No Forgiveness, No Peace

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

Forgive your brother or sister from your heart (Mt 18:35)—from the Gospel for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 13th.

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This year of 2020 has proven to be a difficult one to write Restoration articles for. World events have continued to develop at a rolling boil, and with the publication schedule of the paper, it is hard to know while writing an article in (say) June what will be going on in the world in September when it appears.

That being said, we are living and no doubt will continue to live in a time of great strife and contention.

Anger on the streets, long festering injustices boiling over into protests that at times cross the line into violence and civil disorder: such has been the story of the summer of 2020 so far. Brother turned against brother, and the fabric of society increasingly twisted and torn near to the point of irrevocable breakage.

Meanwhile, the Lord’s words coming to us in Matthew 18 are stark and uncompromising. Peter asks, how often must I forgive? (Mt 18:21) Seventy times seven, (Mt 18:22) the Lord answers, a symbolic number connoting without limit, without count.

The parable of the servant who would not forgive a paltry debt after his immense debt had been forgiven brings it to a fine point: we have been forgiven, so must forgive; if we do not forgive, our debt remains unforgiven.

It is not my place, nor do I intend in this article, to address the issues of racial injustice and discord in America, Canada, or any other country for that matter, nor the terrible wounds of economic inequity and the need for societal reform, repentance, and conversion.

These issues are both beyond the scope of what a short article can do. Furthermore, I am not really qualified or entitled to talk about such things.

I am qualified to talk about forgiveness, though. My qualifications for this are two: I am a sinner, and have been forgiven much; I have been called to forgive much, since like pretty much everyone, I have been hurt by others to greater and lesser degrees.

“No justice, no peace!” So goes the common slogan of our day. I don’t know the answers to the big social questions that confront us, what that justice is and how to obtain it. I do know that without forgiveness, there is really no peace for anyone, not for me, not for you, not for anyone.

Well, we want justice. We all want justice—to see the evildoers in the world or the evildoers in our own life punished, brought to account, made to see and acknowledge what they have done, made to stop doing it, and their victims redressed.

We all want this, and it is not (obviously) a wicked desire. Justice is an attribute of God, and it lives in our hearts because we are made in his image. Justice is a noble and beautiful thing.

But… human justice is flawed, you know? We all want to clean the table, but the cloth we are using is befouled with its own dirt. You cannot clean a table with a dirty cloth. Justice cannot be administered in perfection by unjust people. And, my dear beloved brothers and sisters reading this article, we are all unjust, at least in some regard, at least to some extent.

And so justice indeed produces peace, if it is perfect justice. But where do we go to get this perfect justice? The flaw in human justice, which stems from the flaw in our human character that is original sin, is that it invariably degrades into revenge, retribution, payback. And these things are not just, and do not lead to any peace, at all.

I’m not really talking about society and the problems facing us as a nation or as a community of nations. I’m talking about my life and yours and the people who have hurt us in various ways. We can aim for justice and land on revenge so easily.

And so, the Lord tells us God’s answer on this. Forgiveness. No forgiveness, no peace. No forgiveness, no life, actually. Forgiveness constant, forgiveness unconditional, forgiveness from the heart—this is the deep and indestructible font of peace in the human heart.

We tend to get a bit confused on this point. If I forgive that *&#% who hurt me, I am letting him off the hook! I’m allowing bad behavior to continue. I’m denying my pain, my abuse. And so forth. But that is not what forgiveness is about at all.

Forgiveness is the deep and radical choice to forswear vengeance, to forswear my own plan of “justice” that is really retribution. To return a blessing for a curse, love for hate, compassion and care for cruelty and coldness. To sincerely desire, and to turn to God so that he may allow it, that our hearts be utterly cleansed of hatred, bitterness, evil.

Forgiveness and the grace of God which makes it possible is the “cleaning of the dirty cloth” of our minds and hearts, so that we may see then, how to bring healing, and yes, justice and peace into our world, to whatever extent it is given us to do so.

In that sense, the call and the work of forgiveness are actually the precondition that make it possible to work for justice in our troubled world.

This seems paradoxical. We are so used to opposing justice and mercy and thinking we have to choose between the two. Either we are holding people accountable and enforcing a just response to bad actions, or we are waving it all aside in a great act of personal clemency.

In truth, the interior choice to forgive those who have wronged us, whether on the level of our personal life or in these larger social and political dynamics, clears the way for true justice to flourish.

No longer seeking revenge, no longer out to hurt those who have hurt us, we can see more clearly and freely how love and truth can both be restored to this broken hurting world we find ourselves in at this time.

It starts on the level of our personal lives—those who have hurt me, hurt you. But from there (and, I would say, only from there) it reaches out to encompass the lives of nations and peoples, society and its urgent need for reform and renewal.

If true mercy and forgiveness from the heart are not in the hearts and souls of us all, we will seek justice in that forum and in the end only substitute new injustice for old, new evil in place of the old.

So let’s take that on, then. Forgive who you need to forgive, and pray for deep forgiveness to flourish in all human hearts, that the world may be made truly new in the light of love and mercy coming from God and living among men and women who have chosen to allow that mercy to cleanse our hearts of hatred, bitterness, and evil desire for revenge. Let us bless the Lord, and let us bless one another in love and in truth.