Consider this, “What is Forgiveness?”
This question, seemingly quite rudimentary, has perplexed Joe Liechty professor of peace
justice and conflict studies and Paul Keim, professor of Bible and religion for over 10 years.
You might wonder why. Well, I challenge you to have that conversation with a curious 6-year-old child. It’s harder to explain than you might think.
Forgiveness is engrained in the human culture, and therefore, you do not feel the need to study it. Before Maple Scholars, I didn’t either. However, “forgiveness” is not as simple of an idea as one may think. With the help of Joe Liechty and Paul Keim over this summer, I have transformed my concept of “forgiveness.”
I am a sophomore PJCS major from Newport News, Virginia. As an active member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I am quite familiar with the culture of “forgiveness.” Every Bible study and church service I attended growing up was flooded with messages of forgiveness and love. Yet even with all these reminders, I never once considered where this idea came from. How, in any way, is it beneficial to the human race to forgive those that do the wrong thing? Even the Bible, while it does say in many places to forgive, tells us stories of vengeance.
As I began studying “forgiveness” with Joe and Paul, my first major question was this: if the Bible has indications of both forgiveness and vengeance, then what can we learn from it?
I wondered how we could use it as a reference for forgiveness, when it could also be used to validate revenge. This summer, I was exposed to the idea that the meanings of words have changed over time, and that in order to read the Bible “correctly” one must look at it in historical context, with an understanding of B.C. grammar.
For example, as part of my back to school gift pack that my mother gave me, she included an exclusive Goshen College Bible that can only be found in our on-campus bookstore. The Bible is a New International Revised Version, a version that is a bit more reader-friendly than some others. However, what compromises were made to make it this way? Who is to say that what the translator translated is actually what the writer meant?
Consider this: I am a very enthusiastic fan of Goshen College soccer, and I’m sure many of you who are familiar with my antics at the soccer games know that one of my favorite phrases is “Let’s go to work.” Although I use all the words correctly, metaphorically, it carries a different meaning. I do not want the athletes to walk off the field and get 9-5 jobs. Rather, I want them to get off of their butts and score some goals. The meaning of my words are translated without mistake at the soccer games. However, if it were to be written down on paper, and sent to them via letter, we might have to forfeit our games for lack of players.
The point is, when considering the Bible, we must consider historical context. A B.C. form of justice, whether it be chopping off the hands of a thief or stoning an enemy, cannot be translated to post-modern justice. In the 21st century, with rules and laws in place to protect societies, these forms of justice are not applicable. Once we acknowledge the historical context in which the Bible was written we can begin to see differences between revenge, justice and punishment. We can also find clarification about what it means to forgive. Let’s consider the most profound form of forgiveness in the Bible: Jesus dying on the cross for our sins. We can learn two lessons from this sacrifice. God’s sacrifice of Jesus represents the truest form of forgiveness: forgiveness as a gift. By sacrificing Jesus so that we may live eternal life, God offers us the gift of forgiveness. The second lesson has a focus on us; we have an obligation to forgive others because God forgave us.
Unless we dig further, however, there is a key to forgiveness that we overlook. Directly relating to forgiveness, is another concept: reconciliation. When we truly forgive, we forgo our right to vengeance and seek reconciliation. This seems to be the hard part because a lot of us want to forgive based on a “forgive and forget” mentality, and we believe that reconciling with a perpetrator will violate that decision. However, that is not the case. This summer, my professors and I learned that although reconciliation does restore a relationship, it does not require that relationship to have the same dynamics and parameters as before. Reconciliation creates a platform for future dialogue and affirms that you have truly given up your right to vengeance.
These are just a few of the ideas I spent my summer exploring. From my learnings, I have grown more confident in my faith and my forgiveness. Living far from home, away from all my friends and family, I have come to learn how fragile relationships can be. With hundreds of miles separating you and only Sprint cell phone plans connecting you, it seems as if the very same words you speak to each other everyday become your lifelines. I learned that even though our words are stronger than ever, that no matter whether one specific interaction is positive or negative, that I value those relationships. Because forgiveness directly coincides with reconciliation, I have become better at consciously making an effort to have a forgiving heart and preserve those relationships I value the most. I know that God said “Vengeance is mine,” and therefore, as God’s humble servant, I have no right to hold a grudge. Yes, I believe that forgiveness is part of my Christian obligation. I also believe it is a conscious choice we all make. I choose to forgive.