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Response to the 2006 Murnion Lecture

delivered by Margaret R. Pfeil
June 24, 2006

 

Also online: Full text of Robert Goizueta's 2006 Murnion Lecture

I could sum up my response in one word: gratitude. Thank you, Roberto, for such a rich and theologically compelling exploration of the meaning of reconciliation, beginning with the victim's merciful offer of forgiveness to the oppressor. By resurrection's light, you invite us to locate the ground of reconciliation not in strict justice and the economy of human rights but rather in merciful love as the basis for communion as the suffering Body of Christ in the world, a quality particularly mediated by the dispossessed of the earth, the crucified people.

The rich complexity of Roberto's talk deserves a multivalent response, but I will limit myself to three particular insights elicited by his work that might help us to further develop an understanding of forgiveness in light of God's mercy.

First, Roberto's perceptive depiction of the wounded and risen Jesus' encounters with his disciples and later with Thomas invites reflection on the sacramental life of the church as the central locus of our own encounter with Christ. The Eucharist, in particular, reminds us that apart from Jesus as "the only self-giving victim," all of us are complicit in violence and exploitation (cf. James Alison, quoted on p.17). In the Eucharist, Jesus continues to extend his loving peace and mercy to us through his wounded body and spilled blood, signs that have the capacity to sear our consciences by evoking memories of the many ways that we have betrayed his love. But, as Roberto puts it, Jesus' revenge for our betrayal is to ask us to share a meal with him (p.5). By grace, God shapes us into the wounded Body of Christ in the world, using our own brokenness as the place of reconciling invitation and transformation. Hoping against hope, we come to the table to face the truth of the wounds wrought by our own sinfulness, and Jesus knits us back into the wholeness of integrity, making us one in the communion of his body and blood. Like his first disciples, we are forgiven sinners called to participate in the Eucharist as an act of peacemaking issuing from God's boundless love for God’s own creation.

This eucharistic experience of reconciliation provides a window into the dynamics of forgiveness. First, as Roberto indicates, Jesus initiates the reconciling process. Certainly, we freely choose to participate in the meal, but it is Jesus’ grace-filled, gratuitous peace that draws us, and this in spite of all that we may have done to reject him. Secondly, those gathered to celebrate the Eucharist are sent forth as the Body of Christ in the world to impart Jesus' loving peace and mercy wherever the journey might take us and whatever reception we might encounter.

This leads to a second insight emerging from Roberto's approach: I want to suggest that these two dimensions of eucharistic reconciliation reveal interrelated aspects of divine mercy, and I find these most clearly and beautifully articulated in Denise Levertov's poem, To Live in the Mercy of God." I will read a few lines here:

To lie back under the tallest
oldest trees. How far the stems
rise, rise
before ribs of shelter
open!

To live in the mercy of God. The complete
Sentence too adequate, has no give.
Awe, not comfort. Stone, elbows of
stony wood beneath lenient
moss bed.

And awe suddenly
passing beyond itself. Becomes
a form of comfort.

... .

To live in the mercy of God.

To feel vibrate the enraptured
waterfall flinging itself
unabating down and down
to clenched fists of rock.
Swiftness of plunge,
hour after year after century,... .

Such passion –
rage or joy?

Thus, not mild, not temperate,
God’s love for the world. Vast
flood of mercy
flung on resistance."

Christ's merciful gift of reconciling peace tenderly sustains us even as it painfully purifies us by chipping away at our jagged edges, as we see in the risen Jesus' encounter with his chagrined disciples and as we experience time and again in the Eucharist. In the liberation of forgiveness, God's mercy at once embraces and impels the sinner forward on the path of conversion, often in spite of herself. This applies to both victims of wrongdoing as well as their offenders, insofar as they each stand in need of God's mercy. It is that common awareness of having first been forgiven by God that makes it possible for us to know what solidarity with victims looks like.

Levertov's twofold vision of God's mercy also calls to mind Robert Schreiter's account of the nuanced difference between divine and human forgiveness in his important book, The Ministry of Reconciliation (pp. 56ff). He writes, "God is the forgiver of sin, not simply because God has infinite power, but because God is also the horizon of infinite love.... That love is the power of the resurrection and of the great reconciliation toward which the entirety of creation is moving. God's constant proferring of love is at once the offer of forgiveness and the opportunity to renew a broken union or to deepen that union" (57).

From the human vantage point, he continues, forgiveness by a victim of wrongdoing involves both a process of being freed through God's grace from the power of the harm done as well as a deliberate choice to forgive (58). "Forgiveness means that the balance of power has passed from the traumatic event to the victim. The victim chooses the direction of the future, and does not follow the trajectory laid out by the traumatic event. One goes from being a victim to being a survivor.... The decision to forgive is the ritual act that proclaims the freedom of the survivor to have a different future" (59). This growing interior freedom is the work of God's grace and makes possible the victim's deliberate decision to forgive, and that is the third insight elicited for me by Roberto’s reflections.

Taken together, Levertov's portayal of mercy resonates with Schreiter's distinction between divine and human forgiveness. In the experience of being held in God's healing mercy, human beings can find the inner spiritual power to freely choose to respond to the risen Jesus' call to impart his peace in mercy toward our neighbors, beginning with our enemies. Every celebration of the Eucharist draws us further into the depth of union between divine mercy and our own unique vocations to extend that same loving peace to others, to become one with God's vast flood of mercy.

Against this background, I have pondered Roberto's suggestion that forgiveness compels confession and repentance (p.11). But, do confession and repentance follow automatically from forgiveness? Kai Leigh Harriot's courageous and generous decision to forgive made it possible for her attacker to own the truth of the harm he had done her and to apologize, but this was not a necessary or even a predictable response, as cases of systematic violations of human dignity attest. General Pinochet, though confronted year after decade and now into a new century with pleas from the families of the disappeared to reveal the truth of what became of their loved ones, remains steadfastly unrepentant for the terror wrought by his 17-year dictatorship in Chile. Sustained by the spiritual power of their own interior freedom, some of his victims have publicly expressed mercy toward him, but their entreaties have fallen upon clenched fists of rock.

On one hand, Pinochet's case seems to illustrate Roberto's point that "where there is no repentance and conversion there is no true mercy, since the act of forgiveness implies both offer and reception. (If I am convinced that I am not a sinner, that I am in no need of forgiveness, I cannot be forgiven, no matter how much God, or my victim, may desire to forgive me; this is, by definition, the only 'unforgivable sin')" (p. 14).

And yet, on the other hand, Jesus refused to cease suffering on the cross: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34). Jesus' prayer from the cross, another gratuitous gift for the ecclesia crucis, seems to imply that God, once again defying the logic of justice, forgives even in the face of utter obstinance: rushing water crashing down on clenched fists of rock, "a vast flood of mercy flung on resistance." It is not only an offer of mercy awaiting reception; God's loving mercy, by grace, is actively working to transform the hardened heart.

Apparently resting in the healing power of divine mercy, Tonia David, Kai Leigh's mother, realized that her deliberate choice to forgive had already set her free, regardless of the offender's response. She did not see herself or her daughter as victims but rather as victors. With her five-year-old daughter sitting paralyzed in a wheelchair, we might wonder what her family had won. By extending mercy, taking the risk that it might have fallen upon clenched fists of rock, they claimed their own dignity as human beings before God, as have many of Pinochet’s victims. No attacker or torturer could prevent them from freely choosing to return love for harm. That is the ultimate victory over death, the heart of the wounded and risen Jesus' witness. But, even more stunningly, in making that choice, they entered into deeper union with God's passionate refusal to cease loving, "the vast flood of mercy flung on resistance."

Perhaps the refusal to cease suffering, then, means extending the mercy of forgiveness even when the prospects of its reception, much less the attainment of any kind of justice, seem remote at best. One who rests in the secure peace of God's mercy can perhaps, by grace, muster the strength and courage to join God in showering merciful love relentlessly upon even the hardest of hearts. This may be the essence of the kind of holiness that James Alison has in mind, the sort that gives rise to "'the resurrection of the forgiving victim'" and thereby draws the rest of the community together in reconciled communion (cf. Goizueta, p.16).

As the resurrection reveals to us, and as the sacramental life of the church reflects, reconciliation is ultimately God's work. Both the tender rays of God's healing love filtering through the shadowy forest canopy and the relentless rush of divine mercy surging across the rough brokenness wrought by sin are part of the larger dynamic of God reconciling God's own creation, passionately loving it back into wholeness, wounds and all, without ceasing.

 

Also online: Full text of Robert Goizueta's 2006 Murnion Lecture