Forgiveness, Healing, and Death

I often write in these pages of my experience that something about living compassionately heals us.  It allows God to work in us. Something happens despite our limitations; something outside us. That is; I'm clear that it's not me doing this, it's been done to me. But I've never been able to put words to what is going on in my life. A typical acknowledgement of this mystery concludes a recent post here on One Man's Web.

This is something which I can tell you I am unable to do. I am not able to stop hating; hate is woven into the paper on which my life is written.

But trusting Jesus that God likes me, and is not out to get me; trusting Jesus enough to live with compassion, standing alongside others, somehow breaks the cycle of hatred. I find, here and there, that I have simply stopped hating and fearing. And that, in some places, I stop hurting. With no effort on my part.

once wrote

We don't try to change ourselves. We seek to love and let ourselves be changed. This actually happens; it is of God.

I think that's a way of speaking about Grace, the experience that God so loved the world, but I have no idea how it works. It just does.

It is enough to live in grace. But we live in a time of growing superstition in parts of the church, where words like grace and healing are attached to extravagant claims, along with threats of judgement. How do we discern between genuine spiritual practice, and "step out in faith, believe it and it will happen" preaching, which is really a form of magic wrapped in quasi-christian piety?

I am fascinated to discover a mechanism for what seems to be happening in my healing and growth, and what has happened in my past. It immediately filters out the extravagant claims of the court prophets*— perhaps now we should call them the populist prophets— of the church. It warns me to be patient in my living. It focuses me upon the way of Jesus.

I am synthesising the work of Richard Beck in The Slavery of Death, and James Alison, especially in his volume On Being Liked.

Alison begins that book with the statement that

we always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen. (On Being Liked pp1)

This is, as I think he says somewhere, non-controversial. It is people who make us, and who seek to define us. The Romanian Orphanage tragedy is simply one example among many which demonstrates this: without human care, we struggle to become human.

In all of this, we learn the fear of death. It is in the "formational air" we breathe. It underpins our culture and, in our childhood, is reinforced as we see pets die, and as people closer to us die and don't come back to life, and we begin to realise this will happen to us, too. We learn that death is the end of us and that all we can do is make the best of it, play it safe, defend ourselves against those who wish to kill us. Society lives in a massive denial of death, which makes our fear all the more potent; we do not notice that our fear drives us.

The final observation I need to make concerns forgiveness. There is a huge emphasis within our faith on the need for forgiveness. Few of us need to be told how destructive it is to hold onto resentment. But forgiveness is often presented as some kind of act of will. At its worst it becomes an evil spiritual abuse: "Forgive him. Go home and submit to him, and God will honour your faith, and heal him." Which as anyone with experience of abusers knows, is a way of saying, "Tell him it's alright to keep abusing you. There will be no consequences for him."

Not only are we are deeply confused about this issue, but we know that, apart from some odd occasions when an offense against us somehow doesn't "take," forgiveness is "something which I can tell you I am unable to do." And, if we are fortunate, we may discover "I find, here and there, that I have simply stopped hating and fearing. And that, in some places, I stop hurting." Something inexplicably loses its bite, its hold on us. We do not so much forgive, as find we have forgiven for some reason.

How does all this fit together?  My insight into this is indebted to a congregant whom I am working with on issues of forgiveness. I'll outline the path that person has opened for me.

We might begin by asking what it is that we need to forgive? Why does something injure us? Why do the mere words of a person, let alone their acts, become more damaging than, say, the skinning of our knees and shoulders if we take a tumble off a bike? Why does it never occur to us that we need to forgive the bike?

At base, the person who has injured us threatens us with death. The person actively intrudes into our being in such a way that they rob us of power and agency. A doctor may inflict huge pain upon me, stick things into me, and cut me open. In the general course of events, I do not find I need to forgive her. I do not even resent her. In fact, I am grateful. This is because, of course, she is a part of my healing. She gives life. She empowers me.

The abuser takes life away. We are disempowered. We lose agency. We are devalued, put in a box by the  mental health worker who won't even credit us with knowing something of what is happening in our own lives. And all that stuff threatens us with the final box. The person who is injuring us has started to take our be-ing away from us, and we know where that can lead. I have sometimes said to people that when the big girls began to tease me as we waited for the school bus one afternoon, they took my life away from me. This was more true than I knew.

Forgiveness, at base, is not only to escape the threat of death that has come from someone, and from the fear of that death. It is to escape without retaliation. Resentment has something to do with latent revenge: if I could, I would kill you back. There is no particular order here, as far as I can see. I look at those three girls and now have no desire to hit back. The resentment has been replaced by something else; I recognise in them a similar pain to my own, and feel deep sympathy for them. But if a person, especially a woman, makes a certain remark, catching me off guard, I am instantly, behind the grey beard, a small boy on the defensive; the old threat is, somehow, still live.

Forgiveness, then, is an escape from the threat of death, rather than, first of all, an act done towards someone else. Alison and Beck would say, I think, that if we were not afraid of death, then there would be nothing to forgive. The classic quotation used by Beck about the slavery of our fear of death is this:

The one who fears death is a slave and subjects themself to everything in order to avoid dying... But the one who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a person should decide to disregard this, whose slave are they then? The person who fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For the one who disregards their own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to the one 'who counteth not even their life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. John Chrysostom, quoted here, but with the language made gender neutral.

At base, if I am not afraid of death, what does it matter what you do to me? What do I have to forgive? In the most profound sense, you cannot touch me.

I want to trace something that has developed in me. Understand that I am not quite as afraid of death as the next person. What I am saying is that, of course, I am subject to the same fears as everyone else, but  also that I have noticed that those same fears are losing a part of their power.

In the beginning, I was just as bemused as some of the folk to whom I have suggested that the fear of death drives us. I could not intellectually credit any reality to Chrysostom's words; they seemed mere pious rhetoric. But now, I am intellectually convinced that the avoidance of death is what drives our culture. (Read The Slavery of Death if this piques your interest.)

And there are little bits of my reality— not just theoretical ideas— which have also changed. We had a very strange person pop up on the CCTV one afternoon. I said to my co-worker, "I'll go in and talk to them. I mean, what can they do? They can only kill me."  Now, I could see the risk was probably low. But there was a reality in that statement. Yet something has changed in me. I was sensibly cautious as I approached them, but no longer hypervigilant. I was a world away from the time my favourite cousin playfully placed her hands over my eyes outside church and cried, "Guess who?" I spun around and punched at her with a ferocity which scared both of us.

What has been happening is that I have been changed by the people I am living with.  (You will recognise the framework of Alison's Chapter "Re-imagining Forgiveness" in On Being Liked.) When we live with someone, we become like them. And they become like us. Hold that thought and consider what follows:

Alison says that the distinguishing thing about Jesus— Jesus' definitive, key insight— if you like, was that death was not real. In God's reality, death does not exist. I sometimes say in sermons "we have learned from those around us that death is the end of life. For God, death is just one more day in our lives. We have misinterpreted death." As we get older we learn from folk we live with that perhaps death is not quite what we think it to be. Along with those who are clearly terrified of death, we find other folk who are much more at peace. We learn a new view of reality, and become just a tiny bit different person.

What magnifies this ability to see a new or different reality, is living with Jesus. I'm not talking about some naïve self-deception where we conjure up a Jesus of our own imagining and pretend he talks to us. Although, to those who easily mock the notion of living with this kind of Jesus, I ask," Who is it that you live with?" Is not your sense of your partner, if you have one, your parent, your friends, actually an imagination? Do you really think you know the real me, or the real them? You are relating to an imagination. I will be blunt and say that if you cannot see this, the deception is not where you are locating it!

The corrective to my imaginations about my partner is the input from our wider circle of friends who, simply, give me a reality check. The reality check upon my imagination of Jesus also includes the church. They provide a reality check upon my imagination, and upon the imagination of the preacher who is talking to me. The whole witness of the church, thousands of years of developing awareness of the Divine, and two thousand years of reflection upon the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is something we can "live with." Immersed in it, we become a new person. We live with the memory and the experience of a person who changes us. We become like the person we live with.

Imagine what happens then to the person I live with, who changes me, but who is also changed by me. If I am less driven to defend myself— because the fear of death is beginning to lose its power over me, I teach them; that is, I live out for them, a new reality. I was speaking with a neighbour one day, who said of our common neighbour, "So, he's a Muslim, then?" And there was a tone and facial expression of fear, which quite surprised me. This is a really decent, well-formed bloke, and yet here he was exhibiting a surprising racism— NO!— he was afraid. Those of the Hansen and Bernardi ilk teach us to fear.

 By some grace, I was able to say, "Yes he is. He's one of the best neighbours I've ever had." And my other neighbour visibly softened and relaxed! Inadvertently, I had modelled for him, a freedom from fear. I had shown him a new reality.

Now imagine if it were the case that my neighbour was not afraid of our common neighbour. Imagine if he were afraid of me, because he had done me wrong, and he knew that I would be looking for a way to retaliate. His reality defines for him that I will seek revenge. He knows, inside, that I resent him, and that if it gets out of hand, "I will kill him back."

What happens if I don't? What would something like the event below do to the situation?

A house in suburban Canberra had been the target of multiple burglaries. For the sixth time, someone had broken in through a window and stolen items from the bedroom of the family’s nine-year-old son. But this time the culprit had been caught in the act. It was the nine-year-old boy from next door – nabbed with a pillowcase full of Lego. 

When police officer Rudi Lammers was called to the scene, he decided not to simply follow the usual processes for dealing with young offenders. Instead, he sat down with the two nine-year-olds and asked the victim, “What do you think we should do?”

The reply surprised him. The victim tipped out half the Lego from the pillowcase, and gave the rest to the thief. Then he said, “Any time you want to play Lego, come over. But can you come through the front door? Because Dad gets really cranky when you come through the window.”

Decades later, Lammers was approached by a man in a Canberra club who whispered in his ear, “Do you know who I am? I’m the Lego boy – that experience changed my life.” The former child thief had stopped stealing after that incident, and now ran a building company… Andrew Leigh

The one who fears revenge learns a new reality, a new way of seeing life, if we do not kill them back. They see we do not fear them. They see an example of living without fear because, somehow,  we are untouched by their infliction of fear upon us. What is it that means this person is not striking back at me?

This creates what Alison calls, "a new we," that is, people in a new community instead of people living in enmity, which at base, is people living in fear of each other, because they know each other to be "death dealing." We have learned this from each other; we kill.

Here is the danger, the reason why it is so hard to forgive, as an act of will.

… forgiveness turns out to be a creative moving towards someone whom I am not like in such a way that they will be free from death with me so that together we will be a new 'we'. It is not a simple gesture, or a pronouncement, but a living towards running the risk of being killed by the person, over time. (Alison pp42)

What he is pointing to is the fact that my non-retaliation may be so foreign as to be terrifying. It may, as he says in  a number of places, be so destabilising that the person's only defence is to kill me. We see this in the dog which bites the person who tries to free it from a trap; you can no doubt think of occasions in your own life where an attempt to love has been greeted with deep hostility. At base this is the last line of defence for the deeply destabilised and terrorised person; they kill to stay alive, seeing no other option.

Let me turn all this around by quoting Alison imagining us as the one who has been the abuser:

… if someone moves towards me, and comes to live out my sphere of addiction over time, in order to reach out to me, even if they are in no way moved by my compulsions, by the mere fact of living in my universe they become like me. And by the simple fact of occupying a position of apparent powerlessness [they have foregone the option of striking back, which in my universe seems to indicate they are powerless] within my sphere, they invite me to become like them: they after all occupy the space which I myself am most frightened of occupying, the one to the avoidance of which so much of my energy is devoted. (Ibid pp 42)

That is, they enter voluntarily into the place of death for me, and show me that death has no power. They act, as it were, as a mentor, as a role model. They show me a way to live. They expand my reality.

"…if someone moves towards me… by the mere fact of living in my universe they become like me." I doubt I am alone in asking if what this means is that I am corrupted by the new relationship which I keep. It does mean just that. This is the reality; living with a person will change the old me. It will in some way, kill the me I was. I am no longer the person who married my wife.

I knew a person who had been accused and wrongly convicted of a terrible crime. When I met them I was impressed by their integrity, and moved by a deep spirituality. Eventually, the sentence was rescinded as the miscarriage of justice became undeniable. Upon that person's release, the gentle pious folk of their former life were appalled by the bad language, by the apparent callousness, and by how prison had corrupted this person-- the same person who had been a light in the prison. (Which I think said more about their naivety than the moral state of my acquaintance, but that's another story!) I note simply that when Jesus asks us to take up our cross, it means we risk the dirt of the world or, in saving our lives and our purity, we will lose our lives. (Mark 8:35)

In this, our stability is maintained by living with the Christ, who is also modelling for us a way of being human, and so… changing us. Indeed, this is one reason Wendy (my partner) is so important to me: she is the stability I come home to. Church is the Christ focussed stability I live with each week as I live out the cycles of scripture, reflection, worship and service. Wendy and church infuse wisdom into my understanding of Jesus. They temper my imagination of him, gently holding me within the body of our learned tradition. They forgive, make visible to me, and soften, my flights of fantasy and my compulsions. They protect me from falling back into the ways of death. They risk the danger of me, and so show me that death is nothing.

Yes, but are you not telling me I have to walk back and risk death with the man who is killing me? It's all death, you see. The abuser cannot face themselves, their own fears, so they deflect them onto the one they are abusing. Faced with their own unmanageable, terrifying violence and fear, they scapegoat someone else who cannot strike back.

And this the crux of the matter. If we do forgiveness to a person as an act of will, we must always walk back into the thing which is killing us. It is unconscionable for me as a pastor to tell a congregant to go back to her abuser. If I were Christ-like in such an admonition, I would go and live with her abuser and be killed in her stead. None of those who counsel such things follow the way of Christ.

But what if forgiveness is not something we do. What if forgiveness is something we discover has happened to us, independent of us. And what if forgiveness is, fundamentally, not about our relationship with the abuser, but about our being freed from the fear of death? What it means is that if we gain some freedom from our fear of death in one sphere of our lives, it will finally translate into other areas of our lives. If we approach our fear of death where we can manage it, even in the smallest way, that freedom will work to set us free elsewhere, even in places which terrify us beyond measure.

And that is what compassion does to us.

Compassion is not charity. Charity is where I give the beggar who sits outside City Cross five dollars. It costs me nothing. Frankly, if I were to give him a hundred, what would it cost me. Indeed, such giving can even be an abuse: it can salve my conscience about the unconscionable business practices I use to get rich, for example.

Compassion is where I sit alongside the beggar, and risk his life. The charitable folk rang the ambulance when my friend Paul found another beggar unconscious and bleeding on the foot path a bit further down Grenfell Street. Paul knelt down, unprotected, and administered first aid despite the blood he was getting all over him. Paul risked death. Paul acted as though death was nothing. When I went in to talk with the strange man on the CCTV, I risked death. When my friend spent two hours talking with a spaced out drunk at the car wash, he risked death. It's not that these things are immensely heroic that is significant. What is significant is how few of us are able to do such things; how often we avert our eyes, cross the street, apparently don't notice need.

Compassion is where the wounded chaplain sits with the damaged person who raves and lashes out for an hour— often at the chaplain— and often lets their own wounds be raked over. Compassion is where the father humiliated, and shamed by his child, nonetheless advocates on his behalf.

All such things cost us. At base, they threaten us with death. Let me emphasis what I mean: if things get out of hand, that chaplain can be dragged back into their own wounding, and worse, and die of it. That father can be beaten to death by some terrified person in his street who is full of hate and fear, and terrified by the love of a father for his child despite all the frenzy whipped up by politicians and newspapers— Terry Hicks is an icon of God. He, and the chaplain, and all of us, know how terribly wrong compassion can go.

But each little piece of compassion frees and emboldens us, and shows a new reality, a different way of seeing the world,  to those around us. Not least to the one we sit alongside. Compassion is the facing of fear at that place where it is for some reason manageable or bearable, and then finding the same fear has no power in another place.

What I trace in my own life is an accidental immersion in compassion. I began to assist a few very safe, very Christian, refugees. Not really any risk at all; no heroics here! And then found I was in much deeper than I realised, and that this would cost a lot of time and commitment, and that I was in deep with visits to Immigration, navigating cross-cultural sensitives, and generally out of my depth. Deeply uncomfortable in any hospital, I found myself visiting Glenside, ministering to the incomprehensibility of deep paranoia and trauma. And found also a whole new world of relationships, a whole new way of being. And a beginning of the healing of fear.

Which meant that when I went back to some of my seminal fears, the deep trauma of childhood, some of them had become nothing. I found a sudden, completely unexpected understanding of, and sympathy for, people who had been a terror to me, and whose abuse still sometimes derails me when it comes to the surface. I found I had substantially forgiven a group of people without knowing it was happening, because I had been freed of my fear for my own survival by the growing experience that death is not the end.

There are two things left to say. I look both ways, very carefully, at each intersection I cross. I am still traumatised and fragile. But I am more startled than I can express by the level of freedom and healing that is given or enabled by what seem to be almost insignificant acts of compassion. When we say the grace of God is unwarranted, we speak truth!

And in all this, the presence of God has become almost concrete. There was a time when I believed despite myself; belief was almost a whistling in the dark, God was a hope. In my newly forming reality, God is beyond obvious, whilst God's transcendence is greater than I ever imagined!  I am more grounded than I thought possible. And the used car salesmen of our faith are a pity, and a distraction, but no longer have a siren call; their fears no longer tug at me.

Andrew Prior (2018)

* The court prophets were the ones who told the king what he wanted to hear, rather than what God said.

Informing this document is the article: Baring the Soul: A (Very) Provisional History of Death.

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