Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On Forgiveness

I love Lent. I love the deep silences and the lack of easy answers. This may be part of my also loving any music in a minor key. It quiets my busy mind and me.

But the practice of Lent annoys me, with people telling me on social media what they are giving up. There is no good reason for my dislike. I feel a tad less virtuous at every post reminding me that I might be a bad Christian, and I find it petty and aggravating when people post how much they miss chocolate or coffee during Lent. 40 days is nothing, honey. I know there are people in the world who will never have either. I used to give up something for Lent. I even briefly toyed with taking on a spiritual discipline. But I’m just not good at it. For the past several years, I have decided that I might just not even bother, since I’m only going to slip and then kick myself for over it.

We (the publishing company where I work) published a Lenten study on forgiveness. I studiously avoided reading it for many months, even though I know and respect the author. I avoided it because forgiveness feels like a giant guilt trip. This is probably because I’m horrible at forgiveness. I can’t even forgive myself.

I hold grudges. I’m not proud of it, even if I am very good at it. I consider it an embarrassing talent. If someone throws me under the bus, or is rude or abusive, I remember. I remember a tall-steeple pastor who was dismissive towards me during a strategy session pertaining to the committee I served on at the 2001 General Assembly as a Youth Advisory Delegate (and the big vote went my way, just FYI. Yes, I know that was 13 years ago.). I remember a pastor who, for the life of him, couldn’t remember the name of one of my friends that he had met at least six times over ten years. I remember men who mansplain and white people who whitesplain the world to me. I remember famous people who were at one point known to be anti-civil rights, anti-gay, or anti-Semitic (side-eye at Henry Ford and Strom Thurmond). I remember which companies profited off of death camp labor or helped systemize genocide during the Third Reich (full-on disapproving stare at IBM and Siemens).

I am a grudge champion.

On those rare occasions when it occurs to me I’m supposed to be Christ-like, I give a second or a third chance. I only do this because once, growing up, my mother sent me and my brother to school with the assignment to come back with one good thing to share about the people we liked the least. Ever since then, I have the most annoying habit of looking for something good in everyone.

I know I‘m not a particularly Christian kind of Christian, so out of obligation to continuing self-improvement, I finally cracked open the Forgiveness book. I read this in the “Honesty” chapter:
We get ourselves in trouble when we begin measuring the relative “weight” of human sins. To whatever extent other people’s sins seem obviously greater than our own, we may let ourselves more easily off the hook.

I thought, “Damn it, Marjorie Thompson!” and immediately felt guilty, because she is the nicest person in the world. Also, my mom knows her.

I attended seminary in the age where boundaries and self-care were drummed into our heads. Take care of ourselves and whatever emotional issues come up and our bodies and our spiritual lives, and don’t date parishioners, don’t sleep with colleagues when you’re both married to other people, don’t sexually abuse children or anyone else, and don’t steal. I took it to heart. I was trained by the FaithTrustInstitute to provide the training at McCormick Theological Seminary and to the Presbytery of Chicago. I helped create a module on boundaries in social media.

My current forgiveness problem is this: almost ten years after graduating from seminary and my ordination, I know colleagues from my generation (who presumably experienced the same training I did) who date parishioners, sleep with colleagues who are married to other people, and are pedophiles. And I’m not talking about knowing just one person. I’m talking multiple people. For all the paranoia about gay and lesbian people getting ordained to church leadership, these people (the ones I know of) have all been heterosexual. 100%. Give it a few more years and I’ll know about colleagues who steal from their churches.

All sins are equal, right? I can’t measure the weight of these sins. But I do. I think many of us do.

I struggle with understanding how it is I should be forgiving people who do the opposite of what we were taught, whose actions and needs tear a giant hole in the fabric of community. These are people whose actions, in the case of sexual abuse in particular, have ruined the lives of other human beings. I do not want pedophiles in church, ever. I would not want the church I attend to call a pastor who has serially dated parishioners. In an effort to find further justification for my own resistance, I kept reading.

In the chapter on “Forgiving” I read this: “Serious offenses against the humanity of a person involving physical or psychological trauma cannot be forgiven quickly.” Oh, thank God, I thought to myself. I think about having to forgive the people who betray a sacred trust. I think about forgiving someone who violated the humanity of another being. And I think, “Nope. I’m not capable of forgiveness. God can take care of it.”

But the earlier statement, and a subsequent discussion in the book on restorative justice (focused on restoring an offender to his or her community) stuck with me. I talked about this blog post with friends and colleagues for weeks. This Lent, I mulled over forgiveness, even in the midst of complaining about petty things, feeling rage at dehumanizing policies, calling legislators, and feeling lots of retributive things.

My problem is I expect Christian community to be a little different. Christian community nurtures children, cares for old people, holds us when we grieve, rejoices with us, is open to questions, provides space to grow, and protects the sacredness of our beings. That Christian community includes prize-winning grudge-holders, domestic violence perpetrators, money launderers, cheap labor exploiters, unnecessary drama creators, racists, sexists, and homophobes really problematizes my expectations. We are all so human, no matter how petty or illegal our sins may be.

This Lent, I am coming to terms with holding in tension the different space that Christian community provides, while also being composed of sinful humans. The Christian community isn’t always safe, has never been safe. What grieves me is that Christian community is also a place where we welcome those who judge women for their reproductive choices, are racist toward people of color, openly practice violence against gay and lesbian and intersex people, and abuse children. I hate this last part most of all.

I have a childhood memory of my mother walking around ranting about cheap grace. No such thing, right? Forgiveness isn’t cheap. Reconciliation isn’t easy. Christian community isn’t pure or free of sin or even that good at the hard work of forgiveness.

Sometimes we have to turn ourselves inside out to find and handle our resistance. Sometimes we will never reach reconciliation. Sometimes we have to learn how to accept grace and then practice it. Sometimes some of us (maybe especially me) will have to open a book about forgiveness, and let ourselves be disturbed at the implications. Sometimes some of us (especially me) will have to discover what it is to be a Christian all over again.

A note: Some readers have very helpfully pointed out that I neglected to clarify the context. Please know the following: As a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we have built-in systems of accountability and discipline that mean pedophiles and other abusers are removed from ministry and contact with young people, people who betray others are removed from ministry for a period of time pending therapy/treatment/real repentance, people who steal are removed from ministry, among other consequences. The system isn't perfect, but it does sometimes work. My struggle with forgiveness is not about a lack of consequences, or allowing people who betray us to wander around unchecked. My struggle is about what happens in me while the other processes are ongoing or have been completed.

Forgiveness: A Lenten Study
By Marjorie J. Thompson


  1. Oooofda. I'm not reading that study either... Thanks LMC

    1. :-) Thanks for reading. Being so honest with myself has made me really grumpy. I need some chocolate. WAIT. DID YOU GIVE THAT UP FOR LENT. (done)

  2. Wise words from a wise woman, on forgiving oneself:

    “I don't know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, 'Well, if I'd known better I'd have done better,' that's all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, 'I'm sorry,' and then you say to yourself, 'I'm sorry.' If we all hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can't see what we're capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you. When a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.”

    ― Maya Angelou

  3. Wow! Powerful. Thanks so much for your honest sharing.

  4. I love reading your post .... so straight forward, so helpful, so real.

  5. Reverend Cheifetz -- you are thoroughly human and that's all we can be in this broken and confused world. Just because a person believes she or he is called to ordained ministry does not mean they are any more graced than Christian laypersons or leaders of any faith tradition (I think John Calvin said something to that effect.) Forgiveness is an extremely difficult task whether it involves forgiving oneself or others who have harmed us. It's as my pastor once mentioned, "we can only go so far with forgiveness." I believe God helps us with conditions that threaten to rob us of our humanity but we can never forgive the way of the Creator God. Humankind is afflicted, conflicted, prone toward selfishness in addition to the myriad dysfunctions that comprise the horrific human. However, there is one thing I can affirm -- if we confess our sins and ask God to forgive us, we are changed. God's forgiveness frees us from horrible burdens so we can be a peace, free to fulfill God's purpose for our lives. May the peace of Christ be with you.