Friday, June 6, 2008

Sometimes we do damage

Overall, I think most of us would agree (Christian or not) that Christianity is generally a good thing, about promoting goodness for people (of all shapes, colors, and creeds), and yet, sometimes we do damage. Obviously, with the Crusades, we did more than "damage". We (whether we participate or not) also often are known for berating people about their damnation so that they might believe. Those are the obvious ones. But I think there are more subtle ways *we've* done damage.

The other day I was talking with a woman about her faith journey. She had a number of things on her mind and hoped I could help. The first thing we talked about was forgiveness. She shared that someone near to her told her, "You need to forgive X or you won't be forgiven and you will go to hell." Well, yes, scripture does say that we have to forgive in order to be forgiven, but I think that simple-matter-of-fact statement takes a number of things for granted.

#1 It was not a given that the person I spoke with, let's call her Georgia, hadn't forgiven X. Her "adviser" simply assumed she hadn't.

#2 Forgiveness can be a process. The words "I forgive you" can be given simply and quickly, but the emotions tied to unforgiveness can take time to work through.

#3 It puts the onus of the forgiving--the weight of the sinful actions--on the victim. The victim now becomes responsible for the abuser's actions. I'm not saying that victims shouldn't forgive, but I am saying that all too often when someone has been hurt/abused/mistreated we hand them the responsibility (and the damnation) for forgiveness (in other words, he harmed her, and now she's damned to hell because of the wounds he left...that may be overly simplistic, but hopefully you get the idea). That's a bit lopsided in my mind. The abuser has a responsibility and accountability in this too: repentance (which means a changing of action, not just a simple "I'm sorry").

I walk with a pastor/pastoral counselor regularly and she shared something really interesting about forgiveness and the scriptures. She said that often when forgiveness is mentioned in the New Testament (I don't know about the Old) that it has to do with debt, and the owner/powerful/money-holder forgiving the debt. In other words, it calls those who have more (property, money, power) to be forgiving (lenient, giving, merciful) rather than the other way around. I'm not sure exactly where to go with that from here, just that I thought it was interesting.

Another thing Georgia mentioned in talking with me was pride/humility. Mostly she talked about how hard she is on herself and then she talked about feeling "good" when she had helped someone in need, and then feeling bad that she was being *prideful*. My heart broke for her. She couldn't/wouldn't even allow herself to enjoy the good feelings of helping someone. I can't help but think the church is partly responsible for this one too, in that we preach against pride so much and for our "sinful nature" that we've forced a skewed view of ourselves. If we aren't constantly critiquing ourselves for our faults/sins/misgivings, then we're edging on pride. But I think that's wrongheaded. My counselor in seminary gave me great advice about humility, he shared that humility is not the opposite of pride, self-deprecation is. Humility, rather, is thinking neither too high, nor too low of yourself. So to be humble is to both know your faults and to appreciate your gifts--a happy medium of sorts.

As we talked more about her good feelings, I told her they were a gift from God--the way we know we're doing what God would have us do. I told her I know that I am truly living my call when I teach and preach and help people, and I know that from the tremendous sense of joy I feel. I shouldn't negate that feeling, and neither should she--it's a gift from God.

It's often in the subtleties that we are misunderstood, or that we misunderstand, and often, when we do harm. Sometimes it's semantics, and no we can't be responsible for every possible take on every possible word we use, but we do have to be careful, especially if you're a preacher of the word--God's word. You're words often carry greater authority, greater meaning, and a sharper edge and you must proceed with caution. We are responsible for the well-being of the flock, and often that means navigating pronouns for the divine, offering space for healing, and time for forgiveness, and grace for all.

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