Remembering and Forgiving
Deuteronomy 7:17-19, 8:2-6, 11-18, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, May 25, 2014, Memorial Day Weekend
On this holiday dedicated to remembering, I want us to think about the tension between remembering and forgiving. Both are commanded by God in the Bible, but there are things we remember that make it hard to forgive.
In the verses we read from Deuteronomy, the old man Moses is standing outside the Promised Land giving instructions to the people who must enter the land without him. Moses worries that when they face trouble or prosperity they will forget what God has done for them. When you are afraid of other nations, remember what God did to Egypt for your sake. When you think about laying God’s commandments aside in the new land, remember how he disciplined you in the desert to teach you to depend on him. When you become prosperous, do not tell yourself that you got this wealth for yourself, but remember that it is God who gave you that ability that he might be praised. It’s one of the themes that runs through Deuteronomy, the histories, and the prophets: People fail to remember God and his commandments, and that road leads to disaster. Don’t forget God, his messengers say; remember what he did for you. That is the essence of the Jewish festivals: remembering what God did and understanding that he did it for our benefit today.
In the early Christian movement, the one most distinctive ritual was done “in remembrance” of Jesus. While in the New Testament letters there is less emphasis on remembering, it seems to me that much of what Paul says comes down to remembering the cross and resurrection which we now share, and living with that memory at the center of our lives. If we remember Jesus, we will remember that he forgave. He forgave all the time, even when people didn’t ask for it; he forgave people he healed; he announced God’s forgiveness and got into trouble for it; and even dying on the cross he forgave those who tortured him and executed him unjustly. He told us to love our enemies and do good to those who do harm to us, to bless people who curse us—in other words, never to hold a grudge. If we do not forgive, he said, we are like a man forgiven a million dollar debt who then strangles a coworker who owes him twenty bucks—and if we are like that we will never be forgiven ourselves.
We use the cliché “forgive and forget” to suggest that it is hard to forgive if we remember. And yet we all know that it is impossible to make ourselves forget what our enemies have done to us. Neuroscientists tell us that people remember trauma much more clearly than other experiences because memories associated with extreme fear or rage get stamped more deeply into the hippocampus. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that those who remember the bear that attack them survive rather than those who forget that a bear is dangerous. When we say that it takes ten positive comments to offset one criticism, it’s the same principle at work. We remember the wounds much more clearly than the strokes. Gandhi said, “To forgive is not to forget. The merit lies in loving in spite of the vivid knowledge that the one that must be loved is not a friend.” You know from experience that sometimes you have to make a moral choice to treat someone with love while remembering that the other person hurt you profoundly last time.
I have found that sometimes I’ve decided to forgive someone and keep on treating them as if they were a friend, and sure enough after some time I literally forget what they did to me. But then Becca says I forget everything, so maybe I’m a special case of the absent-minded professor type who is kind because he is focused on ideas more than what actually happens. Still, in the Bible there are references to God forgetting what we did to him. Theologically, doesn’t it seem impossible for God to forget? Can he know everything—except what I did to him? But in Jeremiah 31:34 Yahweh says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” In Isaiah 43:25 he says, “I am He who blots our your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
There is a secret hidden in that verse: I forgive you “for my own sake.” God forgives us not because he feels sorry for us or feels bound by some moral law; God forgives us because it’s the best thing for God. It’s the best thing for his own glory; it’s the best thing for moving his purposes forward in the world; and God delights in a relationship with us, and he takes pleasure in us when we take pleasure in him—and that can only happen if he restores the relationship we have broken, whether we deserve it or not.
Is it possible that I too must forgive “for my own sake”? If I hold onto the memory of what someone has done for me, does that cause them pain, or me? If I let go of that anger and resentment—and maybe some of that memory—who gets relief, them or me? Of course forgiving means liberating the other person from bearing the full and just consequences for what they did to you. But it also means liberating yourself. Henri Nouwen wrote
We also free ourselves from the burden of being the “offended one.” As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves.
Louis Smedes put it this way: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
I think most of us can see how that works with friends and spouses and, more difficultly, with parents. But what about the tension between remembering and forgiving when it comes to war? After all, that’s what this holiday is for—remembering what others did for us in wartime. If we remember the sacrifices Americans made in war, can we at the same time forgive the people of other nations who killed our soldiers? If we can do that—if we can forgive the Germans and Japanese, and the North Koreans, and the Viet Cong, and Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein—then will we have let them off the hook, or let ourselves out of the prison of anger and being defined by the war?
C. S. Lewis wrote Mere Christianity by editing some radio talks he gave in Great Britain during the war, when Britain was under attack. Here’s how he starts his discussion of forgiveness:
Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. 'That sort of talk makes them sick,' they say. And half of you already want to ask me, 'I wonder how you'd feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?'
And indeed we have Jewish friends who say that to talk of forgiveness for the Holocaust is morally reprehensible. But what about us, today? When you go through the new museum at Ground Zero in New York City, do you think you will be able to forgive Osama Bin Laden and the men who flew those planes into the towers?
This holiday, which we now call Memorial Day, is a case study in the difficulty of forgiveness. This holiday was originally about remembering those who died in the Civil War. But the Northern veterans organizations established Decoration Day (grave-decorating day), ordered by a Major General to be observed on May 30, in 1868—three years after the war ended. The day was picked, it seems, so that there would be plenty of flowers to put on graves. But Southern ladies had organized Confederate Memorial Day in 1866—one year after the war ended. They set it on April 26, the day that General Johnston surrendered to General Sherman outside Durham, North Carolina—weeks after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. So Southern whites continued to remember the sacrifices made in their own Glorious Cause, while the Northerners remembered their own with a similar self-righteousness.
Of course, Southern blacks saw things differently. Arguably the very first Memorial Day happened in 1865 when some 10,000 newly freed slaves marched in Charleston around a newly built cemetery where they had reinterred decently the 257 Union soldiers who fell in Charleston. 3,000 black children in school for the first time in their lives led the parade. All the black ministers in town led a service of prayer, scripture reading, and singing spirituals. In other words, they had church. But I doubt that forgiveness was a big part of what they were about.
In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address—surely the greatest such address ever—he pointed out that Southerners and Northerners were reading the same Bible and praying to the same God, and neither had had their prayers answered fully. He ended with these famous words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
And yet, perhaps because Lincoln was killed and more vindictive spirits took over the Republican Party, there was very little “peace among ourselves” and very little “charity for all.”
You may be surprised that 11 states still observe Confederate Memorial Day. When my son Nathan moved from New Jersey to Kentucky in the 6th grade, he couldn’t believe people still flew the Confederate flag. “Aren’t they traitors? Why aren’t they arrested for that? How is that different than flying a flag for Al Qaeda or the Nazis?” I can tell you that Southerners remember the Civil War much more clearly than Northerners. You may not think about it more than once or twice a year. A lot of Southerners think about it every day because they see their whole history of being behind and looked down upon as a result of being defeated in war—and who can say they are wrong? It’s that business of remembering trauma more than you remember anything else.
And yet some Southern whites cannot understand why African Americans cannot “get over” the fact that they were enslaved for 250 years and oppressed for another century. “Why do they have to play ‘the victim card’?” they ask. It is a miracle that every black person in America doesn’t hate every white person the way that many Jews hate Nazis. It is only the power of the gospel in the black churches that has made forgiveness possible at all.
You may celebrate Memorial Day and not think of the Civil War at all. There came a time when the North needed Southern soldiers to fight World War I and II so they began to act as if we were one country again, and they decided that all soldiers should be remembered on the same day—without ever saying whether the Confederate soldiers should be remembered as fighting for their country or against it. The wound wasn’t healed, just papered over.
So here’s the question for Block Island: can we move beyond our own civil wars or not? Can we forgive people for the mean things they did in the heat of the medical center fight, or the wind turbine crusades, or the endless deer debate? Can you forgive me for something mean I said about you? Even if I never ask, because I’m so oblivious? “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until there is something to forgive.”
In the church of Jesus Christ, forgiveness is the whole point. “We are forgiven” is the good news. “Therefore we forgive” is our way of being in the world. If we remember the harm people have done to us, we only remember for the purpose of healing, of dealing with anger we have buried, and setting ourselves free from the burden of trying to get even. “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
- Harbor ChurchBox D2Phone: 401-466-5940
Block Island, RI 02807