Forgiving what we can't forget
Lawrence Burnley is associate dean for multicultural programs and special assistant to the provost for diversity affairs. He published his dissertation, titled “Resistance, control, and the cost of unity: The role of African Americans in the founding of African American schools associated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the South, 1865–1914,” in 2006. His interests include group dialogue on difficult topics that may bring about racial reconciliation and healing, reading about precolonial African history and African-American history, and teaching on these topics.
The visionary leader of the resistance movement to end British imperialism in India, Mahatma Gandhi, was once asked a question paraphrased here: “In your nonviolent struggle to end British dominance and oppression in your country, what has been your greatest challenge?” Gandhi didn’t name his greatest challenge to be transforming the suffering caused by the existence of unjust laws or British military might. For him, his most formidable challenge was to cultivate the principle of unconditional love within himself. I have heard many Christians say, “There can be no forgiveness without repentance.” Such a principle allows those who find it difficult to forgive someone who has harmed or offended them a way to avoid forgiving altogether. If the person or group who harmed or offended me does
not repent, then I have no obligation before God to forgive him, her, or them. Right? Wrong!
The Bible reveals to us that God demonstrated unconditional love by taking on human form; embracing the poor, oppressed, and marginalized persons; speaking truth to political and religious power; and then dying for the salvation of humanity, “even while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). As a result of the salvific acts of Jesus the Christ during his earthly ministry, we have been reconciled with God. This radical demonstration of unconditional love has at its center what I believe to be authentic forgiveness. This is forgiveness that is extended before the desired behavior or action of the person or group occurs. In the midst of undergoing the horror at Calvary that Friday afternoon, love ruled the day as Jesus uttered, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The point that we as Christians either fail to understand or choose to overlook is that we are called by Jesus to do likewise. “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
In my personal journey of faith, I have accepted that God’s call upon my life involves an intentional and active role in the ministry of reconciliation. To engage faithfully in such a ministry, I have often been urged by the Holy Spirit to offer forgiveness to persons or groups
of people who I have experienced being hateful, malicious, or insensitive toward me or other people simply because I or they were different. The call God has placed on me in this ministry of reconciliation is to forgive whether or not repentance occurs. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of reconciliation, but one that Jesus models for us with humility, eloquence,and clarity.
Authentic forgiveness doesn’t preclude the need for repentance or the possibility, and sometimes necessity, of confrontation. Nor
does it ever require us to compromise our commitment to justice. Forgiveness, authentic forgiveness, is a gift freely given to us by a loving God. Likewise, God calls us to give as it has been given to us. Such a gift is the key to reconciliation.
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