Giving forgiveness a chance

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"No one forgives anyone for anything anymore." -- Alan Simpson, former U.S. senator, R-Wyo.

Simpson served in the Senate for 18 years, retiring in 1997, but has hung around Washington, D.C., as most ex-pols seem to do. The president recently chose Simpson to head a commission aimed at finding ways to bring down the federal debt. Simpson, in assuming this leadership role, has taken note of the change in social climate in the nation's capital since he left office.

"People get angry just for disagreeing with them," Simpson laments in the April 12 issue of Newsweek. Congress is viewed in a terribly harsh light by many Americans these days and polls indicate it has become perhaps the least respected public institution. Finger-pointing at Washington is a popular and time-honored practice and the blame heaped upon our leaders there undoubtedly has a credible foundation.

Remember that old saw about pointing fingers, though: Every time you point a finger at someone or something, take note how many fingers are pointing back at you. I'm not at all sure that the acrimony and divisiveness seen in the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill are aberrations. From my perch, what's happening in Congress reflects what we see across the country.

Let's look at just one everyday example. Unhappy with a coach's decision to bench a player? These days, it is not uncommon for that coach to be physically confronted by angry relatives. Of course, more passive-aggressive responses are also used. Nasty e-mails or text messages are sent. Social networks and blogs are used to defame and complain. There was a time that such a coach would have been given the benefit of the doubt. There was a time when it would have been assumed that a coach had reasons to hold back an athlete from competition. That attitude -- one in which we first assume good intent -- seems to have largely disappeared.

Even considering the brevity of my own lifetime and the limits of personal experience, it is my observation that our culture has become more coarse and more polarized. We seem to no longer assume that others act with good will. Instead, we first assume the worst.

I'm persuaded Simpson is right.

Today, if someone disagrees, we tend not to view the other as having a principled objection. Rather, we just say they are wrong and give rein to what we consider righteous anger. In the interests of full disclosure, I've not been immune to this attitude, either. But recognizing it is perhaps the first step back toward a more healthy approach.

We can blame Congress, but those fingers we try to point at Washington do point back at us. We can do our part to stop this madness. We can choose to forgive -- which does not mean telling someone else, "It's all right." Forgiveness is not saying, "It's OK." Jesus' famous statement from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" was not our Lord's way of saying, "This crucifixion is OK by me, fellas."

Forgiveness is not a grudging concession to someone who has wronged you. Instead, forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. The 12-step programs are right: If we do not forgive, we allow someone else to live in our heads rent-free. Get them out. Free yourself. Stop the madness and give yourself the gift of forgiveness.

If enough of us resolve to start doing this, gifting ourselves with forgiveness, then maybe -- just maybe -- over time we'll see things start to change in D.C.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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