Forgiveness and Power

Forgiveness is unfair because the one who is wronged is harmed far more than the one who does the wrong and yet the burden to forgive rests on the shoulders of the one wronged. Worse still, to hold a grudge is far more likely to deepen an internal wound than to inflict pain in return. Something deeply profound and necessary happens in a relationship when I have the strength to simply say, I screwed up and I’m sorry. To do so and to accept the consequences is one of the most deeply felt means of transferring power in a relationship.  To freely give power to the one wronged is a vital part of restoring the relationship because it creates the space in which the burden of forgiveness is carried, at least in part, by the offender as well as the offended.

White guilt (especially as it creates the space in which we cannot simply allow black lives matter to be a thing) is at least in part the inability of a race with power to imagine surrendering power for the sake of reconciliation. To fear surrender is understandable because giving up power in the world we have created is to lay bare the fact that we are too weak to solve the problems and heal the wounds ourselves. To admit weakness is the greatest betrayal possible of the American dream that all it takes is a little elbow grease and we can fix anything. To admit weakness is to risk shame in vulnerability.

But the refusal to admit weakness is the absence of strength. Strength is born in giving up control, not holding on tighter. Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer is the strength of humility embodied by receiving whatever hurt or anger is offered when we look a child of God in the eyes and say it’s my fault, I’m sorry.

What we are given is more determinative of the outcome of our life than any influence we could have. What we have been given to work with never changes, the pile only grows. Outcomes are reached by the acceptance and rejection of all that is given. This claim does not mean we are powerless to change the reality of our life, but that when we feel powerless it is because of a failure of the imagination to see and take advantage of all the raw materials at our disposal.

To remember is…

To remember is to experience the power of the past in the context of the present. To remember is not to picture a moment as it happened or to act like a computer reproducing the 1s and 0s that have been stored perfectly. Memory brings the past into the present once more and is significant not because of what happened, but because of what happens. Memory is alive not because of how we were affected but because of how we are transformed.

To remember our baptism has nothing to do with being able to picture the event and everything to do with experiencing the power of God’s love that comes to us even before we know we are in need. Baptism is about what God has done in us, and only then about our response.

To remember the night when Christ gave himself up for us has nothing to do with giving an objective report of the details on that night and everything to do with experiencing the power of God’s love that led God to give his own life for us while we were yet sinners. Communion is about what God has done for us, and only then about our response.

Cross as corrective

The significance of the cross is best thought of as the primary corrective to our current lens on life and faith. What needs correction obviously changes over time and space. In our day and time, the restoration of relationship is the absolutely crucial thing that we need to regain and is, thereby, the primary lens through which we need to view the cross.

Relationship is such a vapid concept in our day and time that we don’t even recognize there is no individual without the relationships that give shape and direction to the constituent parts of culture and community. In another day and time, when culture and community are the assumption and individuality is incoherent, models like penal substitution or christus victor may very well be the most important corrective lens through which to view the cross.

The meaning of the cross is not a static set of words or ideas – it is the means by which God loves and transforms the world. If we cannot view love and transformation through the dynamic lens in which we see where the action of God intersects with the needs of our present, then we have no hope of rightly understanding what the cross is and does, much less how to talk about it faithfully.

Christians employ modern assumptions about the world to apply premodern beliefs and ways of life to a postmodern world and then wonder why the world rejects a message that embodies country more than Christ, self help more than new life, and defining the rules more than welcoming the neighbor, all the while asking people to join an institution that doesn’t know why it exists in a culture that prefers exciting and new over the way it’s always been.

Can charity be earned?

There is a thought that rings true in our quest to feed the hungry and clothe the naked – those who would receive assistance must do work to earn it. It makes sense when you consider that Jesus was a carpenter first and the book of Thessalonians even says something like the one who does not work does not eat. It’s at the heart of American idealism that the goal of what we do and go after is to contribute to the betterment of society and be good workers for the sake of the economy. But the notion that someone has to work to receive something is the antithesis to the Christian notion of grace.

In truth, it’s not really that we generically think someone ought to work to receive help – what we specifically mean is that they owe us something in an unspoken system of barter if they want anything from us. It’s hard work to beg for money. I’ve met some beggars who’ve done a better sales job on me than any other person in the mainstream corporate world. If we really just meant that people have to work to deserve charity, we would have to accept that some of the most deserving and hardest workers are the people we least desire to fund. What we wind up wanting is not “work” to express a desire for help, but a positive contribution to someone else. There is, of course, no “Christian” definition of positive contribution to which we turn, we just want to think they’re earning their keep.

Christian charity works in the opposite direction. Take the story of harvest gleanings from Ruth. I’d argue that the type of work the people do there to receive the leftover food is more like the ‘work’ we want eliminated than the work we think people should be willing to do – they simply come and get what they need and leave without contributing anything positive to the owners of the fields.

The very heart and soul of Jesus’ message is that what he offers we haven’t earned. When we include earning anywhere within the notion of giving, we’re already permanently off the track God desires us to follow. It’s not that we should give freely to anyone and everyone with no thought as to how or why – but that there are better and worse ways to share from the abundance we have been given. There are more and less effective ways to witness to the kingdom God is building rather than the economy upon which America runs. There are things we can to do let people into our hearts and find God waiting there rather than earn their way into our wallets and find the next quick fix. Charity is about building a kingdom – not earning a paycheck or creating walls between the haves and have nots.

The notion that religion and spirituality are at odds with one another because “religion is ritualistic” whereas “spirituality is about actual relationship with the divine” is just as absurd as saying that a relationship could possibly exist without the rituals of everyday life. The most significant and formative aspects of a relationship are often those things that are done every day without thinking and that give the background to the momentary experiences in which love is felt most concretely and most powerfully. Ritual is not enough for a relationship to last but the story ritual tells is the only context in which a true experience of love can take place.