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Forgiveness and Our Way Forward

Human beings are an unfinished species, both in the sense of having some rough edges and in having a potential that is not yet fully actualized. At different times in history our immaturity has pushed us to the ledge of suicide where we almost gave in to an either/or, all-or-nothing wager on destiny. Thankfully the better parts of ourselves pulled us back for a second thought.

Today we live in one of those times.

Most likely it isn’t disease, starvation, or over-population that will be our undoing. One thing that our growing population is forcing on us, however, is the challenge of learning how to get along and work together for the maximal benefit of all. As our living quarters become more crowded and the crowd becomes more diverse, we are confronted as never before by our differences. Strangers and outsiders have always threatened our neat, closed horizons of identity and mutual trust. We can get along with what we know, with others like ourselves. But with those we don’t know, or who have a different worldview and way of life from ours – what are we to do with them?

The great traditions of spiritual wisdom developed their distinctive visions around this challenge of getting along, particularly at the flashpoint of our differences. Whether it was the ideal of covenant fidelity introduced by Judaism, the universal compassion that awakened Siddhartha and became the central insight of Buddhism, the radical message (gospel) of unconditional forgiveness that Jesus lifted into our collective consciousness, or the ideal of full surrender to the divine will beyond our constructs of god that brought Muhammad to his knees – the initiating provocation in each case was a quest for the way of salvation, for a way that leads to genuine community.

Obviously I’m not using “salvation” in the popular sense, as a program of deliverance, escape, and everlasting security in the next life. The word literally refers to a process (spontaneous or gradual) whereby injury is healed, health is restored, division is repaired, hope is renewed, and wholeness is actualized.

If salvation in the history of religion has been mythically and metaphorically represented as being set free, made clean, pardoned from guilt, and saved from certain perdition, the deeper energizing concern has always been over the forces within us and between us that keep us out of paradise, locked up in our suffering, and tragically short of our higher ideal.

As long as human beings have been around we’ve lived in societies – from small clans and larger tribes, to neighborhoods and nation-states. And so, for that same period of time we have had to learn how to get along, work through our differences, and contribute creatively to the formation of genuine community.

I’ve used that term – genuine community – a few times now, so it demands some definition. What I mean by it is a certain qualitative and transformational shift that happens when individuals in partnership make an empathetic connection and experience a deeper communion. Out of this grows a shared intention, a cooperative spirit, and a common vision of their life together. In other words, community is not just a synonym for “assembly” or even “congregation, and it doesn’t just happen. Instead it must be created – cultivated, nurtured, fortified, and regularly renewed.

And that’s where forgiveness is important.

I should really say, that’s where forgiveness is essential, since without it a strained or broken relationship cannot heal and continue to grow. Let’s take a closer look at what happens when the bond of trust at the heart of a healthy partnership is ruptured. Or maybe the partnership was never healthy to begin with. How can you – we might as well make this personal – be an instrument of salvation where there presently is abuse, betrayal, misunderstanding, or estrangement? Although none of us is off the hook as perpetrators in causing harm to others, for now we will pretend that you are the victim.

Whenever you are injured, offended, or betrayed, you will notice – if, that is, you can manage a little introspection – that two impulses arise simultaneously in you. One is the impulse of anger: You didn’t deserve this, it’s not right, that other person is guilty and should pay the price for his or her sin. I’ll call this the vengeance impulse, and as it rises within you in reaction to what’s been done to you by that other person, your anger is preparing to fight back and get even.

The other impulse is fear, which I will call the avoidance impulse. You don’t want the hurt to happen again, so your survival strategy marks a quick departure and takes long detours to keep it from happening again. As long as you maintain your distance and avoid crossing paths with your enemy, you stand a chance of staying safe. Because getting even will likely provoke further assault and additional suffering, your fear might be regarded as the wiser of these two impulses. Just cut this person out of your life. Push him away, leave her behind. You deserve better.

The thing about vengeance and avoidance that you need to understand is that they don’t lead to community. In fact they are serious digressions from what I earlier called the way of salvation.

Getting even or running away actually destroys the conditions in which genuine community can flourish. Think about it. When has the retributive reflex, where vengeance “pays back” hurt for hurt, worked out to the satisfaction of both sides involved? The vengeance impulse will wait for its opportunity – whether it’s tomorrow, next year, or three generations from now. The score will be settled: that’s just the way vengeance works. And running away or hiding out? How can individuals learn to live in community if they are living in separation?

This is the question that Jesus pondered. For our future to be long, prosperous, and happy, human beings can’t keep trading violence or seeking refuge from each other. We have to get along. We must learn how to create genuine community. And everyone needs to be included – the stranger, the outsider, especially our enemy. It was his focus on this particular relationship between enemies that inspired Jesus to understand, profess, and exemplify a new way.

This is the way of unconditional forgiveness. And even though his message got buried underneath centuries of Christian orthodoxy that took his movement in the exact opposite direction, this gospel of Jesus is finally being heard again.

Let’s come back to the very moment when your friend, or someone you trusted, became your enemy. No doubt, our most significant enemies are not those on the other side of the world, but who share our bread, our bed, and maybe even our genes. We opened ourselves up to them and made ourselves vulnerable. We trusted them, and they took advantage of our trust. There you are. What will you do next?

If you let your anger or your fear determine what you do next – whether you allow vengeance to make you into a combatant or avoidance into a defector – you will be giving power to your enemy, for the simple and straightforward reason that your identity in that moment is defined by what they did to you. Your attitude, character, and behavior will be decided in reaction. If you get even, it is in reaction. If you pull away, it is in reaction.

In either case, you are allowing your enemy to define you and limit your options. Fight back or get out. What other choice is there? This is where Jesus saw a third option.

Not as a reactor and giving power to your enemy, but by getting centered in your true nature as a creator. Picture that flashpoint immediately following the moment when the injury, offense, or betrayal takes place: let’s just call that “the space” between you and your enemy. As a creator, your challenge is to step into that space, stand your ground, and demonstrate love.

The ‘standing your ground’ part sounds as if you should be preparing for a fight, but that’s not what Jesus meant. When he counseled his disciples, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn your other cheek to him as well” (Matthew 5:39) he was not suggesting that they should just submit themselves passively to violent treatment by others. For a right-handed assailant to slap your right cheek, he’d have to use the back of his hand. This is how an aggressor intends to humiliate you and put you in your place. In order to “turn the other cheek” you would have to straighten up again and face your assailant, asserting yourself as his equal.

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi found inspiration for his nonviolent resistance to British rule in this very passage from the teaching of Jesus. Later, Martin Luther King, Jr., himself a Baptist pastor who was additionally empowered by Gandhi’s more recent example, took it to the urban streets for the sake of race equality and human rights.

The message of Jesus was not a glorification of weakness and suffering; his was a gospel about power – specifically about the power of love.

So you step into that space, stand your ground, and then demonstrate love. I say “demonstrate” because chances are, you probably don’t feel much love for your enemy. He just hurt you; she just betrayed your trust. Your anger and fear are both very real. The point here is not that you should have gooey compassion and warm fuzzies towards the one who just “slapped you on the right cheek.” To demonstrate love is to act out the behaviors of love – even if you don’t feel very loving. What are those behaviors? You probably already know:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

In the spirit of fake it till you make it, demonstrating love in such ways eventually brings about two very interesting outcomes. First, your anger and fear dissolve away, and in their place arises a creative force that has no equal in all the universe. This force is the bond of partnership, community, and wholeness. A second outcome is that you will completely “disarm” your enemy. Where he was inwardly preparing for your vengeance or avoidance, your forgiveness removes the fuel for his fire, and it won’t be long before he loses all confidence in his power over you.

Forgiveness, then, starts in letting go (the literal meaning of the Greek word) of anger and fear. Jesus taught that it is really not about pardoning sin or absolving guilt. It may be the case that your enemy doesn’t even see the need to repent, and perhaps doesn’t care enough about you to make the effort. Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. He may need to be held accountable for the damage he’s done, but it won’t be about appeasing your anger. You may need to move out of the relationship and get on with life without her, but it won’t be as a victim of fear.

You are free, and that’s what matters. Genuine community is where individuals are learning to live together, in the freedom that love makes possible.

 

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The Two Systems

I’ve decided that my purpose as a writer is not to persuade readers to my position on some topic, as much as it is to inspire (or at least provoke) creative thinking around things that matter. After all, my blog is devoted to contemplating creative change across culture, and persuasion is more about converting others to your beliefs than it is getting them to conduct a reality-check on their own.

So, I want to return to something I wrote about two years ago, and which, in the intervening time, has become even more relevant. It has to do with the paradoxical tension between two great systems that interact in every culture, in every community, and in each one of us. Our fear of conflict, which is probably fueled by ignorance concerning the creative potential in tension, along with our lazy preference for simplistic and dogmatic solutions, too frequently motivates us out of zones where genuine transformation might occur.

We feel almost a moral obligation to come down on one side or the other, calling one system good and the other evil. Of course, such judgment automatically makes enemies of anyone who might favor the side opposite to ours. With some urgency, then, I want to make the point that romanticizing one system and renouncing the other only shifts an otherwise creative tension into a mutually destructive antagonism. Western culture has been particularly good at that, and the absolute (fixed and irreconcilable) dualism in the metaphysical foundations of our worldview has worked itself up to the surface in an exploding taxonomy of neurotic disorders and sectarian movements through the centuries.

My objective is to show the extent in which the two systems are inextricably involved in our culture, our politics, our religions, our relationships, and our personalities. We might even look outside the specifically human realm and observe these two systems interacting in nature and throughout the cosmos as a whole. This was the great insight of the sixth-century BCE Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu whose Tao Te Ching is a profound reflection on the dance of Yin and Yang across the manifest universe.

My word-tags for these two systems are “communion” and “supremacy,” and the forces they hold in tension are the power of love and the love of power, respectively. Already we might feel ourselves leaning into one and away from the other depending on our temperament, gender, morality bias, and situation in life. And while I want to respect our individual preferences, my real purpose here is to open the frame wide enough so we can appreciate their interdependency as creative forces in ourselves and society at large.

Two SystemsLet’s first look at the particular values that orbit together in each of the systems, and then I’ll come back to the term at the center of my diagram. Supremacy, or the love of power, emphasizes influence and responsibility, competition and virtue. Communion, or the power of love, places a stronger accent on connection and relationship, cooperation and equality. Notice how the terms in my diagram are arranged in such a way that they comprise two arcs, coming so close as to almost merge, then turning away from the center-line and farther into values more obviously identified with one side or the other.

We need to be careful not to break this tension and push everything into an absolute dualism, as has happened so many times in the West. For instance, while it may seem obvious that “competition” is the complete opposite of “cooperation,” in reality (just as Lao-Tzu noticed) there’s is a little of each in the other. Some of our most challenging and enjoyable games put us in a contest where we must cooperate with an opponent in order to compete for a goal. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, but we can’t win unless we play by the rules and respect our opponent as a partner in the process.

The opposition of “virtue” and “equality” is one that has swung Western politics for thousands of years. For their part, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle leaned more toward virtue, which they defined as excellence or outstanding strength of character, rather than equality and the degenerate forms of democracy it tended to produce. Absolute equality amounts to a torpid neutrality where the insistence on sameness drowns out and dissolves away anything unique, special, or outstanding that might bring honor to one and not the rest.

Some feel that this push for equality in everything today is flattening out the virtues of the “American character,” effectively neutering the self-reliant and pioneering frontier spirit that made our nation great. But then again, as pioneers became settlers, and settlers became colonists, the exploitation of inequality (of whomever didn’t have land or a gun or a penis) did as much to make our nation as our supposed virtues. This only points up once again the need for balance.

The two systems of supremacy and communion interact as complements to each other, one tempering the potential excesses of the other, and both necessary to the health of the whole – of the whole shebang (cosmos), a whole culture, a whole community, a whole partnership, and a whole personality. While each system arcs away from the other and into its singular values, there is a point where they both come so close as to almost fuse into one. I wonder if our tendency toward extremes, driving us to neurotic breakdowns and dogmatic orthodoxies, is a symptom of our idiocy when it comes to understanding and cultivating genuine trust.

What I have in mind in using this term ranges from trusting others to trusting ourselves, having confidence in the creative process and surrendering to the provident mystery within, between, and beyond us all. This doesn’t have to come together in a formal religion, or even as belief in the existence of a god “out there.” But however we work it out, however we manage (or mismanage) the balance of power and love, that is our religion.

 

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