A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
May 29, 2016
2 Corinthians 2:1-10
For all the talk about forgiveness in our culture, I don’t think we’re primarily a forgiveness culture. I think we are an “eye for an eye” culture. We may speak superficially of forgiveness. In practice, though, I see more acts of retribution. “They did this to me, so I am cutting them off”…. Or we speak of building walls, literally or metaphorically, or closing our doors/borders.
I see this in personal interactions and in geo-political issues.
And so when Paul talks about forgiveness, or when Jesus talked about it before him, I hope we get a sense of how subversive forgiveness is.
‘Eye for an eye’ comes originally from the Code of Hammurabi, an ancient Babylonian code of law. It is picked up in the Hebrew Law as well. Here it is in both Leviticus and Exodus:
Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.
If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
‘Eye for an eye’ is retributive, which makes sense to us. You did this. Therefore you deserve that. It’s the basis for much of our criminal justice system.
It is also proportional. Intended to make sure the punishment fit the crime. If you took one of my eyes, —please, don’t do that—the punishment would not be to take two of your eyes and an elbow.
And there are things to be said to support “eye for an eye”. It addresses the particular situation at that moment. It’s a visible sign of us doing something. It gets individual criminals off the streets.
It does not change the system though. The structures in place that created a world where people murder people, and lie, cheat, and steal—all of those structures remain once individual retribution has happened.
One could actually argue that our system of retribution makes our society even less safe. Look at our incarceration rates. Most countries comparable to us imprison about 100 people per 100,000 people in the population. We imprison 500 people out of 100,000. Those rates are much higher when adjusted for race. Far more black men are imprisoned than white. 70% of prisoners haven’t finished high school.
Which means our society loses the possible productivity of these men. (I say men because 90% of prisoners in the US are men.) They often become more criminalized from their time in prison. They are hard to employ once released from prison. Their children are raised without one of their parents, making their future more difficult too. Education, social status, race, poverty, addiction—those all play into our incarceration numbers and they are all byproducts of those numbers. It is a complicated system. And retribution doesn’t address any of it. It doesn’t allow for restoration, or redemption, or forgiveness.
Paul speaks of this in this second chapter of Two Corinthians. We don’t know the circumstances of the offense. But clearly someone has done something to cause harm to the community. And Paul is calling them toward a forgiveness that restores. He writes:
This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.
For the past few weeks, we’ve heard from Paul’s letters to this community in Corinth, and somehow the image of the Body of Christ keeps coming up. Whether the topic is love, or spiritual gifts, or consolation, or today’s passage on forgiveness, Paul connects them all to the image of the church as the Body of Christ.
But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you.
We are connected, one to the other, in our giftedness, in our ability to console each other, and in our need for forgiveness and restoration to and for each other.
And there is nothing easy about it.
Brene Brown, who many of you may know from her TED Talk about shame, or one of her many books, recounts this story about forgiveness.
Her pastor, was once describing the pain that a couple dealing with infidelity was facing. The husband, who had cheated, couldn’t forgive himself for what he had done. His wife wasn’t yet able to forgive him for cheating. The pastor told the couple, “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face into the pain. You simply have to hurt.” (story in Rising Strong).
There’s nothing easy about forgiveness.
I heard on the news this week that the Justice Department will seek the Death Penalty for Dylan Roof, the young man who killed 9 people last summer in Charleston, South Carolina as they met at Mother Emmanuel AME Church for Bible study. The death penalty is a perfect illustration of ‘eye for an eye’, or in this case, “a life for a life” kind of justice.
Last year, almost as soon as the murders, the family members of the victims announced their forgiveness for Roof.
“You took something very precious away from me,” a family representative for Ethel Lance, the 70-year-old grandmother who died in the massacre, told Roof on behalf of Lance’s loved ones. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”
President Obama referred to these statements of forgiveness as “an expression of faith that is unimaginable but that reflects the goodness of the American people.”
Ta-Nehesi Coates in an article in the Atlantic this week pointed out the sad irony that this same administration which lauded forgiveness for this crime is now seeking the death penalty for the same crime.
I’m not advocating we let Mr. Roof out of prison. Forgiveness doesn’t require us to forget, no matter what the adage says. Forgiveness requires us to remember. Forgiveness requires us to change.
It requires us to look at the world, look at Dylann Roof, and figure out what we need to do to build a world where disaffected young white men like him won’t open fire in the first place.
We cannot change Mr Roof or force him to change. He may remain full of hatred and racism and sadness as long as he lives.
What can we change about ourselves and about our society, though, that might give him a chance to change? Are we willing to face into the pain?
What if we applied Paul’s words in 2nd Corinthians to Dylann Roof?
“This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.”
There is nothing easy about forgiveness. Especially since we can’t force people to accept our apology or our best hopes for their restoration. We can only change our own behavior, and clearly that’s the hardest assignment.
A few years ago, I offended someone I love. I didn’t discover this for a year because they never told me what I had done to hurt them. Instead, this loved one just stopped returning my calls. Stopped responding to my texts. Once i finally got them to tell me what had happened, i tried to apologize. I tried to make amends. It didn’t work. They still won’t answer the phone when I call.
And while I know that it is the other person’s choice to not seek reconciliation and hear my apologies, the reality is that I have lost an important person in my life. I still pray I get the opportunity to make amends for whatever it was.
In John’s gospel, when Jesus appears to the disciples hiding in the upper room after the crucifixion, Jesus tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
When we let go and forgive the people who have harmed us, they are forgiven. When we don’t, they aren’t.
Forgiveness repairs our own selves, our own lives, which are connected to the others around us, those we forgive and those with whom we interact.
One of my favorite writers these days is Rachel Held Evans. She comes from an evangelical Christian church but has been questioning some of her tradition’s restrictions, particularly the role of women in the church. She does so out of love, truly seeking to understand. She has a keen mind and a searching faith. And not all people from her corner of the church like what she’s saying. Her Lenten practice a few years ago was to turn the hate mail she received into Origami. Here was a part of her reasoning:
“As much as I try to ignore the most vile of these messages, they can still be quite painful, and I think that’s okay. It’s important to grow thick skin, but I also want to keep a tender, open heart….which means unclenching my fists and letting some of these words hurt every now and again.”
So she spent Lent making origami out of hate mail. But she needed help, because origami is hard when you don’t know what you’re doing. And so people showed her how to do it. They learned it with her. They sat with her while she folded hateful words into sailboats and frogs and swans. The body of Christ worked together to fold hate into forgiveness.
At the end of her Lenten Journey with turning hate into art, she said this:
“What I learned turning my hate mail into origami is that we’re meant to remake this world together. We’re meant to hurt together, heal together, forgive together, and create together. And in a sense, even the people who continue to hate me and call me names are a part of this beautiful process. Their words, carelessly spoken, spent the last 40 days in my home— getting creased and folded, worked over…stepped on by a toddler, read by my sister, stained with coffee… blacked out, thrown away, turned into poems, and folded into sailboats and cranes and pigeons that now sit smiling at me from my office window.”
Our passage from 2nd Corinthians ends with this:
Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ.
Yes, forgiveness is hard work. It is never an easy task. But it is also a gift in Christ. I don’t want to retain the sins of anyone. I can barely handle the weight of my own mistakes. I want to let theirs go, just as I hope people I have hurt can let go of my mistakes and sins. It’s a circular motion, much like the consolation we spoke of last week. Our forgiveness reimagines the world down new paths, where our retribution just puts up walls.
If we remember to fold the love of Christ into our acts of forgiveness, then just maybe our wounds and mistakes can be transformed into redemption and hope for a new and different future.