Last week, on our campus here at Claremont Lincoln University, we held Ahimsa Day, in collaboration with our Jain colleagues and the new Jain center on campus. "Ahimsa" means "non violence," and I was asked to speak on a panel on forgiveness, speaking from a Christian perspective. Here are my brief remarks, on the two places where I get much of my perspective on Christian forgiveness.
As a Christian, there are two themes of forgiveness which are imprinted upon me. One, because they are words I have said tens of thousands of time, in locations ranging from gilded chapels in Prague to orphanages in Haiti. The second, because one story marked my heart when I was young, and has continued to challenge me in adulthood.
When I was little, I read and re-read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. If you are Christian, and looking for an Adventen discipline, I recommend you to reexamine the Narnia series. As a child, I abhorred Edmund. The younger brother, not beautiful like Susan, not sweet and brave like Lucy, not noble like Peter. He is dark, jealous, and mean. He teases his sister, he lies, he is the first to fall for the White Witch’s advances.
In fact, his treachery leads his family into harm, and ultimately leads to Aslan’s death. I hated Edmund as a child and was sure I was most like Lucy.
Developmental psychologists who study moral development remind us: as adults, we want mercy, but children thirst for justice. This is because, children have little need of needing mercy, yet.
When I was older, and re-reading the story of Edmund, I realized that I sin in hundreds of ways, known and unknown, in things done and left undone, every day. I am more like Edmund than is comfortable. My fears and insecurities lead me to boast, to fudge the truth, and to betray my Christ just as he did.
From this perspective, the scene where Aslan walks alone with Edmund brings me to my knees. Neither the reader nor the other characters in the book know what Aslan and Edmund talk about as they walk alone together, but we do know that Edmund has been forgiven by Aslan; Aslan tells the other children, “There is no need to talk about what is past.”
When I was a child, this seemed so unfair. Now that I know my own sin and brokenness, I understand the power of God’s ability to forgive.
The words I’ve said ten thousand times are the words of what we Christians call “The Lord’s Prayer.” In it, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“As we forgive.” Aye, there’s the rub. Of course, God forgives us, but in this prayer, as we model what we believe Jesus himself taught us to say, we are reminded—in the same breath we ask for forgiveness--to remember how we ourselves participate in forgiveness towards others.
Christianity is a relational religion. I believe we are made to be in relationship with one another. In fact, I believe that humans were so deeply flawed that the distance between me and God was too great, and so God Godself became human, to close the distance and enter into relationship with me.
And being part of a relationship—being human is hard. It’s a messy endeavor. In this life, we are flawed, and make so many mistakes. In this life, it is not just forgiveness that I must seek, it is forgiveness that I must seek to extend. And in my practice of forgiving others, I learn more—bit by bit—about how God forgives me.
Photo by armigeress, via Flickr Creative Commons.
Stephanie Varnon-Hughes is a Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ and a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, where she earned her Master's in Church History in 2008 and her STM in 2009. A schoolteacher, Stephanie received the Most Promising New Teacher of the Year Award of 2005 in St. Louis, Missouri and has taught English and Performing Arts in public schools in St. Louis and the Bronx. She is a PhD student at Claremont Lincoln University, focusing on building and piloting a multi-religious curriculum for public secondary school students. Follow her on Twitter @SVarnonHughes.