The Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauWe are commanded to forgive by the teaching of Jesus and Jesus taught us to pray that we forgive those who wrong us as we forgive them for their wrongs against us. The petition in the Our Father for forgiveness suggests that accepting forgiveness can be at least as difficult as forgiving. Remaining oblivious to this latter difficulty reflects our prior difficulty in forgiving and I suspect it makes it all the harder for us to forgive. The two stories that conclude the book of Genesis help us move through our own difficulties by following through the difficulties experienced by Jacob and his son Joseph. We all know how difficult it is to forgive. We tend to overlook how difficult it can be to accept forgiveness.

The story of Jacob and Esau is a telling illustration of the difficulty in believing in forgiveness, let alone accepting it. Jacob had patently wronged his brother Esau in stealing Esau’s blessing and Jacob fled for his life with a guilty conscience. Years later, after similar wrangling with Laban, Jacob returns with his wives, his children and his flocks which had all grown too plentiful for Laban’s taste. Jacob has every reason to fear what will happen when he meets up again with Esau. Hearing that Esau is coming with four hundred men was not reassuring. The nighttime struggle with a dark figure seems to project Jacob’s combatant personality. Still the shifty coward he’s always been, Jacob puts the wives and children he cares about least in the most vulnerable positions in the front so that he can escape with his favored sons if need be.

What happens is an amazing surprise. Esau embraces Jacob with no reservations and not the slightest sign of resentment. No matter how many times one reads or hears the story, it is hard to believe. Jacob doesn’t believe it. Repentance and forgiveness aren’t really Jacob’s things. Jacob’s words: “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” are among the most profound words in the entire Bible for the ultimate revelation is Divine Mercy in a human face. But, as I said, Jacob can’t believe it even after this warm greeting. Jacob turns down the invitation to travel with Esau, using the excuse that he can’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. (Benedict quoted this verse in his Rule to illustrate the need for the abbot not to drive his monastics too hard!) Jacob, still shifty and cowardly, manages to avoid ever meeting up again with his brother for the rest of his life. Think of the years of friendship and companionship they missed out on!

The story is complicated by the later history of Edom, the people descended from Esau which reach a climax in Paul’s quoting, In Romans, Malachi 1:3: “Yet I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” In spite of Esau’s forgiveness narrated in Genesis, Edom has not been forgiven by Israel for its siding with their enemies in several wars. That Edom never recovered from the Assyrian invasion seemed to confirm that. The unflattering portrayal of Esau as a stupid, hairy oaf who sells his birthright for a pot of soup is perhaps another way of expressing Israel’s grudge against Edom. And yet this stupid hairy oaf suffered a terrible wrong from his unrepentant brother, moved on and built up his own flocks rather than spending his life in resentment, and forgave his brother. The story of these two brothers is often presented, including by Paul, to illustrate the mystery of God’s election. Jacob is the one chosen to carry on the Covenant, but the rejected brother, Esau, is the one much more in the place of Christ both in his rejection and in his forgiveness. Can repentance and forgiveness be strong enough in our lives for us to believe forgiveness when we see it?

See also Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2)

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A Peaceable Hope

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The strongest tension in the New Testament is that between the teachings of non-retribution and forgiveness on the one hand and eschatological retribution threatened for those who fail to follow the way of forgiveness and non-retribution on the other. The first problem is that it sets up a double standard between God and humans. We should be meek and mild but God will throw the bad guys into unquenchable fire where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The second problem is that Jesus’ accepting death on the cross turns out not to be the ultimate revelation of God that Christianity usually teaches; violent retribution at the end of time is the last word. The third problem is that if violent retribution on the part of God is the last word, the hard practice of non-retribution doesn’t seem to be worth it.

David Neville’s fine book A Peaceable Hope is an indispensable examination of precisely these issues. He sees the divide primarily between some parables and some retributive sayings in Matthew and pretty much the rest of the New Testament. The tension, then, is strongest in Matthew since it includes the Sermon on the Mount and a stress on Jesus being the silent lamb led to the slaughter but also has many threats against those who do not live by these standards. So lopsided a division suggests that the weight of the New Testament as a whole comes down firmly on the concept of God as totally without violence. Neville draws the tension in Matthew and contrasts this Gospel with the three other canonical Gospels, all of which are strongly peaceable in its eschatological teaching to various degrees with John being the strongest on peace themes. The reception history of Revelation has often taken the book to teach retributive violence by God but Neville builds a strong case that the slaughtered lamb is the guiding image for the book as a whole.

Neville doesn’t try to speculate why Matthew would have as vindictive an eschatology as he does. We can make some educated guesses based on our own experiences with rejection and injury. If we can’t or won’t strike back, we like to think somebody bigger than we and our adversaries will come and tear them to pieces on our behalf. There are alternate ways of understanding these violent passages in the New Testament, among them the suggestion that they use firm imagery to show the consequences of rejecting Christ and Christ’s way. Raymund Schwager, for example thinks along these lines in Jesus in the Dram of Salvation. In such a reading, God is not actively acting out revenge on those who reject him; they are suffering the alienation and violence by which they have lived.

Neville’s careful and thoughtful exploration of this difficult issue is valuable for anybody who wants a firm biblical basis for believing in and teaching a God of peace.

Accepting the Cross

crossRedVeil1Jesus’ words that “whoeverdoes not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37) are disturbing on two counts. We don’t like the idea of taking up the cross and we don’t like the idea of being rejected by God for not doing it.

It is worth pausing to note the question of whether or not Jesus could have said these words since they seem to read Jesus’ future back into this point in his life. As with the predictions of his suffering and death on the cross, I think it highly plausible that Jesus knew what was going to happen to him if he continued to teach and minster as he did if most people, especially those in power, persisted in rejecting his teaching and ministry. After all, Jesus had the example of Jeremiah and the other prophets to warn him. He did not need a crystal ball nor did he need to tap into his divine omniscience to foresee his destiny.

When Jesus said that “a disciple is not above the teacher,” he implied that we should expect the same results of imitating Jesus that Jesus himself had. This is a hard choice, one that entails renouncing worldly power and embracing the helplessness of the victim, but the alternative is to side with the oppressors either by actively joining them or silently allowing them to oppress others without challenging them.

The harsh words in Matthew suggest that God will definitively reject any of us who ever fall beneath this standard but the way Jesus treated Peter who failed miserably in this regard, not to speak of Paul who actively persecuted Jesus’ followers, suggests quite the opposite. There is a strong element of self-selection and self-judgment in rejecting the way of the cross. It is as when we speak badly of somebody or deny somebody, it tells a whole lot more about us than it does about the one we are speaking badly about. As the examples of Peter and Paul make clear, such states are not necessarily permanent unless we persevere in our rejection. It is simply the case that Jesus has a certain way of living that eschews violence and power in favor of weakness and the place of the victim. If we do not accept this way of Jesus, then we are simply not on Jesus’ way. Blaming Jesus for rejecting those who deny him is like blaming Jesus for the division his teaching and life brings about when such division is not Jesus’ intent but human decisions. (See Human Swords, God’s Peace.)

Jesus knows how hard it is to choose the way of the cross from his own experience and his sensitivity to any who might follow him. This is why he reassures us by saying that every sparrow that falls to the ground is known by the Father and that every hair on our heads is counted. Maybe the notion of sparrows falling to the ground is not so comforting but Jesus, in saying that we humans are worth more than sparrows, is assuring us that even when we fall to the ground, we are counted. This is what Jesus is getting at when he says that by trying to save our lives by denying the cross, we lose our lives and that by losing our lives we gain them when God catches us, just as Jesus catches every sparrow that falls to the ground. It is out of love for us that Jesus embraces the cross and it is our love for Jesus that leads us to do the same. Maybe we are worth more than sparrows, but sparrows are worth an awful lot as well.

Humility (2)

KatrinaCrossAbraham1[See Humility (1)[

The middle steps of Humility in Benedict’s Rule, the heart of his chapter, take us to the depths of the Paschal Mystery. They involve obedience “under difficult, unfavorable, or even unjust conditions” where  we “quietly embrace suffering,” being “content with the lowest and most menial treatment” and admitting in our hearts that we are “inferior to all and of less value.”

This looks a lot more like groveling before the King of Siam then does holding fast to the memory of God’s presence, but obeying under unjust conditions is what Jesus did during his earthly life, most of all during his last days. This step isn’t about bowing imperious rulers; it is about bowing to everybody, including those we consider the most despicable of human beings. Jesus did it. What about us? When we are being ill-treated, we console ourselves with the thought that at least we are better than those who mistreat us. But that is not what Jesus did. Jesus treated even Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas with respect, although the guards of the high priest didn’t see it that way.

This consideration adds a deeper perspective to the first step of humility that involves being ever mindful of being in God’s presence. There is a bit of a Big Brother is watching us about God’s perpetual mindfulness of everything we do and think, but the very God whose presence we should always remember is the God who accepted the meanest treatment at the hands of human beings like us. Doesn’t sound like Big Brother’s style of watching to me.

We are not easily content with “the lowest and most menial treatment.” We have a tendency to think that the world owes us the good things in life. If and when we don’t get them, we become highly resentful to everybody we hold responsible for what we don’t get. If and when we do get some of the good things in life, we think we only got what was coming to us. Of course, most of us find ourselves having to take the bad along with the good and we are resentful only most of the time. This is the case even if mathematically we get good things more often than not. Bad things always make stronger impressions on us. In short, we are the ones who act like the King of Siam, not God. When we stop expecting the world to give us nothing but the good things in life and become more concerned with those who don’t, and often they don’t have good things because of our inordinate greed, then we become more grateful for what we actually have. Gratitude has a lot to do with humility.

In these middle steps of humility, hard as they are to embrace, we come to grips with the incomprehensible love God has for us. Christ didn’t take time to dwell on how much more righteous he was than those who taunted him and nailed him on the cross. Jesus was too busy thinking about bringing even these people into his kingdom to have room in his heart for anything else.

So it is that at the bottom of humility, we find divine love. Benedict hints at the presence of God’s love that we experience within us when we let go of our pride when he says that, by following these steps, we “arrive at that perfect love of God which casts out fear.” At this level of humility, there is no dread of God because we have dropped our projections on God and have become free within the depths of God’s Desire.

I discuss the chapter on Humility in the Rule of Benedict at length in my book Tools for Peace.

Humility (1)

garden1Humility tends to evoke images of groveling before potentates, as when Anna was ordered to bow before the King of Siam. Such popular images project human images on God that have nothing to do with Jesus who was more interested in finding the lost sheep of Israel than having anybody bow down to him.

The first and most fundamental step of humility for St. Benedict is that we keep “the fear of God always before [our] eyes and never forget it.” That is, before humility is anything else, humility is living in the presence of God. This is indeed something very different from groveling in the dust. This step reminds us of our constant need for God and also of God’s sustained presence in our lives. It is precisely in our desires that our need for others shows itself. We often think of needing others to fulfill our desires but it is really more a case of needing others to desire at all as René Girard has demonstrated. (See Human See, human want) We tend to deny our need for the desires of others and to claim these desires for ourselves, which is an act of serious pride. Humility involves, then, accepting the interaction of our desires with the desires of others and accepting our mutual need of each other’s desires. But as this first step of humility teaches us, we most need to be in tune with our need for God’s Desire.

We tend to forget not only God’s presence but, even more seriously, God’s Desire when we are immersed in the desires of other people. Our involvement with the desires of other people tends to become rivalrous, which draws us further from God’s Desire. The more we are grounded in God’s Desire and never forget it, the more constructive we are apt to be in the way we act in terms of the desires of others. For example, we are freer to treat others with respect and courtesy when we don’t need to “win” any human encounters because we are grounded in God’s Desire that has nothing to do with winning but has everything to do with providing for others.

The inner attitude of living in the memory of God’s presence is balanced in the twelfth and final step of humility with the external deportment that corresponds with the former. Humility should be noticeable whether one is “at the Work of God, in the oratory, the monastery or the garden, on a journey or in the field, or anywhere else.” In other words, at all times and all places. Once again we have outer action and inner attitude reinforcing one another just as they should during worship. The last thing Benedict would want would be for someone to put on an act. When we let our actions flow out from right inner attitudes, then these actions are natural with no sense of putting on airs. The more one is mindful of living in God’s presence, the more natural the deportment of humility will be. Moreover, paying attention to this outward deportment does tend to have a humbling effect that strengthens the right inner attitude.

(More about Humility can be read in Andrew Marr’s book Tools for Peace)