A new evangelism: forgiveness

Pure forgiveness and transactional forgiveness cannot be separated-you can't have one without the other. But, what does it mean to really forgive?

Lourdes Morales- Gudmundsson, Ph.D., chairs the Department of Modern Languages at La Sierra University, Riverside, California.

The French-Jewish philosopher Jacques Derrida wondered aloud about the recent phenomenon of corporate, governmental, and religious leaders asking for forgiveness.1 What interested Derrida is that this phenomenon of forgiveness is finding worldwide acceptance as a diplomatic tool, regardless of the dominant religion of the country. Even more curiously, he said, Judeo-Christian language is used in all this “proliferation of scenes of repentance.”2 Could it be, wonders Derrida, that Christianity is finding a global voice through the discourse it offers the world through these rituals of forgiveness?

There is no doubt that concepts related to forgiveness exist in nearly every world religion, but the “language” of forgiveness has most carefully been developed in the Christian faith. Confession and repentance, the two supporting pillars of Christian forgiveness (along with restitution and leaving vengeance to God) are creating, in Derrida’s opinion, a kind of “grand convulsion” with certain theatrical elements, in some cases even on the geopolitical stage.3

He points to the powerful tension within the Judeo-Christian tradition of two types of forgiveness: (1) “pure” forgiveness that bears with it no conditions but is gratuitous and generous; (2) a kind of “impure” forgiveness that demands a process involving justice, repentance, restitution. While admitting that nations are obligated to pursue the “law of responsible transaction” to “normalize” situations of injustice,4 he insists that the ideal that makes these kinds of transactions possible is “pure” forgiveness. In other words, pure forgiveness and transactional forgiveness are inseparable; you cannot have one without the other.5

Evangelism tool

Reading Derrida in terms of Christian evangelism, I believe that this tension between the two types of forgiveness can provide a unique and powerful platform to make the good news relevant and palatable to a world that is increasingly conflictive. Introducing the gospel through an understanding of forgiveness, and how it works in daily life, is the most logical point of departure to situate newcomers in the mindset of the “kingdom of heaven.” Indeed it is the initial act of gratuitous forgiveness on God’s part that makes the gospel possible. Without this compelling act of divine love, there would be no contact between heaven and earth, between the Creator and His creatures. It cannot be emphasized too much: The gospel begins and ends with God’s “pure” forgiveness.

But this fact cannot be dissociated from the other facet of divine forgiveness, the one that requires justice. If God so generously gave this forgiveness, which opened so many avenues of hope and restoration between errant humanity and its Creator, certainly God can expect repentance from the sinner in return. It is fair and just that it be so. And it is healing, for this act of humility redounds in infinite blessings for the repentant one: love, joy, peace, and all the fruits of God’s presence in the human life through the workings of the Holy Spirit.

“I forgive you, but”

Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom of heaven carries with it many implications that are present in the tensions between Derrida’s pure and “impure” forgiveness. Key parables such as those of the prodigal son or the two debtors provide the basic notions of forgiveness to which people can immediately relate. It is in this immediate relevancy of forgiveness that barriers of suspicion or indifference are broken down and the listener is invited to engage in a healthy and useful self-analysis. The attention is focused on personal responsibility to one’s neighbor as a means of fixing a conviction in the mind regarding individual responsibility toward God. This approach will avoid misunderstandings about “truth,” that it’s merely as a set of ecclesiastical behaviors or fearful expectations outside the boundaries of real life. Instead, it will invite the new believer to think first about how “truth” relates to their real living and real relationships with others.

Over the past more than 20 years, I have had the opportunity—through my seminar, “I Forgive You, But . . .” —to see how quickly and effectively the gospel of forgiveness softens hearts and transforms lives. The title immediately suggests a positive: we do forgive. We are willing to look at certain hurts and turn the other cheek. But it also suggests the imperfect way we often forgive: a forgiveness with so many impossible conditions that it eventually negates any benefits we might have hoped to gain from forgiving. The reaction people have to this title is a knowing smile or even laughter. It touches on a reality we all—whether baptized members of the church or seekers— know for ourselves.

This recognition of our human frailties and foibles provides a safe entrance into a discussion about what it means to really forgive. And this discussion, in turn, opens the way for a deeper understanding of Scriptural invitations to bear with one another and release each other from our anger. It is one thing to recognize God’s forgiveness of our sins—that in itself is enormously liberating. Often people do not feel the need for God’s forgiveness; they feel smug in their social or religious position. If so, then giving them the opportunity (through the study of forgiveness) to look honestly at themselves can provide a crucial step. And that’s because this new self-assessment has a power (unlike any other I have seen) to break down walls of pride and selfishness. When the focus is on the practical implications of religion on their own lives, there is a willingness to own behaviors that are incompatible with the standards of goodness present in the Word of God.

A new evangelistic thrust

I would like to suggest that seminars on forgiveness and peacemaking be developed and used as entering wedges for the church’s outreach and inreach across cultural differences and social classes. Reaching out to the community with seminars and workshops that help people address real problems in their lives is a way of placing God’s forgiveness at center stage in our preaching of the gospel. All too often the sequential layout of Bible study in most evangelistic outreach moves from God’s love to God’s judgment. In the end, fear of judgment may be the driving force in the final decision to join the Christian faith.

If this is less true in contemporary evangelism in some countries, it’s certainly true of evangelistic outreach in many parts of the world. God’s love is often left behind like a distant memory, and people gain the impression that they must busy themselves placating a soon-coming, vengeful God. This “fear factor” works in the short-term and often gives breathtaking numerical results. But if the new believers have no tools to deal with conflict in their own relationships with their own family and their new church family, they will be tempted to wander away. If God’s forgiveness and its implications for human forgiveness were the main course, rather than a mere appetizer at the beginning of the evangelistic meal we serve up, church members would find a unique moral strength in the practice of their religion, not only once a week in church but at home and at work and in all their contacts with others.

Seekers who accept the demands of Christ on their lives and join a church are often ill-equipped to deal with the hurtful realities they’ll sooner or later face in other Christian churches. Filled with innocent and unrealistically high expectations, new members are often turned away by judgmental or conflictive people. Without the tools to deal with conflict, neither new nor old members are in a position to resolve their differences. The resulting discouragement can easily lead a newcomer to abandon, if not their God, most certainly their church.

That’s why giving—right from the start—those who first join a church the tools of conflict resolution and forgiveness can go far in addressing a church’s membership retention problem. Training the membership in conflict resolution and forgiveness principles can also provide the local church with a wealth of human resources to teach/preach the gospel. And placing the emphasis on the practice of forgiveness keeps the spotlight on Jesus’ grace-filled gospel message of peace in a practical and useful way for all believers—newcomers and old-timers.

Conclusion

Evangelism must fill the call to human forgiveness with the pure beauty of God’s forgiveness. God’s forgiveness must perfume every doctrine, and it must help the seeker not only accept that forgiveness but understand how to use the tools of forgiveness in their everyday life. Then we’ll be speaking a recognizable and useful language that will continue to have practical and personal meaning long after baptism, a language so clear that even people like Jacques Derrida cannot help but take notice.

 

Lourdes Morales-Gudmundsson regularly presents her seminar “I Forgive You, But . . .” nationally and internationally. If you wish to contact the author about a seminar in your area, please call her at 951-785-2001.

1 Jacques Derrida, Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. London: Routledge, 2001.

2 Ibid., p. 28.

3 Ibid., p. 30.

4 Ibid., p. 57.

5 Ibid., p. 51.

 

 


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Lourdes Morales- Gudmundsson, Ph.D., chairs the Department of Modern Languages at La Sierra University, Riverside, California.

January 2006

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