By Stan Grant
Posted Yesterday at 5:00amSun 17 Apr 2022 at 5:00am, updated Yesterday at 8:45amSun 17 Apr 2022 at 8:45am
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The Native American poet Diane Glancy writes: “It is a fragile gate, the opening of faith.”
We enter into it with all our human frailty, our sin, and faith asks of us more than our rationality — it asks us to believe.
In our relationship with God we find a new relationship with each other. Relationship beyond the fixed, bounded identities. As theologian Miroslav Volf would put it, we are asked to embrace what we would exclude.
We become, he says, porous “bounded yet permeable”. In letting others in we do not lose ourselves but enrich ourselves.
For Christians it is encapsulated in John 17, Jesus’ prayer offered to God before his betrayal and crucifixion: “Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Volf says that in the Holy Trinity — the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit — we find love and reconciliation, an “unconditional embrace of humanity”.
While for many Easter is a welcome break from work, a quick trip away and some chocolate eggs, for Christians Easter is when we remember Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection and when we are asked the hardest of questions: can we love even those who have wronged us?
If Easter is to retain its full meaning, must we forgive even the most heinous of crimes?
How can we forgive?
Forgiveness is unequivocal. Jesus on the cross cries out: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus would ask for forgiveness even for those who would want him dead.
It is not selective forgiveness, but forgiveness for all.
Miroslav Volf says “Christ justifies the ungodly”. We must love our enemies as we love our neighbours.
But how? In a world of such suffering, how can we forgive?
Volf probes this question in his classic book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.
The book has been named one of the 100 most influential religious books of the 20th century and starts with an acceptance that none of us is innocent. We are all with sin. We are, he says, “morally divided”.
Sin is “both the rot deep in our souls and a prowling beast of exclusion that holds captive entire societies, cultures and communities”.
Sometimes it is the church itself that is the source of exclusion and conflict. Volf says that we “inherit exclusionary forms of faith”.
This is faith that hardens identity. “A religion thus configured,” he says, “ends up justifying the group’s practice of exclusion and its deployment of violence”.
“Exclusionary forms of Christian faith are distortions.”
Instead, he says, we must act with will. It is a will to embrace, “not as a simple switch to turn the practice of embrace on, but as a site of struggle for the truth of humanity.”
A crack in the world
That truth is forgiveness. Between sin and our will is a “fissure”, a crack in the world. The cracks, as the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote, are where the light comes through.
Simone Weil, the French philosopher, wrote of that fissure — her tension with Christianity. She said she had “not the slightest love of the church in the strict sense of the word”.
At its worst, she saw it as a tool of authoritarians. But this is not the spirit of the cross.
Weil felt powerfully true faith; faith she says, “stronger than I was”. During a liturgical service, she wrote that she “felt the passion of Christ entered into my being once and for all”.
It was a Christ of the forsaken. It is a Christ of inexhaustible forgiveness.
For Volf, it is very personal. He lived through the wars of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. His father had been tortured in a concentration camp, and Miroslav was locked up and interrogated.
As a Croatian, he was once asked: “But can you embrace a Cetnik?”
The Serbian fighters, he writes, were “sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, destroying cities”.
What was Volf’s answer? “No, I cannot.”
But then he said, “but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.”
Asking the hard questions
As a person of faith, I also have to ask myself the hard questions of forgiveness. Like Simone Weil, mine has been a life in the cracks — in exile.
As an Indigenous Australian can I forgive the sins — the crimes — committed against us? My family has suffered. Our history weighs heavily on us.
First Nations people suffer still every day.
Were it not for the teachings of the Aboriginal church I was raised in, were it not for my elders of faith, my uncles, my aunties, my grandparents, there would be no light in the cracks.
Were it not for the example of elders like Aunty Jean Phillips, who taught us how to live a public life of faith to reach out to non-Aboriginal people to renew our nation, or Pastor Ray Minniecon, who lives the scriptural lesson of Micah 6:8 “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God”, then forgiveness, for me, would remain out of reach.
Towering figures like South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu showed us the power of truth and reconciliation. Forgiveness was the highest form of justice.
To Archbishop Tutu, forgiveness and reconciliation were the “only truly viable alternatives to revenge, retribution and reprisal”.
“Without forgiveness”, he said, “there is no future”.
Miroslav Volf tells us we must break the cycle of vengeance and resentment. We must free ourselves from the “affliction of memory”.
As we forgive we must forget. As Volf says: “If I forgive and add ‘but I will never forget’ I drape around the gift of forgiveness a grey shroud of warning, even a threat.”
Violence will beget violence. “Yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators”, Volf warns, “and today’s perpetrators are tomorrow’s victims.
“The line between the guilty and the innocent blurs and we see an intractable maze of … brutalities each reinforcing the other.”
A double-edged sword
But doesn’t forgiving and forgetting too easily absolve the perpetrator?
Is there not a place for anger? Is resentment not virtuous? Most assuredly so. The message of Jesus is that we should stand with the victims as he did.
Political scientist Michelle Schwarze argues we must consider “a victim’s resentment to be proper”. It is essential for justice.
Indeed she points out in her book Recognising Resentment that righteous anger and resentment have inspired powerful non-violent movements for equality and justice.
It is a double-edged sword: anger can inspire courage and, as we see too often in our world, it can lock us in a deadly embrace from which none of us can escape.
Forgiving and forgetting may be the destination, but first we must walk the road of justice.
Miroslav Volf says forgiveness will not come until “the wrongs have been named, forgiven and repented of and after the perpetrators and victims have reconciled, and after the world has been made safe from evil”.
This Easter, we live in a world that is far from safe from evil.
Whether one is Christian or not, the act of forgiveness is essential for justice, for peace.
Jesus on the cross asks of us the greatest gift of grace, “that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:26).
But we live in the real world with all human frailty and it is hard to find ourselves in each other.
In Ukraine right now can we possibly ask the victims if they can forgive? Can a Ukrainian embrace Vladimir Putin?
We are not there yet. The answer perhaps would echo Miroslav Volf when asked if he could embrace a Cetnik: “No, I cannot. But as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.”
Stan Grant is the ABC’s international affairs analyst and presents China Tonight on Monday at 9:35pm on ABC TV, and Tuesday at 8pm on the ABC News Channel.