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[Chalice] Better to Forgive [Chalice]
or to Seek Forgiveness

The outline of the talk Presented on March 15, 2020, by Andy Walsh

  1. I was not sure who would show up today. For those who did show up, I wondered if we would all be spaced six or more feet from each other . . . whether people would forego handshakes and hugs . . . whether anyone would be wearing gloves and/or masks . . . or whether anybody would be selling toilet paper or disinfectant.
    1. I thought about changing today's message to address the pandemic that we are all facing. Then I recognized that many of you know more about this situation than I do. And any advice I could offer would most likely be irrelevant in a few days.
    2. So, I decided to stick with the original theme of this talk. Forgiveness. A theme this community is wrestling with for the month of March. In a note of self-disclosure, I must confess that the message I am giving is the message I most needed to hear on this topic. I have given several talks about forgiveness. All of them have focused on the need to forgive others or the need to forgive ourselves. I have never spoken publicly about the need to seek forgiveness.
    3. When I look around our society, I see a problem. We live at a time when admitting our mistakes is considered a weakness. Blaming others for all of our problems is considered smart. Counterpunching, not seeking mutuality or forgiveness, is the way to defend our fragile egos. I have contributed to this distorted understanding of forgiveness in the past. Of course, I have often thought, it is better to be the victim who forgives than to be the problem who needs forgiveness.
  2. The opening words by Kahlil Gibran remind us that giving and receiving are two sides of the same process. The giver is not superior to the receiver. The world is not divided neatly between those good people like us who are givers and those weak people like them who are takers. By way of analogy, it is misguided to divide the world between good people like us who offer forgiveness and bad people like them who need to be forgiven. As Desmond Tutu points out, "Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed."
    1. If we cannot identify with people who make mistakes, how can we sincerely forgive others?
    2. Giving AND receiving forgiveness requires us to stand outside of ourselves
      1. To empathize with others
      2. To acknowledge our interconnectedness
      3. To acknowledge the grace we have received from others
      4. To acknowledge the gratitude we have for others.
  3. Forgiveness and reconciliation are an important part of traditional religions-Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist.
    1. In the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there is a recognition that we are all children of God. God cares how we treat each other. Division and hatred among human beings separates us from God.
    2. In Taoism: The greatest good is like that of water. It does not seek its own. It goes with the flow. It does not dwell in the past. It does not dwell in the future. Tao lies in the eternal present. To hold on to resentment is to resist the way. To let go of resentment is to live in harmony with the Way.
    3. Hinduism: Karma. Wrong action is the karma that binds us to the world of suffering. Resenting those who have harmed us is the karma that binds us to the world of suffering. Letting go of the past, letting go of resentment, letting go of ego. This is the path to liberation.
    4. Buddhism: An enlightened person recognizes that my abuser, my victim, and I are not different people. I am my neighbor who seeks forgiveness, and I am the neighbor who forgives me.
  4. Forgiveness in Christianity: I teach at a church-affiliated college. Christianity, in my opinion, has much to teach us about forgiveness. According to tradition, Jesus encouraged his followers to turn the other cheek. He forgave his executioners. His reputation as a healer rested in no small part on the notion of sin, poverty, and sickness in his own day. At a time when lepers were considered untouchable because they must have sinned to merit this disease, Jesus touched the untouchables and welcomed them back into community. At a time when a menstruating woman was considered unclean, Jesus called her a beautiful child of God and welcomed her back into community. At a time when poverty was considered a curse and wealth a blessing, Jesus had the audacity to proclaim that the poor are blessed and that the love of wealth can be an obstacle to being a part of God's community.
    1. Yet my research also tells me that the way Jesus is typically perceived is part of the problem we face in contemporary America. Jesus is presented as perfect, without sin, as one who forgives without need of forgiveness. Add to that the image of a man who demands obedience to himself above all else, and we have a recipe for narcissism as an ideal.
    2. My own reconstruction of the historical Jesus concludes that the humbler Jesus in Mark is closer to the truth than later images of Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is not the self-proclaimed messiah. (Scholars call this the messianic secret.) Jesus' ministry begins when he is baptized by a man who is performing baptisms for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus prays to God "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us."
    3. The earliest images of Jesus identify him as someone who forgives and as one who seeks forgiveness. Later images of Jesus identify him as a perfect being who forgives but needs never seek forgiveness. Later Christian theology portrays the forgiven as owing a debt to the forgiver.
    4. Christianity has changed over time-for better and for worse. There was a time when acknowledging our mistakes and seeking forgiveness was far more common. The Roman Catholic Church made confession one of its seven sacraments.
    5. The Protestant Reformation occurred, in part, because critics of the Catholic church felt that the system of penance, pergatory, and the sale of indulgences had perverted the original intent of the confessional. Protestant reformers, however, may have gone too far in insisting that we can each be our own priest and need not confess our sins to anybody else. The reformers did not realize our capacity for rationalization and justification when we speak directly to God without human ears to tell us when we are full of . . . malarkey.
      1. In the past hundred years, Protestantism has been divided between modernist and fundamentalist wings. The fundamentalist wing continues to talk about sin and forgiveness, but it does so in such an abstract way that individuals no longer need to acknowledge actual wrongdoing or seek forgiveness from particular individuals. We are all sinners. God forgives us all. It is cheap grace. We don't have to do the hard work of acknowledging wrongdoing, changing our behaviors, making amends, seeking restitution. In fact, other people don't matter at all so long as God forgives us.
      2. The modernist wing of Protestantism, of which I am a part, recoils at words like sin and judgement. We don't hold each other accountable to live up to our own highest ideals. We live and let live. While this is generally, in my opinion, a healthier attitude than judging others harshly all the time, it too easily dismisses our obligation for perpetual self-reflection. It offers a crown without a cross. We don't have to do the hard work of acknowledging wrongdoing, changing our behaviors, making amends, seeking restitution. We might go so far as to conclude that there is no evil in the world . . . or that the suffering of others is not real . . . or at least that the suffering of others is not really my problem.
    6. There is a basic human need to be a part of a community of accountability that can help us get our lives back on track when we make mistakes . . . to create the possibility for a second chance at life. . . to offer the hope of reconciliation to people who have harmed others. I suspect that much of Christianity fails to meet these needs. 12-step programs like AA seem better prepared to help people navigate acknowledging wrongdoing, engaging in self-critical reflection, and making amends to heal broken relationships.
  5. Seeking forgiveness does not make us weaker than offering forgiveness. Our motives for seeking forgiveness are related to our motives for offering forgiveness to others.
    1. One motivation for forgiveness is to let go of the past so we can live in the present.
      1. Holding on to resentment makes me a prisoner to the person who has harmed me in the past. Holding on to guilt also binds me to my past mistakes.
      2. Holding on to resentment is like holding on to a hot coal in order to harm another. Holding on to guilt prevents me from doing everything you can to be the best person in this moment.
      3. Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison in hopes that the other person will die. Holding on to guilt prevents me from doing everything I can to relieve the suffering of others in this moment.
  6. The words of Thich Nhat Hahn haunted me the first time I read his poem, "Call Me By My True Names." He is one of the most famous Buddhist monks in the world. MLKing even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitments to nonviolence and reconciliation. His engaged Buddhism has inspired so many that Thich Nhat Hahn is about as close to a living saint that I can imagine, and yet he identifies himself as an arms merchant or an officer of a forced labor camp. He reminds us of the hubris that assumes that we could never be a part of the problem . . . that we could never be responsible for the suffering of others.
    1. Like the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hahn slashes our illusions and our egos. He reminds us that we are all connected. We are the giver and the receiver. The victim and the abuser. Part of the problem and part of the solution.
  7. Another motivation for forgiveness is to restore broken relationships.
    1. Forgiveness vs. permission. . . Domestic violence. Cheating.
    2. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting
    3. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean restoring the relationship to where it was before the harm was done. Rebuilding trust is a process that requires consistent behavior over a long period of time.
    4. Just as we should not "forgive" someone who is preparing to harm us, it is foolhardy to seek "forgiveness" if we do not end our harmful behaviors.
    5. Saying I am sorry does not mean I am sorry any more than saying I forgive you means that I forgive you.
      1. Sometimes, we say we are sorry because we want others to forget what we have done, not because we are truly sorry for what we have done.
      2. ometimes we say we forgive another person before we truly mean it. We continue to hold on to our resentments.
    6. At the heart of deep spirituality is a recognition of the harmony and interconnectedness of us all. There are no forgivers without forgivees. I am a part of the problem, and I am a part of the solution. I have caused suffering in others through my actions and my inactions. Reconciliation is possible with those whom I have harmed and with those who have harmed me, but my forgiving and my seeking forgiveness are not dependent on the responses of others.

    Notable Quotations about Forgiveness

    The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
    Walsh, Andrew. 2020. Better to Forgive or to Seek Forgiveness, /talks/20200315.htm (accessed July 13, 2020).

    The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page. The list of Selected Sermons.