Learning to forgive – and to be forgiven

In Tales of Wonder, Huston Smith offers this definition of Christianity:

What is the minimum requirement to be a Christian? If you think Jesus Christ is special, in his own category of specialness, and you feel an affinity to him, and you do not harm others consciously, you may consider yourself a Christian.

I have immense respect for Huston Smith – he is a man who has sought after God with great passion, and in chronicling his search he blazed trails in post-modernism and in religious studies. Nevertheless, I believe that his definition of Christianity has a couple of problems with it. I will focus here on one: “… and you do not harm others consciously…” with special attention to the word “consciously.”

There is a great variation amongst consciences. Some give little thought to others, and so are unconsciously hurting others constantly in ways that most persons would consider obvious. One of the aims of Christianity is to broaden the consciousness of Christians: we learn to see ourselves more deeply, as well as to see a broader number of people more deeply than we have before – until we grow into an embodiment of God’s love for all people. So for some Christians, it becomes very hard to hurt another person without consciousness of it – because consciousness becomes so deep and broad.

When I turn on a light switch, I am conscious of hurting my sisters and brothers in West Virginia whose streams are choked with debris from mountaintop removal mining. When I get into my car and drive it, I am conscious of the Pacific Islanders already being impacted by rising sea levels, conscious of the animals whose habitats have been chopped into tiny parcels by asphalt roads, conscious of the benefits of the once good autoworking jobs disappearing. And so on. In the 21st century, we are so globally connected that there is little I can do without being tied to another in some way. And as a member of the ever dwindling American middle class, I am often tied to others in a way that benefits me to their detriment.

I am trying to lessen the instances in which I am consciously harming others. But at the same time, I am continuing to broaden and deepen in consciousness – and so more continues to be demanded of me in order to meet the standard of not harming others consciously. Christianity by Huston Smith’s definition is for me a moving target – if he is correct then I have never been a Christian, and can never hope to be one.

Instead, I take refuge in the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “… forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” We are ever in debt to God – and to many others. In teaching me to pray for forgiveness, Jesus teaches me that he expects I will continue to stand in need of forgiveness – and that it is always available to me. In teaching me that God’s forgiveness for me is linked to my forgiveness of others, Jesus teaches me that my judgment is what stands most in the way of my own healing. How readily do I model forgiveness when others fail me? When I fail myself?

Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, forgives your sins by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’m sorry, part 2

I’m sorry.  I misled you.  Things are seldom as straightforward as they seem, and upon reflection, I oversimplified a much more complicated story.

In a previous post, I led with a story that was totally accurate, except for one thing – it was told without the context of “what happened next.”  What happened next was not so clear cut – in fact, what happened next might undercut the black and white “just take responsibility” angle that I pursued in that post.

So, ironically, I am in the position of admitting that I made a mistake (hasty and unreflective blogging) when posting about the importance of admitting your mistakes.

So – here is, as Paul Harvey would have it, the rest of the story:

When the day finally came for me to go to court, it was snowing.  And while admittedly my flannel sheets did not make it easier for my young self to roll out of bed, the main issue was that I was driving to the Fairfax County courthouse from Richmond, which residents of Virginia can tell you involves driving on Interstate 95.  In my case, driving towards D.C. during the rush hour, now in the snow.  Given the weather, the time I had allowed was totally inadequate, even if I had not gotten lost looking for the courthouse parking deck, and then lost again looking for the appropriate courtroom in the courthouse.  All in the pre-cell phone days.

Needless to say, I was late.  I had called my father to let him know when I was leaving Richmond, and he headed straight to the courthouse to meet me there.  And so I was not in court to plead guilty, as had been my intent.

Apparently, in traffic court, they ask everyone to plea first, and then after they have sorted through everyone, sentencing the “guilty” along the way, they get around to the business of trying the “not guilty.”  So when the judge called my name, my father stood up, and explained that I was on my way, in the snow, from Richmond (in his best “please be merciful on my eldest child” tone.)  And the judge said, “That’s fine.  Let’s assume a not guilty plea.”

I got to the courtroom and found my father.  I was in a panic, because the judge was calling on someone with the last name “R_____,” and my last name began with “C.”  Dad assured me that it was alright, and the judge would talk to me later.

“Dad!” I said, “I was going to plead guilty!”

“Hush!” he said. “You’re lucky you are not in trouble for being late to court!”

Then the time came for my hearing.  I was asked to stand.  The judge called the police officer, and asked him if he had actually seen the accident take place.  He said that he had not.  The judge asked if there was anyone present that had been at the scene.  There was not.  It was then that I spoke up, and said to the judge, “Excuse me, your honor, but may I say something?” The judge replied, “It would be better for you if you didn’t!”  And then after a pause to see if I would in fact ignore his advice, he declared, “We find the defendant not guilty. You are free to go.”

Walking away from the courthouse, I did not feel “not guilty.” I felt defeated.  I confessed to Dad that I felt dishonest – I should have taken responsibility, but my general fear of authority figures kicked in, and I had been unable to keep talking after his admonishment for speaking up in the first place.  Dad’s take was that it would have been no use – I would have gotten some points on my license and paid some small fine, his insurance payments would have gone up even more – but what would be the benefit of it?

The benefit, I guess, would have been a delay in my initiation into the realm of moral ambiguity – I wasn’t equipped to know what to make of my inability, in the end, to take responsibility.  And I still am not, in some ways – I still have to tell the story in such a way as to emphasize – “If I had been there earlier, I would have plead guilty!”  But I was not, and I did not – instead, I allowed a presumed not guilty plea to become a not guilty verdict.

Which all leads to the question – if I know that God has forgiven me, why do I have such a hard time forgiving myself?  So much so that I have separated this story in my mind into two separate, unrelated stories – a story about my freshness and integrity startling a young, but already jaded police officer, and a story that really no one wants to hear, because… it’s complicated.  My shame over this incident is sufficient that I have held it apart from God, refusing to let this memory be redeemed.

What if, instead, I were to imagine God knowing exactly what I would do in that situation? What if I needed to learn what I would do in that situation?  And what if that moment were to be a moment of grace, of understanding how easy it is not to take responsibility, and finding love and forgiveness for those who cannot, or do not take responsibility, even before they can find forgiveness for themselves, even before they know they need forgiveness?  What if – what if this moment of moral failure could become a moment of redemption and reconciliation?  And what if, finally, I were brought to the realization that grace is all about learning to accept being given a not guilty verdict when you know that you deserved to be found guilty?