What does it mean to forgive? I think this is one of the most important questions that our society is facing today. Writing this article on September 11, I cannot help but think of the situation that we have been in over the past 16 years. While the sentiments probably started many years, if not decades, before, for the past 16 years, we have been divided as a country, both in our response to the tragic events of that day, and as to how to respond to fundamental disagreements in our society. This is really sad, because as we get firmer in our thinking and assumptions that we are right, we become more intolerant of others.
Many of you, as you read that last line, are thinking that this is going to be a rag on conservatives, but the truth is that both sides of the debate tend to be equally inhospitable at times to the other. The importance of winning and being right is the most important thing; everything else is often seen as collateral damage. One need to look no further than the debates over immigration to see how both sides’ politicians are using the people as pawns for political and personal gain. But this is not an article about politics or issues; it’s an article about forgiveness.
Forgiveness messes with our society in profound ways. To live a life of forgiveness, an individual must live according to a different set of principles. There are many things that change when you make it a practice to live a forgiving life. For me, these three are key for really living that way.
First, in order to forgive, one must find ways to let go of their negative feelings towards others. I often say that forgiveness is not forgetting. For example, if a friend got really drunk and said or did hurtful things, I would forgive them, but I would not forget and put them back in the same situation.
Second, you have to have a mindset of reconciliation, recognizing that if you are going to change this world, you must start with acknowledging the power of forgiveness. Here, for example, is the where the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is both great as well as helping to spawn the radical right. On the one hand, it is bringing attention to the fact that there is a very different reality for people of color in the United States. Many in the white community are being exposed for the first time to the realities many people of color face every day. Unfortunately, the news often does not depict those who are modeling this action of reconciliation and forgiveness. Rather, we see the worst case, where the BLM movement is confrontational and vitriolic, putting the white community into a corner where they are closed to the reality the movement is trying to get them to understand.
Third, you have to learn to put others and their feelings first. This is really difficult, because it forces you to accept that your reality is not the ultimate reality. I often say this is the moment when a child becomes an adult. On one hand, for me, this is really easy, because my childhood and youth was so markedly different than “normal.” Intellectually, I know that my reality is different, but it is still hard emotionally, as I will get into situations and misread or react based not on what is actually happening, but rather what I perceive to be the reality based on past experience. Thus, it gets hard to forgive, because I already have the assumption that I am right.
As people of faith, we are called to live in forgiveness. Personally, I think that forgiveness is one of the easiest things for Christians to do and also one of the most difficult. It's easy because within the culture of Christianity, we’re called to make forgiveness the core within everything that we do. “Let it go” and “letting God” is central to the Christian life.
Think about it this way: in order to really be faithful, we have to let go of the things that ground us in this world, so that we can focus on the things of God's world. If we let our head or anger and our frustration towards other people be the bedrock of our life, then we're not able to follow God, because we’re always focused on our vendettas and getting back what is rightfully ours.
While the Christian culture should make it easy for us to forgive, the reality is that our greater culture doesn't make it so easy. Because we live fully within this world, we get drawn into the jealousy and the false teaching that we are more important than our neighbor, and that being right is far more important than letting it go. Think how many wars---and not just the big ones that we hear about on the news, but the small ones in our neighborhoods, our offices, and even in our family---are caused by our inability to let go. So, like many things of faith, this is something that we have to work on.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen