I was listening to the live stream of This American Life this morning and happened to run across an old show from its first year “Anger and Forgiveness” which I think has relevance both to our current societal moment, and the passage from Matthew 18:23-34.
I’d been thinking this week about the boundaries we place on forgiveness. All of us I think have some crime or some action that is our dividing line for forgiveness. We may be able to forgive someone who does drugs or robs a liquor store, but we can’t forgive someone who abuses children or commits murder. This line is in different spot for each of us, based on our own personal experiences, views and biases.
In the first act of the This American Life episode they detail a crime where a young woman drowns her two children in her car so she can stay with a rich man who doesn’t want children. She blames their disappearance on some “black man” taking them away, and uses as a defense a history of abuse by her step-father to explain her actions when discovered. This crime had outraged her community, and in fact the whole country (and at a time without social media). They wanted justice and punishment, and they wanted to stay angry.
And that anger might seem righteous. This was a terrible crime, and no matter the life that came before, it doesn’t negate the need for punishment. But Jack Hitt, frequent early contributer to TAL, wrote a piece at the time outlining the need for forgiveness, to gain some understanding of the person who committed the act, and to let go of anger. The piece itself sparked a good deal of anger, and later in the broadcast one of Hitt’s detractors argued the point that there are times where it is appropriate to stay angry, and that liberals are too quick to blame mitigating circumstances. Hitt in turn cites Christianity and the idea of forgiveness, though in a more secular way.
Our modern idea of forgiveness is less about forgiving what the person did, and more about letting go for own sake. Anger can be a destructive force in our lives and it can be unproductive to hold onto that anger. But in society we do not even question the need for punishment for a crime. We can forgive, but we do not absolve.
But Jesus’ parable goes further. Even though we have racked up a debt of sin we could never repay, God is willing to forgive us, but only if we forgive those who have wronged us. And in this case it doesn’t necessarily mean punish but feel less anger toward the person. It means allowing the person who wronged us to atone and to be redeemed.
Now I’m not saying we should rewrite our entire criminal justice system, but I do think we need to evaluate how much we lean on punitive measures as a means for justice and for restoration. A great deal of outrage this week has surrounded the lack of punishment or charges being brought against a man who depending on how you look at it either defended himself, or shot an unarmed 18 year old black man. This is a situation where holding onto anger can be nothing but destructive. Regardless of the final legal consequences, this is a situation that calls for true forgiveness.
Because if we allow ourselves to draw a line beyond which we cannot be forgiven, then none of us will be saved.
By the way, I found a handy resource for all of Jesus’ parables online here.