from Pantperthog to Knockando

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Strange Opposites" - Similarities between forgiveness and violence

I’ve been touched recently by something Rob Bell said in his most recent book: “Forgiveness is unilateral.”


I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is the opposite of violence, but it’s a strange opposite because actually it is very similar to violence.

Violence is usually unilateral, too. It is very rare that both parties are equally violent on pre-agreed terms. There is normally an aggressor, even if the only aggression is provocation. If there is only perceived provocation, then the “provoked” is the aggressor. But, however much people may claim to be provoked, the decision to act violently is usually taken by one party.

But forgiveness is also unilateral. Like violence, it does not rely on the other person doing anything – as a ‘provocation’, or as a response. If a person won’t receive forgiveness, then that does not annul the forgiveness. They are still forgiven, whether they accept it or not. You have no control about another person’s decision to forgive you, just as you have no control over whether they will act violently towards you.

You can of course modulate your behaviour – be submissive in the presence of the violent, or actively seek forgiveness – but you can’t control it. And other people can’t control your choice. You choose to forgive, or to be violent.

There are other ways forgiveness is like violence. Both are more shocking when they are totally unexpected. Blitzkrieg was devastating because it was an unexpected form of attack. When a grieving parent forgives the killers of their child on the news, it is equally unexpected and shocking. Both acts provoke a response, and that response is heightened when you don’t expect it.

Both are self-replicating. There is a phrase that ‘Violence begets violence’; a truism seen at work all over the world. But there is another truism too. ‘If you’ve truly been forgiven, then you will forgive others’ is one of Christianity’s tough lines – but the point isn’t that you have to forgive when you don’t want to.

The point is that if you truly realise what it is to be totally forgiven for every mistake, every petty selfishness, every crime against other people, society or yourself, then that liberates you. Being forgiven enables you to forgive others.

But equally, both violence and forgiveness can be too easily forgotten. Currently, it seems the lessons learned from foreign policy in decades past are being ignored. The military option has become the ‘go to’ place in too many governments. But violence in the past didn’t work. And we forget that.

When we forget about forgiveness, disaster usually follows too. The parable of the two debtors – one forgiven a large sum, but then extorting a small sum they are owed reminds us that we should never forget our standing before God. We are one side-step away from judgement and we will be judged brutally if we act brutishly.

When we forget we are forgiven, then we forego forgiving others – and forfeit our own forgiveness.

And finally, violence and forgiveness can both become a way of life. Anger, aggravation and aggression can become our default settings. The more we act that way, the less of an act it becomes – it becomes the way we are, it is how we do things, it’s what we will be in future.

But forgiveness can also be a way of life. It can be how we are – holding grievances lightly or not at all. In the words of Linkin Park, we can choose to remember what is good about a person and “leave out all the rest”. When we do that we are living a life of forgiveness. It has become the way we are, it permeates what we do, it holds out hope for who will be in future.

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