If we have been wounded, frightened or affronted by others, how do we obey the Bible’s commands to forgive and build community across these chasms of pain and offense?
At Mission ConneXion Northwest, Michael Ramsden was invited to be a plenary speaker, and he shared this illustration at the beginning of his talk.
Kazuo Ishiguro, one of Ramsden’s favorite authors, is rather renowned for his novels, populated by characters who hide their secrets beneath denial and self-delusion. His most recent novel The Buried Giant is no exception.
Axl and Beatrice are living out their twilight years in the impoverished, medieval countryside. They have very little memory of their past, which we might be tempted to chalk up old age, except everyone in the village has a propounded limited scope of the past. No one can recall anything beyond two weeks prior, in fact. As they consider this, Axl and Beatrice become convinced that they have a child out there somewhere.
They strike out to find the lost child that they don’t remember but are convinced they must’ve had.
Along the journey, they collect an assortment of traveling companions. One of these is a knight who is the only one seemingly not affected by the general amnesia that has gripped the entire countryside. At the end of the book, they all find the source of their country’s forgetfulness, but they face a deceptively simple choice.
Do they restore their national memory, or do they allow everyone to continue on in a state of perpetual forgetfulness? The entire group debates the answer to this question for some time until the knight finally speaks up.
“Who knows what will come,” he pointedly asks, “when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest?” Ishiguro reveals here a striking, satirical commentary on the modern world; it seems that the characters must sacrifice their history, both personal and national, in order to keep the peace.
Unforgotten Pain and Impossible Demands
Denying the deep pain of the terribly wounded and battered is a rather insulting. Those who survived the genocide in Burundi and Rwanda are unlikely to forget, short of some magic a la Ishiguro’s fantastical tale. Someone who has had a childhood of sexual and physical abuse is unlikely to shed that past as if it never happened. A person who has had their home broken into and robbed is unlikely to just forget and merrily move along.
The Bible acknowledges the pain that sin causes in the world. Exodus provides one excellent example of this. Pharaoh had the monumental hubris to believe he was a god, and two nations of people suffered. We’re given a lot of details about Israel’s years of slavery and Egypt reeling from the plagues and destruction that resulted from Pharaoh’s showdown with Moses.
Finally, though, the Israelites have emancipation from over 400 years of slavery and foreign control. They’re free at long last and with the Promise Land ahead.
What does God command them as they leave?
“A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the Lord’s Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land” (Exodus 12:48, NIV).
They are finally out from under foreign rule. They’re finally off to their own nation, and they have their God over them. At long last, they don’t have to accommodate outsiders or uncomfortable, culture-clashing intruders. Or so they might have thought until God gave them this command to acclimate foreigners who want to worship their God and take part in their ceremonies. Did God forget that his people had just suffered a lot at the hands of foreigners?
The Bible has dedicated a fair amount of time to describing the Israelites’ suffering, and God himself says, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Exodus 3:7).
This God, who has not ignored the pain of his children or forgotten, is the same one who says, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).
How can he say this? How can he make such an impossible demand?
First With God, Then With Neighbors
Tutapona, a nonprofit that World Challenge partners with, works alongside survivors of war and genocide. They began in Uganda and have spread their work into parts of Syria, reaching out to those whose families and lives have been torn apart by violence and bloodshed. One of the members of their Ugandan program shared his pain.
“My family were being killed in front of me. Their blood was on me. At that moment, I felt absolute hate for those men.” He paused to collect himself. “I had no hope for life. I felt there was no reason to live.”
“You never forget,” another survivor shared, “as much as you try to, as much as you bury it…deep into the silence. You bury it so deep into your stomach. You convince yourself it isn’t there. But it is.
“The journey has been lonely and hard like a rope that binds me, each knot another loss, another pain pulling tighter…. My fear is not living with this pain. I have lived with it for all my life. My fear is facing the pain alone, not being big enough, brave enough, strong enough to defeat it.”
Tutapona provides group-based trauma rehabilitation programs that walk people through a process of recovery and building emotional resilience with a strong focus on forgiveness.
That forgiveness comes, though, when individuals realize the forgiveness that God extends not only to them but also to their enemies. “The light gives friendship back,” one of Tutapona’s leaders commented. “The light gives new hope back. The light shows…how forgiven you are, how human you are.”
This is the reconciliation that God is offering us, and it is what he calls us to direct others toward.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20a).
The Walls Against Reconciliation
The wonderful writers and thinkers of the Lausanne Movement identified one of the great barriers between us and reconciliation in a discussion about the true mission of the gospel.
They wrote, “A serious impediment to God’s mission of reconciliation in our time is not only the reality of destructive divisions and conflicts around the world, but quite often the church being caught up in these conflicts — places where the blood of ethnicity, tribe, racialism, sexism, caste, social class, or nationalism seems to flow stronger than the waters of baptism and our confession of Christ.
“While the church’s suffering faith is evident in many conflicts, the guilt of Christians in intensifying the world’s brokenness is seriously damaging our witness to the gospel.”
Perhaps tribalism, social class and sexism are less of issues in the United States — not to say they don’t exist, just that they’re less prominent than in other parts of the world — but certainly the U.S. is haunted by the persistent specters of racism and nationalism.
The Bible condemns injustice and oppression, and it speaks directly against creating new barriers between people for differences outside of their control.
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)
We are called to remember and forgive, as we go on a mission of reconciliation to a world at war.