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.