To err is human, to forgive is out of the question

To err is human, to forgive is out of the question

From: Lane Denson john.l.denson@vanderbilt.edu

St Mark, Nashville / Pent 16/18A / 8ix02 / JLD

Today's gospel about forgiveness and reconciliation reminds me of a message I once saw on a cocktail napkin (Mt 18.15-20). I can't imagine what I could possible have been doing with it, but there it was, right in my hand.

It said: "To err is human, to forgive is out of the question."

Like most good humor, the saying's of a truth. Forgiving a wrong may be one of the most difficult choices we human beings ever face, and that, for some of us, we never make. Not the least of the reasons for this reluctance, I suspect, is not only the pain, but that the meaning of forgiving and forgiveness is so often misunderstood.

So at the outset, let us dispense with the notion that to forgive means also to forget. Neither does forgiving mean that wrongs have no consequences nor any need for punishment or that these things can be altogether dismissed.

To forgive or to reconcile means at least that a relationship be kept open. Even hostile communication is better than none. And at best, it means that a relationship might be restored to a healthy and productive state.

On this 9/11 eve, we'll hear much about remembering something that few are likely ever to forget. But as we go through all the rituals and ceremonies recalling this terrible wrong that has been committed against us, may we never lose sight that as hard as it might be, this is also something we must inevitably come to forgive.

It's up to us, of course, and to God's grace whether we ever forgive anything or not. Yet, it is still ours to give it our best shot, not only for our own spiritual wellness, but for the wholeness of our nation, and ultimately for the wholeness of the world. We must remember. We must never forget. But we must, as well, forgive. It's a burden, and it's a blessing for Christians, but the reason is quite simple.

Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian who wrote tediously and unbearably long volumes, was asked to sum up his theology in one sentence. He answered, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." The reason we must forgive is that simple. It is a reason every parent uses when their authority is questioned. It is because God says so.

As Matthew reminds us, it was that way with Jesus. It is also the prime jewel in the gospel covenant we made in our baptism. The Lord's Prayer plants forgiving in every liturgy we celebrate. But the reason is also simple because it's right. It's ultimately the sanest way for people, whatever their religion or lack of it, to live together in harmony.

But we're not talking about individuals in a family or a congregation where love and forgiveness might be readily accessible, where the steps outlined in Matthew's gospel might be followed. We're talking about a whole country. Just as countries or nations make clumsy at loving their neighbors, just so are they altogether maladroit at forgiving. But there is a way.

We are a nation already proven vulnerable precisely because our commitment to liberty and justice has been used as a terrifying and devastating weapon against us. But the irony is that it is these very principles, themselves, at national and international levels, that are the stuff of forgiveness and reconciliation.

We must ask, then, How does a nation enter into reconciliation? What are the instruments of justice and liberty? How are they manifest? By vengeance? By isolation and withdrawal? By denial and arrogance? By breaking promises? It should be obvious from our own personal experience that these only prolong and intensify hostility and resentment and postpone any possible resolution into a peaceful community, whatever the size.

In our Declaration of Independence we made a startling offer. It had as much to do with our nature and with what we wanted to become as a nation as almost any other of those great documents that signaled our founding. In the prologue, we expressed that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that (we) should declare the causes which impel (us) to the separation (from Great Britain)."

And then we said, as we outlined our grievances, "let (these) facts be submitted to a candid world." And then, near the end, we appealed to the "Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions..."

For this nation to enter into a mode of forgiving and a desire for reconciliation, we must first keep our own founding commitments clearly in mind and what is more, practice them. One of the most important steps we can take in that direction is not to let our fear and its ensuing anxiety and anger and resentment distort our system of government, our capacities to use it fully and honorably, and our vision to be and become who and what we are.

This American political experiment, as it was often called by historian and devout churchman Thomas Govan, is currently on precarious times. Not only is it in jeopardy from without, but, as well, in peril from within by an all too casual and even passive manipulation of its impressively balanced systems.

At ordination time, we, the church, ask a bishop-elect, among other things, "Will you boldly proclaim and interpret the Gospel of Christ, enlightening the minds and stirring up the conscience of your people?" and we, the church, receive the answer, "I will, in the power of the Spirit." (BCP p 518)

If there ever was a time for the Spirit to power us up for bold proclamation, it is now. That we assume an Anglican tradition about authority is one way of saying that we -- all of us, lay, presbyters, and bishops -- have the privilege, expectation, and responsibility to speak with an "episcopal voice." The House of Bishops, for example, is an important and obvious instrument and perhaps most facile among others by which this can be done.

So let us take this heritage and this commitment once again to ourselves, renewing our covenant and reaching out in all the ways we find appropriate for us, and, as well, call on our leaders to enlighten the minds and stir the consciences of all. For justice is compromised precisely as forgiveness diminishes.

Until we can rise to these challenges, let us keep in mind that God's criteria are not good behavior, but love and justice and peace. And if all else fails, remember the words of St Paul as translated through no less than Oscar Wilde, "Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much."


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