There’s a term out there to describe our times: it’s “outrage culture” we’re living in. People seem very prepared to be angry, outraged; and then to give vent to their wrath. To mention this yet again, we can look to what’s been happening in protests and riots in the U.S., but also here in Canada to a lesser extent.
And people feel justified in their anger; but more concerning, they feel that this righteous anger justifies their actions, however violent. The injured or offended look upon those they see as having sinned against them as an enemy. This is happening with too great a frequency in our community’s cultural and political life, but it happens outside that too within families and over inter-personal matters far removed from politics. The offenses, real or perceived, are held to justify cutting someone off, ending all contact, ceasing to treat them as part of the family, part of the community.
Christian forgiveness must be exercised at both levels: in our individual personal lives, and as communities. When Peter is speaking in today’s gospel, we understand that he is talking about his fellow Jews, with Israel being understood by him as an extended family. Remember each of Israel’s tribes is named for a son of Jacob, the whole nation descending from the one Patriarch Jacob. The brother or sister who potentially sins against him could be quite literally a sibling, but also a member of the larger national community who were regarded as cousins. We also take him to speaking about the Church, how we are all by baptism made adopted brothers and sisters in Christ, a new Israel. Community was family, and family the community; everyone was related by blood in the former case, by adoption in the latter.
One of our great problems today is that both as communities and as families we are not uniformly Christian, or religious in any sense. Too many of our political leaders play upon our differences and divide us and pit us against each other and that has manifested itself in racial tension, vicious politics, but even in seeing spouses alienated from each other and families split over political questions. The common set of values, a shared heritage in which forgiveness is integral is being lost in both communities and in families. As a Church we need to evangelize those around us, bringing them, if not to Christ fully, at least to a belief in the virtues he espoused. As I said at the outset, “outrage” is so commonplace, it would appear to be central to the new religion of social justice and wokeness. In interpersonal conflict, the absence of a faith that insists upon forgiveness, and a popular psychology that directs us to think in terms of how things affect “me” leads to a self-centredness and self concern that is reluctant to work at relationships, but would rather dispense with them the moment we feel hurt.
Christian teaching has always been insistent upon the dangerous volatility of our emotions. It’s not that we are to be emotionless, but that this is a real source of spiritual danger that can quickly result in catastrophe in the lives of individuals and societies. This is true of desire, it can drive you mad; sadness without relief leads to despair. Emotions must be kept in check by the discipline of faith so that they express themselves but not destructively; anger is a particularly dangerous emotion.
The antidote to wrath, our Lord teaches, is forgiveness; and forgiveness is a hallmark of our faith. There can be no Christianity where there is no forgiveness. As C.S. Lewis put it, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
To be clear, anger in itself is not sinful. It is simply an emotional state. As I tell people in the confessional, it’s not the anger per se that’s the problem, it’s what you do with it.
You can feel justifiably angry; in today’s gospel Peter talks about being sinned against. If you or I are sinned against, a feeling of anger would be natural. If our sense of justice is offended, again, we can feel anger, but the first question to ask yourself as the rage rises is, what do I do with it?
This isn’t about compromising on justice. We can arrest and punish a criminal offender who has injured our society by his actions. Nonetheless, we must forgive him, set aside our anger in favour of seeking his rehabilitation, and then his reconciliation with the community. It’s about preventing more injustice, and to stop compounding sin upon sin by our sinful response to insult and injury, sins made against us. It’s as simply expressed by the old adage; two wrongs don’t make a right.
And to further qualify my remarks, I’m not speaking here about self-defence when one’s life is threatened, or a nation going to war to defend itself against an aggressor, or thwart an evil regime’s design of conquest. Our thinking should be informed by the Christian concept of just war, where we have a duty to defend the innocent, the helpless, the weak against those who attack them, exploit and enslave. Forgiveness does not mean we do not resist evil. None of that is set aside in the ethic of forgiveness, but forgiveness is part of our resistance, our war against evil.
When Germany and Japan were defeated in the Second World War, the Christian ethos of forgiveness underlay how the Western powers, principally the United States and the British Empire dealt with their defeated enemies. Famously, they exercised justice, put on trial those most responsible for the horrors of that war and meted out just punishment; but they also forgave the defeated peoples, and helped those nations rebuild and to be restored to the world community. Contrast that with the punitive approach of the Soviet Union who carted off back to Russia what little was left of value in the eastern part of Germany they occupied and only reversed their punitive policies when they realized these conquered territories were being pushed to rebellion.
At the very least, our forgiving those we believe have sinned against us opens a calm space for us to consider our anger, our resentment, and ask why we are so angry.
A lot of anger arises from a sense of betrayal, a deep disappointment in our expectations of people. It can also be a deflection of our own responsibility for the situation, a way of avoiding thinking about our own complicity in the falling out—has this person who sinned against me only done it as a result of my sinning against him or her? Again, that doesn’t excuse their sin.
In the context of society, those at the bottom economically often blame others for their situation but fail to take responsibility for their bad habits, their failure to work to better their situation as contributing to their misery. And when we see them sin against us, breaking into our car parked downtown, or rioting in the streets making our communities unstable, our anger at these offenses large and small should be tempered by our acknowledging our sins of omission, however small, in leaving so many in poverty and hopelessness.
I am not drawing equivalences here, and offering no justification for lawlessness, but I’m hoping that by Christian forgiveness we can suppress the impulse toward class warfare, racial antagonism, civil strife.
And when it’s between just two people, that as the offended, the injured, we can try to sympathize enough to prevent ourselves from descending into sin, and rather sincerely seek justice and reconciliation; and if our brother or sister seeks to be reconciled, that by grace we accept their apology, be reconciled, and afford them the mercy inherent in forgiveness.
Pope Saint John Paul II wrote in his message for the 1997 World Day of Peace, “I am fully aware that forgiveness can seem contrary to human logic, which often yields to the dynamics of conflict and revenge. But forgiveness is inspired by the logic of love, that love which God has for every man and woman.”
Forgiveness for some of us may be our cross, the one we must take up; a forgiveness we offer in response to a deed of heinous violence, either spiritual or physical, that has wounded us to the core of our being. Yet like Christ, who forgave on the cross, these wounds are overcome by God’s love, and so these scars will be glorified; they will be badges of honour, signs of sanctity hard won.
Our redemption can come no other way, and indeed the redemption of humanity can only come this way… by forgiving not once, nor seven times, but as often as it takes to bring us all to Christ.