Can the spiral of violence that plagues our planet and fractures relationships, ravaging families, communities, and whole societies, ever be neutralized and overcome? Are we caught in a web from which we cannot tear loose?
Jesus refuses to get sucked into the spiral of violence. On the night of his betrayal and arrest, one of his disciples draws his sword and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Jesus exclaims, “No more of this!” And to make his point, he touches the man’s ear and restores it. Violence never brings healing. Never. It may, on some occasions, bring an end to overt violence, but it often causes the violence to escalate. It cannot heal or redeem. There is no redemptive violence.
Only forgiveness can exhaust the constantly spinning spiral of violence and offer redemptive possibilities. But we rarely do it, because it is so costly. Look at Jesus on the cross, bearing the violence, enduring the punishment and torture inflicted by the powers that be. What does he do in reaction? He responds to the violence with a preemptive strike of forgiveness. The enormity of the sin against Jesus is countered only by the magnitude of Jesus’ grace toward his killers.
There are two primary ways we avoid forgiveness. First, we avoid forgiveness when we fail to face the wrongs we have done and admit to those we have offended and to God the hurt and pain our actions have caused. I suspect there are many reasons for this. Perhaps we are too entrapped by our greed, pride, envy, jealousy, or our self-consumption. Or maybe we take some sadistic pleasure in vengeance or in destroying the competition. For whatever reason, there are those of us who simply refuse to face and admit our guilt.
We avoid it, also, when we deny that we need it. Have you ever been forgiven, and then wondered what you were forgiven for? When it is pointed out to us, typically our first response is to offer some justification for our actions. In the movie Unforgiven, just after the Kid kills one of the two cowboys in the Bar-T’s outhouse, the Kid and Munny flee to a mountainside and drink whiskey. Contrary to his earlier bravado, this was the first man the Kid ever killed. He had been mostly talk and now he is visibly shaken by his deed. He says to Munny, “It doesn’t seem right. He’ll never breathe again. . . . All on account of pulling a trigger.” Munny responds, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” The Kid finally exclaims in justification, “I guess he had it coming.” We seem to always be looking for ways to justify that they had it coming
The religious leaders thought they were ridding their community of a heretic, a false Messiah. Pilate thought he was ridding the Empire of a trouble-maker. Or if Pilot did not regard Jesus as a real threat, he surely was doing what he thought was necessary to appease his constituency and secure their cooperation for his agenda. The Roman soldiers were just doing their job, following orders, and having a little fun with someone whom they considered less than human—an enemy of the State who deserved to die. In one sense, they did not know what they were doing. But such ignorance or delusion doesn’t make them, or us, less culpable.
The words of Jesus on the cross reveal to us that Jesus will not even abandon his killers and tormentors. The living Christ extends to us the same forgiveness as the Jesus of the Gospels offered his enemies. The question is: Can we accept such acceptance? The gift is given freely, unconditionally, but accepting the gift means that we accept the responsibility that goes with it. In order to receive the forgiveness offered to us unconditionally, we must be willing to embody the same kind of forgiveness. There can be no authentic experience of forgiveness without the practice of forgiveness.
Christ has come to set us free from the cycles of violence and counter-violence, from the habits of retaliation and revenge that diminish our lives and lay waste our world. The hope of our world and the future of our planet depend upon our acquiring the spiritual courage and inner strength to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us.
(During Lent I will be sharing reflections on the seven last words of Jesus from the cross adapted from my book, Why Call Friday Good?: SpiritualReflections for Lent and Holy Week. Today’s meditation was excerpted from chapter 2, “Preemptive Forgiveness.”)