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Wounding God

Something burning in my heart is demanding the oxygen of expression.

Regular readers of this blog know I am not persuaded by one line of thinking about the crucifixion: I don’t believe God demanded the death of Jesus to forgive our sins. Of the Passion narrative, I’ve written that the crucifixion was our idea, while the resurrection was God’s idea, however we understand resurrection.

Yet I do believe the story of the crucifixion reminds us that we wound God.

I know that’s not an original thought—many theologians, contemplatives, writers, and preachers have written about this. But it’s being brought home to me in several ways that culminated this past Holy Week as I read again The Temple of God’s Wounds.

Monday night of that week I attended the fourth and final class on the themes of the Confession of Belhar, which the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. is in the process of welcoming into its Book of Confessions. It was adopted during the days of apartheid in South Africa by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church resisting the government’s separation of the races.

Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary offered it online, but I attended its meetings in person at the Martin Luther King Center near our home in Atlanta because I wanted to engage in the conversation directly. I thought this would be a way to hear concerns that current movements such as Black Lives Matter raise, but in a context of shared faith. As an aside, I felt very welcomed as a gay man.

The class was small, about 70% African American and 30% Anglo-European, though the final Monday I was the only white person attending.

Long before the course I had concluded that there is no way white people will ever understand the experience of black people in American society. The brutalization of slavery and the degradation of racism and segregation that followed (and still follows) cannot be erased, no matter how forgiving African Americans may be and no matter how transformed Anglo-European Americans may become.

During one class session, we listened to the tape of the families of those murdered in the Charleston church offering forgiveness to their vicious and racist assailant, and I noticed that alongside “I forgive you” were cries of pain and anguish and grief at their loss, calls for repentance of the perpetrator and an expectation of justice for the victims so that “hate doesn’t win,”something the media largely left out in its eagerness to report their forgiveness.

Their mercy was transforming for South Carolina, bringing down the confederate flag, while affecting broader American sensibilities as well.

But, as one woman pointed out to me after class, “There was a lot of anger in black communities for how easily they forgave” that young man. Yet hearing their forgiveness while holding him accountable suggested they were not offering cheap grace.

In class I told the story of participating in a “dog and pony” show at four venues around the state of Iowa for UCC pastors as their denomination was changing its positions on LGBT issues some years ago. One pastor had asked, “Where’s the repentance?” At first we thought he was expecting repentance from LGBT folk, but what he meant was, where was the church’s repentance for its mistreatment of LGBT people?

I suggested to the class that maybe the church needed something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission where wrongs could be named—the wounding of all kinds of folk because of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Ultimately this is how we wound God.

By the next session of the course I had learned that several presbyteries have passed “A Healing Overture for the Admission of, and Apology for Harms Done to the LGBTQ/Q Members of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Family and Friends.” Hallelujah!

When I’ve written on this blog about the need of being forgiving in the spiritual life, I’ve sometimes received friendly pushback from those who have been abused or work with the abused. It’s been pointed out to me that forgiveness in certain circumstances may not always be possible, even may not be a healthy choice.

In “Forgiveness: The Last Step,” Marie Fortune writes in the context of family violence, “Once justice has been accomplished, even in a limited way, forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity. Prior to justice, forgiveness is an empty exercise.” She points out that Jesus said, “If another sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” [See Luke 17:3-4 NRSV.]

That suggests at least four steps toward reconciliation: confrontation, confession, repentance (as in metanoia, an “about face”), followed by forgiveness. Only when justice is served, she writes, is “a victim of violence and abuse…freed to forgive.”

On Maundy Thursday last week, Wade and I were part of a support community for a friend in a recovery program. After an afternoon meeting with our friend, a counselor, and a dinner out, that evening we attended what was essentially an Al-Anon meeting for support communities of others in recovery. Emotions ran high, as they must have when Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples: communion and hope, but also shared grief and feelings of betrayal, denial, abandonment.

Some could tell stories in which the recoveries of their loved one held; others told stories of multiple heartbreaking attempts; many acknowledged that they too were powerless over what addictions were doing to their loved ones. I was deeply moved by the love and commitment in that room. I awoke Good Friday morning with involuntary tears streaming from my eyes thinking of them.

The Twelve Steps are all about truth-telling, another requirement of justice. And the eighth and ninth steps are about making “a list of all persons we had harmed” and making “amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

I had thought that I should find some service to attend the evening of Good Friday, when a close friend told us that the day was the 20th anniversary of the death of his beloved partner to AIDS. So he came over and we ordered Chinese take-out. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend Good Friday. And I better understood his flash of anger about the Reagans when Hillary Clinton misstated after Nancy’s funeral that they had been instrumental in the “national conversation” about AIDS.

A blog reader once pointed out to me that Jesus did not forgive those who betrayed, denied, abandoned, tortured, and crucified him, but rather, asked God to forgive them. That makes sense, for only God could administer the justice required for mercy. Could that be how Jesus’ sacrifice came to be understood as expiation for our sins?

It is a sacred challenge to administer justice without vengeance. Jesus calls us to go the extra mile beyond retribution (“an eye for an eye”) and love our enemies. But real love holds the beloved accountable.

The biblical witness is of a God of justice and mercy. Both are required for transformation. But scapegoating is never just, even if it is Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. Justice requires truth-telling, changing our ways, and making amends (penance). Only then, to paraphrase Psalm 23, can “mercy and justice follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
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