Forgiveness in an Age of Conflict

Sermon at New Song Episcopal Church on February 20, 2022:


Not long ago a friend told me about a difficult situation involving her teenage daughter. In some ways it’s a standard adolescent drama involving a boyfriend and a jealous ex-girlfriend. The problem is that because of social media, specifically Tik-Tok, instead of this being a private matter between three people, it’s become a public controversy involving many teenagers, with shaming and bullying and general nastiness all around played out in a very public fashion.

To get a sense for how hard this is for the young people involved, just think of your own teenage years, and then multiply all that angst by a hundred. Because that what happens in our current social climate, thanks in large part to social media, which ensures that every negative experience of growing up is amplified and then recorded for posterity. No wonder so many of our kids are struggling and depressed.

It’s not just adolescents who are suffering from an overload of anxiety, of course, and it’s not just social media that’s the culprit. It seems as if our society is permeated with conflict these days, with pandemic fatigue, arguments about vaccines and mandates, and political turmoil. What makes it all worse is that with a single press of a button on our keyboard we can express our disapproval to hundreds, click on a link that makes us even angrier, or watch a video that we can forward on to friends so that they can be outraged too.

The result is that Americans are more miserable than they’ve been in at least half a century, according to public polling. And there are no solutions in sight for the malaise that’s settled over American society.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, how Jesus would have handled all of this? Because he lived during an age of great division and conflict, too, in many ways worse than ours. And his response was this:

Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Now this is one of those points in the Gospel story when you want to sit down with Jesus and say, “No, I’m sorry, this approach just isn’t going to work for me. That loving my enemy thing is a bridge too far.”

We have another example of this approach from our first reading for today, in which Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. On the list of sins that are hard to forgive, that’s got to be near the top.

If you turn to Buddhism, as I often do for inspiration, it’s the same approach. One of its central practices is called loving kindness meditation, in which you start by sending loving thoughts to yourself (which is easy!), then to a loved one (also easy), then to a larger circle of people you’re connected with, and finally to someone you have a conflict with. You’re actually supposed to sit there and meditate on sending them love. This is one of the reasons there aren’t more Buddhists.

Now obviously these are very high standards. As C.S. Lewis put it: “We [can] all agree that forgiveness is a beautiful idea until we have to practice it.”

So what does all this mean for us today, in this time that’s so fraught with division and conflict? How can these ancient stories and truths guide us in our troubled world?

Maybe the first step is to realize that while the situations we’re experiencing today are fraught with difficulty, they involve universal human problems. That’s why the words of Jesus are as applicable today as they were during his time. Forgive. Pray for those who abuse you. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.

But wait—does that mean we should be doormats, or simply turn our eyes away when we encounter injustice? Clearly not, because in other verses Jesus—as well as other prophetic voices in the Bible—give a ringing message of the need for justice. But what Jesus does seem to be saying is that we need to drain the bile, the poison, that often comes with being angry and hurt.

Listen to this quote from Anne Lamott to see what this might mean. When we are stuck in our convictions and personas,” she writes, “we enter into the disease of having good ideas and [of] being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet. We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, [of] feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

And Lamott concludes with these lines: “It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.”

So how might that new life arise? Maybe part of it could come from being less certain about everything, to give some breathing room in our opinions. Maybe it could be about listening more than talking, and about stretching the bubble of who we relate to.

In doing so, we’re benefitting our bodies as well as our souls. According to many research studies, there’s an enormous physical burden to being hurt and upset. Chronic anger puts us into fight-or-flight mode, which has negative effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and the immune response. It increases our risk of depression, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.

The good news is that forgiveness has health benefits too. But how does one forgive, especially someone who shows no remorse? Here’s where scientific research jells with ancient wisdom such as Jesus and the Buddha gave.

One is that forgiveness is an active process. It’s a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings, whether or not the other person responds as you would wish. But it doesn’t mean forgive and forget, or that we shouldn’t seek justice or restitution if appropriate. Instead it means trying to see the other person’s viewpoint and the experiences that have shaped them.

That’s the heart of restorative justice, which is a movement near and dear to Dorothy and John Whiston in particular. I remember a documentary that Dorothy showed at New Song last year, in which the mother and daughter of a woman who was murdered met with the man who had committed the crime. It was profoundly moving to see the restorative justice process unfold, how the women were given insights into the life of the murderer, and he into theirs. Sitting in a room together in the prison, the women shared their hurt and anger and their desire to move beyond pain. The man told them about the crushing weight of guilt he felt and his own abusive childhood. There was forgiveness in that room, but also justice, because the two are not exclusionary. The documentary showed that all of these people were children of God whose conversations took place in the light of grace.

The documentary also showed that forgiveness is a process, one that for deep hurts often has to be done again and again. We forgive, and then the anger and resentment overwhelm us again, and so we need to forgive again. Hopefully with each cycle the forgiveness deepens its roots.

Think again of that line from Anne Lamott about new life arising from realizing how little we know. Something needs to be cracked open in order to grow. That’s what a seed does when it’s buried in the ground, or a chick as it breaks open an egg. Our hardness of heart needs to be broken before we can grow.

And so every time we choose to forgive, we add a little more to the sum of goodness in the world. If we focus only on the big picture of all that is wrong, it’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed. But there is so much good as well, and we can contribute to it. These opportunities for grace will come, if we are on the alert for them and welcome them.

Or as C.S. Lewis put it: “He who has not forgiven an enemy has never yet tasted one of the most sublime enjoyments of life.”





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