I shovelled my neighbor’s driveway. His name is Wayne, and he is my “good” neighbor. Well, actually, I borrowed Wayne’s snowblower and ran it over his driveway, my driveway, and by turn of mind, my “bad” neighbor’s driveway as well. The “bad” neighbor, has dogs; we have cats. He plays hockey; I play basketball. He drives a pick-up truck and uses much of his double garage to store tools; we drive a station wagon and store books.
Well, it seems that he and his household ain’t so bad. After having cleared his driveway of all the loose snow, his female partner came over and scraped all the packed snow from my tire tracks off my driveway. That is grunt work. And it seems that my hockey-loving, pick-up driving neighbor lives in a house that embodies at least some values that I care about, i.e. a bit of feminist attitudes towards labour. At least this is what my assumptions say, and which makes his tool-loving habits a little more forgivable. It makes it easier to borrow Wayne’s snowblower and clear his driveway again, not because I will get the labour in return, but because I can identify with him. Oh yeah, and I have to remember to fill the gas in Wayne’s snowblower.
Let me take my tongue out of my cheek, and get out of my head and into my body a bit. The nature of human interaction (especially outside the home) is transactional. It relies on a quid pro quo – a favour expected in return for something done. Not merely an issue about caring for each other’s driveways, the transactional nature of human interactions forms a cornerstone of all social relationships, and reaches deeply from how we structure our cities to how we exchange goods and services, to how we give a lesson at school or university and how we listen and speak with others. The transactional nature of such interactions is so deeply embedded into the core of all social relationships that it often is unrecognizable, at least until the transaction and its assumptions are crossed in some way.
For all the praise lavished on it, forgiveness is not easy. We often feel it as an obligation . . . a requirement that is not easy to fulfill and which we often attempt only half-heartedly. How can you even be sure whether you have forgiven someone? The mind has an infinite number of corners in which grievances can hide. You can think you’ve forgiven when some little grievance comes up to remind you that you’ve done nothing of the sort. Every transaction contains numerous such corners.
Then, too, much of what passes for forgiveness is little more than a sanctimonious form of egotism. You “forgive” out of a sense of noblesse oblige—it is an act of condescension, a favor bestowed upon an inferior. From this position of lordliness a man bestows forgiveness as he might toss a coin at a beggar.
There is another type of hypocrisy as well. It’s the sort that seeks to drag everyone else into its mire, moaning, “We are all to blame.” This false self-abasement likes to quote the verse from Paul, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). So we may have all sinned — but whose agenda is it to constantly remind us of this? If it were a genuine call to humility, the one who uttered it might first apply it to himself and might then be silent. But as often expressed today—particularly in religious discourse—such declamations seek not to pardon sin but to reinforce it. Everyone is spattered indiscriminately with the spots of blame.
In one sense, these difficulties are merely one more form of human frailty. But they point up the extraordinary difficulty that people often have with forgiveness. I would like to suggest that this stems from a deeper cause: we really don’t know why we should forgive. We’ve been told that for some reason it’s the right thing to do, but why it might be the right thing to do is rarely addressed. Thus our efforts at forgiving are often perfunctory and insincere.
Why, then, should we forgive? The law of karma suggests one answer. A given cause has a like effect; good begets good, and evil, evil. This is self-evident. We see it every day. If a man does evil to another, he is likely to get evil in return. If a woman does a kind deed, she will probably find that kindness paid back to her.
Taken in full, this idea is extremely sobering. “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?” asks Hamlet. We know we are not innocent. If the law of karma holds, then sooner or later retribution will find us. The philosophies of India have intricate explanations for why this recompense is not instantaneous: they speak of samskaras, which are in effect “seeds of karma” that will sooner or later blossom in the right circumstances, in this lifetime or another. Even apart from these theories, when we are aware of our guilt, we often feel the hangman is waiting.
Where, then, is the way out? Perhaps it’s in forgiveness. If karma creates exact repercussions for our actions, then by necessity it would have to wipe out our offenses to the exact degree that we wipe out those of others. As Luke 6:38 says, “give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
This verse meets us in two different ways. Sometimes it is “Forgive us our debts,” sometimes “Forgive us our trespasses.” Christ uses the word “debts” rather than “sins.” In fact he speaks quite often about money and debts. In one parable, a servant (literally, “slave”) owes his master 10,000 talents—a staggering, almost inconceivable amount of money, equivalent to, say, a trillion dollars today. The servant says he cannot pay, and the master forgives him. But the servant then turns around and has a “fellow servant” who owes him “a hundred pence” (or a hundred denarii, in any event a much smaller sum), cast into debtors’ prison. The master then turns around and has the first servant cast into debtors’ prison as well. The law of karma is inexorable. You will receive exactly what you mete out to others.
But does it really make any difference whether we speak of debts or trespasses? Actually it does. We live in a world of reciprocity, of transactions. We incur any number of “debts” that are not really offenses or trespasses. We may owe someone a phone call or a letter, or for that matter a greeting or a kind word. We don’t always meet these obligations. The network of social exchange is so vast and intricate that it’s impossible to fulfill them all. But they sit at the backs of our minds, oppressing us often without our knowledge. Christ seems to be suggesting that we need not preoccupy ourselves with these obligations in a calculating or actuarial way—so long as we’re able to grant the same favor to others.
As comforting as these reflections may seem, the outcome still seems rather niggling. Forgiveness may rescue us from the inexorable law of karma, but it doesn’t seem to take us past the quid pro quo of human life that turns us all into spiritual bookkeepers, keeping scrupulous records in our minds and hearts of favors and slights and injustices great and petty. Even forgiveness as a means of canceling karmic debts is nothing more than an esoteric form of transactionality.
So, then, is there no way out? Not in conventional terms, whether we look at them from the perspective of biology, social obligation, family bonds, or even the comparatively esoteric considerations of karma. In order to understand forgiveness in its deepest aspect, we need to approach it in another way.
What is offered by Jesus as it is recorded in Luke chapter 6, and modelled by Joseph in the passage read in Genesis, offers us this “other way.” The model it gives for forgiveness is really quite astounding because it manifests restoration to right relationship, and mutual abundance follows.
Jesus portrays for us, in this teaching which reflects the love your enemies portions of Matthew, the karmic law. The kind of person we think that we are is intimately connected with how we see ourselves treated by others. “I don’t get respect acknowledgment, attention, recognition,” we say. “I am being taken for granted.” We suspect hidden motives when people are kind; they want something from us; they want to manipulate us. “This person has not paid me what he owes me; I am a fool.”
Who we often think we are is this: “I am a needy ‘little me’ whose needs are not being met.” This misconception about who we are creates a dysfunction in all our relationships. We believe we have nothing to give and we believe the world, or others, are withholding from us what we need. In such a frame of mind, the entire reality we experience is based in an illusory sense of who we are. If the thought of lack – whether it be money, recognition, love, or intelligence – has become part of who we think we are, we will always experience lack. However, acknowledging the abundance that is already in your life is the foundation for all abundance. The fact is, whatever we think the world is withholding from us, we are withholding from the world. We are withholding it because deep down we think we are small and that we have nothing to give. Whatever you think people are withholding from you – praise, appreciation, assistance, loving care, and so on – give it to them. You don’t have it? Just act as if you had it, and it will come. So after you start giving, you will start receiving. You cannot receive what you don’t give. Whatever you think the world is withholding from you, you already have, but unless you allow it to flow out, you won’t even know that you have it. This includes abundance. The law that outflow determines inflow is expressed when Jesus says, ”Give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.”
It is what I like to call “manifest grace,” and as the term grace implies here, it is an art. It is a performance art in which the dynamic meaning of a principle comes to life in a particular act that is sourced in authoritative power, refined in humility, and offered with grace and strength and beauty. Forgiveness is manifest grace. Joseph, our model for today, manifested grace to his brothers. In a human-all-too-human moment of passion, God’s grace flows through Joseph to his brothers who have harmed him. God’s abundance is delivered through Joseph, ironically, i.e. through the one who could be seen as having everything taken away when he was sold as a youth by his brothers.
Joseph manifests grace to his brothers. He manifests himself to his brothers in an incomparably passionate moment. It is the moment of forgiveness and it is a moment of self-revelation and it is a moment of recognized abundance which transcends a particular sin. Joseph, although who by all rights could have sent his brothers away in disgust (OR WORSE!), recognized that he could restore the relationships that had been ripped apart. And he does this through human-all-too-human gestures and words. He implores his brothers “Come close to me.” He asks, “Is my father still living?” He gives the imperative, “You shall be near to me.” He threw his arms around his beloved brother Benjamin, and as they embraced, they wept. He kissed all his brothers. This all-too-human moment is the point when Joseph could no longer control himself.
If there was anyone who had the right to treat these brothers as an enemy, it was Joseph. I am tempted consistently to put myself in Joseph’s sandals. I could imagine all the lack I could have attributed to myself on account of my brothers. I could imagine the deep resentment of being forcibly exiled from family, of being forced not to see my parents, my beloved father, and all this because of petty jealousy. I can imagine telling the story that it was me who had become the father of Pharaoh, and ruler of all the land. I could imagine this if I desired to control the situation. I, here and now, can feel the anger and spitefulness rising up in me as I identify with Joseph.
But Joseph could no longer control himself, and he instead revealed himself. He stepped into the higher plan that God had set out for him. He says, “it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me the father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.” Joseph’s forgiveness is rooted in his recognizing God’s work and abundance in his life, and how that was connected to his whole family. It was bringing the abundance in his life to the situation and giving, and forgiving, from that place of abundance.
Love your enemies then, and do not condemn them. Come to the awareness that there is not only birth, growth, success, good health, pleasure, winning, but also loss, failure, sickness, old age, decay, pain, and death. Conventionally, these are labelled good and bad, orientation and disorientation, order and disorder. The meaning of people’s lives is usually associated with what they term “good,” but the good is continually threatened by collapse, breakdown, disorder; threatened by meaninglessness and the “bad,” when explanations fail and life ceases to make sense. Sooner or later, disorder will erupt into our lives no matter how many insurance policies we have. However, the eruption of disorder into a person’s life, and the resultant collapse of a mentally defined meaning can become an opening to a higher order. This is the higher order of the imperative to love your enemy. It runs counter to the wisdom of this world which we see as a matter of course, i.e. the karmic law that evil begets evil, and good begets good. That is the movement of our finite thought, and it is meaning defined exclusively by our finite thought.
Thinking isolates a situation or event and calls it good or bad, as if it had a separate existence. Through excessive reliance on thinking, reality becomes fragmented. This fragmentation is an illusion, but it seems very real while we are trapped in it. And yet the universe is indivisibly whole, in which nothing exists in isolation. I think it is this realization that overcame Joseph. The deeper interconnectedness of all things and events implies that the mental labels of good and bad are ultimately illusory. Instead of condemning his brothers, Joseph accepts them, and in doing so aligns with God’s higher order. Seen as an individual with individual plans, Joseph could have likely thought, “Isn’t it lucky that my brothers have come to visit me today? What an incredible opportunity to exact revenge or to condescendingly let them live!” but Joseph recognizes that this event is not random, even if he does not know what the plan is. But there are no random events, nor are there events that exist for themselves in isolation.
And so Joseph manifests grace. By ceasing to control himself, by revealing himself, Joseph manifests the grace of God to his brothers, and in effect, restores to right relationship Israel (both the man and the nation) with God’s higher purpose.
Forgiveness, the manifestation of God’s grace, is doing what Joseph has done. Joseph, in his human-all-too-human moment, closes the distance between his brothers, weeps with them, admits their terror, and embraces and kisses them. It is a moment of pure beauty which happens because Joseph manifests grace – in other words, he gives of himself, and sees the situation as deeply connected.
Karma does not. Karma is the law of a fallen world, and it is impersonal. Joseph manifests God’s grace which is deeply personal. Withholding judgment from our enemies, forgiving them and giving to them are advocated by Jesus because more than karma, this aligns us to God’s higher purpose where we are already in true abundance. Cosmically, we lack nothing.
As I look over my neighbors’ driveways, I see the snow falling again. And now I see that I do not exist between the parameters of good and evil, each situated on either side of me. I see that by clearing the snow, I make way for a personal presence which connects to God’s higher purposes. I see where there is place for both cats and dogs, for both hockey and basketball, for both tools and books. I see it as a place which is tended to allow for greater forgiveness when his truck is parked partially on my driveway, for when my mobile basketball hoop slides over too far his way. I see it as a place where we can finally meet.