“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34
Scholars have discovered that this verse was either added to the original text, or erased and then added again. That seems about right. It is such a powerful statement coming from a man taking his last breaths at his own execution, surrounded by a jeering crowd who has watched him scourged, spat on, and nailed to a cross. This man calls on his father, God, to forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing. But we know what they are doing. They are watching the violent execution of a man who proclaims his innocence, who has taught in the Temple, and traveled among them healing and teaching about love and compassion. There are others there, too, people who never met Jesus, who are not Jews, people who are there for the spectacle, another day on this mountain in this place where the price of disturbing the peace of Empire is death. We know that Jesus has been betrayed and given up to the authorities by a close companion. His disciples have fled. He has been up all night praying and awaiting his fate, praying to God the Father to spare him this brutality. And it comes to this, hanging on the cross with his mother and a group of loyal women, the Disciple Whom he Loved, soldiers, and a whipped-up bloodthirsty mob massed around him, waiting for him to die.
How could he ask his father to forgive? We know that he has taught the people to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive those who hate you. These are also the words that St. Stephen cries out when he is being stoned to death in front of the Temple after Jesus has died. “Lord, Jesus receive my spirit,” he calls out. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Am I capable of such forgiveness? My first answer is no. I have worked so hard to reach young people and children so they understand that they are worthy, no matter who they are, where they come from, and what they can do. They are worthy to be loved and to have an opportunity, and their work and actions and practice should reflect this sense of self-worth, dignity in themselves and how they treat others. I teach them to stand up for themselves and others. I’ve worked together with others to understand and practice justice and equality, to provide equal opportunities, to be honest with ourselves and others, to recognize and destroy racism, sexism, homophobia, and all life-sapping hatred. And I’ve worked with people who have experienced abuse, finding resources for them to escape and find their own confidence and integrity. I’ve experienced the aggressions and stereotyping and assumptions of inferiority that this society inflicts on women of color.
So my first answer comes from a point of protest and resistance. There are so many battles, so many indignities and social structures that crush people and whole communities. Forgiveness is not high on the list of what needs doing.
But then I remembered: I am not Jesus. Jesus knew his Father’s plans for him and spent his entire ministry teaching about love and justice, healing the sick, ministering to the poor and despondent, standing up to the powers and principalities that stood in the way of the good life God wants for God’s people. And during this entire time he had his detractors and critics, the cynics who belittled him and dismissed his teachings. His own disciples never seemed to get his message, arguing who would be first in the kingdom, sleeping during the vigil Jesus asked them to keep on his last night on earth, and finally betraying him and running away from his trial and execution. His whole life was doing his Father’s work, teaching about the kingdom and what we needed to do and yet, as the Son of God, and divine himself, he knew people would fall short. Jesus on the Cross spoke from his humanity and his divinity. We are witness to what God sees in us and what we can be as humans.
Not everyone can hear the message of Jesus or act in accordance to his word all the time. His forgiveness was not a momentary exclamation from the Cross. It was his life’s work, his human and divine understanding that the work for God’s kingdom within ourselves and for others is difficult and exhausting, and never-ending. He had moments of acclaim, gratitude for those he healed and the ones who loved him, but in the end he had to die. He expressed his deep understanding and belief that people can be forgiven and asked his Father for what he knew to be the truth. Forgiveness is offered to everyone, it’s available, it is indeed God’s grace.
In the end, it is what keeps believers and those who work for social justice on the job, at their tasks, in the movement. It has inspired centuries of Christian martyrs and peacemakers, healers and prophets, and seekers of justice. We need to work with others. We need to step aside at times and pray and care for ourselves as Jesus did. We need to know when it’s time to retreat, change course, let others step in to carry the burden or use their resources to create change. We must acknowledge our sins and shortcomings, ask forgiveness from others and learn to forgive ourselves. We keep working because we believe the Kingdom of God is among us and that carrying on in the steps of Jesus can bring the will of God to earth as it is in Heaven. And we do forgive… not everyone, not in an instant. Forgiveness is a process that takes time, refection, deep soul-searching, analysis, truth-telling, and discernment for ourselves and those who oppose us. And we need to forgive our friends and those we love over and over again. Forgiveness cannot be forced or rushed. It seeks signs of remorse and recognition from the opposer but, lacking that, forgiveness can be a release for ourselves, an acknowledgment that we are unable to reconcile but can create space away from the offender, drop the bitterness, and let God be God. Maybe we need to realize that generational trauma requires generational change. We don’t give up entirely. We may take a time-out or pass the baton, but the vision remains. At its best, forgiveness creates unity, as Dr. Kiriyaki Fitgerald says. As Niebuhr writes, “Forgiveness is the final form of love.”
We are not Jesus. But Jesus is our shining example of what humanity, filled with the Holy Spirit can be. We live in the real world as Jesus did and do the work surrounded by forces of evil and negativity. We negotiate the vision of Dr. King, who appealed to the good in all people, whose prophetic wisdom and radical actions challenged the powers of oppression and inequality. Knowing that the hope for goodness may not be realized in our lifetime, that there are times when we hold on to our vision and our hope at great peril and in the face of darkness, appealing to God to forgive until we take our last breaths.
Judith Scott is a frequent blogger for Axia Women.