Forgiveness

On Sunday morning the Easter bunny comes, spreading around chocolates and jelly beans.  Children get sugared up, and for most of the country spring weather will dominate (alas, we’ll still have snow).   Christians celebrate their belief that Jesus rose from the dead after being crucified.  At the same time Jews celebrate the passover, their belief that God ‘passed them over’ when he killed all first born males in Egypt as a penalty for not freeing the Jews from slavery.  While Islam accepts the passover story, and believes Jesus to be a prophet, they don’t believe he rose from the dead.  Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad on releasing the British prisoners back in 2007 did say it was an “Easter gift” to respect the religious beliefs of the British.

Not believing in any particular mythology, I look at these holidays a bit differently.  First, as with Christmas, I don’t want to deny or disrespect the importance of the holiday for believers.  At the University of Minnesota once when I was registering for classes there was a big banner that said “Merry Christmas” on it.  “Does that offend you?” the student at the registration desk asked.  “No,” I replied, puzzled.  “Oh,” he said, “another Political Science grad student registered today and she lit in to me that this ‘offensive’ sign was up.”  I shook my head.  Political correctness rears its ugly face!

Second, I also respect the cultural/traditional role of religious holidays.   There is something to be said for shared cultural celebrations.  And, as Christmas is a cultural celebration of peace, love, and joy, Easter I take as a celebration of forgiveness.  Christians believe that Jesus died so that God could forgive our sins if we believe.  I don’t share that view, but I think the fundamental importance of forgiveness in the Christian faith is a powerful idea, and perhaps one reason why Christianity has prospered as a faith.

Forgiveness is powerful because it appears we are doing something for others — we are forgiving them, when we could carry a grudge or try for revenge.  But if done right, it is also done for ourselves.  When one carries a grudge or seeks revenge, one is obsessing on a wrong that was done, or on anger to another person.  That gives that other person, or that wrong, continuing power over ones’ emotion and life.  It creates anxiety and stress and eats away from within.  True forgiveness is not just refraining from being nasty back, but it requires that one really let go of any residue anger and resentment.  If one does that, then one has reclaimed for oneself the ability to remain centered and in control.  It liberates oneself from the negative affects of lingering anger.

Moreover, forgiveness has a social consequence — people respect one who can forgive.  Those who have been forgiven, if they can let go of their guilt and lingering anger, often break out of a cycle of tit for tat and are able to look at their actions with a new light, perhaps finally understanding why what they did was perceived as a wrong.  Forgiveness is personally liberating, and can spread and bring peace and increased contentment to a community.  Again, the Christian emphasis on forgiveness is a truly admirable and powerful aspect of that great faith.

So on Easter, forgive those you’ve been resenting.  See this as the day of reflection and forgiveness.  With practice, it becomes easy; one realizes that by forgiving others one is better able to forgive oneself when the inevitable imperfections of human existence come out.  Rather than be obsessed by guilt and self-hatred, the ability to forgive oneself allows one to act with more joy and energy, forgiving others and ultimately playing a part in making the world a better place.  So happy Easter!

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on April 12, 2009 - 16:19

    A very interesting post for the day. I just heard a few minutes ago, of someone who will be tested this very day on the concept of forgiveness. She is a coworker of my wife, who works very hard at two jobs to make ends meet. She had last night off, but her boyfriend of quite a long time decided to go out with his “friend”, a female. This morning, after they woke up, he confessed to her that he slept with this friend last night, and no longer loves her. She is in the first stages, also known as freaking out, and my wife just left to go be with her and try to comfort her on this day. I wonder if, despite this situation, if she will actually be able to truly forgive such an egregious act of betrayal.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on April 12, 2009 - 16:34

    I think ultimately if she does, she’ll be happier (though it may take awhile!) If she forgives, then she’ll be saying, essentially, “you do not have the capacity to hurt me, you made your choice, I’m better off without someone who would do that to me, I’m not going to give you or your act of betrayal power over my emotions.” You can’t get there overnight, it may take years. But ultimately…yikes, I just thought of a song quote about this, Don Henley, ‘Heart of the Matter’:

    “There are people in your life who’ve come and gone
    They let you down and hurt your pride
    Better put it all behind you; life goes on
    You keep carrying that anger, it’ll eat you up inside

    I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the Heart of the Matter
    But my will gets weak
    And my thoughts seem to scatter
    But I think it’s about forgiveness
    Forgiveness
    Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore”

  3. #3 by henitsirk on April 13, 2009 - 02:34

    My mom is Jewish, and I like to read stories about Jewish holidays with my kids (since we don’t live near with my mom to celebrate with her). We were reading about Passover recently, and it struck me how many Jewish holidays are about surviving persecution, and gratitude to God for that, but not much forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness doesn’t really come into play in the Old Testament (or Torah) much at all. Of course, Jews do have Yom Kippur, the day of seeking forgiveness. But that’s in the sense of atonement to God, not necessarily forgiving others.

    I’m not criticizing the Jewish religion, but it occurs to me that there might be a certain lingering anger there, sort of as a general gesture, perhaps as a result of all that persecution over time. I wonder what effects come from a religion with so many observances based on surviving?

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on April 13, 2009 - 03:20

    Interesting — Jesus was, of course, Jewish, so his teaching on forgiveness had a Jewish origin. Of course, Paul went and decided that people could convert to Christianity without becoming Jews first (meaning men could avoid adult circumcision, which no doubt helped efforts at recruiting members for the church). Thus the new Christians didn’t have to follow Jewish dietary laws, holidays and the like. To Jews, this seemed to nullify the special covenant God had with Israel, and they quickly turned away from a faith that started as one of many Jewish sects at the time.

    Jesus was also incorporating ideas that were probably transversing the region from the East, as well as Zorastrianism. Still, that’s an interesting point. Islam is similar to Judaism in that way (and each are praxis oriented religions, rather than faith oriented — rituals and community define the religion more than belief).

  5. #5 by henitsirk on April 13, 2009 - 04:09

    Well, Jesus also said that we didn’t have to follow all those laws either — not what goes into a man’s mouth, but what comes out of it; hanging out with lepers, prostitutes, etc. He was pretty hard on the Pharisees, who were the strictest followers of the law.

    And forgiveness is really at the heart of Christianity, as you mentioned. It’s not just in the one day of Easter, though, but is present in every baptism and every Eucharist. I guess that’s what struck me about Judaism and my perception of its lacking of the gesture of forgiveness. (I could also mention the seeming inability of the modern state of Israel to forgive its enemies!)

    As you well know, the Lutheran church sticks very closely to the Bible. That’s been difficult for me, as I think there is a strong likelihood of Jesus being influenced (or even trained/initiated) in Eastern mysteries, such as Zoroastrianism as you mentioned. After all, we know nothing about his life from age 13 to 30! So I’m interested in that, but I’m not going to get that from my Lutheran church.

    But…to draw one more parallel with Lutheranism (I apologize, but I’m also reading a biography of Luther right now!), one could say that his “not by works by by faith alone” is almost like your comment, “True forgiveness is not just refraining from being nasty back, but it requires that one really let go of any residue anger and resentment.”

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on April 13, 2009 - 13:13

    That also saved Luther from the torture he lived through trying to follow Augustine’s claim that you had to do your best to love God, and if you did and were sincere, you’d get the gift of faith. Luther doubted he really loved God and feared he was believing simply to avoid hell. So he was confessing multiple times a day, putting himself through hell fearing God hated him for selfishly believing himself saved (that’s why the indulgences bothered him — buying that would push people away from God, so he believed the church was endangering peoples’ souls).

    Paul, to support not having to follow Jewish law, reached back to Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac to claim one is “justified by faith.” Luther ultimately decided that rather than worry about his own motives he should just believe and trust that God meant it when he said he was “saved.” In fact, he came to see the Pope as the “anti-Christ” for trying to get inbetween God and the believers (the church saying you get through God via the church). That’s why protestants like to talk about a “personal relationship” with Christ — that contrasts to the church mediated relationship in Catholicism.

    Muhammad as well was influenced by other teachings, he worked caravans, and his hometown of Mecca was a pilgrimage site even pre-Islam (the Kabbah was a holy site containing hundreds of images of various ‘Gods.’) He was influenced strongly by Christianity too, and wanted to develop a faith to pull the Arabs out of what he saw as a backwards culture. Muhammad’s major efforts were social change, especially to improve the status of women and the poor (his feminist side was reversed by those who came later, unfortunately).

  7. #7 by henitsirk on April 13, 2009 - 14:39

    Yes, my husband and I were quite amused by the biographer’s mention of how it is likely that Luther was struck by the faith over works idea while struggling with constipation — how Luther’s personal physical struggles (also likely created/exacerbated by his mortifications as an Augustinian monk) influenced his beliefs in a personal, nonmediated relationship with Christ!

    This biography is fascinating — how Luther’s theological views were not necessarily what garnered German support, but rather the thought of being free of Rome’s financial demands. That he was supported by a growing anticlericalism that he did not start but for which he is now the poster boy.

    It’s been interesting to me to struggle a bit internally with this church’s statement that we are “saved” already through grace and faith and the crucifixion. I know Luther said that good works flow naturally from faith, but I guess that’s a more subtle morality than I’m used to. Kind of like true forgiveness rather than reconciliation through justice.

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