Archive for June, 2015

Forgiving–and Remembering–Dylann Roof

Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.”  Colossians 3:13 CEV

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s Charleston shootings, families of the nine victims declared their forgiveness for Dylann Roof , the alleged shooter. Public reaction included

  • Admiration–“Glad they can do it. I couldn’t.”
  • Affirmation–“Tremendous testimony to their faith…”
  • Skepticism–“Really? Easy to say it now. But how long before the pain and anger overwhelm them ?”
  • Outright resistance–“How can you forgive the coldblooded murder of nine people?” “Isn’t there a limit? Aren’t some crimes just too evil to forgive?”

Roxane Gay is one of the resisters. The author and Purdue University English professor wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed: “I do not forgive Dylann Roof…I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice…some acts…are so terrible that we should recognize them as …beyond forgiving.” She affirms and respects the faith of the victims’ families: “I cannot fathom how they are capable of such eloquent mercy, such grace under such duress.” But she harshly criticizes the way “…the dominant media narrative vigorously embraced that notion of forgiveness…” 

“Forgive and forget” is a platitude we mouth almost automatically when somebody mentions forgiveness. Like many platitudes, it’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t always go far enough. Unforgettable evil requires a deeper understanding of forgiveness. We can’t forget the Charleston shootings, Nazi concentration camps, expressions of racism in this country and elsewhere, and so much more. “Forgive and forget” can become a recipe for perpetuating an unjust status quo and ensuring that you’ll get kicked harder every time you’re knocked down. No wonder Ms. Gay, an African-American woman, writes that “White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is…Black people forgive because we need to survive…We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.”

Can we forgive without forgetting? Pastor and Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes thought so. So he wrote a book entitled—you guessed it—Forgive and ForgetSmedes says that when I forgive you, I help myself at least as much as I help you. Releasing my claim against you liberates me: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  A grudge is a heavy burden. Carrying one requires enormous emotional and spiritual effort. The families and others who loved those nine folks understand that. Carrying a grudge traps us in that terrible past and slams the door on the future God has for them.

Forgiving a significant hurt doesn’t happen quickly or easily. The process  takes months, years, a lifetime. Forgiving Dylann Roof will evolve as people move through their grief. For most the journey will include missteps, false starts, and significant relapses. “You will know that forgiveness has begun,” Smedes writes, “when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” Forgiving Dylann Roof clearly doesn’t mean we wish he could just skip all this legal stuff and hang out with us at Starbucks. It does mean praying for him even though we don’t know how. He is, after all, God’s child, admittedly a child gone terribly wrong. Forgiving Dylann Roof also means lifting up his family in prayer as they live through the future they never asked for or anticipated.

Smedes rejects any notion that forgiveness means accepting, whitewashing, or tolerating evil: “When we forgive evil, we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it.” A cheating spouse cannot be truly forgiven until the unfaithfulness has been fully exposed, the wronged person in the relationship has felt the full weight of the damage, and has shared the extent of his/her pain. Forgiveness ultimately may or may not include reconciliation and restoration of the marriage relationship. We forgive the other. We don’t hold the misdeed against him/her forever. But that person’s past behavior is part of who he/she is. We need to see a consistent pattern of changed  behavior before we trust him/her as before.

Roxane Gay and others rightly point out that “[Black people] have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive.” Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean forgetting what he did. Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean pretending nothing happened. Forgiving Dylann Roof doesn’t mean covering our eyes and closing our ears to the racist/white supremacist ideology that infected him along with so many others. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean remembering how many people like ourselves missed the signs of trouble as he grew—teachers, friends, family, church. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean remembering how many people like ourselves could have made a healing, life-saving difference—but nobody did. Forgiving Dylann Roof does mean boldly naming the fear- and-hate-based ideology that poisoned him and assertively offering a grace- and love-based incarnational alternative. (In English, that means we embody the extravagantly welcoming love of God in Christ for all within our reach.)

Forgiving is an essential practice for transforming our polarized and fragmented society. Who better to practice and model it than followers of Jesus?  Listen once more to Lewis Smedes:

“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.”

“The Holy Spirit, thank God, often enables people to forgive even though they are not sure how they did it.”

“ONE GENERATION AWAY?” Part 2–“Jello-ey Faith”

Not quite three months ago I wrote the first half of this two-part series. At the time, I didn’t think that I was writing the first half of anything. I described the beginning of my journey with our church’s Confirmation class. My motivation was the intersection  between my excitement about that journey and my frustration with a steady drumbeat in other places of the tired cliché, “The church is always just one generation from extinction”. When I sought diligently to attribute those words accurately, even the all-knowing Google couldn’t name the author. I finally concluded they came from the mind of the incomparable Someone–“Someone has said…”

Last Sunday we–eleven youth and four leaders–arrived at our destination. Those youth were confirmed in the presence of congregation, friends, and families. After worship, we celebrated in historic Methodist fashion—with a great meal lovingly prepared. We’d arrived at our destination—but by no means the final destination for our newly confirmed brothers and sisters in Christ. Many will serve in Vacation Bible School later this month. Others will continue to serve in various ministries where they served as part of their class experience. They’ve barely begun their discipleship journey. We expect great things from them.

Sunday was our second big day in a row. We’d spent all day Saturday at a district confirmation retreat. Youth from area churches had a chance to meet and get to know Bishop Robert Hoshibata, leader of our Desert Southwest Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Those forty-plus youth and adults gained a greater understanding of the regional, national, and global dimensions of our church. They heard that story through the very approachable humanity of Bishop Bob and other conference staff who participated during the day. All of them reminded these youth powerfully that they are not the church of the future. They are the church NOW. God’s Spirit has given each one gifts to share in Spirit-inspired ways that will make a life-changing difference in the world within our reach.

After we’d all become acquainted, Bishop Bob spoke about —“Jello-ey Faith”. No, I’d never heard that before. Yes, it took a bit of processing. Jello, the bishop explained, isn’t very interesting when it comes out of the box. It’s just colored crystals. Then we add boiling water. The crystals  become a colorful liquid. Next we add ice cubes to speed cooling. Now we put the Jello in the refrigerator to set. (Bishops are supposed to be knowledgeable in many diverse areas. Bishop Bob knows far more about Jello than I do!)   After a few hours the Jello firms up. You can take it out of the fridge and shake it, perhaps even turn it upside down. Now the Jello won’t slosh around or spill. It will wobble and jiggle, but it will stay together. The church invites us on this  confirmation journey, Bishop Bob explained, to help us “firm up” our faith. Confirmation provides an opportunity to clarify and claim some bedrock beliefs and values We may not emerge from our confirmation experience with definitive answers. But at least we’ve explored some of life’s Big Questions and formulated some provisional answers. Those Big Questions include things like Who is God? Who am I? Why am I? What shall I do with this life I’ve been given to live? Where do Jesus and the Church fit into this whole picture? Confirmation is also a time to begin to form spiritual habits or disciplines. Through the day a variety of approaches to prayer, Bible study, and creative collaboration provided tools to help “firm up” our relationship with God.

Before Bishop Bob was done, I found myself thinking about another dimension of “Jello-ey faith”. Jello is both firm and flexible. Structures that are too rigid will break or shatter when shaken too hard. The “give” built into tall buildings (nearly all buildings in earthquake-prone areas) enables them to ride out that shaking. Most of the buildings flattened in recent quakes in Nepal and other third-world countries lacked that flexibility.

When life starts rocking and rolling like the San Andreas Fault. “Jello-ey faith” helps us bend but not break. That moment is always a matter of When, not If. Nobody gets a free pass. LifeQuakes hit at the least convenient times. Our poor choices jump up and bite us. Circumstances beyond our control trash our carefully-planned futures.  Disappointments derail our dreams. Our expressway to Easy Street deteriorates into a primitive jungle track to—God only knows. Plans A through Q haven’t worked. It’s time to start hatching Plan Z-73.

“Jello-ey faith” trusts infinitely God who created us, loves us, and has a place and purpose for us. It trusts far less our plans and ideas of a “good life” inspired by our consumer-driven media and culture. “Jello-ey faith” trusts the admittedly imperfect families and faith communities that have shaped us, not whichever celebrities and self-help gurus are trending today. “Jello-ey faith” trusts What God is Doing in, around, and among us today and tomorrow far more than “the way we’ve always done it”. “Jello-ey faith” approaches the wisdom of Someone with healthy skepticism. “One generation from extinction” might be true if we leave God out of the equation. But our flexibly firm faith always factors in God’s energizing, empowering Spirit. This new equation fits another one of Someone’s pronouncements: “Christianity is caught rather than taught.” This faith drives the Confirmation process in countless churches like ours. This faith drives our whole existence as the Body of Christ—old, young, and in between; from the most experienced disciples to the newest; “all sorts and conditions” of folks, as the prayer reminds us. Together we encourage each other into the image of Christ. Together we grow into “Jello-ey faith” that leads us through life in partnership with God and all God’s people. Together we work out God’s good purposes for God’s world.