Who knows what forgiveness means?

It's been a while...
Have you missed me?
What do you mean no!?
It's OK, I'll forgive you...
Which brings me (clumsily) to that long promised post on the theme of "forgiveness" in the light of the "Listening to your Enemies" event in Skainos back at the end of January (doesn't time fly when you're having fun...)

I've been driven back to the blog because I am killing a number of proverbial birds with one stone. I was reflecting on the subject of forgiveness myself over the weekend as it was the last Sunday before Lent, which in the Orthodox Tradition, as I have said previously, is observed as Forgiveness Sunday, but also because I'm leading a Bible study on the subject tonight, in our ongoing exploration of ECONI's old document "For God and His Glory Alone" and the key Christian principles that we need to help us live in a conflicted community. It is also Ash Wednesday, a day associated with repentance and forgiveness (which as I will come back to later, are distinct but related concepts).
Getting back to the events in Skainos that night, I have to be honest in saying that the actual content of the dialogue on the platform didn't make as much of an impression on me as the fact of the event, the response from the audience and what was happening outside (perhaps why I have been slower to respond to the content of the evening). One interesting element however, which came as no surprise, given coverage of the developing relationship between Jo Berry and Pat Magee that I had previously read, was the downplaying of the part of "forgiveness" in that engagement. Early stories had Jo talking about "forgiving" Patrick, but on the "Forgiveness Project" website, Jo is recorded as saying:
"In those early years I probably used the word ‘forgiveness’ too liberally – I didn’t really understand it. When I used the word on television, I was shocked to receive a death threat from a man who said I had betrayed both my father and my country."

The Forgiveness Project talks about the "f-Word" and it can be perceived as shocking or scandalous - it is also at times glibly used, even within Christian circles... But Jo goes on:
"Now I don’t talk about forgiveness. To say “I forgive you” is almost condescending – it locks you into an ‘us and them’ scenario keeping me right and you wrong. That attitude won’t change anything. But I can experience empathy, and in that moment there is no judgement. Sometimes when I’ve met with Pat, I’ve had such a clear understanding of his life that there’s nothing to forgive."

I find this a powerfully challenging statement, that has so much within it - some of which I agree with and much that I find it hard to agree with... I suspect that some of what she says is the result of looking at their relationship from a reconciled position, rather than the earlier unreconciled one... and that Jo's journey to that point required her to forgive... Because as Lawana Blackwell once said:

"Forgiveness is almost a selfish act because of the immense benefits to the one who forgives."

Patrick Magee said on the night that he had read extensively about forgiveness but that he doesn't understand what it means... Yet he said in that Forgiveness Project piece...
"Some day I may be able to forgive myself."

He speaks repeatedly about the grace that he recognises in Jo, and regrets the effects of his actions but not the actions themselves... Such bifurcated thinking is often a feature in soldiers and survivors of conflicts, and I may come back to that again... But it means that he does not recognise any need for forgiveness for the acts and it seems as if he feels that forgiveness is powerless to do what he wants most, which is to negate the effects of his actions. Again he says:

"Jo told me that her daughter had said after one of our meetings, “Does that mean that Grandad Tony can come back now?” It stuck with me, because of course nothing has fundamentally changed. No matter what we can achieve as two human beings meeting after a terrible event, the loss remains and forgiveness can’t embrace that loss."

Does he really mean embrace or erase? I would be interested to have a conversation on that...
In the discussions after their presentation my friend and colleague Rev. Harold Good quoted the Dalai Lama, who said on his visit to Belfast 13 years ago in response to a question about forgiveness:
"Who knows what forgiveness means?"

I don't know enough about Tibetan Buddhism to know whether the concept is central to that faith tradition, but I do know that it is central to Christianity... I have written and spoken repeatedly on it (just put forgiveness into the search box on the right to see how frequently), not because it is a hobbyhorse of mine, but because it seems to have been a hobbyhorse of Jesus. But I do believe that despite that there is a lot of misapprehension about what forgiveness means...
In Christian terms it is not legal amnesty (or a letter of comfort) - just thought I would mention that before I get drawn into the moral morass that we are currently in here in Northern Ireland...
It is not about forgetting the past... The simple sharing of letters between the two words forgive and forget have caused more misunderstanding and hurt than enough...
Nor does it presuppose or included a precondition of repentance on the part of the person who has done wrong... I would argue that for forgiveness to bear the fruit of reconciliation there needs to be some sort of repentance (which again is more than saying sorry)... But it is a complex, organic thing that doesn't occur in a fixed order with a prescribed vocabulary.
But forgiveness is also not simply saying "it doesn't matter..." If something genuinely doesn't matter it doesn't need to be forgiven... Rather "forgiveness" is a case of saying that something DOES matter... deeply... That you have been hurt and feel that someone has wronged you... There is an act of judgement involved, but then the key thing, is saying "Despite that, I forgive..."
Again forgiveness is not about the perpetrator, it is first and foremost about the victim somehow graciously giving... It cannot be demanded, thus victimising the victim a second time, but is a free gift... One of the key words used in the New Testament associated with forgiveness is APHESIS, which has at its root the idea of letting something go, be it a boat casting off from a mooring or an archer letting loose an arrow.
Jo Berry may be reluctant to use the word forgiveness now, but she touches on that phenomenon of letting go in the Forgiveness Project piece, which in some ways prompted the original title of the Skainos event:

"An inner shift is required to hear the story of the enemy. For me the question is always about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Pat’s story and understand his motivations. The truth is that sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It’s a journey and it’s a choice, which means it’s not all sorted and put away in a box."

Can we let go of our need to blame?
Not an easy question, with no easy answers...
What does forgiveness mean?
If it is a definition you are looking for, a dictionary may help to a certain extent... but the real meaning of forgiveness is only known by the person who practices it...


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