Forgiveness and Freedom

*This was preached on Sunday, October 15, 2017 at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, Alberta.  Not so much a personal story, it explores some philosophical and political ramifications of the uniquely human ability to forgive.

Luke 23:32-39 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus[e] there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]][f] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah[g] of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him,[h] “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding[i] him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?[j] Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into[k] your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Colossians 3:12-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord[a] has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ[b] dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.[c] 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Forgiveness: The Remedy for Freedom                                               October 15, 2017

Good Morning everyone,

When I was in my mid-twenties, I wrote a play that got a little Fringe Festival play in Winnipeg.  It was titled, “The Dispossessed” and it featured prominent disciples, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of Jesus. They are in a late twentieth century tea shop, the day after the crucifixion, talking and grieving together over the loss of Jesus.  Andrew, the first disciple to bring other disciples to Jesus, was text messaging people to join at the tea house. John the disciple is near suicidal. Peter is neurotically self-obsessed by trying to figure out not only why his Lord is dead, but how he can go about telling people he really knew Jesus. Much of everyone’s attention is on mother Mary, who suffers the greatest because she has lost a child.  Interestingly, Thomas is kind of the life of the party, and is buying the odd round of tea.  The characters seem to have forgotten the remarkable actions and words of Jesus the day before, likely overshadowed by the brutality of the crucifixion, the ruthlessness of Jewish mocking, and the willing shirking of responsibility of Pontius Pilate.  It is Mary Magdalene who convinces Matthew to have hope, while Matthew checks that the bill for the tea is correct.  The collective thought that overtakes them all is that they have no idea what to do since their Lord has died.

In our scripture passage today, Luke records one of the most traumatic series of human events imaginable: the unjust execution of a man, God’s own son, mocked and scorned.  Luke also, at this moment, spells out the remarkable words of Jesus, who not only forgives one man who recognizes the injustice, but utters one of the most moving and remarkable statements in human history: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” I think this has something to say to us.

The events of the past few weeks have been overwhelming.  It is my contention this morning that forgiveness in love is the mechanism by which the world is made whole, and it is the great saving grace that allows human freedom to exist without entirely destroying the world.  And we, like my fictionalized group of disciples, without risk of overstatement, may think that the world may indeed be entering “the last days.” One cannot discount the possibility of nuclear conflict between the United States and North Korea.  The sighting again of stateless persons, this time in Myanmar and Bangladesh, means that our political measures against the evil of ethnic cleansing have not been effective, and we again have placed a group of people who belong to the human race in the precarious position of not only being exploited and trafficked, but perhaps eliminated from the world entirely.  On issues closer to home, we deal with a group of people in Alberta who feel slighted and “sinned against” because public interest is gradually eroding confidence in the oil sector, thereby attacking livelihoods.  We deal with the basic fact that the land we inhabit could not rightfully be claimed as individual property.  Further, the world deals with natural disasters, from hurricanes to earthquakes, to landslides and drought and tsunamis, and these at greater and increasingly far-reaching impacts than ever-before-seen-in-human-history.  Truly the specter of climate change has the same fear-inducing presence as did our nuclear crisis in the pre-1990’s.  Are we not yet overwhelmed?  And do we not feel paralyzed in the face of such horrible prospects?

Of course, it depends on how we look at it.  If we look at history as something which is made, then of course, its imminent demise is something which will paralyze us. But perhaps, the idea of making history is misplaced, and I think the scriptures included spell out what is indeed the actual way of reconciling our broken and breaking world to our God, and liberate us from the self-imposed hells that we have made.

I would like to spell out Hannah Arendt’s analysis of human activity in her work, The Human Condition.  Arendt characterized three general spheres of human activity and linked them intrinsically to three concepts of time that we employ, whether we are conscious of it or not.

The first is the cyclical activity of laboring and consumption.  Arendt, with great etymological evidence, characterizes this realm of human activity as “Labor.” We labor in order to acquire consumer goods, food and the like.  We labor quite hard in the majority of cases, and often consume no less energetically.  In both aspects of this cycle, the end of one is the beginning of the other.  We labor, and as soon as we stop laboring, we begin consuming.  As soon as we finish consuming we need to go back to our jobs and labor some more.  The activities are, at the most fundamental level of our biological existence, cyclical.  The process never truly ends.  It is the realization of this cyclical time process that is the origin of a great many labor theories, but also more mundane activities such as buying lottery tickets, or the general behavior of “working for the weekend.”

The second is the activity is work, which differs from labor in the sense that work is something which has a definite beginning and a definite end.  This includes tools we make to help us in the laboring process, to less “useful” objects of fabrication such as works of art.  Visualized, the concept of time that accompanies work is a line segment.  Labor, on the other hand, is visualized as a circle.                                                 To have a definite beginning and a definite predictable end is the mark of fabrication, which through this characteristic alone distinguishes itself from all other human activities.  Labor, caught in the cyclical movements of the biological life process, has neither a beginning nor an end properly speaking – only pauses and intervals between exhaustion and regeneration.

Action, though it may have a definite beginning, never, as we shall see, has a predictable end.  The great reliability of work is reflected in that the fabrication process, and unlike action, is not irreversible: everything produced by human hands can be destroyed by them, and no use object is so urgently needed in the life process that its maker cannot survive after its destruction.  You might wonder what you would ever do if your dishwasher broke, but one thing is certain: you would survive.  Humans, the fabricators of the human world are indeed lords and masters, not only because we have set ourselves up as the masters of all nature, but because we are the master of ourselves and our doings.  This is true neither of laboring, where persons remain subject to the necessity of their life, nor acting, where they remain dependent upon their fellow people.  Alone with the image of the future product, homo faber is free to produce, and again facing alone the work of her hands, she is free to destroy.  The idea of instrumentalism, that things are made or used for specific ends, which do, in fact, end, is the operating principle of the work of fabrication.

The most fundamental experience we have with instrumentality arises out of the fabrication process.  Here it is indeed true that the end justifies the means; it does more, it produces and organizes them.  The end justifies the violence done to nature to gain the material, as the wood justifies killing the tree, and the table justifies destroying the wood.  In the same way, the end product organizes the work process itself, decides about the needed specialists, the measure of co-operation, the number of assistants or cooperators.  Hence, everything and everybody is judged here in terms of suitability and usefulness for the desired end product, and nothing else.  It is the project management logic extended.

The despair and paralysis I eluded to at the beginning of this message comes when we fall into the temptation of thinking that this is all there is.  Just like the despair the disciples likely faced when they encountered the reality that their Lord had been killed.  And we, democrats and liberal individualists in this audience and in progressive churches around the world, fall into this temptation all the time.  But God has a created not just a world, but life!  Life in its non-biological sense, the span of time each person is given between birth and death, manifests itself in action and speech, to which we now turn.

With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.  Since through birth we entered Being, we share with all other entities the quality of Otherness, an important aspect of plurality that we can only define by distinction.  It is that feature by which we are unable to say what anything is without distinguishing it from something else.  In addition to this, we share with all living organisms that kind of distinguishing trait which makes it an individual entity.  However, only human beings can express otherness and individuality, only she can distinguish herself and communicate herself, and not merely something – thirst or hunger, affection or hostility or fear.  In human beings, otherness and distinctness becomes uniqueness, and what human beings insert with word and deed into the company of their own kind is uniqueness.  This insertion is not forced upon us through necessity like labor and it is not prompted by wants and desires like work.  It is unconditioned; its impulse springs from the beginning that came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative.  To act, in its most general sense, means to take an initiative (as in the Greek word arkhein), to begin, or to set something in motion (as in the Latin word agere).

All human activities are conditioned by the fact of human plurality, that not one person, but people in the plural inhabit the earth and in one way or another live together.  But only action and speech relate specifically to this fact that to live always means to live among others, among those who are my equals.  Hence, when I insert myself into the world, it is a world where others are already present.  Action and speech are so closely related because primordial and specifically human acts must always answer the question asked of every newcomer: “Who are you?”  The disclosure of “who somebody is” is implicit in the fact that speechless action somehow does not exist, or if it exists it is irrelevant.  Without speech, action loses the actor, and the doer of deeds is possible only to the extent that at the same time she is the speaker of words, who identifies herself as the actor and announces what she is doing, what she has done, or what she intends to do.  It is exactly as Dante once said, “For in every action what is primarily intended by the doer… is the disclosure of her own image.  Hence, it comes about that every doer, in so far as she does, takes delight in doing; since everything that is desired is its own being, and since in action the being of the doer is somehow intensified, delight necessarily follows…  Thus nothing acts unless by acting it makes patent its latent self.”  To be sure, this disclosure of “who” always remains hidden from the person herself – like the daimon in Greek religion who accompanies man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters.  But this may also be true of us as Christians.  By acting we disclose the living God who has forgiven us.  Still, though unknown to the person, action is intensely personal.  Action without a name, a “who” attached to it, is meaningless, whereas an artwork retains its relevance whether or not we know the master’s name.  Let me remind you of the monuments to the Unknown Soldier after World War One.  They bear testimony to the need for finding a “who”, an identifiable somebody, whom four years of mass slaughter should have revealed.  The unwillingness to resign oneself to the brutal fact that the agent of war was actually Nobody inspired the erection of the monuments to the unknown ones.  It is those whom the war had failed to make known, and robbed them thereby, not of their achievement, but of their human dignity.

Wherever humans live together, there exists a web of human relationships that is, as it were, woven by the deeds and words of innumerable persons, by the living as well as by the dead.  Every deed and every new beginning falls into an already existing web, where it nevertheless somehow starts a new process that will affect many others even beyond those with whom the agent comes into direct contact.  It is because of this already existing web of human relationships with its conflicting wills and intentions, that action almost never achieves its purpose.  And it is also because of this medium and the attending quality of unpredictability that action always produces stories, with or without intention, as naturally as fabrication produces tangible things.  These stories may then be recorded in documents and monuments, they may be told in poetry and history, and worked into all kinds of material.  They themselves, however, are of an entirely different nature than these reifications.  They tell us more about their subjects, the “hero” in each story, than any product of human hands ever tells us about the master who produced it, and yet they are not products properly speaking.  Although everybody starts her own story, at least her own life-story, no individual we can point at is the author or producer of it.  And yet it is in these stories that the actual meaning of a human life finally reveals itself.  That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with a beginning and end is the apolitical and non-historical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end.  But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of humankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any recognizable author, is that both are the outcome of action.  The real story in which we are engaged as long as we live is not made.

This accounts for the extraordinary frailty and unreliability of strictly human affairs.  Since we always act into a web of relationships, the consequences of each deed are boundless; every action touches off not only a reaction but a chain reaction.  Every process is the cause of unpredictable new processes.  This boundlessness is inescapable.  It could not be cured by restricting one’s acting to a limited graspable framework or circumstances or by feeding all pertinent material into giant computers.  The smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of the same boundlessness and unpredictability.  One deed, one gesture, one word may suffice to change every constellation.  In acting, in contradistinction to working, it is indeed true that we can never really know what we are doing.

However, in stark contrast to this frailty and unreliability of human affairs another character of human action seems to make it even more dangerous than we are entitled to assume anyhow.  This danger is the simple fact that, though we don’t know what we are doing when we are acting, we have no possibility ever to undo what we have done.  Action processes are not merely unpredictable, they are also irreversible.  There is no author or maker who can undo, or destroy, what he has done if he does not like it or when the consequences prove to be disastrous.  This peculiar resiliency of action, apparently in opposition to the frailty of its results, would be altogether unbearable if this capability had not some remedy within its own range.

The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility is the ability to forgive, and the remedy for unpredictability is contained in the ability to make and keep promises.  The two remedies belong together: forgiving relates to the past and serves to undo its deeds, while binding oneself through promises serves to set up in the ocean of future uncertainty islands of security without which continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would ever be possible in the relationships between people.  Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover.  We would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.  Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able achieve that amount of identity and continuity which together produce the “person” about whom a story can be told.  In other words, each of us would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of her lonely heart, caught in its ever-changing moods, contradictions, and fickleness.  In this respect, forgiving and making promises are like control mechanisms built into the very faculty to start new and unending processes.

If I were to outline the times of transformation and renewal in my life in a personal testimony, the transition point would always focus on forgiveness.  Let me give two brief examples.  First, it was only through forgiveness that Air and I could have moved past the poisoning of our son by a hospital, leading to a moment where they told us that he would die, and there was nothing they could do to stop it.  Without our ability to forgive, not only would the hospital have been trapped by unending legal processes, but Air and I would never have been able to be released from the intense anger and pain that began on that day.  Second, without being able to forgive myself for the liar I had become in my 20’s, and without letting myself be held accountable and forgiven for my many misdeeds, I would have been trapped into an ever-deepening reality of despair and destruction.

Without action, without the capacity to start something new and thus articulate the new beginning that comes into the world with the birth of each human being, the life of individuals, spent between birth and death, would indeed be doomed beyond salvation.  The life span itself would inevitably carry everything human to ruin.  Action, with all its uncertainties, is like an ever-present reminder that individual persons, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin something new.  “That there be a beginning man was created,” said Augustine.  With the creation of individual human beings, the principle of beginning came into the world – which, of course, is only another way of saying that with the creation of human beings, the principle of freedom appeared on the earth.

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