Even Stranger Texts
"So, Christians are supposed to be doormats for the rest of the world?"
Was I being challenged or was she really asking? It's hard to tell sometimes. Occasionally, people ask me questions just to challenge me, as if they are thinking, "If I can stump the pastor, then I'll have the validation I need to prove I'm right."
Here's the thing though, I'm not that hard to stump.
If anyone is trying to stump me, it's not going to be that difficult.
Here's the other thing, I love questions.
I especially love hard questions. I love wrestling with questions that don't have an easy answer. One of the principles I learned in seminary was that most things in our world are not black and white. One professor put it this way, "It's not 'either/or.' It's 'both/and.'" So, if you're trying to stump me with a hard question, what you're most likely going to find are more hard questions and no easy answers. What you will find is someone willing to jump down the rabbit hole with you. And can you guess what question is the hardest for people to answer or deal with?
Why should I forgive?
Forgiveness is the reason she asked me the question. It was the topic I had preached that Sunday morning. In my, albeit limited, time as a pastor I have found that forgiveness is often the most difficult subject to preach. I get more push back when I teach on forgiveness than any other topic. More than politics, homosexuality, idolatry, promiscuity, adultery, or pornography, the blue ribbon goes to forgiveness.
In a sermon on forgiveness, Fred Craddock addresses the same dilemma. He shares that during the Rodney King trial, King approached the police officers who had nearly beat and kicked him to death to say, "I forgive you." And a court reporter said, "I understand Mr. King suffered some brain damage."
In that same sermon, Craddock shares the story of George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama who adamantly fought against racial integration in public schools during the mid-1960's. His most famous words are also his ugliest: "...I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." At some point in his life, however, Wallace changed. He became a different person. But many were skeptical. Sometime before he died, he remarked, "I still don't understand why the American people have not forgiven me."
Why is forgiveness so hard to accept?
Craddock tells us why in the simplest terms - it's hard. "Because," Craddock says, "there is within many of us, I can't speak for you, but there is in many of us a fundamental idea that people should just get what they deserve." Forgiveness is hard because it seems to violate that. Some believe that forgiveness lets people off the hook. Forgiveness doesn't hold the guilty accountable for the wrong they have committed. Forgiveness makes a mockery of justice. If the forgiveness Christ calls us to means that I become a doormat to the rest of the world, well, then thanks, but no thanks.
But is forgiveness really incompatible with justice?
On that Sunday we searched for forgiveness in a most surprising place, Psalm 137. The Psalm describes the miserable state of the Israelites who found themselves exiled in Babylon. Trapped in a foreign nation that had obliterated Israel, including the divine city Jerusalem, they had little to celebrate. They had no songs to sing; only painful memories that even a magic eraser couldn't clean.
The psalmist's tone soon turns from depression to anger. The writer blurts out a verse that is so appalling it requires a double take. Toward the Babylonians, the psalmist hisses, "Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks (Psalm 137:9, NIV, 2011)."
Not exactly a pleasant picture, is it? Less than a year ago, a father here in Orange murdered his two-year-old daughter with a hammer. It was a vile, horrific incident. It shook the whole community. No one in their right mind would support the abuse of an innocent child. So, why do we let the psalmist get away with it?
It's because the psalmist is desperate for justice. This is a enraged plea for help. The psalmist is petitioning for God to right some terrible wrongs. This was violent culture. The Babylonians were ruthless in their invasion. And the law in this violent culture was eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, baby for a baby. That's justice - impartial, blind, retributive justice.
But remember, as much as Psalm 137 is about seeking justice, it is also about learning how to forgive. Surprisingly, the two go hand in hand. Real forgiveness is compatible with justice. But real forgiveness requires real justice. Here's a quote from a preacher in Texas Baptist life I highly respect: "I have little appreciation for people who celebrate incredible acts of forgiveness, but failed to condemn the act for which the forgiveness has been extended."
I have a suspicion that he is referring to the Amber Guyger trial. Guyger was a Dallas police officer who entered the wrong apartment and killed the resident, an African-American man named Botham Jean. During the trial, Botham's brother, Brandt, forgave Amber and even hugged her. The video went viral as an example of radical forgiveness.
Not everyone was so pleased with the video's success, however. Some, especially those in the African-American community, believed that the video was being used to promote cheap forgiveness. Cheap forgiveness is that doormat type forgiveness the woman was questioning me on. Cheap forgiveness is covering over our hurt, pain, and rage either out of shame or fear. Cheap forgiveness doesn't take the sin of the world seriously.
And cheap forgiveness is absolutely incompatible with justice.
Was the Amber Guyger trial a case of cheap forgiveness? I'm not sure. I don't think it was. It probably wasn't cheap for Brandt Jean to cross that court room and hug the person who murdered his brother. I imagine that it probably cost him a whole lot. It may have been used by others to promote cheap forgiveness, but I think Brandt was sincere. Why were so many people upset then? I think it's because of another concept Psalm 137 touches.
The psalmist is teetering on, perhaps, something more that justice. The psalmist seems to border on another desire that would exceed justice. Just past the edge of justice, there is a canyon - the canyon of revenge. And it's a long way to the bottom.
What's the difference between justice and revenge?
The line is probably thinner than we think. Although thin, there is a difference. Writing for Psychology Today, Dr. Leon F. Stetzer tries to distinguish between revenge and justice with five guidelines:
1. Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational.
2. Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon.
3. Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication.
4. Revenge is about cycles; justice is about closure.
5. Revenge is about retaliation; justice is about restoring balance.
Here's the interesting thing I noticed about Dr. Stetzer's list: The main difference between revenge and justice is the involvement of a third party. If achieving justice is left up to the victim alone, I seriously doubt that the victim will be able to achieve it rationally, impartially, without vindictiveness, without creating a cycle of retributive violence, and that at the end of it all harmony or balance will be restored. A victim simply cannot achieve that. Justice is too high of an ideal. Someone else is needed to help us achieve real justice. The question is, who?
Who will achieve justice for us?
My wife and I watch way too many crime documentaries. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video are inundated with them. And if you can't watch one, you can listen to one on Spotify. One of the amazing things I have come to discover is that achieving real justice is difficult. The court system often gets it wrong, the judge too lenient or too demanding, the jury too stupid, and the lawyers too clever. What the documentaries demonstrate is that even when we get someone else involved, justice seems to elude us. The solution, it seems, is not just to get someone involved then.
The solution is the get the right someone involved.
One of things I emphasized in my sermon was that Psalm 137 is a prayer. The psalmist is speaking to God. The psalmist isn't just begging to someone for justice, they are are begging to the right someone. The main point of my sermon that day was, "Only God could help turn our anger into forgiveness." But the same concept applies to justice as well.
God is the only one who can truly achieve the real justice that we need to find real forgiveness.
And God will. God will achieve justice. He may not do it today or tomorrow or even in your lifetime. But you can bet that when Jesus returns to this place, he will right all the wrongs, he will wipe all the tears, he will hold the sinful (and that includes you and me) accountable. Count on it.
And if that's true, it means we can go ahead and forgive right now.
That doesn't mean we become doormats to the world. That doesn't mean offer cheap forgiveness to everyone who hurts you. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't hold people accountable for their crime. Amber Guyger is in prison and that is good. But again, we get justice wrong all the time. We have an idea of perfect justice, we know it exists somewhere out there, but we don't know how to obtain it. It's too lofty, too high, too pure for us.
Forgiveness on the the other hand is something we can obtain and achieve, because forgiveness has been placed in our hands. The most intriguing part of forgiveness is this:
Forgiveness means that while we may have been made a victim, we don't have to stay a victim.
Forgiveness is actually power to take control of our own lives. Offering forgiveness, even to those who have hurt you the very most or deserve it the very least, is an act of incredible courage. When Brandt Jean crossed that courtroom to hug Amber Guyger, he took control of his own status. In full sight of the cameras, he transformed from victim to victor. Because God will achieve justice for us, forgiveness is now something that we hold in our hands. And the gift of forgiveness wasn't cheap.
At the cross of Jesus, God himself paid for it.