By Rev. Ellen Jennings
Sixteen hundred years ago, St. Augustine of Hippo preached a sermon in which he famously challenged the 1st century Stoic Philosopher Seneca’s dictum: bonum ex malo non fit, or “good may not come from evil.” Augustine, insisted, rather: ex malo bonum, “good can come from evil.” For how else do we explain the resurrection?
Well, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this, and I’m inclined to agree with Augustine. But as with many philosophical equations, the whole truth is quite a bit more complicated than the formula summarizing its parts.
Allow me to explain. And I’ll begin with today’s reading from the Book of Genesis. As you probably know, these verses come from the very end of the Joseph Story: after his father gives him the coat of many colors, after his jealous brothers try to kill him (and tell his father, Jacob, that he’s dead), after he is sold into slavery in Egypt, after he has risen to power in the house of the Pharaoh, after his brothers are mistakenly reunited with him, after he punishes but ultimately helps them, and after he is reunited with Jacob. Jumping ahead, these verses recount the moment in the story when Joseph’s brothers, who still haven’t learned their lesson, lie to Joseph, fearing he’s going to seek revenge. They disingenuously claim that their father told them he wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers, even though they have done him wrong. And Joseph, whether or not he believes their story, replies:
Don’t be afraid. Do I act for God? Don’t you see, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good, as you see all around you right now—life for many people. Easy now, you have nothing to fear; I’ll take care of you and your children. (Genesis 50:19-20, The Message)
“God used those same plans for… good.” And it certainly seems to have been true for Joseph. But, how often is this the case? And why is it connected to forgiveness?
Well it’s a bit confusing. Especially in light of today’s parable from the Gospel of Matthew, which, while purportedly promoting forgiveness, seems ultimately to do the reverse! Think about it: Jesus has just told Peter that he doesn’t only have to forgive someone who hurts him seven times (which is already well beyond the typical “second chance”) but seventy times seven times! Then he tells him a parable—which can be summarized by saying that a servant owed his master 100,000 dollars but the master forgave his debt. Then, a fellow servant was unable to pay back the ten dollars he owed the first servant, who promptly (and with a decided lack of forgiveness), had him thrown into debtor’s prison. So the master got furious (so much for forgiveness!) and ordered the servant to be tortured until he could pay back the original debt.
Hmm. Well, that’s the thing about parables. They make you think! But, remember, they’re stories: exaggerations of circumstance, elaboration of effect. They are meant to encourage consideration. In this case, we’re meant to ask: what does it mean that the original servant was tormented after being forgiven but refusing to forgive? Is the King or master always a “stand in” for God—or are there other possible explanations?
Well, if we’re to see any consistency at all between Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, there must be another explanation. And I like the suggestion Rev. David Lose offers in his blog, …in the Meantime (9/7/14):
What if we imagine that rather than inflicting some new (or old) punishment on the unforgiving servant, the king is actually only describing the condition his servant already lives in. That is, he is already a slave to the world of counting and calculating and reckoning everything according to the law and will therefore remain a slave to that way of being until the end of time…or when he can forgive others, whichever comes first.
Ah. Now this sounds more like Jesus! In fact, it completely connects with Jesus’ answer, “Seventy times seven,” to Peter’s original question. For, when you think about it, this answer makes no sense. I mean, do we really think that Jesus, with a straight face, gave a precise numerical response to the question of how many times we have to forgive someone? Of course not! Rather, he’s letting us know there’s no limit to the number of times we can (or will need to!) forgive. Again, in the words of Rev. Lose:
It’s not that Jesus wants Peter to increase his forgiveness quota… it’s that he wants him to stop counting altogether simply because forgiveness, like love, is inherently and intimately relational rather than legal and therefore cannot be counted. Had Peter asked Jesus how many times he should love his neighbor, we’d perceive his misunderstanding: [for we know that] love can’t be quantified or counted. But he asks about forgiveness and we miss his mistake. [For we fail to understand that forgiveness] as an expression of love, ultimately, is not about regulating behavior but rather about maintaining and nurturing our relationships.
So, what do you think? I’m guessing that most of us would agree with Rev. Lose’s characterization. But how does it relate to God bringing good out of evil? And, again, what does forgiveness have to do with any of it?
Well, let me propose the following, beginning with the assumption that bad things do happen: people hurt us, the stars misalign, plans goes awry, health declines, loved ones die. In short, we feel pain. And when we feel pain, we often get angry. And when we get angry we look for something or someone to blame. Which is never a difficult search. For if we can’t find a convenient human to loathe, we can always get really mad at the Divine! And, for a short time, that anger towards people, or even God, feels good, righteous, justified.
But not for long. After awhile, the anger we carry begins to hurt. In fact, it begins to hurt us, far more than the one toward whom it’s directed. It eats us, slowly, from the inside, turning our guts bilious and our bones brittle. Like the servant in the parable, our righteous rigidity becomes a torture chamber. We create, for ourselves, a living hell.
And, mind you, there’s no punishing God in this scenario! God, who in our tradition, is characterized by forgiveness, is not, I repeat, is not the One who does this to us. God, I would venture to suggest, is Herself tormented when we’re unable to forgive. But God, I would also claim, is in it with us. God is the Light that breaks through the cracks in our darkness and gives us whatever strength, courage and wisdom allows us even to consider going a different way.
Not that it’s easy. In fact, as I thought long and hard this week, after Kimberly’s death and the anniversary of 9/11 and the hundreds of additional Ebola deaths, and continued news of devastation and destruction in Syria, Ukraine and Iraq, I worried whether this sermon might be perceived as facile—just a bit too simple-sounding in the light of all this pain. And then, I thought—No. I mean, why is this week different from any other? There is always death, always destruction, always illness and, always, human strife. The point of our faith, the mission of our church is to live and love in spite of all that.
And the incredible thing is: humans do. Despite all the pain, suffering, sickness, devastation and death, humans, with the help of the Light and Love, which I call God, do find a way to redeem it. They do, in the words of our tradition, turn crucifixion into resurrection. They do, to echo Augustine: ex malo bonum. Out of evil, create good.
So I decided to honor this human impulse toward God and good, to make real for myself this possibility of profound forgiveness, by reading some stories about individuals who have deeply experienced both evil and the transformation toward good, wrought through forgiveness. Two wonderful resources for this are: the Parents Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the ongoing violence in that region, and the Forgiveness Project, which features stories of individuals whose lives have been forever changed by acts of violence. Through war, crime and other acts of aggression, they’ve lost loved ones, limbs, and life as they knew it. But they have chosen not to dwell in a living hell. They have, often after years of struggle, chosen not to live in a torture chamber of their own anger and resentment. They have, rather, chosen to forgive.
Sheila Cassidy is an example: In the early 1970s, as a young physician, she traveled from England to Chile to work as a medical doctor. When she arrived, Salvador Allende was president, but Pinochet came to power during the time she was there. When Cassidy provided medical assistance to an opponent of the new regime, she was arrested, imprisoned and severely tortured. She was, finally, released and, upon her return to the UK, shared her story, which brought much needed attention to the violent abuse of human rights being perpetrated by the Pinochet regime. On a more personal level, her Christian faith helped her to find a way to forgive her tormenters and to live free of the hatred and pain they’d inflicted. She didn’t try to do it all on her own, but handed her pain and suffering over to God. In her words:
My forgiveness is from God… I’ve never met [my torturers], but intellectually I think they were very wounded people. I believe the capacity to inflict pain is in all of us.
And, as I read her story, I thought, “Yes, that’s true.” We all have the capacity for both good and evil. And then, shortly thereafter, I walked into a room with CNN on TV and saw a picture of yet another ISIL hostage, wearing an orange jump suit, about to be executed. And I stopped. And I thought, “really?” Is it really possible to forgive everybody everything?
I don’t know. I really don’t. I mean, I do, theologically. I truly believe that God forgives all of us. But I don’t know if it’s possible for we, humans, to forgive everybody everything. And Sheila Cassidy acknowledges this:
I would never say to someone ‘you must forgive’. I would not dare. Who am I to tell a woman whose father abused her or a mother whose daughter has been raped that she must forgive?
But she goes on to say:
However much we have been wronged, however justified our hatred, if we cherish it, it will poison us… We must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving that we are healed.
It is in forgiving that we are healed. Or, as St. Francis said, “it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
And I think this may, in fact, be the crux of it all. It’s not that forgiveness is a legalistic requirement, which makes God love us and wins us special rewards. No, for that would turn the Great Mystery of the Universe into a divine petty dictator.
But forgiveness is freedom. For when we forgive, we let go. We let go of all the pain and hatred and anger and vitriol that has, let’s be blunt, been living inside us—not the person who harmed us (or someone we love). Meaning that, while it may be one of the hardest things we’ll ever have the opportunity to do, it is also the act that can most fully set us free.
As Carol Shields describes in her short story, “Pardon:”
Milly yearned to absolve all those who had troubled her in her life. She forgave her father for naming her Milly instead of Jo Ann, and her mother for passing on to her genes that made her oversensitive to small hurts and slights. She forgave her brother for reading her diary, and her sister for her pretty legs, and her cat for running in front of a truck and winding up pressed flat as a transfer on the road. She forgave everyone who had ever forgotten her birthday and everyone who looked over her shoulder at parties for someone more attractive to talk to. She forgave her boss for being aspish and her lover for lack of empathy and her husband for making uncalled-for remarks about stale breakfast cereal and burned toast.
All this dispensing of absolution emptied Milly out and made her light as air. She had a sensation of floating, of weightlessness, and it seemed to her that bells were chiming inside her head.
Now, this list of pretty legs and burned toast (not to mention, lovers!) may seem rather trite compared to torture and beheadings. But, truthfully friends, the hurts and grievances most of us carry around much of the time are pretty trite. And yet these petty disturbances can take up a lot of space. They can consume us so that we are less available to love. They can make certain we are so weighted down that we close down. They can assure that openness and love are so far removed from our experience of life that we don’t even consider them part of our lexicon.
And that’s sad… Because we are a people who are both deeply loved and already forgiven. Thus, our charge is to love and to forgive. The added bonus being that, when we do, we free ourselves to love and forgive even more.
So, can good come from evil? Well, let’s put it this way. I’d hate to live in a world where evil was required in order for good to emerge. And, honestly, I don’t think that’s the world in which we live. But evil does exist, bad things do happen, and people do harm one another. Which gives us a choice: forgiveness (perhaps over and over again) or lack thereof (living in a prison of our own anger, resentment, depression or hate).
So, yes, I think good can come from evil. I’ll go with Augustine on this one. In fact, I believe the good that comes from just one act of loving forgiveness is a light that can break through the darkness of a great many evil deeds.
Ex malo bonum. Good out of evil. And, therefore, this morning, my thoughts are with all the victims of random and intentional violence in the world—from Kimberly’s children, Naomi and Theo, who lost their mom to the unpredictable violence of pancreatic cancer, to the victims of the Ebola outbreak, who are losing their loved ones to this horrific disease, to the many victims of fanatic extremism in Northern Iraq. And my prayer is that each one of them, and us, will find a way to transform these horrific and heart-wrenching events into something positive and good.
In Paul’s Letter to the Romans he wrote: “in all things, God works for the good of those who love God.” (8:28) In all things. Because in God’s world, good can come from anything. And forgiveness and love are the currency of this goodness. Forgiveness and love are redemptive. Forgiveness and love are what resurrection is all about. And as St. Augustine also said, “we are an alleluia [or resurrection] people.” We are about transforming and redeeming the world.