Friday, December 23, 2011

Forgiveness 2.0?

I have been reading Brian Zahnd's book UNconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness, which at first glance on the library bookshelf, looked like an excellent read.  After all, Miroslav Volf wrote the foreword and there's an endorsement from Eugene Peterson on the front cover.  And with the word 'radical' in the title I buckled up for an exhilarating ride.

I agree with the whole premise, that in order for forgiveness to be healing and transformative, that it must be unconditional.  Which also means the degree of sin does not matter.  Radical enough so far.  However, Zahnd posits unconditional forgiveness as a uniquely Christian virtue/teaching, as given to us from Christ on the cross:  "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I agree that if those of us who call ourselves 'Christian' are truly going to follow Jesus, then we need to be unconditionally forgiving.  But to tout Christianity as the religion that teaches and espouses radical forgiveness is hubris.  What we certainly do not need is more Christian triumphalism, which Zahnd decries in the preface.

He writes:
"Of course there is cheap forgiveness that is worthless and an affront to justice.  Essentially, the Buddhist position is that evil is a nonexistent illusion, so there really is nothing to forgive.  This is nothing like the Christian position.  Christian forgiveness is not a cheap denial of the reality of evil or the trite sloganeering of 'forgive and forget'."
I'm wondering, given his Pentecostal background--I'm not sure he truly understands the 'Buddhist position'.  To get to that place of nonexistent illusion, one must meditate and practice a lifetime of detachment and compassion, which takes a great deal of discipline.  There is nothing cheap about it.

He also implies that the law of Moses is improved upon by Jesus, implying a lower status to the Ten Commandments and the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
"In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is making an implicit claim to speak with the same authority as the One who gave the Law at Mount Sinai.  Jesus was saying that the Law given at Mount Sinai was being countermanded (italics mine) by the sermon given at the Mount of Beatitudes."
Stating that Jesus expanded the Law of Moses might have been a better choice of words. Even so, I'm not sure many Jews would be heartened to hear it.

In fact I think that his holiness the Dalai Lama might have it all over Zahnd.  In his book Beyond Religion: Ethics for Whole World, his holiness writes that religion is not necessary to cultivate compassion.  Jesus said that we are to love our enemies and forgive them, which seems to me to be a radical form of compassion.

"...[Extended], universal compassion is not rooted in any self-regarding element, but rather in the simple awareness that all others are human beings, who, just like oneself, aspire to happiness and shun suffering.  With this kind of compassion, our feeling of concern for others is completely stable and unaffected by the attitude they may have toward us.  Even if others threaten or verbally abuse us, our compassion for them, our concern for their welfare, remains.  Genuine compassion, therefore, is directed not at people's behavior but at the people themselves."
 Our Western, Christian-based notion of forgiveness has a great deal to do with ego, which is why Jesus' call to radical forgiveness can be so difficult for many.  We still think in terms of worthiness and entitlement, often withholding our forgiveness because the offending party has not, will not or cannot apologize or repent or atone for the pain they have caused.  Yet both compassion and forgiveness are neither earned nor deserved.  And when we get down to it, both may lift up and heal another but it is through them that our own hearts are saved and made whole.

True, I have just begun both books--a habit of mine: reading more than one book at once.  Both promise to discuss justice in later chapters.  Still, the first few chapters, I think, give the overall impression of the author's viewpoint.  And when it comes to forgiveness or compassion, there can be nothing unique about them, except how each of us lives out this radical call in our own lives.

So, Brian, this could be a lesson in forgiveness for me, in that I was frustrated and angered by some of your words.  But in truth, there is nothing to forgive.  You are a human being, like me, trying to find your way in this world by following the Way of Jesus.  And though Jesus calls us to embrace suffering rather than shun it, we usually fail miserably.  And so we have the need for radical compassion.  And so I thank you for your words, for like that Serbian Orthodox priest of whom you wrote, you have pushed me closer to compassion and closer to Jesus:  "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" I have much farther to go in following this wisdom.

Here is an example of radical compassion from the animal kingdom, from the Pocatello Zoo in Idaho:

Elk saves marmot

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