Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Our ideas are too often too small. And in recent days, I’ve felt struck by that observation. In our personal lives, too readily Christians imagine that God imagines little for us. We want eternal life from God- not an inconsequential thing, surely- but might God desire more for and from us in this life too? It seems to me that our communities usually hope collectively for but simple advances of the common good. Broadly shared justice and prosperity sound wonderful, all things considered. But when we consider whether that’s possible, or the effort it would take, don’t we frequently turn to cynicism, inaction, even despair?

Forgive that downhearted opening! Let me explain. As many of you have also, I’m sure, I’ve spent time recently reflecting on Nelson Mandela. I’m too young to have been aware of his country’s struggles in real time. Most nine year-olds probably don’t follow momentous events a world away. But I do remember seeing a movie in childhood called The Power of One that was both a tragic love story and a film exploring South Africa’s fight for racial justice. The imprint it left on my young soul then was firm- that skin color shouldn’t cause people to mistreat their neighbors; that no person, however seemingly insignificant, is unimportant. We all can matter, can help, should live for ideas and dreams greater than ourselves.

Then in college, as an overwhelmed philosophy major, I read a small treatise for my honors thesis. It was called On Forgiveness, by distinguished- and weird- French philosopher Jacques Derrida. I won’t bore you with the details of his complex argument, but the main point is one I still affirm. He argued that forgiveness, at its heart, is an impossible phenomenon. For one, we often don’t want it. We typically content ourselves with revenge or basic justice. To move beyond convicting your enemy to forgiving your enemy is often a bridge too far. Plus, even if you attempt forgiveness, the person you seek to forgive is, basically, no longer present. Time has elapsed; her attitude might’ve changed. She might even now be apologizing! In that sense, it’s no longer the attacker you’re forgiving. It’s someone safer, someone more sanitary. So to forgive fully demands a victimized soul to reach back in time, and confront his enemy as his enemy, then say, “You’re forgiven.” That’s impossible.

Yet it happens, occasionally, Derrida observes. He then pushes the argument to wild extremes. He wonders if this impossible task, so absurd yet so real, is what makes us, in fact, truly human. As a Christian, I interpret that idea in light of Genesis 1, which describes us all as made in God’s image, designed at our core to do the impossible. To create life in loving partnership. To see beyond our surface-level differences to the common wonder that connects all. To forgive, actually forgive, by remaking relationships broken by sin.

The experience that Derrida points to in making his argument connects to Mandela. After Apartheid, you maybe remember South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee. This book first brought it to my attention, how- with Mandela’s guidance- they offered egregious perpetrators pardon, conditional on their appearing before a committee of judges and admitting the crimes they committed. These were abusers, murderers, rapists, many still armed and targets for possible revenge. But in the interests of moving forward as a society, seeking long-term, restorative justice rather than decades of subsequent trials, evasions and dangerous division, forgiveness became the country’s expectation. And together, they did the impossible.

In other words, after centuries of turmoil, these people weren’t content with small ideas. They drew on the grandest hopes of the Gospel and human possibility to accomplish an unprecedented good before all the world. In light of Mr. Mandela’s passing, I’m feeling convicted to “biggen” my thinking, to remember that at my core is God’s Image; glorious, impossible, divine. And if that’s true, then my usual hopes for personal peace and comfort feel inadequate. As Jesus said, “God’s Kingdom is coming.” That’s a huge idea! Yet he believed it possible, waiting simply for us to share his dream and make it so.

Grace and Peace,

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