For years I was puzzled about why a day in which so much horror happened would be called good. A day in which religious leaders completely distanced themselves from God through their actions. A day in which evil seemed to prevail over what is right. A day in which hatred appeared to consume love.
But it is through the blood shed on that day, the torment experienced, the suffering endured, that God said, “Enough. Enough of forgiveness being an open ended question. Enough of humankind thinking that God is about vengeance and wrath more than love. Enough of humanity believing that forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that can change lives is not possible. Enough of thinking that death is the ending instead of an astonishing beginning. Enough of people everywhere thinking the point of life is all about self.”
Yes, Good Friday was and remains good because Jesus’ death on the cross put an end to the question of forgiveness. We are forgiven. Period. Now it is our choice to make the decision to accept that forgiveness and spend our lives in response to it, or not. But we are forgiven and this is what Good Friday is all about.
I’d like now to briefly get into something that is uncomfortable. Something likely to make us each ask some deep questions. And to help us get into this, I turn to the world of psychology and a couple of experiments done decades ago that could never be repeated. Some of you may be familiar with them.
The first was the well-known Stanford University Prison study. In 1971 a pseudo prison was set up in Palo Alto. Students were recruited for the study. Participants were told they would be taking part in a 2 week long prison simulation. 24 males were selected from those who applied.
A prison was constructed in the psychology building at Stanford. Cells with cots were constructed. So was living space for guards. 12 students were assigned the role of prisoner. 12 that of a guard. When the study began, those who were to be prisoners were arrested, with the help of the police, booked, and put into the prison.
Within 36 hours of the start of the experiment, conditions went downhill. Sanitary conditions were awful. Guards became cruel. Some even acted sadistically. After six days, the experiment was called off.
The bottom line. Take 12 healthy, psychologically balanced people and put them into a situation, and the situation influences behavior and conduct more than any internal gauge. Said another way, situations have a massive impact on the actions we take.
Years earlier, at Yale, another experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram. Men from the community were recruited to participate in a study supposedly about memory. Each participant was theoretically assigned to one of three roles. An experimenter, a teacher, and a learner.
The role of the experimenter was to tell the teacher what to do. The role of the teacher was to do what the experimenter instructed. The role of the learner was to accurately complete memory tests as instructed by the teacher. What participants did not know, however, is that the learner was not a volunteer, but actually worked for the psychologists conducting the study.
In the study, the experimenter and teacher sat in one room. In an adjacent room sat the learner. Before going into separate rooms, however, the teacher and experimenter were shown the room where the learner would sit. There they saw the learner was to sit in what looked like an electric chair and would be strapped in. In the room where the teacher and experimenter sat, there was a desk with a shock box with wires that appeared to go into the adjacent room where the learner sat.
In the experiment, the teacher was given a list of word pairs and was to teach the learner the pairs. Then the teacher would read the first word of a pair and four possible answers to see if the learner could remember what words were associated in the pairs. I am leaving out some details of how this was all put together but what is interesting is how the memory test proceeded.
After the teacher quizzed the learner about which word was the right match, if the learner got it wrong, the teacher was told by the experimenter to administer an electric shock to the learner. Each time the learner was wrong, the shock was increased.
While the teacher and the experimenter did not know it, obviously no shock was delivered. That said, each time a shock was supposedly delivered, the learner moaned in pain. As the shocks increased, the learner would yell, scream, and pound on the wall faking pain.
While there are many other details to the experiment, the results stunned everyone. 65 percent of the study’s participants were willing to administer the highest level of shock to the learner. 450 volts. While I am not an engineer by any means and a standard electrical socket, I believe, is 120 volts, I can’t imagine a 450 volt shock would be a very good thing.
Here are some excerpts from what Milgram wrote about the study.
“I set up a simple experiment at Yale to test how much pain an ordinary citizen could inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to do so. Stark authority was pitted against the participants’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and with the participants’ ears ringing with the screams of the learners, authority won more often than not. Ordinary people can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”
Neither the prison study or the MIlgram study could happen today because of the ethics involved. Such studies would never be approved by human subjects committees at universities. That said, I find the results of the study to be potent and they cause me to pause and reflect.
Would I be capable of being cruel to another person? Could I deliver a 450 volt shock to someone else? And what does it mean that the results of the studies I shared suggest that the answer to my questions is yes. They suggest in the right circumstance I could be cruel. I could shock another.
I raise this not to make us feel guilty, like terrible people, morally deficient, or bad. Rather I have shared these studies on Good Friday for some very specific reasons.
Jesus’ death on the cross means we are forgiven. And we are all forgiven because no one is perfect. And if there is no one who does everything right, then perhaps God invites us to live each day with humility, empathy toward others, a spirit of forgiveness, and to not put ourselves in the position of judge and jury when it comes to other people. It is why Jesus one day said, “Let the person who has never done anything wrong be the first person to cast a stone.” And by dying on the cross Jesus in essence said the days of stone throwing need to be over.
Imagine what our culture would be like if in general, people walked around in a spirit of humility, forgiving others, empathizing with the plight and circumstances of others, and avoiding engaging in hostile judgement. Imagine what it would be like if the daily crucifixions we all witness, not on a cross but with words, came to an end. Imagine if we understood that we along with others sometimes do what we do because of the circumstances we are in.
And imagine if we all understood and embraced the fact that through Jesus we are forgiven and acted like it. Things, I believe, would look quite different.
I think the two studies I shared are a good reminder of that old saying, “but there for the grace of God go I.” And again, the purpose is not to make us feel bad or terrible, but rather to help get us in touch with the fact that we all need God’s forgiveness, we have been given that forgiveness through the cross, and that despite our continued fallibility, God loves us anyway. Loves all of us anyway.
All of us here right now are cherished, loved, and adored by God beyond conception. And we are forgiven. Good Friday is an invitation for each of us to continue to live out each moment in response to God’s love and forgiveness.
And for me personally, Good Friday reminds me that I too may have simply stood by when Jesus was nailed to the cross and it was raised. Just as I may have been one of those participants in Stanley Milgram’s study that delivered a 450 volt shock.
But as I think about this, I sense Jesus saying to us all, “I forgave and forgive you. It is a done deal.” And it is this forgiveness, this no matter what forgiveness, that makes this Friday Good, very Good indeed.
As we stood in line for customs in the Port-au-Prince airport it was fairly obvious we weren’t the only Americans who’d come to Haiti with some sort of volunteer group. In a country that is 95% African American, I was peering into a sea of white faces waiting to have passports stamped. Most groups were clad in matching t-shirts emblazoned with things like “Hope for Haiti” or “Make disciples of all nations” or “I Heart Haiti.” Clearly we missed the memo; our precious group wore matching elephant pants.
There are so many organizations doing great work in Haiti but after just two days in country I began to ask myself, “why?” As I looked around I saw a nation of people who are among the most resilient, resourceful, joy-filled I have seen. It’s true their poverty level boggles the mind, but to say they are in despair is a gross overstatement and not at all the impression I took away. Haitians are hard-working, hustlers, creative, persistent, enterprising, and I gotta be completely honest here, very easy on the eyes (I mean, I may have been the “chaperone” but I’m not blind, people!).
The Aspen for Haiti club, which started at Aspen High School four years ago and is sponsored by Snowmass Chapel, exists to learn more about the Haitian culture and its history and people. To the extent we can help by bringing down school supplies, books in French or Creole, and fund projects like solar powered lights, we do. But our lead host, longtime valley resident Tim Myers, is adamant that the Haiti I observed – the resilient, clever, hard-working Haiti — is real, and its people are entirely capable of handling the work that needs to be done. Our job, he told us, is to gain a new perspective and just maybe a deeper appreciation of the world’s diversity. Done.
Hailing from a country such as ours, where we often hustle past people head down, talking on the phone, bumping shoulders with strangers without so much as a nod, I am struck by the sense of community among the Haitians. There is a genuine joy when they greet one another, and an immediate, no-questions-asked attitude of helpfulness toward all. Haiti defies our western every-man-for-himself mentality. How many times did we see a truck stalled on a Haitian roadway, or a moto-bike in need of repair, in which no fewer than four people stopped everything to help. At every restaurant or shop we visited employees worked in groups, never alone. In the small remote villages school children grabbed our hands and danced with us and sat on our laps – not because they were desperate for our help as my ego previously assumed, but simply because grabbing a hand, sharing a dance and sitting on laps is who they are and how they live. And what a joyful way of living it is!
Haitians are deserving of our friendship, our tourism, our understanding and compassion, and yes, at times, our help. There are, indeed, opportunities for the US and others to serve, especially since Haiti lacks basic infrastructure, a military, and a government that gives a damn. I can tell you that after spending time with the Haitian people, I would be there in a heartbeat if they needed me. Why? Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt they would drop everything and do the same for me. Loving your neighbor isn’t something they bother to print on a t-shirt. It’s a way of life.
Now. Who wants to dance?
It’s hard to sum up in so few words the impact of this trip. I expect you’ll read more from me…. I have Haiti on my mind. <3
Last week I shared some thoughts about forgiveness. As it is such an important topic I thought I’d offer a few more reflections this week. In addition, I plan on developing a series for discussion on forgiveness this summer as well as continuing to preach on the subject. If we want to change our lives, the lives of others, and the course of humankind, forgiveness must become part of the essence of who we are, despite the immense and enormous challenges in doing so.
As this is a vast topic, what follows are just a few thoughts.
There is a professor at Yale named Miroslav Volf. He writes, “At the sight of our sin, God did not give way to uncontrolled rages and measureless vengeance: neither did God insist on just retribution. Instead, God bore our sin and condemned it in Christ Jesus. But God did so not out of impotence or cowardice, but in order to free us from sin’s guilt and power…this is the Gospel in its simplicity.”
In other words, as human beings we all fall short, sometimes do the wrong things or don’t do the right things, and we at times live putting ourselves first ahead of God. God’s response. God’s stance toward us. God’s reaction. We are forgiven. I am forgiven. You are forgiven. Period. Now others may not forgive us for something. We may struggle with forgiving ourselves, but when it comes to God, it’s a done deal.
The slate is clean like a brand new white board that has never been written upon. When we accept that we are forgiven, we begin to see ourselves and others quite differently. We give ourselves and others a lot more slack. We don’t seek perfection. We know we all fall short at times. We embrace humility and become more empathic. And when we accept and take in God’s forgiveness, we feel free. We feel free precisely because God’s forgiveness jettisons guilt, and shame, and despair if we really accept it.
Jesus one day told this great story. In paraphrased form he said, “One day a King had a man brought to him who owed him a ton of money. The King told the man that he was going to sell him and everything he had to pay off the debt. In response, the man pleaded with the King not to destroy him. The King felt empathy and decided to wipe out the debt and let the man go.
Sometime later, that same man happened to be owed some money himself from another person. He went out to find the man. When he found him, he told the man who owed him he better pay it off or bad things would happen. The man even began to choke the fellow who owed him.
The King heard about this event. He was amazed that the fellow whose debt he had wiped clean was unforgiving to others. The King was furious. So he sought out the man he had forgiven, and tossed the guy into prison.” After telling this story, Jesus said, “Remember, God will forgive you unless you fail to forgive others in your heart.”
One day Jesus also said this, “Whenever you pray, pray this way. ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we also forgive those who trespass against us.’”
These two stories underpin why one day Martin Luther wrote, “Forgiveness is the primary and foremost duty of Christians, second only to faith and the reception of God’s forgiveness.”
So given that we are compelled to forgive because we have been forgiven, let’s take a look, for a moment, at what is at the core forgiving. Earlier I mentioned a man from Yale named Miroslav Volf. He has explored forgiveness extensively. I’d like to share some of his thoughts in slightly adapted form.
He writes, “God forgives. We should forgive. And we should forgive as God forgives. But it is very difficult to forgive. A keen sense of equity guards our dignity in a potentially hostile world.”
He goes on to write, “Remember, Christ is not just outside of us, modeling forgiveness and urging us to forgive. Christ lives in us…from Christ we receive the power and the willingness to forgive. Christ forgives through us and that is why we can forgive. As Paul wrote, ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ Therefore it is not I who forgive, but Christ who forgives through me. When we understand that it is Christ who lives in us, we gain a desire to practice being like Christ and we will have a sense that is it not so much we who are acting ourselves, but it is Christ who is acting through us.”
Volf also writes, “For Christians, forgiving, like living in general, always takes place in a triangle, involving the wrongdoer, the wronged person, and God. Take God away, and the foundations of forgiveness become unsteady and may even crumble.”
As I think about all of this it seems that the basis or foundation of forgiveness is two-fold. First and foremost, the very presence of God is within us. The power and strength to do anything in life, therefore, does not come from us alone, but rather from God who is within. God’s power is within. God’s love is within. God’s healing is within. God’s forgiveness is within. So whatever we do in life, we do so with God at the foundation. We can do because God can. We can forgive, because God in us can.
Sometimes, perhaps we just need to say something like, “God I can’t forgive. It seems impossible to me. But I know you are in me, your very presence. Please help me with this and show me the way toward forgiveness. While I may not be able to forgive on my own, I know you through me can.”
The second foundation of forgiveness, is to totally get, understand, embrace, and accept that God loves us without bounds. Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, 7:36-50 (please read these verses) says, in essence, when you are loved much, you can forgive much, or when you have been forgiven much, you love just as much. When we receive and take in God’s love, that puts us in a position to live with a forgiving heart because forgiveness comes from the love of God.
So, the basis of forgiveness is to accept, embrace and take in the truth that God is in us, around us, ahead of us, behind us, all over us, and that God who made us loves us without bounds. This foundation is the place from where forgiveness starts, both for others and ourselves.
To put all of this another way. God is in me. God loves me. God forgives me. God is in you. God loves you. God forgives you. Knowing and believing and accepting these things changes how we live and respond to others and ourselves and they make forgiveness possible over the course of time.
Here is a sampling of words used in headlines at cnn.com. “Accused, broke rules, complained, take down, misused.” From headlines at fox.com. “Dropped, rule of law, resign, affair, turbulence.” From msnbc.com. “Lying. Watchdog. Defied. Buckling. Cross-examined.”
Each of these major news organization have differing political and philosophical positions, yet they share something in common. On none of these sites was I able to find words like forgiveness, forgiven, or forgiving among headlines. I believe these words are lacking on the sites because these organizations reflect the zeitgeist of our culture and perhaps humankind more broadly.
It is human nature to do what we should not do and not do what we should do throughout our lives. This truth elicits a need for forgiveness, both to forgive and accept forgiveness.
Professor Robert Enright once said, “Unless we begin to embrace forgiveness in our own hearts and communities, humanity’s existence on this planet is at risk.” Central to the stories in scripture from Genesis through the end of the New Testament is the monumental struggle human beings have with forgiving others and ourselves. While this challenge with forgiveness is nothing new, lack of forgiveness is often at the root of why relationships fail, nations collapse, and why progress in sciences, medicine, peace, economics, and other dimensions of culture are often impeded.
Over the years there has been a dearth of interest in the subject, although this trend is changing. There has even been discussion of transforming existing churches into forgiving communities, in which giving and receiving forgiveness becomes the norm. As Enright states, “In the close interpersonal relationships required in true community, one will encounter interpersonal injustices of one sort of another…the local church can cause pain.”
Said another way, every existing community of faith is imperfect, flawed, and will require people in such communities to tackle issues of forgiveness. When we fail to do so, I believe, we falter in our walk with Jesus and lose sight of the centrality of the cross.
As I have thought about this, I have decided to spend more time on the subject of forgiveness. In the months ahead, look for sermons, articles, and adult education opportunities. It is my prayer that we can be a community, not only in which we love God and love people, but that forgiveness will be inherent in all of our relationships. That we will have the courage and chutzpah to confront issues of forgiveness, and that we will come to understand that whenever two or three are gathered, whether in a home, church, place of employment, or country, forgiveness is requisite to relational, psychological, physical, and spiritual health.
One take away from this week’s e-letter is that forgiveness is not only a process that takes time and arduous work, but ultimately is all about a choice or decision we make. As many people studying forgiveness have come to understand, forgiveness can only happen when we choose to forgive despite whether or not the one who hurt us in involved or not. And perhaps of equal importance, is grasping the truth that until we each fully know how much we need to be forgiven, it will be difficult or impossible to offer forgiveness to the other.
Look for much more on this topic in the weeks ahead.