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The Struggle between Accountability and Forgiveness

It's been five years since one of the most heinous racial killings in U.S. history, when a white supremacist murdered nine individuals attending a Bible Study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. The massacre shocked the nation. I believe much of the shock was due to the brazen nature of the attack (occurring in a church during a Bible study he had been welcomed into) and the other was the killer’s blatant confession that he was trying to begin a race war. The suffering of the families and congregation and the city of Charleston was palpable. However, what was perhaps even more powerful was the forgiveness extended to the killer by their families. The grace shown was an example to the nation.

Of course, it is not the first time those who have been done wrong by evil have shown extraordinary forgiveness to acts of wrongdoings, some of which like the murders at Mother Emmanuel are indeed horrific.

And yet as we hear of people’s graciousness, I am afraid we often miss some important information in our understanding about forgiveness.

In fact, last week I was involved in a conversation about why one person had given up on Christianity because of what I believe is a mistaken understanding of our call as Christians to give 70 times 7 forgiveness.

The conversation came about as part of a discussion about the riot at the US Capitol. One person stated that the belief that we simply needed to forgive these folks because they were just angry and upset was an example of why they stopped going to church. They just couldn’t stomach the idea of folks not being held accountable.

Another person shared that they had a friend who was being abused by her husband. When she sought pastoral advice, she was told to fully forgive and let go of her anger. To put it all in the past because that was “what good Christian wives do.” Her friend’s next beating put her in the ICU and she never returned to the church for advice; instead she went to a lawyer who got a restraining order and helped her press charges. Her statement was that following Jesus is just an invitation to let others run all over you.

I told them that I heard exactly what they were saying and if that was what God’s loving forgiveness was really all about, I’d probably give up the faith as well.

And then I asked them if we could spend some time together discussing this over the next few weeks, because as I commentator I once read shared:

Theology matters. How we read the Bible matters. At times it is literally a matter of life and death.

I believe it is necessary to understand a few very important things about Christ’s call of forgiveness.

Because understanding them are essential if we are to live in positive relationships with one another as God has intended for humanity. And failure to understand them will leave us struggling with forgiveness because forgiving easily gets confused with the perpetrator of the wrong being let “off the hook” so that they can continue to harm others.

First let us look at what Jesus himself says to the disciples about forgiveness and accountability. In Luke 17:3 Jesus says to the disciples, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.” We note the “forgive him” but sometimes miss the call to rebuke them. A synonym for rebuke is reprimand. Friends, forgiveness does not negate accountability.

In fact, holding people accountable is essential to loving others. Holding folks accountable may be the most loving thing you can do because it can lead to growth for them. It also provides for justice which is a clear mandate of the Biblical texts.

An example I like to share is that a former spouse may be forgiven for destroying their marriage by their unfaithfulness, but that forgiveness does not negate the need to pay child support to his/her former partner.

We must hold folks (including ourselves) accountable in order to help facilitate change. Accountability works when the purpose is to heal and educate and not condemn or seek revenge. Forgiveness and accountability together are necessary for God’s people to be “repairers of the breach,” as Isaiah describes in Isaiah 58:12.

On another more practical matter, forgiveness often does more for us than the one being forgiven. Paul says not to let the sun go down on our anger. I think part of the reason is our anger keeps us from a good night’s sleep while the one we are upset with snores away. The same is true of forgiveness.

When we choose forgiveness, we are setting ourselves free from the power we have given the one who hurt us.

In Clifford Edwards’s writings he notes, “when you forgive, you’re not condoning the actions of the other.” Forgiveness is something that you have to choose to do for yourself. It’s ultimately not about the other person at all.

Through choosing to forgive, you’re able to set yourself free from the bondage of resentment, anger and blame and release the mental and emotional burdens of a past experience. Giving yourself the gift of forgiveness, doesn’t really have anything to do with the other party and their actions toward you.”

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley describes how forgiveness impacts the forgiver this way. “Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you or release them from legal accountability. Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger…(forgiveness) empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.”

Additionally, research has shown holding onto our anger and bitterness can even lead to mental and physical maladies. These include fatigue, chemical imbalances from the release of excessive stress hormones, migraines, high blood pressure, depression and more.

Giving forgiveness literally can make us feel better in body, mind, and soul. I think this is one important reason why so many texts encourage forgiveness.

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32

“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:25

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Matthew 6:12-14

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13

We need to forgive others. We need to ask for forgiveness. But no one who needs forgiveness should get off “scot-free.” Just as “scot-free’s” etymology refers to a tax that must be paid, we all must be held accountable, which is part of the justice we refer to in our liturgy. But forgiveness is the call of mercy which we too cry out for.

Friends, I pray we never allow our faith to manipulate abused and oppressed people into extending “forgiveness.” Or to let those who commit wrongs to simply walk away.

But I also pray that we free ourselves from the anger and bitterness which keeps our hearts from being able to experience wholeness with God and our fellow brothers and sisters.

And may we all continue to be open to this dichotomous struggle between accountability and forgiveness.

Because Theology matters. How we read the Bible matters. At times it is literally a matter of life and death.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Alleluia. Amen.


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