Building on the last post, I thought I'd give you more insight into one of the ways I'm trying to serve as a helpful outsider -- my church. I recently attended a Wednesday night class, which isn't all that heavily attended (maybe 75 people, or 20% of the adult members).
The topic was forgiveness. As the class discussion developed I found that I disagreed with almost every single point that was being made, either by the teacher or the class members. It seemed like a loving and open forum, so I began gently sharing my perspective and seeing what would come out of it. All in all it went pretty well -- here are some examples:
Class point: We can forgive a person, but we don't forget. In the future we will be more cautious with someone who has hurt us.
My response: I understand what you're saying, and in truth that's probably the way I live. But Jesus said that if someone hits me in the face, I'm not supposed to forgive and then stay at arms' length away from the person. I'm supposed to turn my other cheek, to make myself vulnerable, to act as if the first punch never happened and throw myself right back out there, believing the best of people. I get the point that we go into self-protection mode after somebody hurts us. I do that all the time. But I don't think that's what Jesus taught.
Class point: I cannot forgive someone for the wrong they've done to someone else. So if my friend lies to his parents, and he comes to me grieving and repentant, it's not my place to forgive. He has to go straight to his parents, those who were wronged, to make it right.
My response: I don't agree. When someone comes to us in confession and heartache, they know intuitively that my forgiveness won't make the situation go away. That friend will know that he has to talk to his parents. But I still have a role as the listener, and I think that role is to draw near and offer the idea that forgiveness and acceptance are possible no matter what kind of damage was done. My role is to say, "I forgive you for that. There is nothing you can do that will stop me from loving you as my friend." They need that. Then of course at some point they should begin the healing process with the parties who were involved. But my acceptance of my friend is not conditional on whether other people are forgiving him. I forgive him, and I accept him and love him anyway.
Class point: We should forgive because we are not the judge -- God is. If we can just forgive people in this life, God will take care of the justice in the life to come.
My response: I don't think this concept of delayed justice serves us well, and in my experience it's just not the way the world works. If I cause a lot of pain for someone else, I pay for that. Here. In this life. I'd guess that God built this law into the universe, like the law of gravity. When you cause pain you get pain.
Take the Nazi officer we discussed earlier (the teacher opened class with a story of a man who had killed hundreds of Jews, then on his deathbed asked for forgiveness from a nurse). Even if the nurse forgave him for it, there's nothing cheap in that type of confession. There's no way that the man ruthlessley killed families and then coasted along happily for 40 years until one day he decided to repent. My guess is that he lived an absolutely tortured life after what he'd done.
(The teacher verified that indeed the man had been in constant torment over his guilt)
Again, in my limited experience this is the way our world seems to work. When you cause pain, you receive pain. That's why I can offer forgiveness to someone -- they're already in agony over what they've done. Who am I to add to that by witholding forgiveness?
Class point: If we don't forgive people, we suffer more than they do. Forgiveness is as much for us as it is for them, so that we can move on with no baggage. This is why we should forgive.
My response: I agree that when we forgive people, we ourselves receive benefit. But I don't think this is the reason to do it -- that approach sounds pretty selfish and I don't think it'd actually work in a practical sense. If I'm only forgiving someone so that I'll feel better, is that actually the spirit we're supposed to have? Is that genuine forgiveness, if it's about me?
At that point I stopped my comments because I couldn't quite get a feel for how people were taking them. It was interesting, though, that later on the teacher told a story about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monks who continue to undergo persecution from China. One monk told the Dalai Lama that after 20 years of being held captive, he suddenly began to be very afraid. "Of what?", the Dalai asked. The monk responded, "I was afraid that I was about to lose my compassion for the Chinese."
How ironic that in this class filled with people who've faithfully attended church for decades, the most Christian thing I heard during the entire hour was a quote from a Buddhist!
My goal is not to nitpick or cause trouble -- I want to follow up every disagreement with a proposal for something positive. That's what I tried to do in class, and that's what I commit to doing here in the blog. If I have a criticism of something, I must offer a better alternative or keep my mouth shut.
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