Simon Fowler's Blog

rLiving Day 28: Forgiveness (Power)

Posted by Simon on May 29, 2010

Ill-health and even violence in a relationship between individuals, groups, tribes and nations is likely most often due to an asymmetry in power. More likely it’s due to an abuse, real or perceived, of that asymmetry by the powerful over the powerless. And even more likely it’s due to an acute sense of injustice over past abuses and an unwillingness or inability to forgive.

When you’ve been the victim of what you perceive to be an injustice you feel like someone owes you something. There’s a debt outstanding. And until that debt is paid, until “justice is done”, you cannot rest easy and certainly your relationship with that person or tribe or institution will not be happy or healthy. The deep tragedy of those unwilling to forgive, however, is that non-forgiveness represents a holding on, almost a dependency, almost a sense of powerlessness. It’s as though the offender dominates you, controls and manipulates you, keeps you from sleeping, keeps you from enjoying yourself, keeps you from “moving on” to form new and better relationships. And all this while they, usually, walk around blissfully unaware they’ve done anything wrong!

Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.

That all sounds like a major power asymmetry to me. But in this case the exercise of that power, in what almost feels like even further abuse, is entirely self-inflicted. Yes, of course, if the offender somehow repays something then in a sense justice is done. But their attempts at righting the wrong mean nothing if you don’t forgive them.

From these posts here and here, it seems that one of the major reasons for relational problems caused by power asymmetry is that we equate power with value. The second major reason is that we ascribe or devolve power to another simply by not forgiving them. These two things we can evidently do something about. Can you imagine the mental and relational liberation it would be if we saw people as equally valuable (no matter how powerful they were) and if we forgave them (even if they didn’t seek forgiveness)? These things are within our responsibility and ability to do.

[Update: It occurred to me as I woke up that the Power problem of forgiveness also works the other way, maybe more so. It’s less about you having a sense of powerlessness because you can’t let go of the offense of the other person. Rather, YOU hold the power over the offender because you refuse to forgive. This is where the language of ‘debt’ is helpful. Who holds the power, the lender or the person with the debt? When we say the Lord’s prayer at our church we say, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. If you know what it feels not to be forgiven when you’re desperately sorry, you know how much power the offended person has.
In any case, whether you’re the offendor or the offended, whether you feel powerless or powerful, an awareness of this dynamic can help explain why the relationship feels as it does. It also points to the need for candid and courageous conversation where confession and forgiveness can happen.]

Theological/spiritual note:
Being a Christian and all it strikes me that the age-old gospel speaks to this problem in profound and important ways. Value is personal (vs material) and the word means what it says; the value can be ‘high’ or ‘low’. But high or low to whom? “Valuing myself” is pointless because it’s just a number without reference. Heaven forbid (literally) that I rely on other people’s value of me – choosing to accept the valuation of other people who like us (or hate us) is the same as self-assessing. So to me, it seems we long to be (and fear to be) valued by a person who really knows our worth and can demonstrate it. That person would only be God. And since God has first made us in his image, then declared us “very good” (an assessment of our value and worth in his eyes unchanged by our sin) and then demonstrated his value of us and love for us by dying for us in Jesus Christ: we should confidently accept and believe that assessment. Everyone else’s and my own opinion be damned!!

Secondly, we struggle to forgive because our desire for justice is stronger than our desire for peace. In fact, our peace is dependent upon justice. We ‘hold on’ to the offender, perhaps, because we’re still fighting for what’s right. In some sense our unwillingness to forgive, no matter how much mental anguish and misery it causes us, is a wonderful sign of our deep need and longing for justice. And forgiveness feels like injustice, it’s letting someone off the hook. And in so many aspects of life there is nothing, nothing that can be done to right the wrong. Nothing can bring back the lost child, the ruined reputation, the lost innocence. So what is the offender to do? And who of us seriously reckons ourselves innocent anyway? (and isn’t our self-assessment as pointless and inaccurate as our self-evaluation?).

This is why the ancient Christian testimony about Jesus of Nazareth is so breathtakingly amazing: it says that he was the revelation of God himself, that his death was actually a cosmic act of furious judgment on every wrong, every abuse, every deep heart-breaking tragedy that has ever befallen someone, it was a forsakenness that pays in full the penalty of the offense. That is why Jesus is central to being able to forgive; because his nailed hands and feet speak the words “it is finished, justice has been done”, and he teaches us and enables us to say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. For the offender who doesn’t want forgiveness? God will respect that decision (even while he and his people on earth will/should rage against the injustice to the end of our days). But for those who do seek to be forgiven? And for those who want finally to be freed from the power the offender had over them, who want to forgive and at the same time justice? God in Christ makes that possible. And so, peace.


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