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[Chalice] The Secret of Forgiveness [Chalice]
"Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing"

Presented Easter, April 11, 2004, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

I have to begin talking about forgiveness this morning, this Easter morn, by asking your forgiveness. Easter is a day of happiness and triumph and celebration. This is the day of Jesus rising, of human spirits rising, of the earth itself joyfully rising up to new life in so many ways in the spring. And you know that for me this happiness and joy that is Easter morning is perfectly expressed in the singing of this hymn Jesus Christ is Risen Today, Alleluia, and you know that sometimes on Easter I feel this feeling of joy breaking out and rising up so much that I duck into a church to sing Jesus Christ is Risen Today and then duck out and duck into another church to sing it again. Some years, by the time we sing it together for our service, I've already sung it three or four times, but this year it's all I can to muster enough spirit within me to sing it once. I don't feel very joyful, and I have to apologize to you for this but at the moment I don't feel like celebrating. I have to ask your forgiveness because this talk about forgiveness is going to be too heavy and too serious for this sunny, springy, celebratory day of Easter.

As you know, Easter comes at the end of the week called Holy Week in Christendom, and what a horrible Holy Week it has been. On Monday 5 American civilians were tortured and murdered in Fallujuah, and 5 American soldiers were killed near Baghdad. On Tuesday, 12 American marines were killed in Fallujah, and on Wednesday in response to what happened Tuesday we did an air strike on a Mosque compound, killing 40 Iraqis Shiites. All tolled, 40 American soldiers died in Iraq during this Holy Week, and reports are that 280 Iraqis have died this week in the fighting in Fallujah. And on Thursday, known as Holy Thursday, we were glued to our radios and TVs as Condoleezza Rice testified in front of the September 11 commission and in front of some of the victims and the families of the victims of that tragedy. To see, to hear, that very intelligent woman answer questions so artfully for nearly three hours demanded of all of us on Holy Thursday such intellectual vigilance. Dr. Rice performed so ably the truth that if you are really intelligent and you have mastery of language, you have many more options available to you than simply telling the truth or lying. You can evade, you can shade, you can diminish, you can dissemble, you can use simple phrases and metaphors to make the outrageous seem so reasonable. Asked why the Bush administration did not move against Osama bin Laden when intelligence made it more certain that Al Quaeda was behind the attack on the USS Cole, she says that an attack on bin Laden would have been tit for tat. So an attack which killed 17 US sailors is a tit, and an attempt to strike back and kill this person who had at that time led several attacks against us and killed hundreds of people is just a tat. Artfully, through the skillful use of language, the very crucial issue of whether the Bush administration did all that it could have and should have to protect us from the growing threat of Al Queada is reduced to tit for tat, like two little kids fighting and saying to their parents "he hit me first." Unbelievable use of language! And when she is asked about the just disclosed August 6th, 2001 Presidential briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States," she is able to state, despite the fact that the administration has consistently claimed that if there were warnings about Al-Quaeda attacks they were warnings about them attacking us outside of the U.S, she says about this briefing of August 6th that warns of "suspicious activity in the US consistent with preparations for hijacking, "It did not warn of attacks inside the United States. It was historical information based on old reporting. There was no new threat information. And it did not, in fact, warn of any coming attacks." If you are really smart and you really know how to use language you can confuse and obfuscate so much that you can turn day into night and night into day, you can make a warning not a warning, and you can make urgent information old information. You can lie straight through your teeth and get away with it if you have confused people so much by your intelligence, and it really helps if you combine your intelligence with unmitigated gall so you also use language not only to lie but to build up sympathy for yourself inside the people you are lying to, which the very intelligent Dr. Rice did very artfully when she said so sincerely: "I have asked myself a thousand times what more could we have done."

Yes, it has been a Holy Week like none other in my life, a Holy Week so absent of peace and harmony and good will and understanding and truth, of all that brings about reconciliation and the possibility of genuine forgiveness, of all that would be considered Holy. This has been a Holy Week when the hole in the world, the chasm that separates humans from each other, has widened rather than been healed. A Holy Week like none other in my life, but perhaps not in yours if you are a bit older than I am.

Let me explain that by telling you what happened on Friday. You know it's almost April 15 so it won't surprise you to know that this week, on Friday, in fact, on Good Friday, I had an appointment with my tax lady. Over the past few years my tax lady and I have become friends. We see each other only once a year, about this time of year, and when we get together to talk taxes we spend a few hours together talking about her kids and her business and her travels and my life and eventually we get around to talking about receipts and forms and expenses. I told her I wanted her to work extra hard this year to retrieve as much of my money as she could because I wanted as little as possible to go to the government while Bush was in the White House. She immediately looked distraught and talked with pain in her face about the mess Bush has created in Iraq and the soldiers who have died there. Then my tax lady, who is a few years older than I, became more than sad; she seemed haunted by grief. She talked about her older brother and how he survived his tour in Viet Nam but that his life was changed forever, destroyed. He wasn't killed there but his life was taken away from him all the same because he was never the same, and she knew what he could have become and what his life could have been like because she was his sister. And she talked about how her whole family was damaged, about how the whole war was just a big tragic mistake. At that moment she spoke the secret of her and her family's experiences, of their lack of healing, their lack of reconciliation, their sense of damage without repair and without anyone apologizing or asking forgiveness. She spoke the secret of her own family's experiences of that hole in the world. And even as she spoke her own and her family's secret it remained a secret. As Derrida so wisely says, even as I understood in a certain way her secret I was also sure I was not understanding her. Her zone of experience remained inaccessible to me, and I am obligated to respect its secret.

I have to confess to you that this Holy Week I feel spiritually stuck. I cannot seem to get to Easter and feel spiritually stuck on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, though days of grief and sadness. Spiritually and intellectually I seem to be stuck more precisely on just that moment on Good Friday when Jesus on the cross says to God: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing." I know what you are thinking. You are thinking: Now Rob, when Jesus said "Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing" he wasn't talking about the Bush administration! Now I know it seems like I am simply doing a facile critique of the Bush administration, but I am actually struggling with the various ways of interpreting that very important event in what Christianity would understand as the history of the Trinity when God the Son appeals to God the Father and says: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Now if we think this moment of the crucifixion story through the logic and the language, the theology of Christianity, this appeal of Jesus from the cross must be seen as a crucial moment within the life of the Trinity. God the Son asks God the Father to forgive humans for the crucifixion. Now we are all well aware of how this moment within the history of the Trinity is usually interpreted in traditional western Christianity, this traditional theology that has experienced in our own country a certain rejuvenation thanks to the impact of Mel Gibson's movie. God the Father accepts the sacrifice of God the Son. Through his suffering, God the Son accomplishes our salvation, wins our forgiveness. Now as long we believe this all of our sins, the sins of the whole world, are in a certain sense rounded up by the Son, and brought into the relation between God the Son and God the Father. All of our sins are now within this circle, and here God the Father forgives them all. In this traditional Christian theology, reconciliation and forgiveness happen within the Godhead, between the Son and the Father. The hole in the world is healed by the actions within the Godhead, by God the Father accepting the sacrifice for our sins made by God the Son.

Recently we discussed this sacrificial theology, this notion that Jesus was God's Son who had to suffer and die to be a sacrifice for our sins and win forgiveness for us from God, and why we disagree with it, and I am sure many of you have had to discuss this with Christian friends who have perhaps been inspired by Mel Gibson's movie. I would like to counter this traditional Christian theology on another point, on its interpretation of what happens within the Trinity when the Son appeals to the Father for forgiveness.

What happens in the depths of the Trinity, within the relations between the three persons within the Trinity, is deeply mysterious. There is very little dogma here and a lot of room for theological speculation. Thus it is very possible, and not even heretical, to think this event within the Trinity in very different ways. It is possible, even allowable within the confines of Christian orthodoxy, to think that when the Son appeals to the Father for forgiveness for things humans have done that the Father is perennially stuck. It could be that the appeal made by the Son to the Father is perpetually on hold, still lingers in the air between the Son and the Father because perhaps the view of God in the Talmud is correct, that God can forgive sins against Himself, but He cannot forgive things humans do to each other. Humans sinning against humans, humans creating holes in the world, humans not being brave enough and wise enough and humble enough to work real reconciliation and healing with each other, humans not doing the things that make for real forgiveness, perhaps all of these are things God as healing and reconciling spirit can help us solve but cannot simply solve for us. Perhaps the God who created humans to be free and responsible needs humans to be partners with Her in the continuing process of reconciliation and forgiveness. Perhaps when the Son makes this appeal to the Father the Father says: When humans harm each other they must repair the harm themselves. I cannot forgive what one human does to another. Only the humans involved can do that. They have to work reconciliation among themselves. It's up to them to make the world a place of healing, a place where there is real reconciliation and a genuine forgiveness that more than strategy and ruse. It's up to humans to restore the holes in the world, or to let them become deeper and more damaging.

I know I myself this Holy Week am stuck on Good Friday because this Holy Week I have an overwhelming sense that the holes in the world are growing deeper and more damaging, and that the world is not the scene of reconciliation and forgiveness. Certainly in Falujjah and elsewhere the chasm that separates Muslims who resent our presence in their country and our American soldiers and leaders who think we are liberators is growing deeper. Who can doubt that this foolish and wreckless war is not every moment making the most dangerous hole in the world, the one between Christians and Muslims, grow deeper, more damaging, and more dangerous? And how many of our fellow citizens will speak their secret years from now of how they and their family were damaged by someone in the family being in some way a casualty of this war? And if we think of the incredible damage of the victims of September 11th, of how painful and intense must be their secret experience of the hole in the world…how can we think that they have had any of their suffering healed by the clever use of obfuscation, and by complicated misstatements, and by self serving and self protecting distortions and lies?

©2004 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2004. The Secret of Forgiveness, (accessed July 9, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.