WHERE IS FORGIVENESS?

The Bible study that closes down for the summer was starting up again for the fall. People began arriving and the talking and sharing begins. I sit at the table, enjoying the presence of the group—I miss these sessions. My attention hops from group to group, sampling their conversations until there are so any streams going that I really can’t follow them. One of the sub-groups asks me a question that draws me into their conversation.

They are talking about the latest revelation about someone prominent who has done something that he shouldn’t have done. The conversation doesn’t take the predictable course, with speculation on whether he did or didn’t and whether he will get away with it. Interestingly enough, the incident opened a larger discussion of ethics and morality. Our western culture is in the midst of an ethical upheaval where established and accepted moral standards are being challenged.

While it is too early to tell exactly which direction the process will settle on, there was one question that this little group wanted to talk about. There is much about the new ethic that is commendable: any approach that protects anyone from being exploited and takes away the exploiter impunity is an improvement. When people can expect special treatment because of their age, gender, economic status, race or political persuasion or any other standard, that ethical and moral code needs to be challenged.

This challenge to the status quo is relatively new—but it has fairly deep roots. One could make a case that its roots go all the way back to Jesus and his teachings. But if we are not prepared to go back that far, we can at least suggest that the roots go back to the turbulent 60s. I am pretty sure that the movement will result in a significant alteration on the ethical practises of many in leadership, which is a very good thing. Exploitation and abuse are sin, no matter how accepted and normalized we want to pretend it is.

I have high hopes for this whole cultural process—but I also have a worry. There is an area of the process that probably needs to be given some serious thought. Opening doors on the underlying abuse and exploitation that has been a hidden and accepted part of our western culture is good. But at some point, we need to decide what we are going to do about, with and for the exploiters and abusers. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in that direction. Revelation and exposure are the key themes right now, with punishment of some form as a minor theme.

But the question that needs to be addressed is this: Is this developing ethical and moral movement going to include a process for forgiveness? Will there be a way for the exploiter and the abuser to put the past behind them and develop a new life? This question is incredibly important because if we say no to forgiveness, we simple invert the present process and turn the victims into the abusers.

Abuse of any sort destroys significant parts of the victim’s life. Exploitation of any sort destroys significant parts of the exploited’s life. But to simple turn the tables and make the abused the abuser and the exploited the exploiter doesn’t make things better because abuse and exploitation also destroy significant parts of the abuser’s and exploiter’s lives.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, allows both sides an opportunity to change direction. It provides a new start. Certainly, there will be effects and consequences for both sides that will have long term effects. Abusers should suffer consequences like imprisonment and loss of status. The abused will suffer consequences like long term emotional struggles. But without a process of forgiveness, both abuser and abused are locked into their respective roles and consequences with no hope of anything better.

Forgiveness unlocks the chains binding both the abuser and the abused, allowing them to see, accept and move beyond the evil. Forgiveness opens new roads that replace the roads blocked by the abuse. Forgiveness also provides a much needed alternative to the dangerous and empty road of revenge and counter-revenge which some find so tempting.

Abuse and exploitation in any form are wrong—and the current movement to stop the institutionalized abuse and exploitation that has been so deeply a part of our culture is a good thing. It will become a great social movement when it begins to include the reality of forgiveness in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

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ANONYMOUS AGAIN

Many years ago, I was approached by a friend to serve on a committee. Committees involve meetings and since meetings are something I try to avoid as much as possible, I didn’t (and don’t) do committees all that much. My friend knew all that but still wanted to nominate me for the committee. He explained his reason for asking me.

The committee was dealing with some significant issues in our denominational life, issues that I and many others, including my friend, were concerned about. He felt that the views we held needed to be expressed and he believed that I was the person to express them on the committee because I said what I thought clearly and openly and wasn’t intimidated by disagreement.

Over the years, I have developed a reputation as one who sometimes (often? too often?) speaks the unpopular view. I have a tendency to see things differently at times and in the right circumstances, am willing to speak out. Early in my ministry career, I confess to speaking out often and loudly. These days, I still think a lot but tend to speak less often and less loudly. I let a lot of stuff pass by—I might have some thoughts and even some disagreement but I am not really interested in putting out the effort to comment or engage.

However, when I chose to engage, I am always going to do it openly and clearly. When I disagree with something or someone, I will make it clear that I disagree. I am not going to hide behind someone else; I am not going to use an anonymous web name; I am not going to become a “they” whispering around the edges. I will speak in my own voice, with my name openly and clearly attached. If need be, I will even put it in writing, clearly accepting responsibility for what I am saying.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a major trend in our society. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, a great many people get to make a great many comments about a great many things without ever having to take any responsibility whatsoever. It is incredibly easy to comment when you can become anonymous commentator 219. People now have an powerful outlet for the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the mindless, the pointless, the ignorance that at one point might have been put in an anonymous letter but which more likely rarely if ever saw the light of day in another age.

But today, anyone can say anything, safe and secure behind the barrier of their keyboard and screen name. As Randy Legassie, I am responsible for what I write and say. But as anonymous commentator 219, I am no longer responsible—I am anonymous and cannot be held responsible for what I have said or written.

Obviously, some people find that incredibly liberating and freeing. But in the end, freedom without responsibility is never a good thing. Freedom without responsibility tends to being out the worst in people. We become rude, nasty, biased, prejudiced and just plain not nice. I gave up reading comment threads on websites a long time ago simply because they very quickly degenerated into the kind of interchange I used to require my kids to take a time out for engaging in.

There have been times in my ministry when my comments and opinions have cost me. I have been fired, passed over and ignored. It would have been much easier to be anonymous—I might not have suffered as much. But in becoming anonymous, I would have suffered even more because I would have stopped being me. I would have lost some essential part of who I am. My ideas might have been expressed but I wouldn’t really be there—I would be hiding behind some convenient shelter.

That may work for some—and I can even envision a few scenarios where in might be the appropriate way to proceed. Those scenarios, however, tend to involve bullets, death squads and unjust imprisonment. Most of the time, though, well, hiding behind anything or anyone really doesn’t cut it for me. If I am going to say it, I am going to say it knowing that I will be held responsible for what I am saying.

May the peace of God be with you.

BE ANGRY—AND DON’T SIN

I have always had a problem dealing with my anger. Now, if anger were an infrequent and uncommon emotional response in my life, I wouldn’t have as big a problem dealing with it. An emotional response I have once on a blue moon is much easier to handle than one that happens all the time and where one episode impinges on another. But I get angry a lot—my emotional response to a lot of issues involves anger.

I get angry when someone cuts me off in traffic—and I get angry when I cut someone off in traffic. I get angry when religious leaders abuse their position and harm others. I get angry when self-serving politicians lie and cheat. I get angry when children starve while over-weight people don’t care. I get angry when I get hurt. I get angry when I can’t find the advertised sale item that I have gone to buy. I get angry when I am not as prepared for worship as I want to be. I get angry when the hero in the movie gets cheated and beaten up by the bad guys.

Now, before you get the idea that I am a seething ball of anger who is going to snap and so something that will make the national news, let me state very quickly that my anger is a normal reaction in most of those situations. Anger is a natural and normal emotional response, one that all of us experience. Most anger is a momentary experience that we move on from, like most emotional responses.

When I see a beautiful sunset, I feel a sense of joy, which I move on from to other emotional responses. When a driver cuts me off, I get angry—and then I move on from that anger to something else on the drive. Joy, happiness, anger—they are all equally valid emotional responses that all of us have all the time.

But anger has a way of getting out of balance, probably because we don’t really know how to deal with it. Anger is a heavy and even scary emotion and we have generally been trained to avoid it in ourselves and others. Being angry has often been equated to being bad and sinful and wrong.

But anger isn’t bad or sinful or wrong. Some of the consequences of anger can be bad or sinful or wrong but the anger itself is simply one of the many emotional responses that God created us to experience. What we need to learn is how to better process our anger.

Ultimately, we are angry in response to something. And I have realized that the key to handling to my anger is discovering what it is that has produced the anger response and dealing what that. When I am angry, I need to look at what created the anger. I deal with the anger by dealing with the context that produced the anger.

So, a driver cuts me off and I get angry. My anger is a result of my fear about what could have happened and the lack of respect the other driver showed. I can nurse and feed my anger or I can recognize and accept the fear and hurt and concentrate on driving defensively so I can be ready when someone does that again.

Or, my employer treats me unfairly, maybe even fires me. I get angry because I have been treated unfairly and fired. I can nurse and feed my anger or I can think of a constructive way to deal with the situation: by filing a complaint with the appropriate body, taking legal action, finding another job or making a conscious decision to move on. All of these can be appropriate responses to the anger producing situation.

In effect, I have discovered that the best way to deal with my anger is to discover and deal with the cause of the anger. Anger is an emotional response to something, a marker to show me that something is having a negative effect on me. When I follow the anger to its source, I have something clear to deal with. Dealing with the source can be difficult but it is much better than letting the anger fester and take over my life. I would much rather use my anger as a way to improve things than let it rule my life.

May the peace of God be with you.

DON’T TALK TO ME!

I was very happy about the fact that one particular story didn’t get resurrected at our recent family reunion since it involved me. According to the story, I was upset over something and was outside grumping. A neighbour walked by and said something to me, at which I am supposed to have responded, “Don’t talk to me cause to be I’s mad.” I am pretty sure the whole story was made up, likely by some family member looking to divert attention from themselves.

I had—and still have to some extent—a problem with anger. Things and people would set me off and I would react. I had a variety of responses, depending on the level of anger and the context. Sometimes, the anger would lead to depression and self-isolation. Sometimes, my anger would lead me to break things, including my own treasures. At other times, my anger would express itself in caustic and deliberately hurtful comments. And there were times when my anger would cause me to respond physically.

Part of my growth process as a person and as a Christian was learning how to deal with my anger in healthy and positive ways. I won’t make any extravagant claims about how I have completely conquered my anger. It is still a reality and I still need to keep an eye on it and every now and then, it manages to break through the barriers and cause me and others problems. I have learned to understand my anger and have developed ways to deal with it that are consistent with my faith, mostly.

But I am always aware of the potential—which perhaps explains why I am so aware of the level of anger I see around me. We seem to have developed a very angry culture here in North America. No news report is complete without an interview with someone who is passionately angry about whatever the report is about. Anger shows up in the form of road rage, gang violence, social movements, protests.

It seems like no one can express an opinion or idea without someone getting angry and expressing that anger. If I think school buses should be yellow, someone is most likely going to angrily express the opinion that I am wrong, while at the same time expressing opinions on my intelligence and heredity. As we argue further, we will probably begin to hurl threats and maybe even engage in some form of violence.

It seems that we have allowed our culture to legitimize unhealthy anger. We don’t process anger—we express it. We don’t try to understand and deal with our anger—we broadcast it. We don’t grow through our anger—we seek to cause pain and hurt. This epidemic of anger has created a cultural context where everyone is somewhat paranoid and we are all on edge, wondering who is going to start shooting where.

I am very aware that anger is a legitimate, normal and even valuable emotional response. We were created with the ability and need to be angry. But it seems that we struggle with figuring out what to do with this emotion. At times, we have tried to force people to repress their anger, an approach that was and is extremely unhealthy. Repressed anger is extremely unhealthy for individuals and society—I am pretty sure that much of the depression that I struggle with is a result of repressed anger.

But at the same time, unrestrained anger is just as unhealthy to individuals and society. The kind of anger that I see so much of these days, the anger that is always present and which shows itself with little or no provocation is not helpful.

In the end, when anger expresses itself in violence that causes people to be hurt and killed, it doesn’t much matter if the actions are the result of long repressed anger or open, burning anger—the damage is the same. The ever increasing anger level in our culture is a serious problem, one that we don’t seem to really know how to handle.

Anger is a part of our emotional response to the world. It is a basic part of the makeup of humanity, a part that God gave us and which he had a purpose for. But if we don’t learn how to deal with our anger, well, the results are visible on every newscast.

May the peace of God be with you.

A SCARY DRIVE

We were taking our son and grandchildren to the airport after their visit. Part of the drive included a lunch stop—we ran it, picked up food and everyone was going to eat in the car on the way. With my coffee beside me, I pulled into traffic and headed for the on ramp. There was some confusion in the back seat as the grandchildren got their meal organized and just as I began to turn onto the ramp, I hit a pothole which rattled the car seriously. I was distracted and didn’t watch the on ramp carefully and as a result I cut off the driver who had the right of way. He let me know I had goofed with a blast of his horn.

I waved and was planning to go slow so that he could go by—but he maintained his distance and didn’t go by. With my head filled with recent stories of road rage shootings, I got more and more uncomfortable with him behind me. I watched him closely in the mirror, positive that at some point, he was going to step on the gas and catch up with me to do, well, to do something that I wouldn’t like. I was a very nervous driver until I saw him turn off after a few kilometers.

I find myself reacting more and more like that these days when I am driving. The other driver that day had simply reacted to my serious mistake—but we live in an increasingly self-centered and self-focused culture where a significant number of people feel justified in expressing their personal outrage in increasingly violent ways. The other driver in this event did nothing wrong and acted appropriately to my mistake. If anything, he was quite gentlemanly about what I did—but since I didn’t know him, I really had no idea of how he was reacting and so I was anxious until he turned off.

My paranoia was wasted but in truth, it wasn’t out of line. As a culture, we have exchanged civility and forgiveness for anger and revenge. If you cut me off, I get to give you the finger or ram your car off the road or even shoot you. Certainly, the majority of people are not going to react this way—but we are seeing more and more people who feel justified in making their upset clear in increasingly violent ways.

I would like to make a direct connection between that reality and the increasingly depressing church attendance statistics but I can’t. The increase in self-centered behaviour in our culture is a result of a great many factors, some of which have also led people to abandon things like worship. As a culture, we are becoming much more concerned with self and less and less concerned with anything else. While I can and do speculate on the various causes of this, I will leave it to social scientists and historians to write the definitive study of the causes.

But as a theologian, I will make a comment. This drive to self-focus isn’t really new nor should it be all that much of a surprise. It has been around since the beginning. The essence of what the Bible calls sin is the desire on my part to be the most important. I want to be God—remember, that was the original temptation and it has never lost its appeal.

We are created as pretty amazing beings—but we also need to remember that we are not alone in the world. We live in a world that also includes others. Those others are inevitably going to intersect with our lives and when our self-centeredness clashed with their self-centeredness, there are going to be sparks and tensions and problems.

The only really effective solution to the issue is self-centeredness is God. As we relate to the Divine, we discover who and what we are and we are able to locate ourselves in the universe. I am not the most important, I am not the only one. I am one of many created by, sustained by and loved by God—and as I discover more and more of what that means, I discover more and more how to live with other people.

I am going to make mistakes—as are others. We can learn from our relationship with God how to live with the reality of our mistakes without resorting to evil and violence.

May the peace of God be with you.