To forgive, divine

Two instances of media encroachment on faith and in neither of them does the idea of forgiveness get a good hearing or a good image.

First, shortly before Christmas 2018 the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral twice had the chance (approx 21 mins and 40s in) to discuss forgiveness and twice he missed the point, or, worse, hedged his answer because he was too flimsy. Broadcasting House was interviewing him about the place of Christmas is helping the city move on from the Novichok debacle. He was syrupy in his attitude that the Christmas Carols and all the beauty of the close and the cathedral, the very beauty of Salisbury as a whole, was going to help at this time of year when we celebrate the incarnation. Yes. All lovely. As far as it goes. But there is a massive bluebottle buzzing around that particular cathedral: forgiveness. He was asked, “Do you forgive the people who did this?” and he didn’t hardly mentioned the word in his answer, preferring each time to waffle about the glory of the building and how it is ultimately God’s business to forgive. I am not sure if it was laughable or insulting, but the second time he was asked (because he had studiously avoided it the first time) he actually said that (I paraphrase) if the two men who had set the poison had in fact made it to the cathedral, with all its beauty and spiritual quality, then they may have seen the glory of God and the light would have filled their hearts.

Nicholas Papadopulos,
Dean of Salisbury Cathedral

Well, that may indeed have happened, and that would indeed, be wonderful. But what an own goal. What a missed penalty. What an insult. Talk about forgiveness, man! Explain how forgiveness is difficult, and comes with time, perhaps. Be honest and say that you still haven’t forgiven them. Don’t pass the baton to God who always forgives. That’s not the point. We need to be like God, that is the reason for the season. God became man so man could become God. Or walk like God at the very least. And there you are, pontificating about the glorious place of a cathedral while the world struggles with forgiveness. I do recall a pretty well known prayer that contains these words:

Forgive us our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.

To forgive is a beautiful and wholly theological virtue. We are able to do it when we are filled with God’s love and grace. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it is painful. But it needs to be faced up to or perhaps you need to walk away from your faith. Forgiveness is not about saying that everything is OK and that things don’t matter. Forgiveness doesn’t always resolve into reconciliation. But to hang onto the hate and judgement (is judgement the opposite of forgiveness?) will only perpetuate sorrow and wounded grief. The Dean of Salisbury Cathedral could have spoken into the debate. Instead, his words just fall dry as dust in his mouth.

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Toby Young

And then Toby Young. A year on almost, a year that he describes as “the worst year of [my] life.” And at Christmas, he now explains how he notices that people are shunning him. He is not invited to read at carol services in the schools he helped create, he has stepped down from trusteeships and directorships, he has been ostracised from many things, and his family have struggled. He knows he did wrong. He regrets and is remorseful for what he said. He does not seek to excuse himself from anything that he said. He is seeking reconciliation. It was an honest, if staged, interview, but then I read a tweet and the comments following it, and I recognise in it an incapability for forgiveness that shocks and worries me. Twitter had a flurry of “why do we give such horrible people air time? Why doesn’t he crawl back under his stone? Oh, Boo Hoo that people don’t want him around!”

We localise our forgiveness. We only forgive those we love, where we should be trying to forgive those we do not love. We have to work at forgiveness because it can seem unnatural. But it can be joyous. It seems unnatural because we are predisposed to fight back against whatever seems to challenge our security, our pride, our sense of justice and our trust. When we are let down, perhaps by abusive tweets, or by murderous intent, or by personal deceit, it is often our first call to consider the wrong done to us or those with whom we empathise. We dwell on it and wallow in our injustice. We hit out, we scream and shout. And then at the end of it all, the deceit and murder, abuse and carelessness remain. They can’t be restored, and so we need to accept that, and not dwell. Forgiveness is in that moment. It changes nothing practical, perhaps: a bad word, a nasty action, a moment of violence, physical or emotional. But it changes how we engage with the moment and helps build unity, which is, after all, the love at the heart of all we are in relation to God.

The interview with Toby Young was uplifting to me because I heard a man who is trying to make up for what he has done. He is not trying to hide it away, but neither is he trying to dismiss anything as irrelevant. He is possibly still a self-centred man who struggles to think beyond his own importance. If so, I hope and pray that he will find ways to tackle that. But that is his responsibility, not mine.

As the Dean says, forgiveness is indeed ultimately God’s to provide, but we are able to celebrate Christmas because God came to us, ‘veiled in flesh’, to show us that, in becoming a man, we, people can strive to become like God. And that has to begin with thinking about how we can forgive, and then to love. It is a challenge for us to forgive. It can be sacrificial, and the more substantial the wrong, the more challenging the forgiveness, but, first it cannot rely of repentance, and second, it must be worked at. Possibly for a long time.