Forgiveness?

This post may cost me followers, maybe even friends, but nonetheless I feel compelled to speak my mind on the subject of so-called Christian forgiveness.

A number of different situations have cropped up for me recently, to bring my attention to the topic of forgiveness, what it entails, and what preconditions may be necessary for it to occur.  As background, let me say that I was raised in an ethical Jewish tradition, but outside of a Jewish community, such that my classmates and friends were all Christian. This was back in the days when public school classes began not just with a Pledge of Allegiance, but also with prayers, which the teacher usually closed with “In Jesus’ Name” and I silently said “Cross that last line out, God.”

My maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Russia in the early 1900’s who became one of the founders of the Labor Zionist party in the U.S., friends with Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann and other early supporters and leaders of what became the Israeli state. He sent my mother to school in what was then still called Palestine, and she was also an active voice for the creation of a Jewish homeland. During my elementary school years, she taught Hebrew in an after school program at a Jewish center, leaving me to come home from school to practice my piano lesson, do housework and prepare supper. My present skill with, and enjoyment of, cooking surely dates back to those meals.

My mother was highly and expressively critical of all religious extremism, Orthodox Jewish as much as Christian or Muslim. She saw the Jewish Orthodox community as actively harming the goals and functioning of secular Israel, as readily as she pointed to the hypocrisy of “Bible thumping Christians” who preached forgiveness but still unforgivingly blamed Jews as “Christ killers.”

From that early conditioning, I moved on to exposure to different Eastern religions, became comfortable with Quaker values and silent worship, and also with Zen Buddhism, finding myself finally, in 1993, a student of MasterPath and happily centered in an unfolding, ever expanding understanding of basic spiritual Truth. As my inner education has proceeded, layer after layer of mental conditioning has been peeled away, sometimes quickly and easily, at other times only after considerable turmoil.

My consideration of the meaning of forgiveness falls in the latter category. I have thought that I’d come to terms with where I stand in relation to “letting go and letting God” as the Quakers express it, but after some months or even years, a situation would crop up to show me I am not yet free of anger and resentment over the way some people have behaved toward me. One friend recently forwarded me one of those picture quotes that make their way around the Internet, this one stating “I’m not Jesus, so I don’t easily forgive, and I don’t have Alzheimer’s, so I don’t forget.” It struck a chord in me, and started me once more into an on-going contemplation of the meaning of forgiveness.

I’m far from conversant with the New Testament, although one cannot live in a nominally Christian country without coming to know bits and pieces of the Bible which get quoted in all sorts of context. I also had an English literature teacher in college who insisted one could not understand most American and European literature without having a familiarity with both Old and New Testament, and who therefore required that we all read substantial chunks of the Bible in order to pass his class. What stays in my memory, in the context of forgiveness, is the blessing (or is it an injunction?) to “go forth and sin no more.” I hear this as specifying that to be forgiven one must change.

“I’ve apologized so you must forgive me” doesn’t cut it. An apology, unaccompanied by meaningful change in conduct, is nothing more than empty words from an arrogant and demanding ego. That is probably why Twelve Step programs include making amends as a crucial step – not just apologizing but doing what one can to set things right – i.e. demonstrating changed behavior. If I am sorry for something I’ve done that hurt another I make certain not to repeat the hurtful behavior. I expect the same from others – and I dismiss as inappropriate, even offensive, those “good Christians” who preach that I “should” forgive just because someone apologizes.

There are profoundly good, caring and sensitive people of all faiths. Most of these, in my experience, have no need to promote themselves by their religious affiliation. Their quiet daily actions speak loudly on their behalf. The more forcefully a person insists that they are acting from Christian, or Muslim, or Zoroastrian or Hindu or any other religious teaching, the more certain I am that the speaker is likely to be disrespectful of others, unforgiving and self-righteous while demanding that their own actions be forgiven “in the name of” whichever form of God they worship.

I suspect this topic of forgiveness remains pertinent to me just now, not only because of a personal, family-related situation, but because of the recent exacerbation of offensive, intolerant, “my way or the highway” conduct by self proclaimed good Christians on the national political scene who mistakenly insist that they are merely returning the nation to its origins. Yes the founders of the United States were almost exclusively Christian men, but they were adamantly opposed to having any form of religion imposed by civil authority. The Puritans fled dictates of the Church of England. William Penn established a Quaker colony. Jewish immigrants created a center in earliest New York city. The Constitution clearly established the separation of church and state, giving everyone the right to worship as he (or she) pleases. Too many current politicians seem to have conveniently forgotten our founders’ emphasis on a secular state. They are instead critical, judgmental, demanding that law follow their particular interpretation of Christian values, and in the process totally betraying those values.

I readily admit that I shut down as soon as someone says “the Christian thing to do”, when they mean the caring thing, or the thoughtful thing, or the right thing to do is X, Y or Z. I make a sharp distinction between someone explaining a teaching of their religion and then showing how they implement it, and another person who says this or that is a religious requirement that everyone MUST be made to obey, often without manifesting the appropriate associated behavior.

Which brings me back to forgiveness, and my inescapable conclusion that it you want me to forgive you, change your conduct before you approach me, and when you approach me, ASK,  don’t demand or otherwise make it my responsibility to bring about a change in our relationship. You caused the rupture, you need to figure out how to repair the wounds. My role is to be open to be approached, and willing to engage in a cooperative effort to heal the relationship.

Not bad advice for the national political scene as well.

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5 Responses to “Forgiveness?”

  1. Musings from a Tangled Mind Says:

    I wish there was a “love” option on here instead of just “like.” I have so many issues with organized religion — especially the oft repeated version or interpretation of forgiveness and all that entails — that it would be a blog entry in and of itself to go into. You have stated this so well that I will just say that I agree, wholeheartedly with your views. And I’m sorry that there are family issues bringing up these ideas and concepts for you right now.

    • chelawriter Says:

      Never having had a family beyond two parents and one grandfather, I guess it’s part of my necessary life education to have ‘family issues’ arise at some point. They’re resolving and I’m learning from them, so it’s ultimately a good experience, even if a bit challenging to go through. Thanks for your comments and for your always enjoyable posts.

  2. Tina Trout Says:

    Nice to learn about your history. Forgiveness has lately been presenting as an act of acceptance upon viewing in what ways lifetimes of accumulated expectations have colored my interactions with people in hews of slight or not so slight disappointments depending on how closely interactions align with some personal and deep criteria of acceptable. I’m embarrassed to admit it. It’s also why perhaps I’ve made some questionable decisions concerning relationships and also why I stay so long trying to conform myself to an ideal in order to win praise or a type of recognition in hopes of reciprocation of same …as a kind of reward for good behavior (passive aggressive perfectionism?) and the one thing always remaining is an unflinching ability to self-criticize…even now). So forgiveness comes in the form of being ok with the fact that I have had a difficulty being in relationship and that I’ve probably done it badly in many respects. That the things that are hard for me are hard for the other as well. Questions of acceptance and receptivity. So I shed all these in a forgiving release because I’ve done the best I can for what I’ve been able to perceive. And that in the end… it’s always me I’m looking at in these disappointments and difficulties. (Yes, I am in the middle of a breakup and I feel bad for the guy…that and the dog babies)

  3. Bonnie Trujillo Says:

    very thoughtful discourse
    often forgiveness is hard but if we can we are free of the burden of resentment but still I cannot claim I carry no baggage
    The internet is full of fulsome, silly and meaningless “religous’ truisms.

  4. Barbara Anne Bradford Says:

    Thank you, Niki for yet another insightful interesting and solidly truthful commentary QANNE

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