This is our truth, tell us yours
The concept of closure, of reaching an understanding of pasts events in your life, their impact on you, and being able to move beyond them, is one that has a gained general acceptance. However the idea this has anything to do with forgiveness is less universal. There seems to be a belief forgiveness is about saying something was OK, or did no harm, a position of weakness or powerlessness.
Part of this belief seems to come from some cultural misunderstandings of certain aspects of the new testament. Earlier this week I had a thought-provoking and humbling conversation with a friend who is a person of faith. We were discussing the cultural appropriation of what I call the Bible, from Judaism, by Christians. It is an important issue, especially given the historical power imbalances and between the two groups. Part of the way forward, I believe, is to place as a primary focus the Jewish cultural and historical interpretation of what are after all their sacred texts. Christianity may share a common ancestor, but that ancestor is a Jewish one, and too often this has been ignored.
A better understanding of the context of those writings we are hoping to learn from,and be inspired by, not only helps us in some small way address what might be described as Christian privilege though. Far too often claims are made about what the New Testament tells us based on a failure to look st the historical and cultural context. The idea of forgiveness as an erasure seems to be particularly based on the passages that tell us to “turn the other cheek” “offer our cloak” and carry another burden the extra mile. Indeed going the extra mile for someone has become a saying, and everyone knows what it means.
The failure to understand this in its cultural context has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of what was being taught. These were suggestions of how non violent resistance against iniquity and tyranny could be carried out, similar to the methods of Gandhi two thousand years later. In Exodus it is made clear that taking someones coat, leaving them without protection from the elements is a sin that angers God. Offering it to someone making unfair demands of you is a way of highlighting the wrongness of their demands. The same lies behind the admonishment to walk the extra mile. Under Roman law a non citizen could be pressed into service, but only for a certain distance. Carrying the pack for longer actually means they would be breaking the law.
These are not the actions of passive weaklings but forms of resistance. Neither is forgiveness a passive act. Forgiveness is something you choose to do. The recipient of it is passive, and indeed need not ever know you have forgiven them When you forgive you are not “turning the other cheek (which comes from ideas at the time about cleanliness and use of the back and front of the hand) but saying I will not allow you to have a hold over me any longer. It’s not about the person being forgiven, but about those words a secular world seems more comfortable with, moving on, closure.
There have been events in my life that have impacted on me, right now I am carrying anger at my treatment by other activists, I know though that for my peace I have to forgive them, as I have forgiven others who have hurt me. I do not forget these past events, how can I, they have shaped who I am today. I can though choose to not let them affect me here and now. Letting go of the anger is not a weak thing to do, nor is it easy. Anger is so much easier, it fuels us and allows us to believe anything we do is justified.
Forgiveness is complex, takes effort, and may mean giving up desires and beliefs, long-term though it allows us to grow and move forward. I am sure we can all think of people who become trapped by their anger and experiences, who declare they “can never forgive” and seem to be driven by this. But what are they driven to do? So often it seems like their drive simply sends them in circles, from anger to hate and back again.
A final thought since forgiveness is in the hands of those hurt, rather than those who hurt, we can ask for forgiveness, but never expect or demand it. I hope that by always remembering my faith has done great harm to those of other faiths, and being willing to learn from those past mistakes I can be one of those who represents something different, and may be forgiven in time. It is not something we can request though, especially when so many seem determined to repeat the mistakes of the past.