I get it wrong all the time.
My mind can be a terrible place to inhabit when those intrusive moments of relational failure walk around as though they own the place.
I feel lucky that it isn’t a constant stream of “should’ves”, “could’ves”, and “can’t believe you did thats.”
Even now, as I try to write this, my most recent faux pas and failures creep along the edges of my consciousness. This is the third time I’ve started this article, and in each instance moments that I feel are unforgivable step out of the recesses of my mind and call me to their cold embrace.
There’s the time I reacted badly to my daughter’s belligerence, seeing it as her opposition rather than her fear and exhaustion…
There’s the poor wording and phrasing of past conversations when I didn’t know better, but feel now like I should have…
There’s the opportunity for relational reconciliation or forgiveness to happen, but I fear the vulnerability and “weakness” in admitting my failures publicly and holding myself accountable…
If I listen to the voices on the edges of my consciousness, I’m not worth being in the center. I’m better off witnessing my life rather than participating in it.
If I didn’t know better, then I’d be a perfect candidate for theologies with all the answers. I could easily find myself in a community that reminds me of how worthless I am, and how they hold the keys to my freedom.
It would be easier sometimes. It just wouldn’t be living, and it wouldn’t be a faithful life, and it would be perpetuating a system of self and other abuse, and it would bind rather than allow me to experience real freedom.
So, theology begs me to explore the margins and edges of my life. A theology of forgiveness beckons me to welcome the hard moments, befriend them, and hold myself responsible for their happening and accountable for being and doing better.
My theology is centered on relationship rather than rules. Some of you may know about process theology or its sister open and relational theology. It’s been my personal theological playground for more than a dozen years now.
It is the source of my existential anxiety and experiential freedom. Long ago I realized that when we profess process thought as a way of making meaning in the world, we also profess the primacy of relationships. It’s an ecological way of seeing the world through systems of connection and interrelationship.
And, once we see the interconnectedness, we begin to see where things are broken. And, we also see where we’ve contributed to them breaking. And, we can become easily overwhelmed and depressed with the life we’ve led.
So, forgiveness becomes important. It becomes central to how we treat ourselves and others. A process theologian is responsible for the ways they interact with the world and other people. They are also accountable for attempting to do better with each subsequent relationship possibility.
The edges and margins become important because that is where the hurt lies in wait. It’s where forgiveness holds the possibility of restoration. If I leave them to their devices and constantly punish myself for these past infractions, there little hope for relationship or restoration. It is purely retribution and punishment. I become my own worst enemy over time.
But if I can be vulnerable enough to explore these edges, to give myself some flexibility in how I tell those stories, I might be able to befriend them enough to co-create a relationship. If I can muster the courage to co-create a moment of forgiveness between myself and another, then those stories live on the edge no longer and they are free to escape the prison of my mind.
Restoration is relational, I can do my part to be accountable, but it requires a dialogical approach from another as well. If they can’t be there with restoration in mind, then hard work is letting go. The fantasy of possibility, that things can change through our sheer willpower, is just that, a fantasy. Responsibility and accountability is a mutually co-creative process in forgiveness.
Now the simple argument against this is our relationships to and with abusers and purveyors of trauma and violence. There is no way I would prescribe seeking restoration, whether perpetrator or harmed. At least, not without having done the work of taking responsibility (as perpetrator) or seeking the accountability of abusers to their actions (as harmed).
Forgiveness requires us all to be flexible and willing to change. In my experience, the more we rely on coercive power, the less likely we are to be open to changing. Assess the situation, protect yourself, and work on the internal forgiveness you might need to experience freedom with edges of your mind and experiences.
For me, it’s meant going back to my daughter and apologizing for misreading the situation and reacting poorly. It means telling her I got it wrong and here’s what I should have said and that I will do better next time.
It’s meant watching how I use language to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and being open and willing to learn when I need to be corrected so that more people are brought into a conversation rather than excluded from it.
It means publicly acknowledging that I could do and be better. That failure is an option and opportunity to hold myself more accountable and be more responsible to how I experience the sacred in the world and in others and behave in that way.
For your own reflection:
How has your understanding of forgiveness changed?
Do you still see it primarily as something outside of yourself or has it become more relational and responsive?
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