There is a phenomenon of human behavior which is not limited by faith or culture which can be summed up by the pithy “We are a diverse group who reach positions based on due consideration, they are a bunch of clones that do whatever they are told.” This is clearly a particular expression of the phenomenon by which we as humans are prone to give more attention, and thus more depth of detail, to elements which impact us most directly, giving less detail as items recede from our immediate concerns. Most often, people think of this in the ways it manifests negatively, such as a willingness to demonize a rival political movement, or the inability to muster outrage for human rights violations in a county ethnically and religiously unlike our own. But it does work both ways. The same behavior leads to the odd reality that it is easier for people to donate cash to charities at a distance, such as famine in Africa, than to cause at home such as homeless children, for the very reason that the lack of detail in their mind makes it easier to feel like the money will do more good. Most of us don’t ascribe the same issues of corruption, personal accountability, and long term impact on the problem that we apply to a local issue when considering issues far away. It is this inverse of the common view of this vagueness I want to focus on today, at the extreme level; how our detailed view of ourselves can make it hardest of all to extend charity to ourselves.
I want to look at this in a very Christian perspective, the perspective of the compassion, love, and forgiveness which we as Christians are called upon to exercise. Once we take that huge leap to change our outlook from looking to assign blame to looking for reasons to forgive, the vagueness of distance begins to work in the reverse of what we might expect. When we want to forgive, a very easy mental tool is to try and build a narrative, in which an action would be forgivable, and then try to project that narrative. It is like saying to ourselves “I don’t KNOW this isn’t want he was thinking or doing, so I should not judge him.” You can hopefully see how much this mental attitude is aided by a blank canvas. If I hear that a man I never met living in conditions I don’t understand has robbed his neighbor but wishes to be forgiven, I can write many tales about his needing bread to avoid starving, his having been exposed to a culture that glorifies an ethic of take what you need, a society in which the laws do not give justice but only oppression, the list goes on and on, and in no time at all I have a thousand easy reasons to set aside my mental reservations and extend heartfelt sympathy and forgiveness to this distant unknown soul.
But if I bring it closer, and a profession acquaintance is arrested for sexual misconduct, but professes his innocence, it is harder to be as quick to think charitably. I know what circumstances he grew up in, that his family, culture, and church told him these things were wrong. I know that he lived a comfortable life and was not driven to desperate acts out of some need to make ends meet or be accepted by a dangerous crowd to get by. I know he had the knowledge and the means to have performed this crime, and knew that it would cause him personal and professional harm. But I do know that he was not universally loved. I know that some people who disliked him have a reputation for being willing to do bad things to get back at people. I know that someone who knows how much these charges would harm him had the means to leave the kinds of evidence which were found. It is harder to do, and requires working in a much more narrowly defined space, but I can write a narrative that gives me a reasonable doubt, that gives me that ability to doubt that he must be punished which makes it easier to extend to him Christian love and compassion in his time of trials.
Closer still, we come to the case of looking at ourselves. I have kept silent when I could have spoken up, knowing the truth about a situation, I have allowed a lie to go unchallenged, or even spoken in support of the lie. I have known actions I could have easily taken to help others or lesson the worry or suffering of others, but I have not taken those actions. I have no easy out; I have no narrative that makes these actions OK. Some people do, they can look back on a deed, think of something that would make it okay, and repeat that reason in their mind over and over until they sincerely think they acted from that motive rather than came up with it later. I do not doubt I have done this at some points, but in most things I cannot exercise such a level of self deception. I am left after the fact looking at something I have done, and saying “Yep, that was a bad deed.” I know that I was a coward, trembling in my fear and stewing in my anger. With no tale to explain why I might *not* be wholly accountable for my action, it is very hard to extend to myself the love, forgiveness, and understanding that I can give to others. Standing in the spotlight and facing one’s sins is never a comfortable place to be.
But wait; let me take this to a deeper conclusion. I think that I need to work on forgiveness, to dig deeper into the mystery of Christ. I was talking with my parish priest, when his words led me to suddenly realize a comforting illusion which is now holding me back. I’m not where I need to be in walking in Christ’s light. These mental narratives are fine, at first, they serve a helpful role in moving to a place in which it is easier to be forgiving, to be ready to extend a kind thought… but they are a tool and a bridge, not a destination. Christ did not die to atone for our unintentional misdeeds or accidental wrongs, he died for our sins. What Christ was willing to suffer for, and indeed what he did take onto his blameless shoulders, was our actual wrongs, our malicious actions, our cowardice, our spite, our denials, our disrespect, our immorality, and our unbelief, all were accounted for and found fulfilled. What we ask in the Lord’s Prayer is for the Lord to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We aren’t asking for understanding for a hasty miscalculation here, we are asking to be shown mercy for actual wrongs we have committed in word, deed, and thought... and in turn we are called to forgive the same.
Christian forgiveness is not about giving the benefit of the doubt; it is about having no doubt that wrong was done willfully, but forgiving anyway. It is about accepting that the price of forgiveness has already been paid, and we cannot dwell on the past counting and recounting the wages of our sin, but must act towards a better future and do the work of the Lord. I say these things as easy conclusions to have reached with my new insight, but let me tell you truly, I think I am ready to take a big step and change the way I think about forgiveness, to start to forgive more fully and with more wholeness of heart, but I do not doubt I will backslide, and I suspect I may still have a long row to hoe before I am ready to turn this new understanding on myself, and allow myself to extend the hardest forgiveness of all, the forgiveness to myself for having added to the suffering of this world, and the burden my Savior has had to bear.