Over the last few weeks, (with the exception of last week because, um, Ferguson) I have been discussing how the Lord’s Prayer can be a model to form a social justice theology. Throughout this series, I have proposed that Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 6 are not only meant to show believers how to pray but how we should reorient our lives and relationships with one another in light of what we are praying.
In the last segment, I looked at how asking God simply for our daily bread is an act of rejection, and particularly rejecting our tendency to hoard, to consume, to amass wealth and resources at the expense of others. But the prayer is also an act of admission, to self, God and the world around us that we have enough and that we trust in God to provide for our needs – both which keep us from exploiting others.
But God knows who we are. He knows that most often we won’t reject the temptation of consumerism and that we won’t believe that he is enough. He knows that when we grow weak, take our eyes off of him, or confuse our wants for our needs, we will undoubtedly start to pursue more and more in attempt to satisfy our selfish desires. Knowing our frailty, Jesus also teaches us to ask for forgiveness. Lord, forgive us when we start acting like greedy little children. Lord, forgive us when we stop thinking about the other 7 billion people on this planet and act as if we are the center of the universe. Forgive us, have mercy on us, because while we are waiting for the fullness of your kingdom, we won’t get it right. We will blow it every time. We will pursue the things that we don’t need and in the process, we will hurt and exploit others. Forgive us.
However, we need to be advised that our requests for forgiveness should not be halfhearted. You know what I mean, when we say we are sorry but aren’t really sorry, and only say such to cover our butts or to be politically correct. Case in point: back in 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives issued an apology for centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow laws that have negatively affected black people. However, this act did not actually change the situation of black people in this country, in fact, disinvestment of our people has continued if not intensified in recent years. This is not a true act of repentance. If the apology issue by House, proceeded by the Senate, were genuine, at the very least, there would have been intentional efforts at making sure the lasting effects of slavery and Jim Crow were addressed. But they weren’t. Of course, there is an occasional policy thrown around here or there to fool people into thinking that our nation is really doing something about its racist heritage. But most often it’s just a clever ruse.
True repentance looks radically different. Take Zaccheus in Luke 19 who not only was a tax collector but got rich by exploiting the poor. When he came to Jesus, he offered half of his possessions to the poor and promised to pay back those he had wronged four times as much. His actions did not merely resemble a move to get closer to Jesus, gain more clout, or wield more authority. His actions signified that he was sorry and that he actually meant it. When we ask Jesus for forgiveness in the way that we have treated others, there has got to be something that comes with that. We cannot ask God for forgiveness and persist in our patterns of exploitation and oppression. Those ideas are simply incongruent with the other!
If we are truly sorry and repentant for our acts of transgression, our actions would more so resemble the actions of Zaccheus and would look nothing like the actions of the United States Congress and other branches of government. If the United States is and ever was truly was sorry for the crimes it has committed against black people, the war on drugs would have never commenced, Mike Brown would have made it to college, Trayvon Martin would have eaten his skittles, black men would be gainfully employed, there would be no achievement gap, and the housing bubble would have never burst because blacks would have been sold homes with interest rates similar to our white peers.
While we can’t undo the past, we can address the sins of the past in the present in order to move forward in the future. This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent piece in the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” suggests. Quoting from his article:
What Coates says here is so important. Reparations, or a reconciling of America’s self image with the facts on ground – systemic disinvestment, is necessary in the process of repentance and requesting forgiveness. And the same is true of every other action that we have committed against God or the world – we have to come to grips with the fact that we are fallible humans, who make mistakes, who are in constant need of God’s mercy, but who will also not see our limitations as an excuse to do evil but rather an opportunity to do good.
In addition to asking for forgiveness, we offer it to others. Because in the same way that we are not perfect, and fall short of the glory of God, others are not perfect either. Because we live in a moment of transition, in between the inauguration of God’s kingdom and the fullness of it, we need to know that everyone will not treat us right. In fact, most won’t even with their sincerest motives. So we forgive, and as Jesus said to Peter, seventy times seven times if that is what it takes.
For people who have been victimized and oppressed, this is something that is hard to do. Those who have experienced oppression in any way often feel like they have the right to avenge and exact justice on those who have stolen lands, lives, family, and resources – and rightly so. Esau, for all intents and purposes, had a right to get his brother Jacob for tricking him out of his birthright and later his blessing. And so after their father Isaac dies, Jacob understandbly thinks that Esau will kill him. This fear causes Jacob to strategize ways in which he could possibly pacify his brother’s anger.
As Esau approaches Jacob, surrounded by an army of 400 men, he fears the worst. But Esau, the one who many commentators and theologians are quick to scorn, does something that is absolutely unprecedented and amazing. He runs to meet Jacob, embraces him and falls on his neck and kisses him proving that he had forgiven him for all of the evil that his brother had done to him. In that one act, he stops would could have been a cycle of violence and retribution between the two brother’s families for generations. Instead, he paves the way forward for healing and reconciliation.
As amazing as this story is, take note that Jacob did not demand Esau to forgive him. He did not twist his brother’s arm and make him forgive and forget all of his years of deceit and trickery. Esau, on his own volition and as a result of his own healing, offered it to his brother. Likewise, those who have oppressed and victimized others, cannot demand forgiveness from those whom they have hurt. The oppressor has no right to go to the oppressed and force them to look beyond their exploitative actions, especially if they are still going on, and coerce them into blindly forgiving them.
Through Twitter, protests and other acts of solidarity, African Americans have significantly raised the profile of the execution of Michael Brown to an international level. For many of us, this is not an isolated incident of police brutality but an incident that reflects our nation’s longstanding policing and devaluing of black bodies. However, white Christians and other whites in our society, have called on blacks to get over racism because of, um, Jesus. To them, we should put slavery, Jim Crow and other acts of racism behind us and just forgive those who have done us wrong in the name of brotherly kindness. Reacting to this sentiment, In Search of His Face’s Tracey M Lewis writes this:
“Forgiveness, and all the good it facilitates, is NOT the equivalent of blind allowance. Forgiveness does not mandate that I be silent. Forgiveness does not mean neutrality. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t rally around those who are the victims of violence or demand justice from the same people I know I must forgive. At some point, I have to think that a demand for compassion and forgiveness for those who hurt me or my children must somehow meet up with the demand for repentance and justice. While a demand for peace is certainly right, every action has a reaction. There are consequences–some of which will be meted out by those being commanded to be peaceful. This is especially true in a world that increasingly refuses God and His grace.”
What Lewis says here is so important. In light of what has been happening in Ferguson, MO, those who have been complicit in our continual suffering cannot expect us to just get over it and most certainly are in no position to demand that of us. Forgiveness does not look like that. It must be freely given, in the same way that Jesus freely gave. Remember that no one took His life from Him, but He laid it down of His own accord so that whoever would believe in him would receive forgiveness and have everlasting life. But there is also an element of accountability here. In the same way that Christ expects us to do different when he extends forgiveness to us, I also expect a change.
All of this is a process. Since Adam and Eve sinned, all of humanity has been engaged in this very long process of forgiveness and reconciliation. Sacrificing goats here and there weren’t doing anything for us, but as a result of Christ, we are getting closer to a place of reconciliation – where the oppressor and the oppressed embrace. It will take time, a lot of confession, a lot of vulnerability, and a whole lot of swallowing of one’s pride, but ultimately, God’s desire is that the victim and the victimizer sit down with one another and heal each other’s wounds, understanding that each party has lost their humanness, their very goodness because of violence. Forgiveness paves the way for this – and so we pray, all the more adamantly, forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.