I have seen the power of forgiveness work to heal my former religious “certainties.” (I wrote about this journey in what my publishers call “The God Trilogy” — Crazy For God, Patience With God and Sex, Mom and God.) Those certainties gave my primate nastiness a patriarchal theological boost of self-justification. So before I could change I first had to come to see myself as a persecutor. I had to forget the “biblical example” I’d been set by my evangelist preacher father as he sometimes abused my mother and instead copy the example of forgiveness and mercy my wife Genie and my daughter Jessica offered me.
Forgive as you would be forgiven is not a prescriptive command but a factual description of what heals human relationships. If I’ve learned anything over my 60 year journey it’s that forgiveness as a way of life is open to anyone of any faith or no faith. Brains change based on our behaviors not because of what we say we believe. Belief is only meaningful in that it can either lead us to reconsider who we are imitating or confirm us as being “right” and therefore in no need of healing. So the “act” (in both senses of the word) of forgiving others works for the forgiver as well as the forgiven. It connects us with the empathy we have within us that competes with our primate prime directive to be controlling bastards.
Following her mother’s example my first child Jessica returned love for my clumsy-to-bad-to-mean “fathering.” She was born when I was 18 but I eventually grew up. When she was a young adult I asked her to forgive me for the times I’d pulled her hair, for the slaps and unkind yelling she endured as a young child.
It was no coincidence that the farther I traveled away from my fundamentalist evangelical Calvinist background the more open I became to imitating forgiving behavior. In my mind my dominating and controlling actions — that were really just primate lashing out — had been “justified” by my “call” to “lead” a family as a patriarchal practitioner of the biblical misogyny that all-too conveniently fit my selfish primate desire to control those around me. I’d been told that “God’s plan” included a directive for men to dominate “their” women and children. Calvinism — and all other forms of patriarchal religion — is tailor made by male primates for other male primates who are assholes anyway. It gives them guilt-free a pat on the head to do what comes most naturally.
According to brain chemistry studies, taking revenge and nurturing resentment is a major source of life-destroying stress. For a profound exploration of the madness caused by embracing the “justice” of “godly” revenge and retribution watch the film “Hellbound?” directed by Kevin Miller. It is about our different views of retribution as expressed through belief in hell. But through this look at “hell” Miller also brilliantly chronicles the unhinging of some people’s brains through their denial of human empathy that leads them to relish the violent future of suffering that they predict awaits the “lost” in hell. Yet we need not follow the sort of raving fundamentalists Miller exposes in “Hellbound?” to the earthly hell of their making. I should know. I used to be a Calvinist fundamentalist much like some interviewed by Miller. Love through reawakened empathy changed my brain un-snapped it so to speak.
Jessica grew up into a beautiful person with no trace of bitterness and she forgave me. By forgiving me, she healed us both. And if I may indulge a proud father moment, Jessica blossomed into a happy lovely mother of two and my best friend who I talk to almost more than to anyone else. She is a successful energy consultant to the European Union and runs a foundation linking alternative energy companies with the major power companies all over the world. I have no idea what Jessica believes theologically nor do I care. I only know who she is– a forgiver. She was my Good Samaritan but with a twist: she was the wounded person who then rescued her persecutor with these simple words: “I forgive you Dad.”
Jesus’ truthfulness regarding the power of forgiveness changes people’s brains and therefore it works. So if Jesus is the second person of the Trinity (whatever that means) or an enlightened rabbi, a literary invention or a blend of all of the above, following his (or his chronicler’s) prescription changes us. And since that change from persecutor to forgiver is what Jesus “said” he’d demand as proof of “salvation,” however we get there isn’t the point. Forgiveness rather than retribution, binding the wounds rather than passing by; this is a miraculous departure from the primate biting and scratching norm.
A Disclaimer Time Out Humble Pie: Am I not essentially contradicting myself by saying that correct belief about how behavior actually changes us is required to change behavior? Yes, for the same reason that deconstructionist post-modern philosophers still write books about how language has no fixed meaning… using language to make their case. Welcome to being finite and stuck in a paradox. So forget what I say, words are mere metaphors anyway, just do the dishes, listen to the person stuck with you over that sink and learn from her stories, and be nice to your version of Genie and Jessica– while there is still time to say sorry.
One other distinction you may want to take away from my paradoxical inconsistency is that my “view” somewhat “redefines” salvation from holding the right beliefs (in order to appease a wrathful “god”) to holding beliefs that heal people in order to secure our imminent and humanity’s long-term, survival. It’s not a matter of passing some theological test after you die. It’s about not destroying yourself and others in this life. (End of disclaimer)
My two youngest grandchildren Lucy and Jack don’t know how I went from angry primate bullying teen father to 60-year-old benign grandfather. (Jessica’s children Amanda and Ben are teens now and Genie’s and my relationship with them is that of friends, family and equals not care givers to little children as it is with Jack and Lucy.) Lucy and Jack race around my home, paint, draw, scribble, listen to music –“Bach and crackers” as Jack calls it when asking for his favorite snack and music – bathe and poop, all the while experiencing and trusting in that change.
If I hadn’t actually changed but could talk a good theological game, what good would that do my grandchildren? What drew them into a world of my love wasn’t my ideas let alone dominant “leadership” but the fact that I genuinely don’t care how much paint they spill on my porch floor. I know that if anything ever happened to them that their grubby little paint footprints marking the spot where we worked on our art projects together would become iconic treasures and the most precious things in my house.
If Jesus really “takes away the sins of the world” it isn’t through some sacrifice to satisfy a jealous “god” but because he set an example by refusing to allow revenge to have the last word. He did not fulfill a cycle of retributive sacrifice, he broke it. As one 7th century Eastern Orthodox Father put it: “Be persecuted, rather than be a persecutor. Be crucified, rather than be a crucifier. Be treated unjustly, rather than treat anyone unjustly. Be oppressed, rather than zealous. Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.” (Abba Isaac of Nineveh – “The Syrian”)
Primates don’t naturally “Lay hold of goodness, rather than justice.” But we can make our brains change by imitating the few who do. Sometimes we receive a reward for that change from a friend, child or grandchild as I did when Lucy, then three, set a table napkin on fire when she experimented with a candle. (I’d briefly left the room and our candlelit table to clear the dishes.) She had no fear in her startled eyes when she looked to see how I’d “react” after she called me back. As a blue sheet of flame curled up to the ceiling she was curious about it but not afraid of me. She has never been slapped by the hands that gently took the burning napkin away. And the voice that said, “That might not be a good idea Lucy,” spoke conversationally without a hint of yelling.
Lucy was fear-less in that moment, because (unknown to her) her grandfather has been playacting at being her “Jesus.” As I conveyed the flaming napkin to the kitchen sink – and explained about fire and what it does – I was passing on my gratitude for having been forgiven so many times.
In other words I have been reached by the actual brain-changing power of the living gospel. Jesus — be he God or man or teacher or merely a fictional character — went far past mere niceness and answered our primal violence not with a terrified snarl but with “Forgive them.” And that very un-primate-like example has left the door to heaven wide open for you and me and those we love in the here and now, no matter what we call ourselves or what we believe.