There was an extraordinary thing that happened earlier this week. Amber Guyger, who has been convicted of murdering Botham Jean after she mistakenly entered his apartment, heard words of forgiveness from Botham’s brother, Brandt. If you haven’t had a chance to see the video or read the transcript, it was incredibly moving. Brandt spoke of how he had no ill-will toward her, wishing her the best in her life, calling her to turn to Jesus, and even asking the judge if he could give her a hug.
It’s a scene I can only recall happening two other times. Once, by some family members after the Mother Emmanuel massacre who forgave the murderer for what he did; and once after a gunman killed five schoolgirls in Amish country in Pennsylvania. These stories of incredible acts of forgiveness are inspiring and also intimidating, because what kind of superhuman could forgive such an awful act? It puts the onus on the rest of us to somehow live up to that kind of selflessness of letting go, of forgetting the sin committed, of passing over punishment.
That tends to be what we think of when we hear “forgiveness,” isn’t it? A superhuman move to erase the sins others have committed. But there’s something off about what that forgiveness looks like. It’s all too easy to find examples throughout history of how such “forgive and forget” attitudes have helped oppressive and abusive situations continue without consequences.
“Forgive and forget” has been weaponized against women and girls to silence them when abuse takes place—whether in the home, at work, or most heinously, at church.
“Forgive and forget” has been used against communities of color who are expected to take the high road of patience and forgiveness when dehumanizing bigotry, violent policing, or active undermining of their economic or political freedom takes place.
“Forgive and forget” has been deployed in dysfunctional family systems to turn a blind eye to abuse, neglect, and psychological damage and shame those who would point it out.
When Jesus commands us to forgive, I can’t believe he means for us to let sinful and evil actions continue to harm people.
The problem, really, is that we have confused forgiveness for an end rather than a beginning. I know at least a few of y’all grew up Catholic, and I imagine y’all have some experience with the confession booth, but for those of us who don’t, there is an incredibly important detail that, frankly, our Roman Catholic siblings have gotten right that we as Protestants have forgotten. The priest, after your confession, pronounces absolution—forgiveness—over you…and then he tells you what penance to do.
Yes, after you are forgiven, then you must do penance. And that sounds like works righteousness to our Lutheran ears because in his zeal to share the amazing news that we are justified by grace and not by works, Luther blurred the line between us and God when it comes to our capacity for forgiveness. Our sin can’t hurt God, so an apology and a resolution to do better is enough. But our sin does hurt others. What the Catholics remember, and what we have forgotten, is that repentance must necessarily follow forgiveness.
Rev. Cornell Brooks, when commenting about Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of Amber Guyger, explained that “[f]orgiveness means being open to the process of reconciliation. It's taking note of the wrong but being willing to be in relationship with the wrongdoer and opening your arms to the wrongdoer even as you acknowledge the wrong.” And that looks a lot different than the “forgive and forget” way of approaching forgiveness. When we see Jesus’ command as a call to open the door to letting others repair the damage they’ve done, rather than a decree to pretend the damage never happened, it makes the command to forgive seven times a day a very different command.
It means that the work of reconciliation is real and transformative. If being forgiven means now you can work toward righting the wrongs you’ve done, that guilt can be removed by the actual act of repairing the damage you’ve done. And sometimes that work is simple, like fixing your friend’s truck that you borrowed and broke. It can be very complex, like repairing a relationship worn down by years of bitterness and backbiting. It could be hard, like accepting a jail sentence for assault. And sometimes it can be impossible to repair the damage, like benefitting from the system of white privilege, but the act of repentance becomes doing the work to make sure the wrong doesn’t continue.
Jesus insisted that his disciples forgive seven times a day—but seven is a symbolic number here. What he means is, as often as someone is truly repentant, our call as Christians is to forgive them. And that can be genuinely hard. Brandt Jean’s words of forgiveness—opening the door to Amber Guyger doing the work of repentance—would be very hard if not next to impossible for any of us to have said. Yet that openness to repentance and willingness to forgive is central to our work as Christ’s disciples showing others what the kingdom looks like.
So it’s little wonder his disciples respond to this command by demanding more faith! How else do you think we can do this apart from faith in Jesus? We aren’t strong enough to will ourselves to forgive others endless numbers of times. Trusting in God is the only way that the act of forgiveness, the work of repentance, and the fullness of reconciliation are even possible. But the lucky thing is, God does not delay in supporting us. God does not hold back in walking with us in the dark and difficult valley of sin, pointing us to the vision of a day when sin will be no more and the community God longs for will come about.
After all, that is the ultimate end of forgiveness—to repair the damage between us and reconcile people who have been wronged; to make God’s longed-for community. And we get there by the hard work of repentance, repairing the damage where possible and preventing future damage whenever we can. And that may take forgiving seven times a day, but Jesus assures us that it is worth it, because that’s what the kingdom of God looks like.
Thanks be to God. Amen.