Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 27 February
27 February 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
I have been using the addresses at Matins this month to think about the contribution that Christianity might make to the public debate about various ethical and other issues in our society, and I have been doing so in the context of the Pope’s plea to politicians last autumn in Westminster Hall that religion should not be excluded from that public square. Today I want to think about a quality that is central to Christianity, but also to many other religions of this world, and which I suspect is also fundamental for human and social contentment, and therefore a proper issue to think about in the context of public attitudes, and that is forgiveness. ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is at the very heart of the Lord’s Prayer.
But let us be clear at the outset, forgiveness for anything but the most trivial of matters is not easy. To be seriously wronged by someone else produces feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, and even revenge, and it is not easy to overcome those feelings just by being told that we should do so. That is why sometimes a period of separation from the person doing the harm can be a necessary stage in any healthy process of achieving forgiveness.
And of course there are some that find it impossible to forgive. Indeed some can even see forgiveness or even tolerance as a sign of weakness. Various ideologies have been so convinced of the rightness of their cause that they have thought persecution of those who simply disagreed was the logical consequence of their beliefs; the slaughtering of people just because they happened to take a different point of view has happened all too often in history, and maybe even is to this very present day. But we must be honest, to its shame sometimes even elements in the Christian Church have shown a similarly unforgiving and intolerant face, look at some of the actions of the inquisition to name but one example. And then there is that chilling phrase used by some I know in the face of being harmed by someone else, ‘Don’t get angry’, they say, ‘get even.’ For some people revenge can be a powerful force, and for them forgiveness or even tolerance can seem sentimental and weak.
But there are, I believe, two fundamental reasons why forgiveness, far from being a weakness or being simply sentimental, is a genuine virtue.
The first reason is that without it, when one act of aggression produces a counter action of equal aggression, it is almost impossible to stop the cycle of tit-for-tat violence. In almost any situation of real deep conflict between people, whether between individuals or groups, or even nations, until one side says at least to itself ‘enough is enough’ and tries to overcome the hurt caused by the other not by revenge but by accepting what has happened, then the conflict will continue, normally with deeply destructive consequences. Forgiveness, or at least something like it, is almost a necessary condition for ending mutually destructive conflict. Standing on your rights, proclaiming the demands of justice as you perceive it, is very understandable and may well have elements of real justification in it, but ultimately it is very unlikely to make for peace with those who have a very different view of what the demands of justice are. Yet breaking cycles of revenge is, ultimately, critical for human happiness, so there is, I believe, a wholly pragmatic argument for seeing forgiveness as a virtue if ultimately we want a peaceful world.
But if my first argument for showing a forgiving spirit is purely pragmatic, my second is far more theological, and it flows from that most fundamental of Christian perspectives; at the very heart of our universe there is a forgiving and generous God who himself offers us forgiveness. None of us is perfect, probably everyone in this Abbey this morning if they were being honest can think of things that, with the benefit of hindsight they wished they had not done, and God’s offer of forgiveness can be a genuinely liberating and freeing encounter. Guilt, after all, is normally a pretty destructive emotion, and to be liberated from guilt at least by God if not by the particular person who has been harmed by our actions can be the start of a process that might lead to making reparation and achieving reconciliation. But if God has forgiven us, if there is such a generous and forgiving God at the very heart of all that is, then we should surely be willing to forgive those who have offended us. Indeed that was a central plank in the teaching of Jesus.
But, you might ask, is not forgiveness dependent on repentance; surely we cannot forgive unless the other person who has harmed us admits that they were wrong and repents? But the difficulty behind that way of looking at the issue is that it leaves all the power in the hands of the person whom we believe should repent. If you say, as no doubt many in our world do say, without repentance there is no possibility of forgiveness, we hand over the whole initiative for any reconciliation to the person we believe did the wrong in the first place. Until they change, nothing will change is in effect what we are saying. So personally I believe that the possibility of forgiveness and the consequent reconciliation that might come about has to be shown before the repentance is necessarily expressed. Of course if that forgiving spirit is ever going to bring about real, deep, and genuine reconciliation then showing repentance will almost always be a necessary condition, but offering genuine forgiveness may just be the spark that ignites reconciliation. And in most conflicts there is normally an element of repentance needed on both sides, even if on one side the wrong that was done was far less than on the other. A willingness to recognise even an element of sorrow for our part, however minimal, in the breakdown of relationships can itself become the trigger that can start a deeper process of reconciliation. For forgiveness to become really effective of course repentance for past errors is almost always needed, but I am not sure we should always insist on it being there right from the very start.
Now of course despite all I have said I still realise that there remain deep questions about forgiveness. How can you practice forgiveness and justice? Can you translate a practice that might work between individuals into a practice that can operate between whole groups of people and even nations? What do you do about the person or group who seem to be irredeemably evil in their actions, as we might well say of some of the expressions of various forms of ideology like the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews. Can it ever be right or even reasonable to expect Jewish people to forgive those who started and ran places like Auschwitz? Well no, I do not think it is reasonable, and I would never blame someone who found it impossible to forgive, but I have to say that when people who have every right in terms of justice to remain deeply aggrieved against some people who have done them harm, but who nonetheless against all the odds manage to find a way to move towards reconciliation it is profoundly moving and encouraging to the human spirit.
And it is for that reason if for no other I believe the Christian Church should proclaim at least the possibility of forgiveness in the public square and to ask what implications it might have for some of the difficult moral issues we and all nations face. The possibility of forgiveness and its potential for reconciliation is something that should be there in what I have called the public square, and Christians ought to talk about it. But of course we shall only ever be heard if we do not just say it with our lips, but practice it in our hearts. ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is a call to action.