Trying to get down to the heart of the matter

Trying to get down to the heart of the matter April 26, 2012

I want to follow up on this earlier discusssion — “Mercy for the downpresser man is not the first step. Or the second, or third” — about what it might mean to extend grace to an oppressor or an abuser.

What we’re talking about here is forgiveness. Can Pharaoh be forgiven?

Forgiveness is a Good Thing. Each one of us, at some point, requires it. And thus each of us, at some point, will also need to grant it to others.

But that qualifying phrase there — “at some point” — is important. And it’s not enough just to say that forgiveness is a Good Thing without also exploring why and how it’s a Good Thing.

If I have wronged you, if I have done you harm, then I did so through the use of power over you. The case of an oppressor or an abuser makes this especially clear, but it’s always true. To do another wrong is to exercise power against them, and the more power we have in relation to another, the greater the capacity we have to do them wrong by using that power for harm.

Forgiveness works by reversing that power dynamic. If I have exercised power over you, abusing that power to do you harm, then I require your forgiveness. It becomes something I need from you, but which I cannot compel you to give me. Forgiveness cannot be coerced or extracted by force. It can only be granted.

This is part of why the wrong questions discussed in the previous post are the wrong questions. “What about grace for the oppressor/abuser?” is a question that, when asked out of turn, becomes a tool for trying to extract or to compel forgiveness. And that’s not how forgiveness works or what it means.

If you are to grant me forgiveness, then, it can only happen if I come to you in powerlessness — if I accept that my request for forgiveness grants you all the power in the equation. Pharaoh can only be forgiven when he bows down before the former slave he has wronged.

This reversal, this correction, of the imbalance of power is why forgiveness can bring healing to both parties in the transaction. It’s like the leveling sung of by Mary or preached by John the Baptist. It brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; it fills every valley and makes low every mountain and hill. The powerful are brought low and the powerless are lifted up. The powerless are empowered.

The counterfeit of coerced or compulsory forgiveness cannot do this. There can be no leveling if the powerless are required or demanded or expected to surrender their forgiveness before the powerful are brought low. Any talk of forgiveness for one who has misused or exploited power over others that does not grant power — all the power — to those others becomes, itself, a second misuse and exploitation of power. It’s a sham and a scam that has nothing to do with real forgiveness at all.

And that is not a Good Thing.

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