by The Rev. Dr. I. Carter Heyward
"Abba, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
But, sweet Jesus, what if they did know what they were doing when they hung you on the tree? What if the leaders of this nation know exactly what they are doing in Iraq? And what if we, too, no less than these public figures past and present, know what we are doing not only in Iraq, but throughout the world, and here at home? Flexing our economic muscle, strutting our military might in the streets for God and everybody to admire, or probably most of us here trying to figure out what, if anything, we can do to curb the violence and vengeance being wrought by others? What if those who crucified Jesus -- the Roman empire -- knew, as we know, that violence pays? And what if those at the foot of the cross, the ones who stood there watching knew, as we know, a sense of helplessness?
We can't know to whom Jesus was referring when he asked God to forgive those who didn't know what they were doing. Igniting sparks of anti-Semitism, many Christians over the years have insisted that Jesus was talking about the Jews. Others have assumed he was referring to the Romans which, if we accept this, suggests an easy, if chilling, analogy for our own time and circumstances, bogged down as we are today in violence, vengeance, and greed that would seem to be spinning evermore out of control.
Let's imagine for a few minutes this afternoon that Jesus was perhaps referring
also to his own friends and family who were standing at the foot of the cross on
that Good Friday. His own community, a band of disciples, bonded together in
this terrible moment by a shared sense of powerlessness. Let's imagine their
friend Jesus glancing down at them, then lifting his eyes, "Abba, forgive them,
for they don't know what they're doing." Could Jesus have possibly been thinking
of people like us -- not only the murderers, not only the executioners, not only
the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, or the
Commander in Chief -- but us: the ones standing at the foot of the cross? "Abba, Father/Mother, forgive them? Forgive us?"
But what is "forgiveness"? We see it in former Nicaraguan Defense Minister Tomas Borge's extension of a hand of friendship to his former jailer and torturer. We see it in Nelson Mandela's efforts to help build a just society with white, black, and coloured participation. We witness forgiveness, of course, in the remarkable "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" established in South Africa after apartheid as a means of helping build reconciliation and peace between former victims and former oppressors. We see forgiveness at work in those many nations (except our own) that have abolished capital punishment as the most un-forgiving of institutions. Forgiveness is at work, usually unrecognized, in the lives of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians who hang in with the church, open to accepting those who most fear us; and it is a deep capacity to forgive that enables feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Kwok Pui-lan and Black and womanist theologians like Delores S. Williams and Kelly Brown Douglas to keep on keepin' on in the contexts of churches and schools in which they continually must cope with being treated as "other."
Forgiveness is a psycho-spiritual, social, and political leap out of the past -- its wrongs and wounds -- into the shaping of the present and future. It is a refusal to get stuck in resentment over what has been done in order to generate creative energies for living today and tomorrow. Forgiveness usually has at least as much to do with the desire and capacity of those who've been wounded to move forward as with the desire or need of those who have inflicted the injury. (Was Jesus asking God to forgive his crucifiers at least in part for his own sake -- in order to be able to step into eternity at peace with his brothers and sisters, a peace that eludes those who do not forgive?)
But what of those who stood at the foot of the cross? What on earth would Jesus have been forgiving his community, his friends and family, for? What had his band of disciples done that needed forgiving? What had they not done? What have we done, and what have we not done? (We have done those things that we ought not to have done, and we have left undone those things that we ought to have done.)
Could Jesus have been asking God to forgive folks like us for falling into the spiritual abyss of believing that we are powerless and helpless? And not only us, but the leaders of the nations as well? Was Jesus suggesting that our sin -- our alienation from God and one another -- is our stuckness in the spiritual lie that, without wealth and weapons, we are powerless, helpless, unable to do much about anything of great importance -- and that, with wealth and weapons, there's nothing we can't do? Is this the great lie that leads us to crucifixions of many kinds -- either as the executioners or as the on-lookers at the foot of the cross?
"Abba, forgive them, because they don't know what they are doing." Let us imagine that Jesus got it right: They didn't know what they were doing, not really; and neither do we today.
Forgive them, because they fell into assuming that without crucifixions and crowd control, they couldn't build a better world.
Forgive us, because we too fall into believing that without soldiers and bombers, without wealth and prominence, without big names and big guns, we can't make much difference anyhow.
Mother/Father, forgive us, because we who stand at the foot of the crosses of our time don't realize who we are. We don't fully realize that we are your daughters and sons infused with your Spirit to bear hope to a despairing planet, faith to a disbelieving people, love to a world torn apart by fear of differences and "otherness," courage to a society that is hiding behind big budgets and "smart bombs" joy to depressed and sorrowful human and creaturely communities your power to move the struggle, alter the course of history, change the world.
Forgiveness, I believe, is the most fully divine capacity and attribute that we humans can experience. To forgive and to be forgiven shapes us beautifully in the image of a Spirit whose strongest yearning in each moment is for a future in which all tears will be washed away and all resentments healed by divine compassion. A compassion that we experience in every instance of forgiveness, whether as giver or receiver.
Father, Mother, Sophia, Christ, forgive us today as we stand here at the foot of your cross. Through your compassion and forgiveness, empower us to live as an Easter people, building justice, waging peace, practicing compassion, teaching non-violence, open to forgiving others where we have been wronged; ready to confess, repent and receive forgiveness where we have done wrong, sisters and brothers more fully in love with you and your creation!
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