“Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour—unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” Henri Nouwen
Several weeks ago at the release event for Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith, I had a chance to catch up with one of my mentors and heroes in scholarship, Martin Marty. I shared how the publication of the report, although substantive and thought-provoking on many theoretical and practical levels, keeps leading me back to grief. Every time I open the front cover, I remember, Don Browning—dead, Norval Glenn—dead, and then my mind meanders on to the other mentors who have died in this past year, Judith Wallerstein-dead, Moscelyne Larkin—dead, Miguel Terekhov-dead….all of these giants in my small world and in the worlds of so many now dust. Marty’s relationship as a colleague and friend to those I mention is much different from mine as a student, but we shared a moment of silence with eyes gentling brimming.
I thought of Psalm 56: “You have noted my lamentation, put my tears into your bottle.”
Yesterday, as I celebrated Mardi Gras in a foreign land, I thought of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a Louisiana tale chronicling big sister Siddalee Walker’s journey to learn to live in forgiveness–a process we quickly see through her siblings and her mother’s life-long friends happens communally and often mystically as a practice of memory, story, courage, and vigilant boundaries. Vivi Walker, her mother, carries her own scars of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, which she channels destructively into alcohol, control and abuse. Each one asks: How do we carry safely the scarring stories of our past into a future with hope? At the close of the book, Siddalee gives her mother a gift in which there is no pardon, no Hallmark reunion, but simply a shared acknowledgement of pain.
“Vivi tore the rose-colored handmade paper off the box. She reached in and very gently lifted out a tiny glass vessel about the size of a fox-glove blossom. The vial was very old, made of sterling silver over glass, with one jade stone in the center of its little screw-on lid. …
It’s called a lachrymatory. A tiny jar of tear drops. In olden days it was one of the greatest gifts you could give someone. It meant you loved them, that you shared a grief that brought you together….
“Are your tears in here?” Vivi asked, holding up the vial.
“Yes, but there’s room for more…”
Vivi looked at her and smiled, “What are you laughing about, you crazy fool? I have been waiting for this gift my whole life.”
“I know,” Sidda said, now laughing and crying simultaneously, “I know.” (348)
Returning to my conversation with Marty, he asked if hospice professionals continue to use Granger Westberg’s Good Grief to understand the nuances a grief expression. Westberg taught at the Divinity School and the Medical School at the University of Chicago in the 1960’s and he produced a small volume that speaks to ten stages of grief (Kubler-Ross, also at U of Chicago, will publish her 5 Stages of Dying theory in 1969). I smiled and noted that the stage theory although still helpful in naming symptoms of grief (depression, anxiety, denial, etc.) has fallen out of favor as a progressive model for healing, which we both noted Westberg actually notes. I shared that I do actually have Good Grief on my desk at home, but not for its content but because it was a book of my grandfather’s, a retired Methodist minister, and I love reading his under-linings and notes, wondering what parishioner or pastoral situation he was thinking about when he dog-earred page sixteen or highlighted Stage Three. But as I skimmed through the Stages again I imagined how small volumes such as these or self-help websites that name signs and symptoms of grief expression as modern day lachrymatory–ways for us to note our tears through words and description, a way to feel that our pain is not at loose ends but has a place to be held, potentially shared, and noted as substantive.
A while back a post by Barry invited a deep discussion of forgiveness and as stories of trauma and offense were shared I imagined the comment boxes as modern day lachrymatory-an anonymous way for civil society to note the tears of our fellow human family. In that discussion, Fannie mentioned a book, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. The story traces the story of the 2006 shooting in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania leaving five children dead, four critically injured and all scarred. The authors share how this tragic story quickly became one of awe as the nation watched the Amish community speak and act in forgiveness as their primary public response to the tragedy. It’s a thought-provoking book that offers an accessible theological history of the Amish, going back to their Reformation Anabaptist roots in the sixteenth century, that helps give cultural and theological context to their lived expressions of forgiveness in the aftermath of tragedy and offense. Some key take-aways for me lie both in their exploration of what forgiveness is not (not pardon–meaning the wrongdoer is now free from suffering the disciplinary consequences of his or her actions nor reconciliation–meaning the restoring of a relationship and thus a renewal of trust) and what forgiveness is as “an unconditional, unmerited gift to an offender.” As the authors interview the Amish Nickel Mines families and community members, they quickly see that forgiveness is decisional and thus a conscious choice made daily, moment by moment, over months and years and even a lifetime depending on the offense. The decisional component of forgiveness for some led to variations of emotional forgiveness, but was not expected. Any positive feelings associated with the giving of forgiveness were also attributed to being an unmerited gift (from God).
The most powerful take-away for me though, and one I thought could most be pondered for us non-Amish members of civil society, is the belief that forgiveness is a communal not an individual act. Forgiveness here is not defined as transactional, as a direct exchange between the offended and the offender. Forgiveness imagines life and conversation as an act of re-membering both the one hurt and the offender in a way that can only be shouldered by the whole community. Asking the one hurt to shoulder the burden of forgiveness is too much to ask. The whole community must acknowledge that due to hurt and offense members of the community have been dis-membered and thus nuanced work must be done in order for membership to be restored. The authors conclude:
“…forgiveness is less a matter of forgive and forget than forgive and remember—remembering in ways that bring healing. When we remember we take the broken pieces of our lives—lives that have been dismembered by tragedy and injustice—and re-member them into something whole. Forgetting an atrocious offense, personally or corporately, may not be possible, but all of us can and do make decisions about how we remember what cannot be forgotten.” (182)
I know that many who are pondering joining the new conversation on marriage or have joined and are pondering what that means, are not doing so from a theological perspective. But for me, one of the first steps in conversation, one in which there is and has been pain, is to acknowledge the communal act of forgiveness, not as individually transactional but as lived re-membering. Each of us will do this in our own way (the authors of Amish Grace point out how forgiveness is lived in hugs, a covered casserole, being present at a funeral, making a visit, or in choosing not to take revenge or in choosing not to feel bitter in this moment and then in this moment and then in this moment, ad infinitum…). But the impetus to begin re-membering in order to strengthen civil society is there for me and I am committing to imagining how that happens communally.
At the beginning of 2013, I put together a GPS for the Soul for Huffington Post which included quotes that help center me and help me commit to living into wholeness. One speaks to the ultimate role of forgiveness.
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.” Reinhold Niebuhr