Public Forgiveness

Sunday 11th September 2005
Year A, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 18:21-35

After the Second World War my grandfather frequently travelled to Germany as part of the team rebuilding the German trade union movement and in the course of this work he met Werner Thurm, an adult education teacher, who became a lifelong family friend. So it was that when the two men were together in England, they each bought a copy of the Daily Express and held a properly regulated race to see who would be the first to find an anti German story or comment in Lord Beaverbrook's personal publication; I enjoyed watching the game but grimly resented Beaverbrook making money out of it. Since then I have often thought about these two men who, although deeply scarred by the War, chose to spend their hard earned but short Summer holidays together. I remember Werner standing in our Garden of Remembrance saying a prayer; and I remember being shocked when I visited him in Mannheim that the building in which we prayed was the only recognisable piece of architecture in his city which survived allied bombing.

I have thought about their game when British thugs, born more than a generation after the end of the War, have chanted anti German slogans; I have thought about it most when Mr. Murdoch's Sun has brutally taken on Beaverbrook's anti German mantle. If those who suffered could forgive, why must the grievance persist amongst those who have only heard or read variably reliable commentaries on past events?

I ask this question again because it seems to me that we are not taking Jesus seriously on the subject of forgiveness. Let me leave aside for today how we handle forgiveness in matters that directly affect us, from the deep hurt that can be caused by family and friends to the after shock of being the victim of a burglary. I don't want you to think that I don't think these matter - they do - but it seems to me that we have a peculiarly difficult collective problem in uncluttering our lives of resentments, many of which have origins which we have forgotten, if we ever knew them.

Having started with people from Germany, let us think for a minute about the people of France. Now it's a well known cliché that the people of England are anti French; but why? Most of us like the way they cook, many of us like shopping there, some of us own or aspire to own houses there and yet one of the most popular jokes on the subject is: "France would be lovely if it wasn't for the people!" Now you may reply that this is just light hearted, that it's just a piece of banter, but this kind of cultural undertow is dangerous, it drags us away in the first instance from generosity and in time we become entrenched.

When you look at it, as individuals, as members of a community, as members of society, we are weighed down by innumerable small pieces which, added together, amount to a huge obstacle to social harmony. There are so many things and people we say we don't like for no apparent reason. We behave like children: we don't like unfamiliar things; we don't like difference; we don't like certain kinds or races of people; we don't like the way somebody looks; we don't like politicians; we don't like the Vicar; we don't like this kind of landscape or that kind of border. Taken individually these kinds of irrational preferences might be tolerable, even slightly idiosyncratic, but taken together they so easily lead to an unfocused, corrosive miasma. From discontent with a handful of minor things our systems become toxic with the fumes of discontent. What starts as a mannerism or a mild exercise of preference becomes the cause of stagnation within ourselves and a source of hurt to others.

My first point, then, in thinking about today's Gospel is that we should take some of those seventy-seven, some of those units of forgiveness, single out some of our prejudices and use the forgiveness to cancel the prejudice; this isn't classic forgiveness where we exercise some kind of absolution over somebody else, it is a form of self cleansing, of facing up to and, with God's help, forgiving ourselves. If we examine our conscience carefully we will find that we will spend quite a few of our units but there will still be many left and, in any case, the Holy Spirit will always see that we are well topped up; the great mystery of Grace, which is why it is exactly opposite from earthly riches, is that the more that you spend the more you have.

My second point is more difficult and it relates to the classical theological position on repentance. When we have cancelled out a prejudice with a conscious act of forgiveness, or resignation, we must also promise ourselves that we will try not to do wrong again and that, where it is in our power, we will try to put right what we have done wrong. This may occasionally call for an act of dinner party bravery such as maintaining that the people of France had a much tougher First World War than did the English or that the English came fairly close to reaching a peace deal with Hitler; or we might also need to say that anti Semitism in France during the Dreyfus Affair was more rampant than it was in Germany in the 1890s. There are all kinds of things we might need to say but a necessary precondition to this is to use our God-given intelligence to dispel prejudice through the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge. Conversely, we might need to say that we do not know enough to express an expert opinion but that our natural position is to opt for the generous stance, to give individuals the benefit of the doubt and to be very careful about making statements about THE FRENCH or THE GERMANS.

My third point, and it is inevitable when you think about it, is that this intellectual and ethical position is underpinned by our Christian faith. As Christians, as imperfect imitators of Jesus Christ our Brother, as undutiful children of God our Father, as dwellings of doubtful worthiness for the Holy Spirit, we are enjoined to love and that does not mean picking and choosing. Neither does it mean loving what you like; neither does it mean loving the close or the familiar. Love comes first, liking may come later and judging must come last of all. We are supposed to start with love.

Finally, and returning to my opening story, if my Grandfather and Werner Thurm could lovingly forgive each other, not in a ceremonial act but in their continuously loving behaviour; if Abigail Witchells can unconditionally forgive the person who tried to kill her as she wheeled her young child through the Surrey countryside; if victims of terrorism can forgive terrorists what is it that we have to forgive that is so great; what reason have we to harbour any discontent, living where and how we live?

That is not a rhetorical question. Any one of us may have such a deep resentment over something that has personally affected us that we feel we cannot forgive; in that case, we need pastoral care, we should not let such a corrosive element destroy us from within. To suppress pain is dangerous to the individual and the community. But we must all ask ourselves; how much better would we be equipped to help people face their personal tragedies if we could clear away our endemic, low level sourness. If we were less preoccupied with our own, largely manufactured, grievances, we would have more time and energy to devote to genuine grievances. We often console ourselves with the wry statement that we can always find somebody worse off than we are but I put it this way: most of us would find it hard to find somebody better off than we are. Not only do we live in a peaceful and wealthy land, we live within the love of God who has given us unlimited capacity to repent and to forgive.