Throwback Thursday Books: Forgiveness, Pardon and Reconciliation Distinguished

Current events reveal once again our cultural and theological confusions regarding confession and repentance, forgiveness and pardon, reconciliation and gaslighting. The current rush to reconciliation on the part of some in the wake of the attempted lynching in our nation’s capitol on January 6th is a symptom of this confusion. So, on this Throwback Thursday, I want to share an excerpt from my own book, Forgiveness: The Road Home. You can find that title on my “Books for Sale” page on this site. Or you can go here.

On October 2nd, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse with a nine-millimeter semi-automatic handgun.  He removed all the boys from the building.  After a few students and a teacher escaped to get help, Roberts nailed the doors of the building shut.  During the standoff with police, Roberts shot and killed five of the girls, the oldest of which was thirteen.  He wounded five more before turning the gun on himself. 

While the tragedy was shocking in and of itself, reporters were soon focusing on how the Amish community of Nickel Mines was forgiving the gunman and caring for his family.  The outside world could not comprehend how forgiveness was possible in such a situation.

The authors of Amish Grace explore a number of factors that made such forgiveness possible.  First, they point to “the habit of forgiveness” that forms so much of Amish life and faith.  The capacity to forgive did not spring out of the moment.  It was not manufactured for its public relations value.  The forgiveness the Amish expressed as a natural outgrowth of their life together, their faith in Christ, and their understanding of the Gospel. 

In a very real sense, they had prepared for this moment for the five hundred years of their existence as the Amish faith community.  Miroslav Volf describes the power of a forgiving community this way, referring not to the Amish community but to his own parents: “They forgave because they were part of a community that followed Christ and for whom Scripture wasn’t an old religious book, but the life-shaping word of the living God…Do you want to become a forgiving person?  Seek the company of forgiven forgivers!” (Free of Charge, pages 213-214).

Because the Amish make forgiveness a central part of their Christian walk, they have had to think long and hard about the nature of forgiving itself.  They distinguish between forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.  These are related but separate processes.  We often confuse the three in our thinking.  This confusion often then makes it impossible for us to consider any of the three processes.  So, it is worth exploring what might be meant by each of these processes. 

Forgiving is unconditional, or it is not forgiving.  Pardon, in distinction from forgiveness, is completely conditional.  Pardon means that the wrongdoer has been declared free from suffering any discipline or other consequences as a result of his or her actions.  The Amish Christians are very careful about dispensing pardons.  When it comes to breaking civil law, they do not protest the operations of secular law enforcement agencies. 

They may plead for leniency in many cases based on their understanding of forgiveness and their rejection of the pursuit of revenge.  The Amish of Nickel Mines and elsewhere have often visited in prison those who have done wrong by them.  They supported the family of the Nickel Mines gunman.  They do not, however, believe that damaging actions should go without response.

As Jesus hung dying on a cross, the man next to him made a clear confession.  We are worthy of our punishment, he told his colleague in banditry, but this man has done nothing deserving of such a death.  Then he asked Jesus to “remember him” in his kingdom. 

Jesus offers words of pardon in response to that clear and repentant confession— “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  It is interesting that Jesus did not relieve the immediate consequences of the man’s actions.  The man still died for his crimes.  Those crimes, however, did not have a permanent reality.  The man was pardoned.

Pardon requires a clear identification of the wrong done.  It requires an acknowledgement of that wrong on the part of the wrong-doer.  Pardon requires a request on the part of the wrong-doer for forgiveness.  It may still entail real consequences for the wrongs done.  But when those consequences are carried out, the record is wiped clean.  As our Amish sisters and brothers know, pardon is also a process that is most likely to happen in a community where forgiving is a regular practice; a practice deeply seated in the story of God’s forgiving us.

Pardon can only be given if the offending partner seeks it.  The offender must confess her/his wrong(s)—preferably in the presence of a trusted third party so that there is both clarity and accountability.  That confession must be honest and specific.  The offender must express genuine remorse and the desire to repent—to turn away from the offending behavior and the roots of that behavior.  The offender must also be willing to endure whatever reasonable consequences result from the wrongdoing.  All of this can happen more often in a place and among a people who know about being forgiven and forgiving.

Reconciliation is the restoring of the relationship after it has been broken.  None of this erases the wrong that has been done.  The question is, rather, “How do we live in health and hope even though such a wrong has been done?”  Desmond Tutu describes this in profound and passionate words.  “To work for reconciliation is to want to realize God’s dream for humanity—when we will know that we are indeed members of one family, bound together in a delicate network of interdependence” (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, page 274). 

Reconciliation requires a commitment to a future “beyond me and the moment.”  At some point we will choose the embrace the future or to remain locked in the past.  As forgivers, we will choose at some point to re-narrate our lives to include the offense and the forgiveness, or we will choose to remain locked in the broken narrative where only the offense exists.

Reconciliation is an essential feature of Christian ministry and mission.  Let’s remember Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21—“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation…”

Our ministry of reconciliation is rooted in God’s mission to us.  If we think for a moment, we can see that God has taken the path I am describing here.  “God will forgive; and with that forgiveness,” N. T. Wright says, “God will not only release the world from its burden of guilt but will also, so to speak, release himself from the burden of always having to be angry with a world gone wrong” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page 156).  Even God is released by forgiving!

God’s forgiveness to us is unconditional.  It is an act of pure grace in Christ.  The consequences of our wrongdoing remain and must be pardoned.  This is the “new-making” power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God enters into relationship with us as healed, renewed, and forgiven sinners.  God takes us with utter seriousness but will not allow our sin to destroy the loving relationship between God and us— “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them…”

We who are forgiven, pardoned, and reconciled then become missionaries of that reconciling love to a whole world in need of God’s healing.  This is our calling, to be royal representatives of the Lord of Divine Love— “…and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This means we can and must exercise some care in this process of forgiveness, pardon, and reconciliation.  Volf has some powerful words for us here.  “Forgiveness places us on a boundary between enmity and friendship, between exclusion and embrace.  It tears down the wall of hostility that wrongdoing erects, but it doesn’t take us into the territory of friendship.  Should those who forgive stay in this neutral zone?” (Free of Charge, page 188).  At some point a forgiver decides to move out of that neutral zone.  Otherwise, the process of forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation is stillborn. 

Reconciliation is the final destination — not the beginning of the journey.  “Forgiveness between human beings is one crucial step in a larger process,” Volf writes, “whose final goal is the embrace of former enemies in a community of love” (Free of Charge, page 189).  When we read Matthew 18:15-20, we need to back up one paragraph, to verses ten through fourteen.  What you read in those verses may sound familiar.  It is the parable of the one and the ninety-nine.  In Luke we find that parable as one of the three “lost and found” stories, the third of which is the lost son, or the parable of the prodigal.  Matthew places it in the context of conflict and reconciliation.

The punch line of the parable is crystal clear: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”  This section of Matthew’s gospel is about including all in God’s reign, about seeking and saving the lost, about holding the “little ones” close, about releasing one another from sin and debt.  To use Matthew 18:15-20 as a lever by which we would exclude people from our lives or from our churches is to abuse Scripture for our own purposes. 

Can you hear the words of the father in Luke 15— “my son was lost and is found, was dead and is alive again”?  That is the goal of the forgiving process, that not one of these little ones should be lost.  Forgiving begins the process.  Pardon makes it possible for the offender to accept the gift of forgiving.  Reconciliation means the restoration, to whatever degree possible, of the loving community for which our God creates us, redeems us, and sustains us.

Reconciliation may happen at some point, although it may be incomplete and halting in this life.  There will come a time when the wronged spouse, for example, will need to make a decision.  I have been asked so many times, “When will I ever be able to trust her/him again?”  The short answer is, “When you decide to give that trust.” 

I have no desire to be flippant here.  That decision can only come after long thought and prayer, and after the offender has demonstrated some long-term and good faith changes in behavior.  At some point, however, the person who was wronged will need to decide if reconciliation is prudent and/or desirable.  That decision can be assisted if a trusted third party is called upon to help both partners remain accountable in healthy ways.  Sometimes, however, reconciliation will simply not be possible in this life.  Then the partners must go their separate ways.  Sometimes that is the case in conflicted congregations as well.

What if the other either refuses to forgive or to accept forgiveness?  In church fights, for example, some folks will choose to hang on to their hurts as a way put a roadblock in the way of any move forward in the life of the community.  Wright describes this as “a position of peculiar power…to exercise in perpetuity a veto on the triumph of grace.”  Congregations cannot and should not grant such veto power to anyone. 

If forgiveness is asked for or offered, and the other party can demonstrate no good reason for moving forward, then the community must move forward without them.  This is not a happy time for anyone.  It is a failure in the process and a concession to our still-powerful sinful desires.  But this may be the best that we can do as forgivers if the recipient cannot accept both the exclusion and the embrace, both the judgment and the reconciliation, that forgiving entails.

Let us be clear at this moment.  The community is not excluding those who refuse to participate.  L. Gregory Jones notes that “those unwilling to engage truthfully in this practice exclude themselves form the communal life of those seeking to live ‘in truth.’  Such exclusion, however, ought to be seen only as temporary and always in the context of the hope that those subject to it will return to the fellowship” (Jones, Embodying Forgiveness, page 183).

This refusal to engage in the process must be observed, of course, by other members of the church acting in good faith in steps two and three of the process outlined in Matthew 18:15-20.  Wright gives this council.  “Thus, just as when we offer genuine forgiveness to someone else we are no longer conditioned by the evil that they have done—even if they refuse to accept this forgiveness and so continue in a state of enmity—so when God offers genuine forgiveness to his sinful creatures he is no longer conditioned by the evil they have done, even if they refuse to accept his forgiveness.  Otherwise the grouch, the sulker, the prodigal son’s older brother, occupies the implicit moral high ground forever” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page 141).

“In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to make a new beginning on a course that will be different from the one that caused us the wrong” (Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, page 273).  Without forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, I can never truthfully move “beyond me and the moment.”  With forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation, I can re-narrate my story in such a way that truth is told, life is celebrated, and new community is possible.

I conclude that the necessity of prosecuting and penalizing those who attempted a lynching in our nation’s capitol is unquestionable and must move forward.

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