Personal Forgiveness

Sunday 11th September 2005
Year A, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Matthew 18:21-35

Now that the victims of horrible crimes are bit part performers in the endless cacophony of non stop news, we are never short of outrage, of deeply distressed people saying they will never forgive, that the sentence is not long enough, that prison is too good a place. Of course, we say to ourselves, as good Christians we deplore this kind of thing and we routinely mention turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, loving our enemy and, of course, we dip into today's Gospel which says that we must forgive not seven but seventy-seven times.

But unless we have really thought through what we mean by forgiveness, I think that this instant, superficial kind of reaction to the wreckage of evil is worse than useless, it is positively harmful. This reflex to dispense instant forgiveness because of the way we have been brought up is not only dangerous for the victim, it is dangerous for the perpetrators and for society.

Nothing gets fixed if we pretend that a horrid act is not horrid; if the perpetrator does not know what pain has been caused the likelihood of re-offending surely increases; at the same time, if forgiveness is that easy then perhaps the act was the responsibility, at least in part, of the victim.

But the person who suffers most from this pretence is ourselves. We did not need Freud to understand the idea of repression but he crystallised it for us in a way that changed our culture, that changed what we were able and allowed to say about ourselves and changed the way we said it. We know beyond doubt that if we are deeply hurt by the deliberate act of another, particularly somebody we have loved or trusted, that if we simply gloss over what has happened it will corrode us from within, destroying our stability while we go on gleaming on the outside. I wonder where we have heard that before. Yes, the whited sepulchre. To smile and blandly forgive where we are deeply hurt is to be hypocritical; it is to pretend to be something we are not. If we are lucky the toxicity inside us will not ruin us beyond recall; if we are lucky the resentment inside us will burst us open like a volcano; and if we are really lucky there will be no serious collateral damage when we explode. If we are lucky we will be alone; if we are really lucky, somebody whom we love, who is prepared for the worst, will be around when it happens.

But being hurt and knowing how to forgive is so central to our psychological and spiritual survival that it isn't enough to leave this to luck, we must learn to be honest about the issues involved:

Yet even be intellectually honest is not enough. Amid all the cacophony of the non stop news with its ruthless manipulation of the unfortunate, its use of emotion to generate profit and its endless chorus of revenge and retribution, I hear the incongruously sweet voice of Abigail Witchells who was almost killed while she walked through the Surrey countryside with her child. She and her husband have totally forgiven the perpetrator and have resolved to face up to their new situation bravely. And why do I think that Abigail's forgiveness is the real thing? Because her family are building a chapel for themselves in a family compound so that she will have somewhere special to pray. And why do I think that matters? Because I have no doubt that Abigail's starting point when considering forgiveness is not pretence, nor based solely on intellectual honesty; she starts from the position that she, like all of us, is a sinful child of God.

Let us consider the first part of that statement, that we are all sinful. One of the problems that we have with discussing evil and forgiveness is that most of us and our journalists think that we are without sin and that evil is an alien force: feral children, misfits in macs, the mafia; and yet the wildness is in our children, the violation of children is perpetrated in family homes by family members, and crime is endemic in a society built on greed. Mostly our civilised veneer preserves our respectability and self respect; but look what happened in New Orleans. We must never place too much faith in secular niceness.

What else should we put our faith in? In considering our own sinfulness, we must turn to the second half of the statement, that we are children of God. One of the major reasons why we have a problem with sin is that we have grown out of the habit of self examination and admission. Very few of us recognise the value of owning up to God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, formerly known as Confession, but even those of us who are not that brave, who can't confront our sinfulness out loud to God in the presence of a Priest, have lost the habit of examining our consciences at the end of every day to assess fairly and clearly how we have behaved. We have left ourselves in the grey no-man's-land, not quite sorry, not quite healed; not quite sinners, not quite forgiven. It is only as sinners that we can genuinely forgive sinners. This may not cure the hurt or heal the wound but it will give us some firm basis for our forgiveness; we will be recognising the weaknesses that we all share.

Yet there is much more to it than this; and the clue lies at the beginning of Chapter 18 of Matthew's Gospel. We cannot have any hope of understanding the seventy-seven with which this Chapter ends if we do not realise that heaven is a playground in which we children will be gathered. We who are hurt and misunderstood, falsely blamed, unjustly punished, cruelly injured, harrowingly bereaved, unfairly deprived, who chorus with the Psalmist that the wicked prosper while the good cower, we must go to God our Mother to be comforted and soothed; our Mother who will love us no matter what we have done as long as we are truly sorry, our Mother who is there to ease our pain.

It is only when we climb down from our Mother's lap to face the world again that we can truly forgive, that we can face the evil done to us and say that we can survive it with integrity, that we who are sinners will not pretend it did not happen; but neither will we pretend that the perpetrator was a monster or an alien. Climbing down from the lap of our Mother we will recognise the perpetrator as a brother or sister in Christ; that is the only way we can really forgive; to do otherwise is to deceive ourselves; and that, perhaps is the only thing worse than being deceived by somebody else.

So next time, when we are confronted by evil, on our television screens or in our own lives, let us, as Her children, seek comfort in God our Mother.