St. Mark’s Adult Education Meeting Summary
“A Ray of Darkness” by Rowan Williams
Chapters 11 and 15
“The Forgiveness of Sin” and “Building Up Ruins”
Sunday, September 29, 2002
This is the third in a series of five informal discussions led by Rev. Mike Kreutzer, which will attempt to analyze and more thoroughly understand the book of sermons and reflections entitled A Ray of Darkness written by the Right Rev. Rowan Williams. Bishop Williams, who is of Welsh origin, has been elected to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He has served as Professor of Theology at both Cambridge and Oxford.
The group discussion began on chapter eleven with the analysis of dealing with the past and “I am my history”. There is a good treatment of the nature of forgiveness as it is dealt with directly. It was noted that only the victim has the right to forgive. Sometimes it is hard to forgive yourself. For example, many Roman Catholics remember the false doctrines they were taught many years ago as children, which today’s church no longer embraces. It is not only hard to understand why they were indoctrinated this way, but many victims cannot forgive themselves for buying into the falsehoods they were taught. This is, of course age specific, and the older one is, the more likely that person will be able to make more informed decisions. This also happens with the parent / child relationship where it is only at an older age that children find out their parents were not always correct in their judgments or in the things they were taught. It was believed that if a child was indoctrinated into the Catholic faith by the age of seven, then he or she would remain a lifelong parishioner. It has been shown time and again that many adults do revert back to their early childhood beliefs.
In more severe cases, such as when a child is molested by an adult, it was questioned how forgiving could they really be? Perhaps God can forgive this type of person, but the victim cannot. The process of forgiving is closely linked with ones emotional health. Those who are unable to forgive can create their own living hell. Today we understand the problem better of people not being able to forget their past horrifying experiences such as the post traumatic disorder symptoms experienced by many combat soldiers. In some of these cases, people cannot forgive the government for sending them to war. In the Vietnamese war era this situation was made even worse when the soldiers were largely rejected by the public upon their return home from the battlefields, since the war was never made legitimate.
Then the question was raised asking will God forgive everybody? If the worst tyrants are forgiven, then surely we will be as well! It was pointed out that one must believe in God to be forgiven. However, it is also stated that God forgives everyone and he loves us all. If you do damage against anyone else, you also are doing damage against God. We, as human beings, will still pursue criminals, even if they are very old, until they are caught, particularly if the crime is severe enough. What about the sins of our fathers? Are we responsible for those (i.e. such as slavery) as well? We agreed that to sin is to err, but it did not necessarily follow that to err is to sin. Thus, one is reminded of the role that error, and thus perhaps sin, could lead to change. In that context it was noted that the famous biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, approvingly cited the economist Vilfredo Pareto, viz. “Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, and bursting with its own corrections… You can keep your sterile truths!” An old religious saying was then noted: “Truth always rides into town on the back of heresies!” A further example was noted of a young engineer who worked for Ross Perot’s company, EDS. The engineer had wasted $250,000 on a project and was forced to face Perot to disclosed his errors and expecting to be fired. Instead, Perot answered “I just spent $250,000 on your education and can’t afford to fire you!”
Must we first understand sin before we can understand forgiveness? What about the interpretation of the Jewish laws? There were 623 precepts of law. Did all of these laws carry equal weight? The Roman Catholics assign different levels to sin. The question was then raised if forgiveness is a two-way street (i.e. does the offender have to accept the forgiveness)? Can God accept it on your behalf? Sometimes if the other person does not forgive you, you may have to forgive yourself! Then it was noted that sometimes when a person forgives another, he or she may have to forgive them over and over again each time the original transgression comes to mind. This also implies that the forgiveness may not have been “complete”. Otherwise, you would not be repeating the process each time. What about a person who must tolerate repeated abuses, as is the case with repeated wife beating offenders? How many times can a person forgive for the same offense repeated over and over again? Then the discussion turned to the idea of confessions. One must recognize their own guilt and the opportunities for individual confessions. The translation for the word sin literally means “missing the mark”. We should all be striving to live an ideal life in the image of God. Any shortfall can be categorized as sin. Sin is a separation from God. Hell can also be defined as a separation from God. We pray to be forgiven for those things done and left undone. Then there is the fear of damnation such that many people end up confessing on their deathbed out of fear.
Then the group began to discuss chapter fifteen starting with the idea that God is working in the midst where all the offenses took place. He is not in some abstract world, but he is right here among us. There are, of course, sacred places to visit and sacred places of worship. However, we must remember that God is with us every day and in our ordinary lives and within our own history. Our weekly attendance at church should be a summing up of the week’s events. This is where forgiveness and healing come into play. It is easy to say the confession, but hard to live out the rest of the week. Just as God led the Jewish nation back to Israel, and how he suffered through the crucifixion and resurrection, so to he leads us into the future. It can be easy to dwell on the past, just as some of the orthodox Jews, are still determined to obtain the Promised Land and how the Balkan conflicts dated back to events that occurred in the 1300’s. However, our God is a God of the future who can bring forth new life and make new beginnings. Next week’s discussion will focus on chapters 25, “Intercessory Prayer,” and 28, “Reading the Bible.”
Many thanks to George John for these further explanations from last week’s discussions.
God is in Need of Us
“Some years ago, I sat with a church congregation near Hamburg on an evening in which we recalled Kristallnacht, the 1938 night when Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were vandalized, prefacing the terror of the Holocaust. We were trying to understand that terror. One woman…described how she struggled for years with Jewish-Christian tensions, trying to understand how we came to the Holocaust. She concluded by saying, “When I understood Auschwitz, I joined the peace movement.” This woman…understood that our own failure to act on behalf of God during the Nazi era rendered God powerless. Where God has no friends, where God’s spirit has no place to live, God cannot act. Instead of dismissing this awful history as “willed by God,” she looked within herself. As one who speaks of God in the world, she took responsibility and joined the peace movement…. She believed in a God who lives in our actions, incarnating liberation.
From a pragmatic viewpoint, in the context of Auschwitz, such a God can seem politically suspect, weak, and unsuccessful. But as Martin Buber has said, “Success is not a name of God.” In fact, this failure to interfere is precisely what makes God irrelevant for many people. Often when people share why they left the church, they say that God did nothing when their child fell sick and died. Or when their marriage broke apart. Or when they lost their job. They are angry that God did not intervene. But God is not an interventionist. God is an intentionalist, working through us and alongside us to make divine will and intentions discernible. God needs us in order to fulfill the intent of creation.”
Dorothee Soelle, in The Other Side, Jan/Feb, 2001