Sunday, August 27, 2017

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. Scott Hutchinson


Scott Hutchinson is Pastor of St. Andrew’s United Church of Christ in Perkasie, PA, where he has served for 21 years. He was previously a counseling professional. His areas of focus and expertise include forgiveness, trauma healing, and peace education. Scott is co-founder of Touchstone Veterans Outreach and the COMPASS Healing Circle. Scott is married to Debra, a US Army veteran. They have three children and a grandson.

Click here to access Scott's website: Power of Forgiveness >>>

Yago:  Scott, you are welcome to this blog called “Breathing Forgiveness: Conflict Transformation in the Here and Now.”  You are the creator and editor of the website, “Power of Forgiveness.” As a pastor and a counselor you have been accompanying people in forgiveness for many years. This interview will explore different textures of forgiveness. I am grateful for you accepting to share your wisdom on this topic.

Scott: It is my privilege! I am deeply grateful for our friendship and collaboration.

Yago: Richard Rohr in his book Everything Belongs says that it is interesting that Jesus identifies forgiveness with breathing.  He says that God’s forgiveness is like breathing.  How does this insight resonate with your experience of forgiveness?

Scott: It resonates deeply. I, too, believe that the terminology of “forgiveness” points us not just toward the chosen action of God but to God’s very identity.  God’s forgiveness is the eternal expression of God’s radical grace. Think about that for a moment: the eternal expression of God’s radical grace!  

While I have only read Rohr’s work substantively in recent years—thanks in large part to you-- on my site I had already written: ‘Forgiveness is not just something God does; it is the deep expression of who God is, in every part of our lives.” Everything about our lives, our origins, our completions, and all that is in between, is lived in the “give-ness of God.” I like to think of the English terminology in terms of fore-giveness. God’s action is unilateral, it is creative, it is “from the beginning.”  If this is true, God’s action is not and cannot be conditioned by our actions.  That realization is profound.  

At a workshop several years ago, we were grappling with the all-encompassing nature of God’s forgiveness, with people asking, “Why does God forgive this way?” I said, “I don’t think God can help it.” That may not be an elegant description, but it is surely worth pondering.  Think of the impact on the church, which endlessly seeks to mold God in its image.

In equating forgiveness with breathing, Rohr is powerfully referencing both John’s gospel and the second creation story in Genesis.  The setting in John is the evening of Easter, where Jesus is risen but his followers remain locked up tight in their own tomb, the power of death continuing to hold sway over them.   They continue to bear the weight of their failure to stand with him. The resurrected Jesus penetrates the barriers of their fear and shame—the “locked doors” of life-- offering them his peace even as he bears his wounds to them!   I am reminded of his earlier words to them as he faced death: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; I do not give to you as the world gives.” He will subsequently ask Thomas to touch the wounds with his own hands.  The peace of Christ does not deny the wounds of life, but acknowledges them, touches them, and tends to them.

Even as Jesus draws close to them in their guilt and shame, he commissions them:  “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  What an incredible revelation: The Holy Spirit, the breath of Jesus’ life, is the spirit of forgiveness!  Breathing it upon them, he blesses them with wisdom: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Withholding forgiveness, or refusing to receive it, is like “not breathing!” Conversely, forgiving is infusing another with the power for new life, and claiming it for yourself.  

For Rohr, the scene references the Hebrew Scriptures, Genesis Chapter 2, where the original human is not really alive until filled with God’s own breath.   God’s forgiveness, the breath that animates Jesus, is the power that makes us alive as human beings.  Practicing forgiveness is at the heart of our human-ness.

That’s plenty for an answer, but I recall that you originally asked me how this insight about God resonates with my own experience. I say that my life has been a laboratory in forgiveness.  I have known great blessing and richness in life.  I have also been broken, more than once. I have failed abysmally. I have hurt people. I have tended to learn many things the hard way. At the same time I have been astonishingly graced.  I have been deeply entrusted in my counseling and pastoral work. The power of forgiveness has been at work in everything!

Yago: Christian Duquoc says that forgiveness is an “invitation to the imagination.”  Would you agree with him?  How?

Christian Duquoc (1926-2008)
Scott: Absolutely. It is helpful to think of forgiveness as a range of imagination. Interrupting destructive cycles, rather than reinforcing them, is the discipline of forgiveness. As is the embodiment of a radical alternative. Forgiveness is necessarily creative and imaginative. Wherever the environment is defined by violence—physical, emotional, or spiritual violence—there is great need for disciplined, assertive manifestations of nonviolence. They are crucial if we are ever to “make a way out of no way.” Duquoc says that forgiveness is “the risk of a future other than one imposed by the past or by memory.”  That’s creative territory. 

I find it helpful once again to hyphenate the term in a way that can stimulate our imaginations. “For-giveness” speaks to the expression of being.  The giving of who we are. How do we manifest our deep integrity in the face of wounding and dehumanization?  How can we be true to our deepest selves in ways that not only affirm our core identity but offer a witness that confers a powerfully curious blessing on the other?  Jesus was fully himself unto the cross.  There was no collusion with the power of death.

There is a simple story that has inspired me repeatedly.  I heard it through my friend Jim McGinnis. The main character is a young nine-year old girl named Bess. Her house was burglarized, and she was understandably upset.  Her allowance money, her Valentine’s Day candy, and her tape player were taken. The front door had been egged.  She and her mom were pretty sure that the perpetrators were some local teens who had earlier drawn graffiti on their garage. Her mom provided a strong example. She didn’t necessarily want the boys to be in trouble with the law, but she wanted them to be accountable. She got in touch with one of the parents, who was hopeful that there was a way this could become an important lesson  for the boys.  With the help of a police officer, they identified the parents of the other boys, and some of the challenges they faced. Learning more about them humanized them.  With the cooperation of the police and the families of the boys, a restorative approach was undertaken. There would be no permanent record if the boys would engage in acts of restitution. The stolen items were returned. One of the boys wrote an essay on integrity and came and read it to Bess. The others came and cleaned off the front door and did chores on the property.

Nine-year-old Bess sought an even deeper and more imaginative measure of healing. She hosted a forgiveness party and invited the boys. She made a piñata, decorated the house, and had music flowing from the returned tape player. Not only did the boys come, but their parents and siblings, too. There was a new manifestation of community celebrated as the previous brokenness was transformed.

In his work, Duquoc highlights how our existing notions of justice are often based on proportionality and equivalence.  But he says, and I’ll quote him: “Jesus shows us that equivalence in evil, even in the name of justice, does not transform human society.  What is required is an attitude not determined by what already has been done, but an innovative, creative gesture.”

The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a public example of an innovative, creative gesture. People throughout the world have heard about the Truth and Reconciliation Process  in South Africa, but most are not aware that there was a TRC in the United States. The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created in 2004 to address the unhealed wounds suffered in the “Greensboro Massacre” of 1979 and its aftermath.  In November of that year, a parade led by labor and community organizers and anti-Klan activists was attacked by armed Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party who, in view of news cameras, murdered five marchers and wounded ten more.  Perpetrators were twice acquitted by all-white juries, in spite of the video evidence.  Victims were demonized and blamed for what had happened.  Evidence that authorities were aware of the coming attack and deliberately withdrew protection came to light but was ignored.  The implications of the tragedy for the wider community were denied.   The GTRC  is a remarkable story that deserves considerable study and reflection.  It was initiated, to a significant degree, by surviving victims of the tragedy! They were seeking not only acknowledged truth but opportunities for communal healing and reconciliation.   In spite of official resistance, a citizen-led commission was formed with an impressive group of community leaders. The project included interviews,  public hearings, testimony, and the release of its findings.  Nine clear recommendations were offered.  Nelson Johnson, who was wounded in the attack and who later, as a Christian pastor, helped establish the Beloved Community Center, speaks eloquently about the role of forgiveness in the healing process, and what such forgiveness has needed to entail.

Yago:  How would you relate forgiveness with our capacity to see?

Scott: I would begin with God’s capacity to see. We who are graced are visible to God: recognized, accompanied, affirmed, and infused with divine imagination. This is from the beginning. I recall the sound of God’s voice in Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.” This is a poetic expression of intimacy, one that holds a kinship with the testimony of Second Isaiah: “The Lord called me before I was born; from the body of my mother he named my name.”  Such visibility and knowledge are original. 

We are created by a God who sees; the same God who gives.  I believe that the capacity for such sight and deep knowledge is woven into our being. 

When Jesus inaugurates his Galilean ministry he identifies the gift of sight as critical to God’s new order: “God has sent me to proclaim sight to the blind.” Luke’s gospel has Jesus return to the house of worship in his hometown of Nazareth, and as he reads the text of Isaiah 61:1-2, he claims it as a statement of identity and mission: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Good news for the poor, release to the captives, and letting the oppressed go free are all linked to the ability to see another person’s humanity clearly.  Seeing each other is an essential way that we are to practice being human with one another.
The scriptural reference to “the year of the Lord’s favor” invokes the Jubilee, a profound societal liberation from the bonds of indebtedness. Once again, a new order –social and economic—that recognizes our common humanity and for-given state. And Jesus omits, “the day of vengeance of our God.”

Of course, that same story takes a terrifying turn when Jesus’ preaching references the humanity of outsiders and God’s preferential option for them-- the widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. The congregation becomes a mob that seeks to angrily toss Jesus off a cliff. 

How we see God has everything to do with how we see and understand ourselves, how we perceive others, and how we relate to the world we live in.

Accepting God’s gift of sight and practicing ways of seeing with one another (not just an ocular enterprise!) is life work in the community of faith.

Let’ talk about church.  When people come to worship in a traditional setting,  their view of God is mediated by the architecture, the order of worship, traditions, the core beliefs around which the existing congregation is organized, how members demonstrably live with one another and how they practice forgiveness-- or not. These are ways that God is “imaged.”  For new folks, these impressions are deeply impacting, and sometimes, painfully disappointing.  For longtime members these factors are institutionalized and powerfully shape daily living.

On my site, I have a piece entitled, “Divine Image-ination.”  I engage the story of Jesus’ dismantling of the symbolic structure of the Temple: interrupting the sacrificial process, redefining atonement, setting the sacrificial animals free as a foretaste of human liberation.

He replaces the distorted image of a violent, bloodthirsty God with “a rush of God’s agape self.”  A God who could only respond to humanity’s contagion of violence with a greater, divine violence is not the God whose power is love.  We are promised something more; and the God of mercy can be imaged –seen--in our bodies!     


Yago: Is forgiveness a way of being?

Scott: That is a helpful description. I have already made that assertion about God’s way of being; so let’s remain consistent as it applies to you and me. Think of forgiveness as a multi-dimensional way of being: with one another, with the world around us, and with ourselves. The practice of forgiveness, receiving it and offering it, increases our ability to enter vulnerably into the experiences of others.  It becomes a way of living that offers hospitality to others and what they bring; it enhances our capacity to receive the fullness of them.   Forgiveness honors the integrity of someone else’s experience, constantly recognizing our deep interrelatedness.

In forgiveness, we do not need to reduce the humanity of someone to get to know them. Quite the opposite is true. As such, the labels, presuppositions, and distorted renderings of history that have held sway in our lives become subject to the power of transformation. The world is changed right in the midst of the details of daily life.

There is a story very early in Mark’s gospel. A man with leprosy, terribly isolated and “untouchable”—he is labeled “a leper”-- comes toward Jesus, crying out, “If you choose. . . you can  cleanse me.” Jesus is touched deeply by the man’s humanity.  The text says that there is movement in Jesus’ guts –the language is vivid.  And one way of translating the text is that Jesus “is compassioned.” The man’s humanity “compassions Jesus!” He is moved to respond with a clear choice: “I am willing.”  Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him. And the reality of the world changes. The man is impacted, even as Jesus has been. And the “leprosy departs.” Not just the lesions, but the stigma.  It is not a refitting of the man, but a “refitting” of the world, if you will. The world’s reality changes when Jesus touches the man!

I want to suggest that this is a powerful forgiveness story.  But where does the for-giveness begin? In Jesus’ giving, or before that—in the man and his for-giving as he moves toward Jesus?  Or even in the “fore-giveness” of God which re-contextualizes and re-interprets everything, opening to new possibility and experience?  

These questions have powerful implications for how we tend to ourselves as well.

For instance, I believe it is critical for faith communities like the one I pastor to become Open and Affirming Communities, welcoming the fullness of LGBTQ brothers and sisters, receiving them as gifts of God, honoring their stories and their truths, while acknowledging and repenting the Christian Church’s long history of exclusion and violence against them.

When faith communities are willing to humbly engage relationship like this, or risking an honest reckoning with race in America, or in tending the victims of war while owning our kinship with its victims—welcoming transformation--these can become dimensions of “receiving” for-giveness!

Yago: You often talk about textures of forgiveness. How is that?

Scott: I am fascinated by the breadth, the depth, the substance of this territory.  You are aware that when I speak of textures I often rub my thumb and forefinger together. Texture is the feel and consistency of something.  In art, we can talk about physical texture that is tactile, varied, and distinct. Or about visual texture, which creatively communicates perceptive differences. Each is full of interpretive possibility.

I began using the terminology of “text-ure” because of the different terms and meanings of forgiveness in the Koine Greek of the New Testament. There are three verbs meaning “to forgive.”  Aphiemi is the most common.  It can mean to remove or send away, to allow, to let go, to remit a debt, to liberate.  It can even mean to depart and to leave something behind.  It is the language of liberation.  There is an extraordinary amount of territory to explore just in those meanings! The accompanying noun, aphesis, means liberty, release from bondage, pardon of sin.  This is term used in Luke Chapter 4 that I referenced before, when Jesus claims and interprets the promising language of Isaiah 61 in a spirited and embodied way—that he has come to proclaim release to the captives and to let the oppressed go free.   

Apoluo is a common verb translated “to forgive.” To loosen bonds, to set free, release, even to unburden. In Luke chapter 13, Jesus draws to himself a woman who has been “bent over” by a “spirit of weakness” for “eighteen long years,” “quite unable to stand up straight.”  He sees her in spite of her marginalized location and diminished stature in the eyes of others. He calls her to the center of focus, the well-situated crowd immediately around him needing to part like the Red Sea. And he declares “You are set free (from that which has been bending you in two!).” Not healed.  Set free.

Less common in usage but quite compelling is charizomai, which means to give graciously; to gift; even to restore. It is employed to great effect in Luke Chapter seven. Jesus “gave sight” to the blind. This immediately prior to the vivid story of Jesus attending a dinner party at a Pharisee’s house and being anointed by a woman who came off the street, tending to him carefully. Jesus tells the host and his other guests a parable about gifts of debt forgiveness. 

To study forgiveness, in the incarnational way, is to explore these meanings in the human experience, the loves, the challenges, the fracture; each becomes a revelation.

So when I explore the depth and breadth of forgiveness and its power, I look for ways that people are being liberated; where burdens are being lifted and people can rise to their full stature.

Yago: What would be to you the fundamental steps that allow a person to forgive someone else?

Scott: Greg Jones (Embodying Forgiveness) articulates steps in a process of forgiveness that I find meaningful. We can take some time with them.

First, he says, we must become willing to speak truthfully and patiently about conflicts that have arisen. To me, “becoming willing” acknowledges that such honesty and patience may not have characterized my behavior up until now.  Seeking truth is more than just reciting our personal account of the events.  There needs to be room to receive the truth of the other parties, and of those committed to accompaniment.  This means careful listening, for an alternative presentation of history and the personal testimony of the other. Even when you disagree with someone else’s interpretation of an event, you can honor their personal experience of it.  Here is the key:  willingness means engaging capacities within ourselves that are not reactive.  This will mean some honest soul-searching, and developing capacity for new ways of relating that do not compound injury.

Second, Jones says, we acknowledge the existence of anger and bitterness and a desire to overcome them. To deny these forces within ourselves is not helpful; neither is denying them to others. In the Christian faith tradition, there are abundant resources available to us to help us articulate anger and bitterness in ways that are not destructive. 

Third, we summon up concern for the well-being of the other as a child of God. This is bedrock to Christian faith. I think Dr. King’s classic sermon on Loving Enemies remains deeply relevant.  King recognized that love and forgiveness are intertwined; ultimately, we cannot sustain one without the other.  He says the evil deed of the one whom he calls the “enemy-neighbor” – enjoy the paradox-- is not the full measure of who the person is.  ”We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, prejudice, misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know  God’s image  in ineffably etched in being.  We love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and not beyond the reach of God’s redemptive love.”  This love is a measure of for-giveness. 

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, I came to know a dear man whose son was killed in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Yet he had become active in the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group that opposed the US bombing in Afghanistan which in only a few weeks took more civilian lives than had been sacrificed on 9/11.  The September 11th Families reached out to develop relationships with Afghan families that had lost loved ones.  My friend said that even in the intense pain and bitterness of losing his son so unjustly, he could not bear the thought that the same horror was then being visited on Afghan families in the name of avenging his son’s death.  I was awed and humbled.  But his giving went further.  When I invited him to speak to my congregation, before a packed house, he told us that even though the plane hijackers had done a horribly evil thing, he did not think about them as “evil people.” They came from families that loved them and communities that had tended to them as they grew from tender children.  The congregation was stunned by the gracious truth flowing forth from this grieving father.  One time when he and I were talking, the subject of forgiveness came up and he said, “Scott, I can’t begin to think about forgiveness.”  I was quiet, but thought to myself, “Dear One, you know more about it than almost anybody I know.”

Fourth, we recognize our own complicity in conflict, remembering that we have been forgiven in the past, and take a step of repentance.  This is not the same thing as assuming blame for something done to us or not holding someone accountable for their hurtful or destructive acts.  

But it involves taking responsibility for ourselves, and our role in the future that is unfolding from this present moment. When I went through the breakup of my previous marriage, to the mother of my daughter, I was devastated and angry.  But no matter what legitimate complaints I may have had, I knew that having our relationship come to that deeply broken place had required my active participation!  I needed to claim that if there was going to be any healing.  And the two of us knew that we would have to learn to relate to each other in new ways if we were going to co-parent our daughter lovingly, effectively, and in ways that did not have her carrying the freight of her parents’ failures. 

Which leads to Jones’ fifth step:  We make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused and continues to perpetrate our conflict.  I am painfully aware that I can’t necessarily change the behavior of another person, but with God’s help my own behavior can be transformed. This means addressing injustice, but in a less parochial sense!

Sixth, we confess a yearning for the possibility of reconciliation. A process of reconciliation includes not only trying to find solutions to the underlying conflict but also works to alter the adversaries’ relationships from that of resentment and hostility to friendship and harmony (a quote from our teacher Hizkias Assefa!).  Reconciliation is not always possible, as it requires equal investment from both parties.  However, God reconciles us to God’s self.  

Breathing Forgiveness Workshop in Saint Andrew's United Church Christ in Perkasie, PA  in 2014. Facilitated by Scott Hutchinson and Yago Abeledo

Yago: Your experience after leading many workshops in forgiveness tells you that the receiving of forgiveness is a greater challenge for people than the subsequent offering of forgiveness. Why is this? What do you imply by subsequent?

Scott: I always invite people to tell me about their experiences of being forgiven.  It seems to me that being forgiven is critically important to exercising the full freedom to practice forgiveness with others.    I am used to people struggling with this—it is an unusual inquiry--so I try to be more specific:

  • When have you been loved in the face of your own painful and destructive behavior?
  • When has someone interfered in a damaging cycle that has been swallowing you up?  How has their intervention opened up space for an alternative future?
  • When has someone taken the risk and invested the patience to speak to you honestly about hurt that you are causing, while not forsaking their relationship with you?
  • Who has acted for your well-being when you have not been acting for theirs?
  • When have you been given a second chance, or a third?

Giving careful consideration and answering specifically is very important. If any of these blessings is familiar to us, then we know something about “being forgiven!” 

Yago: Thinking critically, how have these experiences made it possible for us to act differently, to live differently? Can we identify particular changes in direction?

Scott: Many of us will find that there is an impressive body of work—and wisdom—within us!

Deeply related to this, I ask folks another question:  What is your experience of being forgiven by God? Many of the initial answers are doctrinal or conceptual—testimony to their thoughts   about forgiveness.  But I am asking: What is your experience of being forgiven by God?  Where does the Word become human and dwell in you, and with us?

It can be helpful to return to the first set of questions in light of our relationship with God. How has God loved you in the face of your own painful or destructive behavior? 

When has God interfered in a damaging cycle that has been swallowing you up? 

When and where has God opened an alternative future where you didn’t perceive one before?

In what ways does God speak to you honestly about hurt you have caused without forsaking God’s relationship with you?
How has God acted for your well-being quite apart from your own behavior?  When have you received second, third, fourth chances?—and what is God’s role in that?

I am not seeking pre-ordained answers. The exploration moves us into the rich territory of possibility and discovery.  In what ways are you living today as a forgiven person? In what ways does your congregation live as a forgiven community?

When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  And there is another that is inseparable: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

You asked me why I think the receiving of forgiveness can be so difficult.  I think the greatest obstacle to the full receiving of God’s gracious power is the misperception that we are only forgiven is a result of what we do.  We have learned, mistakenly, that forgiveness is a transaction:  we provide God with what God demands—a confession of guilt and unworthiness, contrition, improved behavior—and God parcels out the saving grace.  But most of us feel ill-equipped to satisfy God with what we can produce. And when strings are attached, grace ceases being so gracious!

Consider, instead, that God’s untempered love is the liberating force that encourages honest confession and enables us to shed the bonds that actually hamper our repentance.  God’s forgiveness makes confession and repentance possible, rather than the other way around!

Yago: You are inviting us not just to define forgiveness in the context of injury.  What are you suggesting?

Scott: If forgiveness is a way of being then it is more than just an ointment to apply to a wound, powerful as it may be. I think that to define “for-giveness” only in the context of injury is to limit our consideration of its power and breadth. For instance, when have you been gifted by someone else, quite apart from any notion of deserving?  Who has loved you only as they themselves would wish to be loved?  And what impact have these experiences had on your development and well-being?  What have you learned?
Sometimes others “see the Christ in us” that we haven’t seen in yourselves.

To be known deeply and, at the same time, accepted wholly, is transformative.

I am inviting us to explore the landscape of grace in our real-life experience. These are not theoretical questions and explorations. They place us in a larger and more promising context, where we are empowered and equipped to act differently, and to be ourselves in a much fuller way.  And to have fresh understandings of our lives as part of a larger narrative.

Yago:  You say that the language of self-forgiveness could be a trap. Many people go through the challenge of self-forgiveness.  Why is it so difficult to forgive oneself?

Scott: When people tell me that they are struggling to forgive themselves, I am always keenly interested in what they mean by that.

If, as I have asserted throughout my work, forgiveness involves the removal of obstacles that have limited love and well-being, or the lifting of  burdens that have distorted our full humanity,  or release from the constraints that have stifled reconciliation--then “self-forgiveness” would mean having to accomplish these things for ourselves!  And I think that these are extremely hard things to do all by oneself.  It would be like having to unlock the jail door from inside the cell. Expectations can be unrealistic. To those among us who are already struggling, not being able to “forgive ourselves” is one more burden in a life where we already carry a “shouldload” of weight!

Think about it. In the context of injury, forgiveness is an initiative of the wounded party toward the one who has done the wounding. But what do we do when our wound is perceived as self-inflicted, and the remedy is understood as an internal exchange?

The late Lew Smedes produced a lot of good work on forgiveness. He talked quite a bit about “forgiving ourselves” and “healing ourselves.” While I prefer not to adopt that terminology, I have found his books helpful. Smedes wrote about “the four stages of forgiveness,” which he put forth rather simply:  We hurt; we hate; we heal; we come together. We can think about these dynamics and apply them to our own mending.  In honestly acknowledging our own hurt, and perceiving the hurt of others whom we have impacted, we are moving beyond excuses that just aren’t working. That’s good. Moving on, we claim the anger, the bitterness, the paralysis of unfinished business and unhealed wounds, which brings our need into honest and clear focus. And we have heard the testimony of others.  What is the relationship of their pain to our own? The next stage, when in the process of forgiving another, is to see the person who hurt you in a different light. So in the case of our own need for mercy, I want to suggest that this stage involves the grace of being able to see ourselves as God sees us. Now that is God’s initiative, one that we receive.  It is available to us in the context of relationship.  And it is best discerned in a community being shaped by the same initiative. 

When people ask me about how they can forgive themselves, I assume that most have tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to gain relief.  

There is a powerful story in the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 16.  Paul and Silas have been detained in Philippi for interrupting commerce and good order. Some slaveholders have been exploiting a woman they possessed, utilizing her gift of fortune-telling for profit. Paul distinguishes between the “spirit of commerce” and the deep humanity of the woman, calling this distorting spirit out.  Her true identity is more clearly revealed, but her profitability is ruined. The presumed owners of this now- liberated woman bring public charges against Paul and Silas.    The two are attacked by the angry crowd, legally beaten by the authorities, and thrown into the prison.  For good measure, they are placed in the hellhole, the deepest and least accessible cell, and their feet are fastened in stocks so that they cannot rise.  But in the darkness of midnight, Paul and Silas pray and sing hymns praising God, like the early freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Mississippi.  Luke writes: “And the prisoners were listening to them.” It is in the wake of this listening that a divine “earthquake” shakes the foundations of the prison, opening all the doors and unfastening everyone’s chains. The jailbreak is readied! In the midst of it the jailer awakes, fears that he has failed his duty to the prevailing order, and prepares to take his own life.  But Paul stops him, assuring this terrified man that even if the powers abandon his humanity, Paul and Silas will not! Seeking light in the darkness, he runs into the jail cell, where the light is shining brightly!

There is a relationship between the power that opened the jail and the embodied praise and empathy of Paul and Silas.  That power is at work in our lives, too, even when we are tempted to pull the door back shut.

If by “self-forgiveness” we mean claiming the freedom in our lives, a re-contextualization of our story, and a willingness to set down burdens we have been carrying or tending to inner wounds we have not allowed proper tending to, then I am very much on board!  But we will need support and encouragement.

And there is another potential issue with “self-forgiveness.”  When we have done damage to another, to “forgive ourselves” without honestly facing the damage we have done and the people who have suffered the damage would be far more to excuse ourselves than to participate in true forgiveness.

A vivid example would be in the care of war veterans and the moral injuries they may carry. Numerous veterans carry wounds of the soul from their war experience.  When they come seeking relief, they carry the victims of war within them.  Their stories reveal not only their own experience but those of comrades they have lost, of people they have killed in battle, and particularly civilians whose lives have been taken unjustly. The last one is a truly terrible burden.

To tell them “You did what you had to do,” or, “You were just protecting us,” is atrocious.

It is to betray their trust, distance ourselves from our own responsibility, and refuse to receive the truths they need to share with us. They know the realities of war!  Which is why they are seeking forgiveness.

In the context of human relationship, the forgiveness that is being sought can only come from those who have been damaged.  In so many cases, they are not present; far away, dead, on the opposite side of an ongoing divide.  This is territory in healing work I engage now.

To insist that people must “forgive themselves” is an injustice.

Yago:  James Alison talks about loving your enemy within our divided selves. Is it an invitation to work first and foremost in our internalized unforgiven reality?

James Alison
Scott:  A great question.  Actually, Alison points us outward in order to go inward.  He obviously has paid attention to Jesus’ method! Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God ... Be complete (in love), as God is complete. (Matthew 5: 44, 48)”   So it stands to reason that love like this  not only has an abundant social yield but a deeply personal one as well.  There is a vital connection between loving others and realizing our beloved selves.  Alison would say that it is how we are in relationship with others that runs our reason, not our reason that runs the way we are toward others.  This is consistent with the way Jesus calls all who would be his disciples: “Follow me,” he says, and in the following we will come to see and experience things very differently. Practicing for-giveness is like that.  It is no accident that Jesus teaches us to pray: “Forgive us our debts/sins as we indeed have forgiven our debtors/those who sin against us.” 
So Jesus and Alison are suggesting that when we practice forgiveness with others we not only release them; we too are being released and can begin healing from our inner brokenness.  If we can, indeed, “forgive ourselves,” it is projectively.

Over the years, I have found that when people deeply regret the way they wounded someone and then failed to atone when they had the opportunity, it is a heavy weight of “unfinished business” that they carry. The good news is: It’s not too late to do it with someone else!

Yago: It is said that “unforgiveness is like taking poison, and expecting someone else to die.” What does this sentence suggest to you?

Scott: When withholding forgiveness is employed as a weapon against another, we cannot help but damage ourselves.  Again, Jesus says it is like refusing to breathe.  I don’t recommend trying that!

“Unforgiveness” is like taking poison because it denies our deep interrelatedness and the concept of shalom.  As Desmond Tutu has said, quite rightly: “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us ... that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor.”  The injury, and the pain and bitterness that accompany it, will define our existence.  It is important to recognize that.  I don’t think most of us want to give an offender that kind of ongoing power over our lives.

We may want to withhold forgiveness because we are seeking to establish some control on our own behalf, by denying to the person who has wounded us something that they badly need.  What we may miss is that the freedom to offer forgiveness, to assert our own dignity and worth, to give the world our best selves, is something we badly need.  While we cannot control the behavior of the other person, we have some authority over our own. Claiming that power is a vital step in our own healing.

Yago: Can we do violence to ourselves in the name of forgiveness?

Scott: Absolutely.  And violence to others as well.  If we only understand forgiveness as a rigid command or imperative—“You must forgive”—then we are in the realm of coercion. Weight is being added rather than lifted; the burdens are increased; and wounds potentially compounded. This is particularly true if we have mistakenly assumed that “to forgive” is to have to excuse an offense or overlook it. It is also true if we think it means to “move on” as though we are no longer wounded.  We will hear people say, “It’s time for you to get over it, to move beyond the offense.” That is violence.

I have a piece on my site entitled “Remembrance, Forgiveness, and Psycho-Social Hope.” In it, I am moved by the witness of CoMadres in El Salvador, the Committee of Mothers  whose children and family members  were assassinated or disappeared during the many years of violent repression and warmaking in that country.  It includes a poignant 4 minute interview with Paty Garcia, the late President of CoMadres who herself was incarcerated, tortured, and repeatedly raped by soldiers in response to her justice work.  In El Salvador, following the end of a twelve year civil war, the congress passed a law granting amnesty for those who had committed atrocities.  “Forgive and forget,” the nation was told, leaving those who had already suffered so greatly to bear the weight of a counterfeit peace. 

Honestly, Yago, if “to forgive” means mothers of murdered children need to forget them, or that the truth of what happened to them must be denied and covered over, then to hell with “forgiveness!”

But authentic forgiveness is neither excusing or denying.  In the case of Paty and CoMadres, I believe they have become for-giveness in a way that crosses generations.  They show us that we can be agents of salvation—deliverance-- for one another, though such grace is often responded to with something other than open arms.

In my article, I sketch out key elements in a trauma healing process that Paty and CoMadres embody:  (1) Remembrance (2) Truth-Telling  (3)The Freedom to Mourn  (4) Welcoming a “Third Factor” (in this case, invoking God’s presence and power)  (5) Breaking the Cycle of Violence with their very selves  (6)  Manifesting what I call “Psycho-Social Hope.”

I suggest that they incarnate the radical meaning of true forgiveness in the face of impunity.  They have existed for nearly four decades. 

In Cuscatlan Park in San Salvador there is a Monument to Memory and Truth with the names of 30,000 people, victims of the violence, etched in black granite. It is impossible to imagine such truth publicly testified to without CoMadres. There are more names to be inscribed, people to re-member.  And so many still carrying wounds.  Today CoMadres still works toward the establishment of reparations for the victims of violence.

I had my own gracious encounter with CoMadres nearly thirty year ago.  I was in the Cathedral in San Salvador on a Sunday morning, during my first visit as a Mission Partner.  I was standing in the midst of a large congregation, not far away from the tomb of martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, the champion of human rights who had been murdered during mass a day after telling the conscripts in the army that God could not bear them murdering their brothers and sisters.  Romero was buried in one of the transepts.  In the midst of the densely packed room I felt a tug on my sleeve.  A diminutive woman asked me if I was an American.  When I acknowledged that I was, she placed a folded piece of paper in my hand: “Please take this with you.”  She smiled at me and departed.  When I opened the paper, I found on it a list chronicling the murders and disappearances committed by the security forces during the previous month.  I was being humbly entrusted with receiving these truths and sharing them with others.  But not before reckoning with what such truth, and the precious life and gift it represented, would mean for me as an aspiring follower of Jesus in the USA.  This kind of challenge is a form of forgiveness, too, one with the potential to undo conspiracy with violence. 

Yago: You are in love with storytelling. Is it through storytelling that forgiveness can be explained?

Scott: Tom Boomershine says that story is a primary language of experience. It is true that our experiences have a narrative quality. I not only love to tell stories; I love to learn the telling of stories.  But all of this is preceded by living our story attentively and listening carefully to the stories of others. The pregnancy of certain words, the cadence, the movement of the action, the emotion: such richness can be awe-inspiring. We are sensitized to the depth and wonder of   our neighbor’s life narratives, and of our own.  As a pastor, I reverence the opportunity to listen to the stories of my people.  They share what is precious; what hurts; what has been formative.

I enjoy having the opportunity to accompany them in deeper examination.

In our land, and in our world, a great deal of pain and conflict is the result of not wanting to honor the stories of others.  In America, our dominant culture often tells people who they are and what their life means or doesn’t mean.  And when the people themselves try to give testimony to the authentic experiences of their God-given lives, they are corrected: “That’s not who you are! We’ll tell you who you are!” The results are devastating.  But in faith community we have the chance to honor one another’s narratives as they are weave together claim a common narrative.

Now not everyone wants to tell stories in a church setting, at least in formal worship.  But one of our key practices is gathering around a story.  Listening carefully. Being curious.  Which has led me to being able to And responding. And we wind up sharing and being blessed by more personal stories.  One of the great things about biblical narrative is that it offers entry points into the depths of our personal and communal narratives.  But there is a safety as well.  When we are overwhelmed we are able to step back and take a deep breath.  If we need to, we can say, “Well, it’s only a Bible story, right?”

Three decades years ago I was deeply impacted by reading The Gospel in Solentiname. Father Ernesto Cardenal pastored among the people of a Christian Base Community in Nicaragua; in the Solentiname archipelago of Lake Nicaragua.  The people gathered together to listen to the stories of the gospels, and then dialogued with one another about what they each heard and where that connected with their daily lives.  The book series was a collection of verbatim transcripts of the conversations.  The reflections were as profound and they were down-to- earth.  We do this in my faith community.

So you asked if forgiveness can be explained through storytelling.  Revealed perhaps.  Translated in ways that touch a range of senses.  When we are able to meet the stories of the gospels with the narratives of our own lives, it is a powerful mix.

Yago: Navigating within biblical stories could be a real source of inspiration as we explore different textures of our identity and forgiveness.  What would you say on this?

Scott: There is enormous power in the stories. One good example might be Luke 7:36-50, which I referenced before, a story I often engage in my workshops and classes.  This is the scene where Jesus has been invited to a Pharisaic dinner party hosted by a leader named Simon.  The dinner is crashed by a woman who is afforded no name, only described as being a “sinner” and “of the city.”  She anoints Jesus’ feet-- first with ointment and then with her tears-- and wipes them with her hair.  It is an extraordinarily beautiful scene, but the host and his other guests are scandalized. The kind of judgement that they render quickly on the woman they also lay on Jesus. “If this man were a prophet he would have known what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”  Jesus perceives Simon’s attitude and responds by telling him a parable about forgiveness of debts.  A creditor forgives two debts, one of five hundred denarii and the other fifty, and he forgives both.  Which one will love him more?

“The one, I suppose, for whom he canceled the greater debt,” The Pharisee responds.  Jesus says, “You have ‘judged ‘ rightly.”  Indeed, Simon is painfully good at judgement. But then Jesus asks Simon what is likely the most pivotal question in the story: “Do you see this woman?”  You can imagine Simon offering some version of “Uh-huh” while wondering where Jesus is going with this.  The key question remains; “Do you see this woman?”

While Jesus is speaking to the Pharisee his own eyes remain focused on the woman. Jesus sees her. Then he recounts the hospitality that he has received from her, even though it is not her house! Simon’s hospitality suffers in comparison. 

It is a wonderful story full of “textures.” Two of the key New Testament terms meaning “to forgive” are employed here, aphiemi and charizomai (to release and to gift). 
Subtitles in Pew Bibles mistakenly write “A Sinful Woman Forgiven.” In truth, she enters the scene as a “for-given person,” someone already free enough to transgress the boundaries of imposed shame and judgement. Jesus confirms this in his use of the perfect passive.  It is she who ministers to Jesus, who creates a space of care and sanctuary for him right there in territory hostile to them both. I have titled my reflection on this story, “The One Who is Forgiven Much Loves Much.”

Simon is blinded by equations that are rooted in judgment rather than love.  How does that work?  In Jesus’ parable, does Simon see himself as the one forgiven more or less?

When the story is broken open it offers us much to ponder together. 

What is the relationship between love and judgment?  What do we learn here about forgiven-ness?  What are its gifts to share?  What would life look like in a forgiven community?

To pay this kind of attention and take this kind of care in tending to the stories of our own lives, and the common life of a faith community, is pretty promising!

Yago:  Let’s talk more about Jesus and forgiveness.  How do you see the role of forgiveness in shaping Jesus’ ministry?

Scott: Jesus is the embodiment of forgiveness. From the beginning, he is pure gift. The new life he brings is given for everyone, while being experienced very personally by Mary and Joseph. God breaks into the dominant flow of human history; the gift is not shaped by human demands but by the character of God. We might identify with Mary who responds to grace with grace, receiving and carrying the promise within her, nurturing and nourishing it, and bearing it into the world. For Joseph, saying “yes” will require making new choices, embracing the scandal as the cornerstone of his new life.  He is untangled from collusion with death even a life turns upside-down.   Both engage a stunning level of freedom.

In inaugurating his own ministry around age 30, Jesus claims the language of Isaiah 61 as his mission statement, a Living Word, full of the forgiveness of God. The NT Greek text is spirited with such language.  The “release” to the captives and “letting the oppressed go free” are both forms of aphesis, the noun for forgiveness.  Recovery of sight to the blind is Jesus sighting us in a way that enables us to recognize the deep humanity of everyone, to see them with divine eyes.  And “the year of the Lord’s favor” is where all debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, and the grip of consolidated wealth is broken.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus recognizes people, honors people, includes people, unburdens people, heals people, frees people from all forms of bondage.  He re-members their stories in ways that redefine each person’s sense of identity and purpose. He touches the untouchable, unparalyzes the paralyzed, gives gifts and receives them, changes lives and is changed by them, learns even as he teaches, constantly confronts injustice with love, and death with life.   The way of the cross paradoxically becomes the way of life. One of my teachers, the late Daniel Berrigan, used to contrast the Way of the Cross with” the way of putting other people on the cross.” These are our choices, too!

The Risen Christ breathes forgiveness to the locked away disciples. One the Galilean seashore, he engages Peter intimately, walks him through the disabling pain of his three-time denial, reframes his mission in  love, and equips him to nurture, nourish, and tend as Jesus has. He sends all of the apostles out with the proclamation of metanoia and release.

Silvio E. Fittipaldi has, I think, a very important take on Jesus’ way of being.  For him, Jesus’ practice of forgiveness is manifested in his openness and availability to all people and to the various contexts where he meets them.  This way of being impacts his ability to enter into the experiences of others and establish hospitality even in unfamiliar territory. Jesus does not define himself in terms of a particular place; hence, he demonstrates a remarkable capacity to be “at home” everywhere. He does not define himself in terms of a particular social group, and recasts the meaning of family.  So he is open to people of all social stations. And though Jesus respects and references the Law, he behaves in ways that transgress its limitations, getting to what it is that truly has the power to deliver people.  All of this Fittipaldi considers has having a “forgiving attitude.”  It’s compelling.

Credit: Daniel Bonnell, The Baptism of the Christ

Yago: How does Jesus’ baptismal image invite us to discover our real identity?

Scott: At the time of his baptism, Jesus is moving from the limited, if blessed, definitions of life in Nazareth to immersion in the beautiful and broken lives of all of God’s people. This is profound movement.  Nazareth has been the location from which he has perceived the world, understood himself, and been known by others. It is this place and people who have given shape to his life for three decades.  Travelling to the Jordan, he enters the baptismal waters with everyone else, muddy as those waters are with the sin of God’s children. Jesus is immersed. And as he rises from the waters he sees the heavens opened; vividly “torn apart” in Mark’s gospel.  In other words, every barrier between God and God’s people has been removed! There is, and will be, no division between heaven and earth.  Nor in him.  It is in this realization of openness and graciousness that Jesus is spirited and receives several new names bestowed upon him.    Up until now, he has been “Jesus of Nazareth.”   Now he is recognized as:  Son; Beloved; God’s Pleasure.  The rich meaning of these expressions of identity will be experienced in the living; it will be in the context of human relationship that Jesus will real-ize what those names will mean.  So it is a necessary part of the story that the Spirit leads --even “drives”--Jesus into the wilderness. Let’s not think of wilderness only as frightening and unfamiliar territory.  A wilderness experience can happen when we risk plunging into the deeply familiar geography of our personal history. What happens with Jesus in the desert-ed place is not only resistance but also some deep internal work! In Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus declines the temptations to “prove himself” precisely so that he can realize being himself.  I wonder how he would describe what he discovered. It is in the wake of this clarifying that he is then able to return to Galilee, proclaiming the nearness of God’s realm in the here-and-now, with a liberating invitation to a life lived fully in God’s redeeming love.

For us, that will mean each of us exploring expressions of our deeper, God-given identity: Children of God, Deeply Loved; Those Who Live as God’s Pleasure.

And what is the baptismal identity of a community of faith?  What is our move-ment?

There’s a good source for such exploration. Not that long after the account of Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s gospel offers a dynamic story that powerfully references Jesus in the Jordan. It is early in Jesus’ ministry, and he is teaching a full house of people in Capernaum. A man described as a “paralytic” is being carried to Jesus by a very determined group of people.  But when they arrive, there is no room for welcome, “because of the crowd.”   All available space has been claimed.  Rather than being discouraged, or deciding to try another day, those carrying the man act assertively, creatively.  They climb up onto the roof of the house, lifting the man up.  Once there, they “unroof the roof,” the text says, making an opening where there hasn’t been one before.  I delightfully imagine the howls of protest below.  But they are undeterred, having moved him from the margins of the story to the center, carefully lowering him to a place of intimate encounter with Jesus. They themselves are not paralyzed by the previous claims made on Jesus’s time and space. Nor the barriers.

There is a wonderfully baptismal flavor to this.  As Jesus once looked up from the waters to see the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him, today he raises his eyes to see the ceiling being broken through and a person being spirited into communion.  The faith of those carrying the paralyzed one is the force that removes the barrier, changing the very same location into a point of entry!  And seeing their faith, Jesus declares, essentially, “Their faith has made you whole.”  Now that’s a story to ponder!

Yago: Now, let us touch the role of contemplation in nurturing a forgiving mind.  In Fittipaldi’s article, “Zen-mind, Christian-mind, Empty-mind,” he says that Christian emptiness is realized in “having the mind of Christ,” which is a forgiven mind, that is, a mind that is open and unbound in regard to place, social status, and the law.  How does Fittipaldi’s reflection inspire you in the exploration of new territories of forgiveness?

Scott:  It’s a remarkable article. I am drawn to Fittipaldi’s exploration of the connection between “non-attachment” and forgiveness. As we acknowledged, Jesus’ practice of forgiveness is manifested in his openness to all people. He transcends cultural filters and rigid frames and legalisms that would limit his receptiveness and availability.    Fittipaldi calls this “Jesus-mind.” For instance, what is described scripturally as his “having no place to lay his head” can alternatively be understood as a radical manifestation of freedom, one that Jesus engages actively.     
So a couple of key questions are: How can we nurture such capacities in ourselves? And: What kinds of disciplines can we practice that shape a “forgiving life,” interrupting and overcoming the life-taking and destructive patterns we have been in enmeshed in?

First, I believe that exploring Prayer is essential to this way of being. A mentor of mine taught me long ago that prayer involves “dislocation and new location.” The dislocation of the ego, the denial of oneself, not necessarily in an internal tug of war but by having self-interest replaced at the heart of attentive living. 

Jesus’ command that we love our enemies and pray for them is a stirring example. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy;” here Jesus invokes the dualism the world is so imbued of!  That’s where we start out. But Jesus doesn’t leave us enmeshed. He contrasts that with an inspired alternative: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  Again, a matter of being!    And thus, a matter of wholeness.  I think that Matthew 5:48, the conclusion of this teaching, should be translated: “Therefore, be whole and complete as your heavenly Father is whole and complete.” 

Historically, we have struggled with that passage because most translations have rendered the Greek term teleios as “perfect;” “Be perfect as God is perfect.”  That is not a passage that is accessible to us. And hearing it that way pushes love of enemies further away.    But teleios can also mean, “whole” or “complete.”  In that case, we are being directed toward a wholeness that images God’s wholeness; that is, being whole or complete in love.  No one—particularly the enemy-is left out of God’s love.   Jesus drives the point home: If you only love people who love you back, well, even nonbelievers do that!

So if my practice of forgiveness can begin with me praying for my adversary, rather than needing to excuse them or summon some affection for them (both of which I might find impossible), that is a different matter.  To lift my adversary in intercessory prayer first requires me to place his/her well-being at the center of concern, rather than my own perceived self-interest.  That is a new location for both of us!   As Buechner would say, to see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired, to see their families, to perceive their fears; To pray for them to be loved, forgiven, transformed by God, even when we seem unable to summon such love ourselves. It’s a revolution.

This goes hand-in-hand with our praying of the Lord’s Prayer with attention and intention. In Matthew, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive (or have forgiven) our debtors,” and in Luke, “forgive us our sins as we also are forgiving . . .”

Prayer is a time of paying attention. My former pastor, Ted Loder, describes prayer as “a way of attempting to focus on grace, to pay attention to it, to praise it.”  I love that!

It seems to me that Confession is another critical discipline. Confession releases.  The good news is that God’s fore-giving opens healing space for our confessions.  “The spirit of judgement is cut off at the roots,” Bonhoeffer said about the power of confession; “In confession the break- through to community takes place.” 

There is a church in Somerville, Massachusetts, that engages that wisdom publicly. At First Congregational United Church of Christ, public confession is an integral part of their worship.  Their time of Confession and Assurance of God’s Grace involves people coming up and sharing stories from their lives. The person serving as liturgist for that week makes a public confession of sin and vulnerability.   They begin: “Now is the time we bring our stories before God.” Their former Pastor, Molly Phinney Baskette, has written a book about the practice: “Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession.” The process is quite reflective. The liturgist receives the scripture, Sermon Title, and a synopsis of the theme for the week.  They ponder, inviting the Holy Spirit’s work, and discern connecting stories and situations rising from their own experience.  And what is my responsibility in the story?  How would I name it as sin?  How has the grace of God been manifested in ways that have been healing, strengthening, revealing?  

The book chronicles real life struggles; fallenness; fears of loss; responses to bad things happening; needs to control; addictions; lying to loved ones; victimization and longsuffering wounds; anger and frustration with children; working through differences in a primary relationship; being hung up on how things look; failures; sense of emptiness; anxiety—all these and more are the territories of truth.

Baskette says that this was a central practice in helping the community to grow considerably.   She quotes her Associate Pastor as saying that the confession was “critical self-examination for an internal peace.” It seems to me that this practice invites people in the community to share deeply in one another’s lives; to be entrusted with gifts of truth, while encouraging self-awareness.  It has me considering the ways that entering such a process itself transgresses boundaries of place, social location, and the tyranny of “shoulds!” And also internal boundaries that have separated acceptable and unacceptable.  People seek authenticity, release, entrusting, and invitation. They yearn for understanding. By the time Molly left, there was a 20-month waiting list of folks who wanted to lead! But any faith community can wade into the waters.

Yago: In a previous interview in this blog, we discuss the challenge of transforming historical harms.  Particularly the one related to the history of slavery in the United States.  What is the role of forgiveness in this transformative process?

Scott: Your interviews with Amy Potter Czajkowski and Phoebe Kilby were both really beneficial. Amy’s contained a number of important references to forgiveness as we have been discussing it. She resonates with Dr. King’s understanding of forgiveness as recognizing that someone is more than the harmful acts that they have committed.  This humanizes the offender and opens up possibilities for engagement, including inner-engagement. In this way, forgiveness manifests the biblical theme of “seeing.”  Not only seeing others more clearly and deeply, but being seen.  I found very compelling her words: “Being seen beyond one’s harmful behavior as potentially good can be a tremendous gift.” The texture here is charizomai. In talking about the historical beneficiaries of slavery and its legacy, Amy says: “So for European Americans whose families have financially benefited from slavery, being forgiven ignites a part of their humanity that they don’t always see.”  She is articulating the experience of being humanized. We have talked in some detail about the connection between experiencing forgiveness and being released to practice it with others.

THH, as I understand it, focuses on interrupting the intergenerational transmission of experiences, beliefs, and institutions that come from enslavement.  Forgiveness always involves the interruption of violent and destructive cycles, creatively and generatively.  Both Amy and Phoebe embody this in deeply personal ways.    To “face history” requires a significant measure of courage.  Research risks revelation. Amy’s willingness helped her understand the economics of slavery, and to identify and acknowledge ways she has benefitted.

Her journey resonates with Fittipaldi’s insights, particularly in becoming aware of the cultural filters through which one has beheld and interpreted the world. Any measure of liberation from those limitations enables reframed perspective, sharpened receptive language, and increased accountability. “If the narrative we got through our families and societies doesn’t actually represent reality, we need to expand our narratives.”

Phoebe’s participation in Coming to the Table has been both life changing and world changing. I was struck by her courage. Her testimony about reckoning with the filters through which one has perceived race is so powerful, personal, and so encouraging!  As you know, her willingness to face history has included studying the awful accounts of eugenics, its damaging impact, and its transmission at the University of Virginia Medical School while her father studied there. This gave her new insight into the racial filters she learned from her father and from visiting his medical practice. It enabled her to understand him more fully, and led her to reflect honestly on her own racism and how it has manifested.  Also poignant are her reflections on inner -contradiction and fear. Many people would join me in relating to this.

You and Phoebe related Tee Turner’s relevant insights into the power of language to perpetuate things or change things, to facilitate liberation or to reinforce bondage. For-giveness  can be experienced in dialogue, in embracing a shared journey. 

Yago: Thanks Scott for the wonderful insights and life experiences you have shared with us. Looking forward to a second part of our interview.

Scott: Me too! I am grateful for this opportunity for you and I to explore this territory together. I hope we can move even more deeply into the relationship between forgiveness and atonement in opening paths for healing and reconciliation. You are raising some challenging questions about the role of forgiveness in confronting the legacy of white supremacy in the United States and tending the open wounds borne by many in America. I also look forward to sharing our present healing work with the veterans of war, the communities they return to, and the victims of war's violence.