Forgiveness used to be a virtue. Now it’s a sign of weakness. Imagine what might happen if we could remember the forgotten power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is never easy
At some point in my childhood, my mom pulled me aside and told me that I needed to forgive one of my brothers who had just hit me or broke my toy or done something else that, at the time, seemed completely egregious. You probably experienced something similar when you were a kid.
But over the years, the seriousness of the things I’ve needed to forgive has gone way beyond broken toys. And if I’ve learned anything it’s that forgiveness is never easy — it wasn’t easy as a kid and it isn’t easy now.
Whatever happened to forgiveness?
Last weekend, 48 people were shot in Chicago. That’s not a typo. Forty-eight people were gunned down and eight died — including Amari Brown, a seven-year-old boy who was hit by a bullet intended for his father, a ranking member of a Chicago gang.
Chicago is murder central in the U.S. In Amari’s case (and many others), shootings are gang retaliations. Sometimes not even funerals are safe.
Charles Childs, president of the A.A. Rayner & Sons funeral home in Chicago, told NBC News that small things can cause funerals to take a violent turn:
“It could be something so minor, like somebody stepping on somebody’s foot or not saying hello or being asked to take their hat off.”
The cycle of retribution that fuels the murder rate in Chicago isn’t limited to gangs or even Chicago. In America, there is an epidemic of retribution, revenge and retaliation that cuts across every layer of society:
- We idolize movie characters that exact revenge when they experience a loss or defeat.
- We use social media to talk trash about people who have wronged us.
- We cheer when criminals are sentenced to death.
- We talk about getting even like it’s a virtue, rather than a character flaw.
Sometimes forgiveness is complicated. But my point is that somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that there’s real power in forgiveness.
We need to rediscover the power of forgiveness
Here’s the thing about forgiveness: it’s powerful. When we choose to forgive (because forgiveness is always a choice, not a feeling), we introduce something beautiful and sublime into dark and broken places.
In God’s world, forgiving and being forgiven are two sides of the same coin. But as important as forgiveness is for our spiritual well being, the power of forgiveness goes beyond personal spirituality.
Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel — it’s a defining feature of Jesus’s alternative way and his ability to overcome the evils of this world with love.
When we choose the power of forgiveness — even when it means forgiving unforgivable things — we create an atmosphere for social transformation.
For example, church members’ willingness to forgive has been credited with preventing violence and beginning the healing process in the wake of the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston. A similar phenomenon occurred in 2006 when the Amish community publicly forgave the gunman in the Amish school shooting.
The members of Emanuel AME understand that forgiveness isn’t really about the shooter. It’s about them. Because the power of forgiveness heals us and by extension, our communities.
The Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff was one of my classmates in the doctor of Ministry program at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. Following the death of Rev. Clementa Pinckney in the Charleston shooting, he was named interim pastor at Emanuel AME. Speaking on the power of forgiveness, Norvel told the Huffington Post:
“We’re not in control of those who may commit evil acts, but we are in control of how we respond to it.”
Maybe that’s the most important lesson the power of forgiveness teaches us. When we’re hurt or offended or victimized by evil, we have a fundamental need to regain control of our lives.
Retaliation is a form of control. But forgiveness is control perfected because it’s a divine, beautiful response to the worst the world has to offer.
And when we choose to regain control by embracing the power of forgiveness, we not only allow God to heal us … we heal the world.