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I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker and the moving second track “Treaty.”  The lyrics of the refrain are:

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty,
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

A few years ago a number of musicians (including David Bowie and Glenn Campbell) recorded profound final albums that seemed to take stock of their lives from the vantage point of age.  John Prine’s was pretty direct in the title The Tree of Forgiveness.

Over lunch I had been reading an essay “The corrosive power of regret” by Marina Cantacuzino, the founder of the Forgiveness Project, which reminded me that I’d been meaning to write another one of these columns on forgiveness.  Cantacuzino says “Regret may be mild, like an occasional twinge triggered by old injury.  Or it can be immense, forever lurking in the shadows of our lives and shaping our destiny.”

Forgiveness and its related emotions, such as regret, guilt, and shame, bring people into the pastor’s office.  Sometimes, even, the person is dealing with a hurt from decades in the past.

Forgiveness is, of course, related to anger, which I wrote about earlier in this series.  You can find that column at this link.

Paul J. Griffiths in his book Regret: A Theology discusses what he calls the “otherwise attitudes”—all the various emotions and feelings related to our wishing that the world is/was different than it is.  But instead of these being feelings we avoid completely, Griffiths writes “their cultivation and formation is an essential element in the love of the Lord” and “someone who has no regrets is someone not fully human and certainly someone not much formed as a Christian.”

The most profound reflection on forgiveness is Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal’s classic work The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.  Wiesenthal, in the midst of the war, was called to the bedside of a dying Nazi who asked for forgiveness.  Wiesenthal didn’t give it, and later pondered whether he should have.  The book is an anthology of essays by prominent religious leaders, philosophers, and more reflecting on this scenario and the host of many issues connected with forgiving.

In that book, Rabbi Harold Kushner proclaims that “Forgiveness is not something we do for another person.”  Instead, it happens inside of us, and is our letting go a grievance and “perhaps most importantly a letting go of the role of victim.”

And Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s entry ends by declaring that if we try to base our relationships on fairness and retributive justice “then we could just as well close up shop.”  Instead, forgiveness is “practical politics.  Without forgiveness, there is no future.”

So often we think of forgiveness as merely our individual ethical response to a broken relationship and not more broadly.  Our theological understanding of forgiveness is broad, however, and is connected to our understanding of Christ’s saving work on our behalf.  As Andrew Sung Park writes in his book Triune Atonement: Christ’s Healing for Sinners, Victims, and the Whole of Creation, “Jesus’ blood was not shed to pay human debts to God; rather, it was shed to restore the integrity of victims through God’s justice and compassion.”

But helpful for our individual ethical understanding is L. Gregory Jones’s excellent Embodying Forgiveness.  He writes that

For Christians, forgiveness is not simply an action, an emotional judgment, or a declarative utterance—though Christian forgiveness includes all those dimensions.  Rather, forgiveness is a habit that must be practiced over time within the disciplines of Christian community.

Jones indicates that the “craft of forgiveness” involves several features that we must cultivate, including: truthful judgment, acknowledging the propriety of anger and other emotions while also developing the desire to be freed from it, concern for the well-being of others, recognizing the ways we all need forgiveness, accountability, and “the hope for eventual reconciliation” (though he acknowledges the situations where that is “hoping against hope”).

The absolute best book I’ve ever read on forgiveness is Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf.  Volf is Croatian, and his views are shaped by the brutal twentieth century history of that nation as it encountered Nazis, Soviets, and fratricidal civil war.  In other words, he comes to his views having been tested by fire.  For Volf the key image shaping our understanding of forgiveness is from Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, when the father runs to meet the son and embraces him.

But this book is rather heavy in philosophy and theology.  Fortunately, Volf has written a smaller, more accessible book, rooted in his and his family’s personal stories, entitled Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace.  Volf writes “We don’t forgive in our own right.  We forgive by making God’s forgiveness our own.”  Which means understanding forgiveness as a gift, and because “God gives so that we can exist and flourish,” we also give and forgive so that we can all flourish.


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