A member of our congregation, Mercedes, wrote to me this week, saying she’s been thinking a lot about what forgiveness means in the COVID aftertimes that are coming. She gave me permission to share her questions with you. Mercedes wonders how to forgive those who went about their lives as usual during this pandemic. Clearly their failure to take COVID seriously meant that many more Americans died than would have otherwise. As she says, these COVID deniers have “inflicted untold trauma on medical workers, families, and those of us who have followed CDC guidelines.” For her, their actions are equivalent to murder. She asks, “Is forgiveness absolving them of responsibility and telling them they hold no guilt going forward?” They will not repent. So, what does forgiveness look like?
The question of forgiveness is relevant to our lives in so many ways. For instance, what about the man who murdered eight people in Atlanta this week, and those who helped to create the conditions in which something like this was likely to happen? Anti-Asian racism is embedded in our national DNA, in our history, institutions and laws. Along with the genocide of Native people and the enslavement of Africans, the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882 was yet another key step in forming the United States as a nation steeped in white supremacy. The imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II; the violence against Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus following 9/11; and of course, attempts to blame Chinese Americans for the coronavirus, cheer-led by our former President, all have helped to set the stage for this week’s tragedy. And then there are the brands of Christianity that promote a toxic masculinity that views women, and particularly Asian-American women, as objects of sexual desire, and at the same time, frames these desires as sinful. This situation, too, raises many questions about forgiveness. Is it even possible? Is it helpful, or worthwhile? If so, then what does it really mean?
Today’s scripture texts are not directly about forgiveness. Yet, they provide a framework for considering these questions. In the Gospel of John, Jesus has just entered Jerusalem for the Passover along with a multitude of other pilgrims. Traditionally those observing Passover would go to the temple to purify themselves before the festival. In John’s account; however, a diverse and growing crowd gathers around Jesus instead. This shift reflects a theme in John, which is that the body and life of Jesus, not the temple, is the site of God’s presence. In this last sermon before his arrest, Jesus teaches about how God is at work in surprising and paradoxical ways. What appears to be death is actually rebirth. Losing, letting go, and relinquishing is the way to keep and save. Hate, of a certain kind, opens up the way to love.
Jesus offers the metaphor of a grain of wheat. If the seed is to do what it was made to do, it must let go of the life it has known, and welcome life in a new form. In the dark, quiet earth, a process of transformation begins as the seed sprouts, forms roots, and sends a brave green shoot up through the crust of the soil. The plant drinks water and breathes carbon dioxide and eats sunshine. The first tender leaves unfold. At each stage of its evolution, the seed is vulnerable to drought, to the competition of weeds, the munching of creatures, and the trampling of heavy feet. The seed, once it begins growing, risks everything. The seed must trust that the conditions will be right enough to support its continuing growth, blossoming and bearing fruit.
And Jesus is saying, of course, that he is that grain of wheat which dies to bear much fruit. And he is inviting us, as his followers, to participate in the same journey of transformation. His way of healing and serving, standing with the suffering, preaching justice, pressing for change, and yes, forgiveness, is a seed. The path of Jesus, from the cross to the grave to the morning of resurrection, mirrors the risky yet necessary passage that enables one tiny grain to become a whole vibrant field of wheat. New Testament scholar Mary Hinkle Shore sums up Jesus teaching this way:
When Jesus says, “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25b), he is encouraging others to follow his lead in hating (or rejecting) this world’s definition of life as a small and isolated existence. He will not — and his followers should not — grasp and hold the seed and thereby fail to bear much fruit.
I recently heard Jayce Koester speak about the Jewish concept of forgiveness in the context of reimagining public safety. Jayce has worked as a community organizer and now is a studying to be a Rabbi. In an insightful blog post, Jayce explores certain key terms: forgiveness, repentance, and something called “Tochekcha.” “The Jewish notion of repentance,” Jayce writes,
cannot be separated from the concept of returning to harm that was done in order to repair it. . . . If we can’t name what happened, and our part in committing harm, complete repair or healing is impossible. “Tochekcha” is often translated as loving rebuke. We offer Tochekcha to help people see what they have done wrong and encourage them to do better. This is a community responsibility and one of the key ways that we show love to one another.
Forgiveness, Jayce argues, can only be meaningful and appropriate in the context of our practice of repentance and Tochekcha. “Forgiveness” he explains, “is not a requirement, or the ultimate goal of [repentance]. The owness of the work of [repentance] is on the person/people who committed the harm, not on the person/people who was on the receiving end.” He quotes Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg who says:
In Judaism, you’re not required to forgive someone who hasn’t done sincere, meaningful work of repentance and repair. And then, it’s complicated at best. But the literature is clear that if the harm caused was irreparable, you’re never required to forgive, even if they repent. Also, who can forgive is the person (or people) who were directly harmed.
It seems fair to assume that Jesus, as a faithful Jew, was shaped by these same understandings of Tochekcha, repentance and forgiveness. It’s also true that Jesus emphasized forgiveness in his teaching and practiced it in his own life. Perhaps the most striking example is Jesus’ own plea from the cross for God to forgive those who crucified him. When we forgive others, Jesus taught, God forgives us. (Matthew 6:14) And when Peter asked how often we are to forgive a fellow church member, “as many as seven times?” Jesus replied, “seventy-seven times.” In other words, continually. And yet, this teaching follows directly after the description of a process we are to follow when another member of the church sins against us. If we have worked through all the steps and the person still refuses to listen, then we are free to end our relationship with them. And in John the resurrected Jesus says to his followers, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:23) In other words, while Jesus models and teaches forgiveness, he also gives his followers the authority and the responsibility to decide whether or not to forgive.
As I told Mercedes, I do not have all the answers about forgiveness, particularly about forgiving those who refuse to recognize the harm they have done. I do think that Jesus’ Jewish roots, as well as his teachings and life practices, offer some powerful questions that we can ask as we approach the issue of forgiveness. Who has been directly harmed, and who is responsible for that harm? Maybe one person is at fault. But often, responsibility is shared; it is many-layered and multi-generational. This complexity does not absolve those who are responsible but perhaps it does make us more compassionate and more open to forgiving. Holding a grudge may hurt us more than the person at whom our anger is directed. If forgiveness is not possible, or desirable, is there still a way to free ourselves from bitterness? What will be life-giving for you? What does it look like for you to choose abundance, connection and community instead of getting stuck in a small and isolated existence? How can you participate in the process of renewal and rebirth in the way of Jesus, the seed that dies to bear much fruit? Amen.