on 29 January 1999
This is an important work into the theology of forgiveness that presents serious pastoral and ethical concerns for the discerning reader. The method employed by the author, L. Gregory Jones, a United Methodist and associate professor of theology at Loyola Maryland, Baltimore, takes under consideration the grounding theology of Karl Barth and the thomistic emphasis on the learned craft of a living practice of forgiveness.
As a Catholic (trained in a United Methodist seminary at St. Paul School of Theology, Kansas City, Missouri), the subjects treatment raises issues for me of the sacramental rite of penance and its mediation of reconciliation. Although not specifically addressed in this context, Jones questions the efficacy of forgiveness by others without the approbation of victims. Again, the discerning reader may want to consider the pastoral implication this raises.
A well researched and stylized presentation, "Embodying Forgiveness" offers its readers an excellent resource for preaching in a culture which avoids the costly reality of authentic forgiveness. For those who appreciate the model discipleship of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jones develops a compatible theological approach of reconciliation by virtue of the costliness and hard word required of a life which 'embodies forgiveness.'
And lastly, forgiveness is presented in the framework of the triune God whose self giving love is established in communion with us who have been created for that unique purpose. Truly, we have here a worthy pursuit of the reader's time for those willing to grapple with its unsettling message.
This book explores the idea of and difficulty surrounding forgiveness. Forgiveness is hard. Jones uses illustrations from works such as Simon Wiesenthal's 'The Sunflower', Flannery O'Connor's short stories, Toni Morrison's 'Beloved', and others as integral elements of the theological arguments behind the significance, embodiment and practice of forgiveness.
The cost of forgiveness is high, often too high for most to manage. A lip-service to forgiveness can be stated; a conciliatory tone can be managed in one's mind and practice, but then, often, the deeper emotion of anger, betrayal, hurt, etc., whatever is at the root of the need for forgiveness, can unexpectedly become present once more.
Starting with a discussion of Bonhoeffer, who decried the ideas of cheap grace and cookie-cutter forgiveness models of the church of his time, Jones explores the thorny theological issues which surround what happens in forgiveness.
'For Bonhoeffer, there is no real grace without judgment. Sin cannot be overlooked or forgotten; it must be confronted and judged in the context of forgiveness.'
True forgiveness must confront the hurt and evil face on; it cannot mask it, it cannot overlook it, and of course it cannot truly forget it. Forgiveness as an active process must work through the hurt, and will have a cost, primarily, the cost of letting go of the pain, which often is a sustaining force that helps carry the injured or abused through life.
While forgiveness can work in community, in many cases, such as Wiesenthal's experience with the SS officer or Bonhoeffer's work against the Nazis, forgiveness has to be a personal act, and cannot truly become the act of community. Forgiveness in such cases takes place in relative isolation from the community ('the Body of Christ', in Jones' theology). Bonhoeffer's death shows the cost of discipleship, which embodies both penance and forgiveness, that this is not merely a feeling felt or a decision made, but rather must become a way of life to be lived even in the face of evil and death.
Forgiveness means different things to different people. It is so easy to talk ambiguously about 'sin' and to ask (and grant in others) forgiveness of this 'sin'. But when focussing upon a particular wrong, it becomes enormously difficult. How does one forgive the abusive parent when the parent won't acknowledge the abuse? How does one forgive the church who ignores or abuses you, and carries on with or without you as if nothing had ever happened? Is it meaningful for the church to apologise for 'sins' from inquisitions to suppressions to complicity in genocide in the past, while no one who actually enacted these crimes is still alive, and no real thought is given to modifying current practice to ensure the same is not happening today?
How does one love one's enemies? Who has a right to forgive?
Whether or not one believes in 'sin' (some do not), there is a brokenness in our relationships with each other, and this causes hurtful dynamics, but modern therapeutic practices have tended to relativise and downplay this brokenness (by downplaying the element of judgement, which is required in forgiveness) to the point of making the ideas of restoration in a theological and philosophical sense irrelevant.
Forgiveness is costly, but ultimately, the cost repays dividends. Forgiveness is not easy, and sometimes practically impossible. Some hurts cannot be healed; some pains cannot be eased; no events in the past can be redone. So, it is important to separate the wheat from the chaff, which can require a lifetime--forgiveness in human terms is always a process, a way of life, which requires constant tending to stay the course.