The New Freedom of Forgiveness, Revised and Expanded
This is one of those books that ought to make the thoughtful reader genuinely angry. The author, a Mennonite pastor and teacher, propounds and develops a thesis that forgiveness, an essential Christian precept, is always mutual. The basis for the thesis is the idea of reconciliation, drawn from the verse: "... first be reconciled to thy brother ..." (Mt. 5:24), the "brother" (or other person) having "ought against thee" (Mt. 5:23). The book carries on as if this is the core message of Jesus' teachings. It is not, nor can it be made so. Let me be clear at the outset. As a committed Christian, I believe that forgiveness is essential to salvation. If I am wronged and do not forgive the wrongdoer, then I may little expect to be forgiven before God for my transgressions. That precept is stated in the Lord's prayer. The Matthew verse augments this teaching: if I am the wrongdoer, then it is incumbent on me to seek forgiveness from the one whom I have wronged. So far, so good. But where the author goes drastically awry is in the idea that "reconciliation" necessarily entails reciprocity in the person wronged. Would that this were always true, but it simply is not. If, having wronged me, you ask for my forgiveness, and I refuse, are you unforgiven before God? If so, then surely I have the power to condemn you in eternity, which is categorically false. If I have "ought against you", does it follow that my grievance is always justified? Here, again, the answer is no (I may be one of those delusional types who sees grievances everywhere). The sensible adjunct to the Matthew verse is that to be forgiven is to ask forgiveness, a point which the author drives right past. Contrary to what the author proposes, and goes on about at length, it simply may not be possible to rebuild a relationship with the other, be that person wronged or wrongdoer. Nor is it always advisable to try, as the author himself concedes in the case of rapist and victim. But if that is an exception to mutuality or reciprocity between wronged and wrongdoer, then how many other exceptions should there be, particularly as between predator and prey? Flaws of this type abound in the book. Let me offer just one other. The author, discussing bigotry, invites the reader: "I challenge you to read and reread the documents of His [Jesus'] life. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you can find to indicate any feeling of racial superiority, national prejudice, or personal discrimination." I suppose that it escaped the author's attention that Jesus, on at least one occasion, refers to gentiles as "dogs" (Mk. 7:27; Mt. 15:26), or that he proclaims to the Samaritan woman: "... salvation is of the Jews." (Jn. 4:22). As an added note, concerning style, I found the "preachy" tone of the book offputting. At the end, I can only say that the author's lopsided approach to forgiveness undercuts what could have been a substantial contribution to pastoral literature. On the whole, not a worthwhile read.
November 10, 2013