Forgiveness to what end?

Are we overdosing on forgiveness?

August 26, 2010 | Editorial | Volume 14 Issue 16
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

The Lutherans have asked us to forgive them for their violent persecution of us in the 16th century, laying to rest, as the Mennonite World Conference reporter, Byron Rempel Burkholder puts it, “500 years of guilt.”

We have asked forgiveness of native Americans for our complicity in the much-publicized abuse scandal of the residential schools during the early to late 20th century here in Canada, even though we were not co-opted by the federal government to “take the Indian out of the Indian” and had only one residential school in operation in the early 1960s—Popular Hill in northern Ontario run by the Northern Light Gospel Mission.

And no one from there has come forth in the current Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to complain about how students were treated.

It seems to be the era of forgiveness, so much so that one religion writer, in predicting more forgiveness rituals early in 2010, listed at least ten possibilities, among them: “Will hardcore Hindu leaders apologize for persecuting Christians in India?” or “Will right-wing Jewish thinkers apologize for not granting Palestinian Christians and Muslims adequate freedoms in the West Bank and Gaza?”

We should all rejoice that in a world where religious extremism is once again on the rise, some traditional faith communities, like the Lutherans, and the Canadian government, admitting culpability and error in its attempts to destroy an indigenous culture, have had the humility and grace to confess to an ugly past. And further, to implement rituals and hearings that offer victims redress and closure.

It is all so wonderfully redemptive. The so-called victims in both of these arenas have graciously accepted these noble overtures, some aboriginals even offering forgiveness to abusers who were not forthcoming during the TRC hearings at The Forks. Our own MWC president Danisa Ndlovu of Zimbabwe, choking with emotion at the Lutheran assembly in Stuttgart, responded with: “Anabaptist-Mennonites do not come [to this confessional moment] with heads held high; we also stand in need of God’s grace.”

But beyond the spiritual cleansing and moving rhetoric of these high moments, where do we go from here?

First, in the ecstasy of these events, it is sometimes difficult to keep history in perspective. As we are learning in our study of the ancient texts of scripture, there is a need to contextualize. What appear 500 or 150 years later to be heinous acts of “man’s inhumanity to man” were, at the time, considered to be culturally and religiously appropriate, even dutiful to God and country.

With 20/20 hindsight, we can now say, as James Davidson Hunter writes so eloquently in his recent book To Change the World “rather than challenging the principalities and powers, the people of God became united with the powers; rather than proclaiming the peace, the church embraced an ethic of coercion, power, and thus, violence; rather than resisting the state, the church provided divine legitimation for the state, which has invariably led to the hubris of empire, conquest and persecution.”

Which leads to a second outcome of forgiveness: learning from the mistakes of the past. Inasmuch as history tends to repeat itself, we as Christ’s followers need to humbly acknowledge that the world has not really changed that much. Violence, in our own culture and in many places around the globe, is still used to control, coerce and conquer.

As citizens of a different “kingdom,” we need today to “gird up our loins” with the garments of compassion, peace and grace that counters nationalistic militarism with its euphemisms for enemies such as “terrorists” or “guerrillas” or closer home, even “government protestors”—all attempts to define the “other” in justifying force to “keep the peace,” however that is nationally defined.

Recently one of our own, Glen D. Lapp, an MCC medical worker in Afghanistan, wearing these garments of peace in a volatile environment, paid the ultimate price with his life when attempting to counter a violent culture with compassion. No less courage and commitment is required of all of us who claim to live by a different set of values.

Jesus, in teaching his disciples (and us) to pray, set a high bar for forgiveness, namely that we are granted God’s forgiveness in the same proportion we offer it to others. That’s where we go from Stuttgart and The Forks.


See stories related to the 2010 Truth and Reconciliation Commission events:  
“How complicit are Mennonites in Residential School Abuse?”  Evelyn Rempel Petkau attended the first TRC hearings and spoke with Mennonites about whether the church might be complicit in the system.  

“With God, all things are possible” A residential school survivor recalls childhood abuse and his quest to forgive his tormentors.

“A first step toward healing” A personal reflection on the first TRC events, held in June 2010  

​“MC Canada shares the pain of Indian Residential School legacy” A report on discussions at Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2010

“Poplar Hill’s closure remembered”- Some history on the only Mennonite-affiliated school

“Mennonite treaty rights” The implications of Treaty 1 

“For discussion: August 23, 2010 issue” Questions for reflecting and discussing 

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