Matthew 18: 21-25, Colossians 3: 12-13
In a fortnight when our neighbour, France, was once again hit by the most appalling terror attack, Turkey has suffered a failed coup, leading to a massive purge from public office of those whose political views differ from the President’s, and calls for revenge echoed around social media, and Labour descended further into chaos and took steps further towards its own demise, we turn to our final virtue in our series from Col 3—and a most fitting one: forgiveness.
One of the saddest phrases you’ll ever hear is ‘I’ll never forgive her for that’, or ‘I can never forgive him.’ It speaks of long-harboured resentment that eats away at the soul, doing far more damage to the one unable to forgive than to the subject of their bitterness. It acts like a cancer in the soul, turning sour the ability to live full and free. It is sometimes heard on the lips of family members who almost seem to have forgotten why they fell out in the first place, or political leaders vying for power.
By contrast, one of the most remarkable things you’ll ever hear about are those stories of former prisoners of war who find the resources to forgive their captors and torturers. A few years back in 2013 a film was made about the Japanese prisoner of war, Eric Lomax, known as ‘The Railway Man.’ It starred Colin Firth as the eponymous hero, a Scottish engineer and obsessive railway enthusiast, and Nicole Kidman as his second wife, who loved him through the unspoken and unknown traumas of flash-backs from beatings and waterboarding at the hands of his captors. He tracks down his Japanese secret police abuser, Takashi Nagase, wanting initially to take revenge in an attempt to let go of a life-time of bitterness and hate. After 50 years of that acute mental suffering, what happened in real life when the two men met was remarkable–Eric forgave him, and the Nagase and Eric became friends for the last 18 years of their lives. Sadly, neither Nagase nor Eric lived to see the film of Lomax’s book completed. It is uncertain whether his youthful Christian faith survived, and unlike other victims of torture, such as Richard Wurmbrand, he makes no mention of it, but as testimony to possibilities of forgiveness it is moving.
Lomax does not write about his first wife and his children in the book, and this was particularly distressing to one of his children, Charmaine. After Lomax and her mother divorced she had nothing to do with her father for many years. Her deep Christian faith, however, was the source of her own journey of forgiveness which led her to meet her father again and she visited him regularly until he died.
Our final virtue to be explored from Col 3 is forgiveness. This is a central feature of any Christian’s experience of God’s love. He forgives us, cancels the debt, wipes the slate clean. It is the fruit of Christ’s death, and the foundation of that new life set free from the old chains of sin and death. What is not so often as well understood is the close relationship of God’s forgiving us and our forgiving of others, even if it is prayed so regularly in the Lord’s Prayer:’ forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ or ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ (Matt 6:12) Jesus even amplifies that statement in Matthew’s account. He says nothing at all about the other aspects of his guiding prayer, but he does say
‘For as you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you.; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ (Matt 6:14—15)
No wonder Paul emphasises the importance of forgiveness as a habitual virtue in Colossians, and Jesus devotes a parable to it.
As so often, religious folk want to set achievable limits to the demands of grace. Peter wants to know in Matt 18:21 what might be the reasonable limits to forgiveness—what might he, perhaps, be expected to do, so that he can in his own strength of character fulfil God’s requirements. Are seven occasions forgiving someone the same injury OK, Lord? That sounds pretty demanding enough. So imagine his dismay when Jesus says, no. Seventy times seven….in other words, limitless.
Where human resentment and revenge knows no limits, God calls the Christian to know no limits to their forgiveness, and the breaking of the old cycles of nurtured hatred and revenge. This is the politics of Jesus and the politics of those who follow him.
That this needs urgently to be learnt seems obvious. The absence of any will to forgive now grips our political life. Bricks thrown though constituency office windows, daily anonymous death threats to political opponents and the demonization of those who disagree have become features of a charged and vicious political landscape that is, you might say, unforgiving. Writing in The Times on Thursday last week, the columnist Jenni Russell described this—she had been discussing on Sky News how relieved she was that someone as competent as Theresa May would now be PM, and how unready and incompetent Andrea Leadsom had proved to be. Twenty minutes later she was with a BBC crew in the lobby of the House of Commons when a fifty-something man in suit, wearing a Commons pass, interrupted her. Had she just been on Sky?, he asked. “Yes,” Russell replied. “Then I hope someone assassinates you one day”, he said venomously before disappearing round the corner at terrific speed.
Or think of the cries of ‘Lock her up! Lock her up’ being jeered about Hillary Clinton at Trump’s rallies at the Republican Convention. When even in American politics such venom is spread, then democracy itself is under threat.
Unless we learn forgiveness, and its associated virtues, respect and forbearance, we shall lose the capacity to talk together about our political differences without fear of hostility and the threat of violence. Our whole civic and social life is held in a delicate balance that is actually much more fragile than we realise, and this shift towards brutality is one of the most alarming and serious consequences of our divided Britain. Note how the old prejudices we thought long consigned to the bin of social history find fresh expression—the scapegoating of the stranger or the level of abuse and the threats of rape and death on social media aimed at female MPs is quite intolerable for civilised politics. Already some MPs are saying they will not stand again because of threats to their life. But for men and women alike, from the daily death threats aimed at Jeremy Corbyn , to the reactions of his backers on the Hard Left, Corbyn’s plea for a kinder politics a year ago has fallen on unforgiving ears, and the murder of a young woman MP, Jo Cox in Yorkshire brought to terrible expression the brutality of our current national life. It is the national version of that family member who says “I will never forgive him.” Brothers and sisters, we must model something radically different—a culture of limitless forgiving rooted in the compassionate love of Christ. We must practice the politics of Jesus.
It seems almost out of reach to follow the examples of those great practitioners of forgiveness Corrie Ten Boom, or Nelson Mandela or Terry Waite. Of all the virtues, forgiveness feels farthest from our reach in today’s God-abandoning society. Yet, within psychological circles it has fast become a central feature for well-being. A growing body of research indicates how transformative it can be for the injured as well as the perpetrators of wrong—lowering the risk of heart-attack, reducing blood pressure, improving sleep, and reducing levels of anxiety and depression. Forgiving is good for your health!
Forgiving someone does not minimise the wrong, pretend it was not real, or offer excuses for it. It does not relinquish justice, but it does choose to release the person for ever in your debt, and to reject bitterness that the debt is never repaid. It lies at the heart of a new aspect of the justice system called Restorative Justice. Why are we surprised that the central aspect of our faith journey should turn out to be such a redeeming possibility for everybody, religious or not?
So, let us become people who forgive, because after all, we have ourselves been forgiven by God for a debt so huge we could never repay it, and the sins others have committed against us— the sleights and thoughtless words that hurt, being ignored when we needed some love or affection, or whatever the origins of our wounded soul—seem small by comparison, in Jesus’ parable. Small, but not insignificant—indeed, it may have cost us deeply for half a life-time, but still, forgiveness is the means to let go and recover. Let us forgive, whether the other seems repentant and remorseful or not. God’s offer of forgiveness precedes my repentance, for while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, and before a word is spoken the Father comes running to meet the prodigal. You may need soon to write that letter, or make that call or arrange that meeting—and forgive. It will set you free, and the other too.