In part two of our four-part series on the different set of rules Christians are called to live by, Rev. Pedro Pillot of Asbury UMC in Camden, NJ teaches that forgiveness is more than an action - it's a lifestyle.
My name is Pedro Pillot. I’m the pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Camden, New Jersey.
In the post 9/11 world, it feels weird to say that Jesus of Nazareth was an ideological extremist.
He preached about the coming of a new political order whose legal norms were often the opposite of what we’d expect, and he called it the Kingdom of God. We all know the saying, ‘turn the other cheek’, but we forget how far Jesus took it. It’s not only, ‘turn the other cheek’ when someone hits you, it’s ‘love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you.’ Jesus said, ‘if someone forces you to go one mile, go the extra mile for them.’ ‘If someone wants to take your coat, give them your shirt too.’
It’s easy when someone harms us once to forgive them. It’s a little harder to forgive them a second time. By the third time, most people would give up. If someone harmed me three times in a day, I would tell them, “Stop apologizing because you’re clearly not sorry.” Because it doesn’t make sense to forgive like that. It feels like an injustice.
And that’s part of why, in the U.S., forgiveness is not a big part of our concept of justice. We act as though justice is a byproduct extracted from a wrongdoer in the process of inflicting harm on them. There are more than 2 million people incarcerated in the US right now, and more than 4 million under state supervision, like probation and parole. When those people finally finish paying their debt to society, they find that employers can legally discriminate against them, because of their criminal past. And all too often, those crimes that suck people into the penal system are rooted in poverty and mental illness. Where is the justice in that?
If you look at Hebrew scripture, you might be surprised to learn that, though it sometimes gets a bad rap, execution in the Bible was reserved only for the most heinous crimes. Crimes where what was taken could not be restored, and incarceration is never prescribed as a punishment. Instead, you find that the law requires that, wherever possible, any harm done to another is restored. Whatever was deprived of another, had to be returned and with interest. In the Bible, justice is not about paying back evil with evil, but about healing whatever damage was done.
Jesus took that principle to its most extreme. He told his students that if someone wrongs you once, and apologizes, forgive them. And, if they wrong you again, forgive them again. And if they wrong you again, forgive them again. Because when we harm another person, we create a cycle. The scar that we left on our brother might be what pushes them to harm their sister, and so on. Sin passes from person to person, like fire from one house to the next. Forgiveness is what happens when we stand up to evil, and refuse to let it burn us down.
Radical forgiveness, forgiving those who actively hope for your destruction, does not mean letting yourself be taken advantage of. Radical forgiveness is the act of reclaiming your dignity as a human being, who has every right to condemn your attacker, but chooses to follow a higher principle. This is how we live into the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks so much about.