Thursday, October 13, 2016

Forgiveness and Remembering

A few days ago, a friend posed the question:

"Where is the balance between forgiving and forgetting? Or should there be any balance at all? I'm having a hard time with God is somehow telling me to completely forgive, and pretend like nothing happened? Is that really what turning the other cheek, and loving unconditionally is about? Are we called to be door mats?"

I was meditating on this question yesterday, as I sat in a tightly packed row at Yom Kippur services.  It is the Day of Atonement, the day when the mother tradition to my own faith ends a year and starts another by asking for and offering forgiveness.

We sat and we recited litanies of regret, in English.  We listened to them sung in Hebrew, my fingers tracing right to left across the page as the old seminary classes helped me track along through the prayerbook.

It's an important holy day, the holiest of holies, because repentance and forgiveness are at the heart of faith.

Forgiveness is essential for our spirits, but forgiveness itself cannot meaningfully exist if we imagine it requires us to forget our wounds.  When we are harmed, we remember that harm.  We remember it fiercely and completely, remember it as our flesh remembers sharpness with a scar.  We remember it as our gut remembers the scent and flavor of a poison thing that left us retching and dizzy and folded around a cramp-tight belly.

We remember it because remembering harm on a deep gut level is how we were made.  It is how we learn.  It is how we survive.

When we are hurt, when we are wounded, we are not made to forget.

We Jesus folk, however, are commanded to forgive.  It's one of the hardest things we're asked to do as disciples, but everything...everything...rides on it.  If we do not forgive, we are not ourselves forgiven.

How does this work?  How can this work, when that pain still hurts every time we remember, and that anger still flares?

Here, as I grasp it, it is important to understand that forgiveness does not imply forgetting.  As creatures woven from narrative, those moments of pain and trauma are a part of us.  When we are hurt, when we are betrayed, when we are lied to and manipulated and abused, we are not meant to forget those moments.  We are not meant to pretend nothing happened.

Forgiveness, instead, takes that moment of pain and changes it.  It allows us to open ourselves to seeing the sin-blindness of the other, to seeing how their own anxieties and hatreds have driven them to harm us, just as they themselves were harmed and misled.

This does not happen all at once, and it does not happen cheaply.  Forgiveness is a discipline, and learning it is neither easy nor simple.  It requires us to acknowledge the anxiety and blind rage that rise from those things that have traumatized us.

Having acknowledged those experiences, it then begins to redefine them.  That takes time, and intentionality.  When we turn the other cheek, the cheek that was struck still burns red from the blow.  We are not meant to have forgotten this.  Nor can we have.

Because forgiveness is not "being a doormat."  It is a fierce demand for rightness in a relationship, one that reframes our reaction towards the possibility of restoration.  It is not passive, or acquiescent to injustice.

If it is reciprocal, then even the most broken thing can be healed.  If there is repentance, genuine and heartfelt and sustained, then forgiveness can remake anything.  That is the heart of the Christian hope.  If our forgiveness is not met with a changed heart in the other, the forgiveness remains in our own.

We are not required to stay in intimate relationship with those who view forgiveness as an opening for predation, who seek their own power and pleasure at our expense, who come demanding forgiveness with an unrepentant heart.

Those people, we can still forgive, so that our souls are not filled with a bitterness that will sour our other lifegiving relationship.

So to my friend, I would suggest that yes, we are called to completely forgive, to bathe our remembered pain in that intention, changing not just our understanding of our hopeful future, but helping us to come to terms with our wounded past.