Monday, April 30, 2012

Rethinking Forgiveness

We had a fantastic speaker in Adult Formation yesterday.  Maria Mayo is a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University.  Her work is on revisioning Christian understandings of forgiveness.  According to Mayo, Jesus' instructions to forgive one's enemies, which Christians have taken on as a moral imperative, are actually morally neutral, designed instead to hold the community together.  In modern times, we have interpreted that instruction to forgive as not only moral imperative but also some kind of healing mechanism, the only way in which the victim can "get over" the wrong done to her.

Mayo, herself the victim of a brutal home invasion that left her raped, beaten and nearly dead on the sidewalk in front of her home, was the recipient of numerous well meaning platitudes in her months  of recovery.  "The Lord works in mysterious ways" and "God has a plan for everything" were among them, but one of the most difficult for Mayo was the advice that a friend offered, a short time after the event, "You will never be fully healed until you forgive the man who did this."  this piece of advice launched Mayo into a journey of trying to better understand modern Christian notions of forgiveness and Jesus' understanding of forgiveness and to see how-- if at all-- it applied to her.

In the end, Mayo has entirely rejected this modern notion of forgiveness, instead choosing to work with the early notion of forgiveness: keeping the community together.  She is using her life and her work to make the world a better place.  She is not going to forgive the man who tried to kill her in the way that Oprah and Dr. Phil would like her to.  But she is not letting him hold thrall over her either.  She instead focuses her life on the betterment of the city, the church, the world, believing that each act of goodness in her life counters the forces of evil that tried to destroy it.

I this way, she focuses instead on a blanket, the blanket that, in the darkest hour of her humanity, an anonymous neighbor carefully placed over her naked broken body on the sidewalk while they waited for the police to show up.  For Mayo, this act of basic decency is sign and symbol that this world is worth living in.  For Mayo, the narrative of this world as a place where women are beaten, raped and left to die does not win.  Instead, what rises to the top is the narrative of a world where strangers  care for one another and a simple blanket is an act of mercy.  This is from where she draws her healing and her ability to get out of bed in the morning, not from a false notion that her unrepentant (and still at large) attacker deserves her forgiveness or that she will somehow find strength in doing so.

Mayo's lecture was elegant, funny and deeply moving.  She has given me a lot to think about and has turned forgiveness on its head in a way that I find deeply compelling.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

On not being Judas

Carl Bloch, late 19th century

I've bee thinking a little about today's Gospel.  
You can find it here.

The Gospel of John does not let Judas off the hook.  In various ways, our other three Gospels show Judas as one who has fallen victim to some understandable kind of human weakness.  There are those thirty pieces of silver that he can give to the poor, or the motivation to stop Jesus’ derailing of the movement as Judas understood it.  Either way, while he does finally do the unforgivable, there is a sympathetic thread left dangling where Judas is concerned. 

Not so in John.  The gospeller John hands Judas completely over to Satan, the force of which enters him as he prepares to betray his friend.  There is not sympathy for Judas here, no way to redeem his action or understand his misunderstanding.  This Judas is not to be rehabilitated, this Judas is in league with the devil. 

The mood has changed quickly.  Jesus has just washed his friends’ feet, lovingly touched each one of these men and women who have followed him clumsily and faithfully.  Jesus has just introduced to them and to us the Lord’s Supper, his final meal which we remember in our own Eucharist. 

And then there is that one more piece of bread, that one dipped in the bowl.  And then, there is the presence of Satan in Judas.  And Judas goes out to do what he is to do, out on clean feet, a full belly and a dark and empty soul. 

Judas immediately goes out.  And it was night.

This detail in verse 30 about the night is easy to miss.  We could think of it as just a commentary on the state of the sky.  But remember, this is John we talking about there, John whose Gospel begins with  “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

The light/dark dichotomy was not just set dressing for John.  When John tells us that Judas goes out and it was night, John is reminding us of what happens when we leave the presence of God.  It is night.  It is dark.  We are lost. 

What Judas does when he leaves, turning to the night, is essentially what we Christians do every time we turn away from goodness, wholeness, holiness. 

There is Judas in each of us.  We each of us carry around a piece of the one who would rather take the easy road, to act on our tendencies toward gluttony, greed, self-indulgence.  We would rather give in to the powerful evil all around us than look for the strength to resist.  And when we do, we follow Judas into the night.

But we are better off than Judas.  We know what happens next, after the betrayal, after the trial, after the crucifixion and after the death.  We know that darkness doesn’t win. Judas didn’t get that chance. 

Being people of faith isn’t easy, but easy was never part of the promise.  It takes strength to turn away from the darkness.  And when we fail, it takes even more strength to ask forgiveness and come back into the light.  But we do, and we will.  Because unlike John’s bleak portrayal of Judas, we are redeemable, we are strong, we are loved.