22 June 2011

Do I really need to forgive?

(Forgiveness, part two.)

Journey to Sukhbaatar, Mongolia

After years of being told about Jan Karon's Mitford novels, I've finally picked one up. It's like a small-town American Episcopal equivalent of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels--a little over the top with the sentimentality and atmosphere, and in this one I picked randomly (In the Company of Others: A Father Tim Novel) the wall-to-wall Irishness in place of Botswana.

Far outweighing these features is the central theme of the novel, so far. (I'm about halfway through it.) That theme is forgiveness, for oneself and for others.

I know of few themes of Christian discipleship that are as problematic and, sometimes, even irritating. It's extremely risky to prescribe forgiveness to others, considering how often and how glibly it's been advised in situations of ongoing or unhealed abuse, for example. In my own case, I remember being told that my parents "did the best they could" in raising me and my two sisters. "They did the best they could" seems to me to be an all-purpose escape clause for people (me included!) who really ought to be held accountable to make better choices. Could not my parents have made more of an effort to overcome racism, to choose their children instead of alcohol, to encourage us instead of shaming us?

Years have gone by since the last time someone gave me that line about my parents doing the best they could. In other words, there's been time for healing. And time for another very important realization: (Psalm 130, NIV)
If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I cannot grant that my parents couldn't have made better choices, but I've had time to understand how limited my mother's resources were for coping with America's diversity, having grown up in the Nazi-dominated context of her childhood and youth. I understand better how alcohol sapped my father's strengths in all senses, and how he began to recover in the very last years of his life--and I still shake my head at the miraculous road he took to arrive at his Eastern Orthodox conversion in his last few months.

More than that, I've understood how much I depend on God's mercy in my own life. How many people might even now be saying, "Don't tell me that Johan was just doing the best he could do!" I am acutely aware of the swath I must have cut through people's lives in my first ghastly year at Friends United Meeting, when the organization's financial hemorrhage caused me to reduce the staff by a third, through a combination of attrition, early retirements, and outright layoffs. How I wish I'd had a few more years of leadership experience and wisdom before I encountered that challenge! (And my remaining years at FUM supply me with lots of other instances I could spend most of my time reviewing with a sigh: "How differently I'd do that now!")

My biggest challenge of all in the forgiveness department: Tyrone King, the man who was convicted of murdering my sister Ellen. But that task of forgiveness was inextricably tied up with forgiving my parents, for (in my earlier jaundiced interpretation) causing my sister to start running away from home in the first place, over and over, to the point where she even could have been found in a Chicago south side bar by Tyrone King. In addition, I had to forgive myself for surviving her--and that was not easy. Although Ellen was two years younger than me, I saw her as more creative, more interesting, more deserving of a long and productive life. Forgiving myself was one of the hardest things I've ever done--and by "hardest" I mean hard and disciplined work of recovery and learning spiritual self-discipline. In some ways, life as a self-blaming victim was easier, believe it or not.

This isn't the first time I've mentioned my struggle with forgiving Tyrone King, but the crucial point that occurs to me now is that forgiving him for the unrestorable wound of the past is NOT the same as saying that his crime was in any way justifiable or a result of his environment. I am simply aware that both Tyrone and I are accountable to God, and it's up to God to figure out what to do with each of us. In the meantime, I can't spend my life replaying mistakes--minor or tragic, mine or others. I take responsibility where I can (working to overcome my own denial!). Then, after what is sometimes an embarrassingly long lag time of dwelling on the past, I come back to the blessings of the present. So, sitting here at a cafe in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I take another sip of coffee and turn back to Jan Karon's novel.

Time for just one "righteous link"--worth attentive reading. I submit it not as my judgment on current affairs in Russia, but rather my resistance to reductionist, mechanical interpretations of the Soviet collapse: Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong.

Finally, another helping of blues dessert:

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