermere Centre – a United Reformed Church resource centre for learning
This is an extract from the July/August 2013 edition of Reform
Read more articles from Lawrence Moore