“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he also taught them to forgive. Forgiveness is an essential faith practice. And, like so many of the faith practices, it is not a one-way street. We must learn over and over to ask for forgiveness, to grant forgiveness, and to receive forgiveness.
One of extraordinary outcomes of the shootings at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June was that the families of the victims all came forward and stated that they forgave the shooter. They forgave the young man who violated their sacred space, who took advantage of their hospitality, and murdered their loved ones, including their pastor. They forgave him publicly. And America was dumbfounded. Because such forgiveness is not part of our “we’re #1,” “winning is everything,” “don't get mad, get even!” culture.
We saw it a decade earlier when a man went into an Amish school in Pennsylvania and shot a number of girls. The families of those beloved children said, no, they would not seek the death penalty. Instead they forgave the man. And America was shocked.
Forgiveness is counter-cultural. And while Christians are not the only ones who preach and practice forgiveness as a central part of who we are, forgiveness is integral to our faith. After all, we are the people who follow the crucified Christ, who near the moment of his death asked for forgiveness for his tormentors. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
In worship we regularly ask for God’s forgiveness. And we receive the assurance of the forgiveness with the absolution given by the pastor. And just as Jesus taught us to love God with all our being, and neighbor as ourself, getting into right relationship with God requires getting into right relationship with our neighbor. And that means asking for, receiving, and granting forgiveness.
I suspect that each of us is better at one of the three aspects of forgiveness. I know people who are great at saying “Sorry,” but not so great at hearing it from others. I know people who believe fervently that God forgives all kind of others, but are so sure if they, really, are part of it. Forgiveness is all three—asking, receiving and granting. It is all part of the same faith practice that connects us more closely with God.
Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. A convicted murderer still has to be accountable for his or her actions. And saying you are sorry for something you have done does not mean that the problem will go away. It is simply the start of right relationship. Not everybody is in the same place as those Amish families in Pennsylvania, those AME families in South Carolina. We cannot force people to forgive us. We can only ask.
Even time we bring our Apology to the Tribes to another tribal council, we have to be prepared that they will not accept our Apology, that they will say it is too little, too late. Or worse. Each time we have been relieved and deeply touched at how seriously the tribal council took our Apology,, how respectful they were to us and our need to seek forgiveness.
I was in college at the height of the “Love Story” fever. You could get key chains, posters and other paraphernalia with the movie’s most memorable quote, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The author happened to be a junior professor on campus in the Classics Department. One day in a class on Tragedy, a senior professor took a break from Aeschylus and Dostoyevsky and Melville and burst out, “Young Eric has just got it all wrong! Of course you have to say you’re sorry!” He was right, of course.
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Jessica Crist, Bishop
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Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA