In the video that follows, theologian Miroslav Volf discusses his own family’s journey through the process of forgiveness, occasioned when his parents made the decision to forgive the person who negligently shot and killed his brother. “Forgiveness is tough,” he says.
Tough, indeed. Jesus teaches Christians to forgive, “as we have been forgiven,” but this does not mean the journey comes naturally or that it is easy. With regard to this spiritual journey, Pope John Paul has written:
Forgiveness is not a proposal that can be immediately understood or easily accepted; in many ways it is a paradoxical message. Forgiveness in fact always involves an apparent short-term loss for a real long-term gain. Violence is the exact opposite; opting as it does for an apparent short-term gain, it involves a real and permanent loss. Forgiveness may seem like weakness, but it demands great spiritual strength and moral courage, both in granting it and in accepting it. It may seem in some way to diminish us, but in fact it leads us to a fuller and richer humanity, more radiant with the splendor of the Creator.
(From Pope John Paul’s Message for World Day of Peace, January 1, 2002, http://www.michaeljournal.org/jf02e.pdf, accessed March 10, 2012.)
Volf also discusses the relationship between apology and forgiveness, using the analogy of the offering of a present. The person offering forgiveness is the one offering the gift. For example, when God forgives us, God is offering us a free gift. It makes it much more satisfying to the giver if the person receiving the gift accepts the gift. In the case of forgiveness, this acceptance takes the form of the recipient of forgiveness acknowledging the harm that has been done. Nevertheless, Volf says, it is our spiritual calling to forgive even if there has been no apology and no expectation of one.
This idea of putting forgiveness first before and independent of apology is, for me personally, a very tough concept. As a mediator, and in the general work of conflict transformation, I observe that four basic steps are generally required for a transformative or restorative process. The first step, is that the offender must acknowledge the truth. Only when this truth has been acknowledged can the offender understand how he has wounded the aggrieved person. Only after the offender understands, only after he fully comprehends what he has done wrong and what it meant for that other person, can he truly apologize for the way he has aggrieved the wounded person. In my worldly way of thinking, it is this acknowledgment and the fact that his concerns have been heard that creates the apology. (It is very un-satisfying, for example, to hear an apology that says, “I don’t acknowledge that I hurt you, but if I did then I am sorry that you were hurt.” ) For we who live in community with one another and respond in compassion, it is the acknowledgement of the pain caused to an Other that clears the way, emotionally, for the aggrieved to extend forgiveness. After this, the community – including the aggrieved and all those who have been wronged – can decide what conditions must be met in order to restore the offender to community, or if the offender is to be restored to community at all. Thus, there are four steps: (1) confrontation with truth, (2) acknowledgment of wrong and apology, (3) forgiveness, and (4) redemption. In that order.
But God’s order, in fact, throws this process on its head. God’s order puts forgiveness and redemption first. Acknowledgment and apology may be like icing on the cake, but our spiritual duty is to forgive and, not only that, but to forgive first, as we have been forgiven. This is exactly what Volf’s mother said to him, in so many words, when he asked her why she chose to forgive her son’s murderer: “Forgive as God has forgiven you, in Jesus Christ.” My prayer is that each of us will have the courage, strength, and will to do as Christ has commanded.