Someone once said …

Someone once said that we judge ourselves by our intentions and other people by their actions. Other people tend to get off much less lightly and we find it easier to forgive ourselves.

When Jesus asked his father to forgive us “because they know not what they do” he was looking behind our actions to the confused and vacant thoughts that can often prompt us to behave cruelly. Our behaviour is often childishly transparent and as I read that story I think he forgave us like an adult.

Until recently the way Christ forgave his enemies on the cross was the example of forgiveness in the Bible which would come to my mind most frequently and when I found time to think about it slowly, would move me deeply. The more familiar I have become with the story, the more easy it has seemed – as is the danger with New Testament stories. Recently, though, my four-year-long struggle to forgive a friend have stood this story on its head. And shown it has a reverse side which is equally true and embedded with broken glass.

Christ doesn’t talk about forgiving people who know what they do, but he does not have to as he would forgive them too. In my reading of the story though I tacitly thought that it would be harder to forgive someone who know the harm they were doing to you because it meant they were harming you on purpose. Now though I see it differently. When I truly know what I am doing to someone I have reached the point of apologizing, because I see the hurt, the disrespect and the anger from their point of view. When someone truly knows the impact of their actions they are at me with you. They have atoned and that is the easiest apology to accept. Forgiving someone who has not reached that point is far harder.

I have discovered the Old Testament deals with forgiveness with immense psychological insight. Many years pass before Joseph meets his brothers again in Egypt. For the first of three times. At first, they do not recognise the brother they decided to get rid of and throw in a pit. When they do they are afraid that he will want to take revenge on them. After their father, Jacob, dies they fear all restraints on Joseph have been lifted, and go to plead for mercy.

What hits you in the face is that at no time do they apologise for what they did to Joseph, or for the way they envied him nearly to death and treated him as less than human. They knew what they were trying to do to him, but they did not know what they did.

Joseph’s reaction is also striking. We read in Genesis how over the years he has accommodated himself to life in Egypt in the Pharaoh’s household and through rough or smooth has lived close to God`s will. He immediately recognizes his brothers and always gives them what they ask for and more. When he receives their non-apology he says: “You meant to do me harm but God meant good to come from it, so that I would feed Israel from Egypt.” But is most striking is that each time Joseph sees his brothers, he weeps.

People who have been hurt by others do weep, and until the ones who harmed them know what they have done, I wonder what hope they can have of forgiving. When I was living in Moscow from January 1991 to March 1992, a group of Quaker mediators from the US visited the Moscow meeting for worship shortly after the coup attempt in August. For all of them I believe it was a first visit to Russia. After meeting, one of them addressed us and spoke of the pressing need for forgiveness in Russia.

A mixture of emotions went through me on hearing this, but the prevailing one was probably deep embarrassment. Forgiveness comes at great cost and I don’t think it can be counselled by someone for it is scot-free. In our eagerness to conciliate and achieve forgiveness we Quakers are sometimes prone to minimise the offence.

Christ’s prayer on forgiveness seen in this light is a hard rod. He is trying to forgive people who do not know what they are doing, but who, with the slightest ounce of imagination would see. It is a hard rod and he asks God to do it for him. I would say forgive them, especially because they know not what they do – I can’t in my own strength.

[1993]