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“Can you even teach people to apologize?”
My wife Monica wondered this aloud as we sat together over espresso and croissants at our neighborhood cafe. She’s most of the way through a degree program in counseling and mental health to become a therapist. Through the summer months, she’s been interning at a local recovery facility, and had been charged with creating content to facilitate a few group sessions for their clients.
Monica mused about guiding sessions centered around the “making amends” step of the famous 12-step addiction recovery journey developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. This involves a person taking inventory of the people in their life that they’ve pained or wronged, reaching out to them to acknowledge the wounds they’d inflicted, and seeking to heal them where possible. (The 12-step process, of course, was based on Christian principles, though it’s used widely around the world by people of every imaginable background today).
Monica’s had transformative experiences with this dimension of the 12-step journey, and wanted to draw together her own experiences with her clinical training to facilitate some constructive conversation for her clients. But she also knows that the ideal of forgiveness has, of late, fallen out of fashion. In both the progressive enclaves of academia, and the wider cultural conversation, in the wake of trends like the #MeToo movement, forgiveness is often treated as archaic or downright oppressive.
What to do? As she sipped her afternoon espresso, this was what Monica puzzled over.
“Can you even teach people to apologize?”
Can you teach forgiveness anymore?
Is it right to expect a victim to forgive their abuser? Isn’t it unjust to expect women, and other minorities, to extend forgiveness to those who’ve trampled on them? This is just what Danielle Berrin wonders in her moving New York Times op-ed “Should We Forgive the Men Who Assaulted Us?” Doesn’t forgiveness simply reinforce unjust and inequitable power arrangements, in which those without power are asked to absolve, and the privileged walk away without consequence?
Many of these concerns, whether voiced in the academy or on Twitter, are real. They expose the insufficiency of an easy pardon aimed more at sweeping abuse under the rug and muffling the cry of the victimized than rectifying wrongs. These cries lay bare the emptiness of forgiveness without justice. They’re so many forms of what the great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”
At the same time, a community or culture that jettisons forgiveness gives itself over to a never-ending cycle of victimizing, retaliation, resentment, and revenge. People who close off the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation consign themselves to an ever-more isolated or embattled existence.
Retrieval, Ressourcement & the Cross
One of the tasks I believe the Church most urgently needs to undertake is that of “theological retrieval” — or, as our Roman Catholic siblings would put it, “ressourcement” (French for “a return to the sources”). Theological retrieval is the art of listening deeply to the ancient sources of the Christian story, and retrieving their theological, spiritual, and ethical riches for our own time.
And among the greatest riches for us to mine for our moment are the classic Christian teachings of sin, grace, and the Cross.
The ancient Christian teaching of human sinfulness, and the work of Christ on the cross, open to us a full-blooded practice of forgiveness shaped by the depths of the Gospel. In Christian understanding, the victory of Christ over evil on the cross both judges oppression and sin, and pardons sinners, all at once. At the cross of Christ, the living God simultaneously identifies with victims, and pardons victimizers. Christians practice a tenacious forgiveness, lived through the lens of the Cross: thus, they take seriously both human evil and oppression, and grace, mercy, reconciliation. In a culture that sees only the alternatives of cheap grace or no grace, Christians practice costly grace, cruciform grace.
Miroslav Volf, a Yugoslav-born theologian who grew up amid the horrors of the Balkan civil war, and now teaches at Yale University, unfolds the beauty and possibility of Cross-shaped forgiveness in his modern classic Exclusion and Embrace:
Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion — without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous. . . into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of God’s justice and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.
This is the kind of dogged forgiveness that the women and men who sit around a circle with Monica long for: a pardon as costly and free as the Cross.
It’s the Cross, in a wounded and resentful world, that liberates us to apologize and receive apology; costly grace alone that makes amends of our wounds.