A sermon given during the 6:00pm Choral Evensong, by The Rt Rev’d Chris McLeod, on the 26th February 2023.
Forgiveness & Social Justice
The Rt Rev’d Chris McLeod – Dean
During Lent we are offering a series of sermons on Forgiveness. Last year we looked at reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation while they go together, are not the same thing. Tonight, I look at the connection between forgiveness and social justice and say a few things about reconciliation as well. Let’s define ‘Social Justice’ as putting things right our society based on fairness, respect, and equality. In the background of my thinking on forgiveness is this text from Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Then Peter came to Jesus and said to him: ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times Matthew 18: 21 – 22). Other versions have instead of ‘member of the Church’, brother or sister. Thereby, I think indicating a broader application.Nonetheless, the implications are the same – Jesus is encouraging unlimited forgiveness. Is that even possible, and should we even attempt it, and what about the idea of deserved forgiveness and repentance?
Much of our thinking is governed by the view of justice that if a crime or a hurt is committed then there should be some form of punishment (an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth). Yet, with that view, understandable as it is, there is little hope for forgiveness, let alone reconciliation.
I have been reading again a book which is a reflection on the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. It is called ‘Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism’ (Allan Boesak and Curtiss De Young). After Apartheid South Africa had much to consider. Archbishop Tutu placed at the centre of his approach the Christian idea forgiveness. His view was that the nation would never move on unless forgiveness was offered between the many victims and perpetrators. Desmond Tutu was aware that great atrocities occurred. Was his approach extremely naive? Many thought so. Others were calling for vengeance and punishment. It is here that we are on challenging ground. Should we just throw around forgiveness like rose petals at a wedding? No consequences, no repentance, and no change. No this is not what forgiveness means. Nor can forgiveness be forced to be given. To say to someone that ‘you must forgive’ is cruel and insensitive. Forgiveness flows from an act of grace. It must be freely given, not forced. It stems from God’s act of forgiveness to the world, freely given out of the depths of God’s love.
Forgiveness and justice
So, what about the connection between forgiveness and social justice? I have already made mention of the situation in South Africa, which is still ongoing. We have our own challenges here in Australia as we wrestle with the effects of colonisation. There are other challenges in society such as the gap between the rich and the poor, gender inequality, and issues around sexuality. And there are more besides. Who forgives who for what wrong has been committed? Does forgiveness even do anything? My answer is yes! It sets the people free.
Forgiveness does as much for me as it does for the other. It sets me free from anger, bitterness, revenge, and hatred. It also sets the other free from the consequences of these. It also sets the other free to be fully human and open to God’s grace. It is every sense of the words ‘letting go’.
Forgiveness, justice, and action
Forgiveness has consequences for reconciliation as well. The two as I said earlier are not the same. Sometimes a coming back together after a time of struggle is not possible, and often for many reasons: the lapse of time, the person who is forgiven may not even know they are forgiven and see no reason to be forgiven, in other words they believe they committed no wrong, the person forgiving may not desire to be reconciled, too much damage was done. There are many reasons. However, once forgiveness has been offered and received, then there is the chance for action. Wrongs can be righted, and new initiatives begun. Changes can be made to ensure that injustices are reversed. Revenge can never achieve that, punishment can never achieve that, hatred can never achieve that, anger can never achieve that, but forgiveness born out of loving grace can.
‘Then Peter came to Jesus and said to him: ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times Matthew 18: 21 – 22).