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Saturday, July 9, 2016

What if there was no forgiveness?

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever going to have.”
                        —Clint Eastwood as William Munny, Unforgiven

What if we lived in a world with no forgiveness?
I mean, none. No forgiveness at all. One bad turn earns another. Harm escalates. Retaliation is all we know. One day, a generation would look back, if they survived it, and say it’s all they ever knew.

Can you imagine? Maybe we’ve been given a glimpse into that in the last few days and weeks—a world that doesn’t know forgiveness. I dare say the description above is accurate. Literally, a hell of a thing.

A few years ago, when, in my view based on my short time on this planet, the world seemed much more innocent and manageable than it does today, I watch the well-known Clint Eastwood Western film called Unforgiven. I thought I would never watch it again. It is by no means an easy film. There’s not much clarity in this one regarding who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. No white hat and gentle demeanor give that away. And there are far too many sunsets with not enough sunrises to offset them. A widowed man. Hard of heart, it seems. Gets invited into a situation that didn’t automatically intersect with his life. He has to choose whether to get involved, and how. And why.

A horror has been done, to a woman. Somewhere in the story telling, revenge gets the narrative. Greed has a leading-man role as well. Hopelessness and a theme of “We’ve all got it coming” pervade. One bad turn earns another. Harm escalates. Retaliation is all the characters seem to know.

There is no forgiveness.

The end was bleak. I felt drained. I never wanted to see it again.

I wonder if Mr. Eastwood felt the same way about his film once completed. I wonder if he couldn’t let it stand as it was. I wonder if he felt compelled to tell a different story, a story where there is forgiveness, and a hope of redemption.

I wonder, because later, I saw another of his films that came out after Unforgiven. It has a common feel. A widowed man. Hard of heart, it seems. Gets invited into a situation that didn’t automatically intersect with his life. He has to choose whether to get involved, and how. And why.

Over the course of the film, a horror is done, to a woman. It seems that revenge is going to claim this narrative too. At first. But I picture Mr. Eastwood standing as director, actor, writer, at a crossroads. Will this be a modern-day setting for Unforgiven? Or will he direct his character down a different path?

In Gran Torino, Mr. Eastwood took the other turn. The leading character has to decide, and his decision is that escalation will not continue because of him. His decision is, “Enough. It will stop right here, with me.”

I won’t go into details because if you haven’t seen it, and if you can stomach the hardness, the darkness that gives the story its setting, you should. You should see it and experience how the story doesn’t have to end the same way.

If there’s forgiveness. Radical forgiveness.

If there’s forgiveness, there can be redemption. There can be a better ending. There can be hope. And even if it’s true that “We’ve all got it coming,” there can be something even beyond that.

Something . . . beautiful.

The last few days have not been beautiful, but some of you have found beauty and shared it. I thank you. We are hurting and frightened and sometimes angry and craving beauty. Even little gifts of goodness are fuel in times like these. But they aren’t enough for the big problem. We need something bigger.

We’re not the first nation, people, community to hurt like this. We won’t be the last. Look around the world right now. Read Mindy Belz’s book They Say We Are Infidels. Remember the lessons of your history book. Look up Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. Talk to your parents, grandparents if you’re still blessed to have them. Read Night. Read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. That’s just recent history. You can keep going as far back as you want to, even to the point of a woman named Eve, who brought forth two sons, the first record of brotherhood on the planet. The first record of murder.

We’ve all got it coming?

Unless, there’s forgiveness.

The same book that records the story of Eve’s boys also records later the story of a king who forgot, for a time, what he was called to do, sharing in the responsibility to nurture and promote the kingdom he had been entrusted with. In his arrogance, he made a grave error, and it cost many lives. They were lost in the form of plague, spreading across the kingdom. One death leads to another to another to another. Is there no end? There was nothing the king himself could do stop the plague. But someone did.

God himself said, “It is enough.” And where did that happen? The plague stopped precisely at the threshing floor of Araunah (or Ornan) the Jebusite.

Araunah the Jebusite had constructed his threshing floor on Mount Moriah. Does that sound familiar? Remember old Abraham, the childless, who gets a son, whom he loves, with his wife Sarah in their old age? Abraham was instructed to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah, and for a time we are pretty sure that something awful is going to happen. But at the place, God showed Abraham that what he and I and Isaac all ought to have coming to us was not going to progress. God himself said, “It is enough,” and just as Abraham had predicted to his son, God himself provided the payment on that day.

That same God stopped the deadly pestilence at that same spot in the days of King David’s rule. It was enough. Because he said so.

But that’s not all that happened on that spot. David’s son Solomon was the one to build a Temple for God. Do you know where he built it? Yep. Mount Moriah, on the site of the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite—the same spot. The Temple, which was the place where sins were atoned for and forgiveness granted. The Temple, which was the physical, architectural embodiment of our need, as a race, for a means of forgiveness. The Temple, which represented God himself. 

A couple hundred yards to the north of that very spot, still a part of Mount Moriah, is another significant place. It’s called Golgotha in Aramaic. I haven’t been there, but I’m told that the proximity is surprisingly close. These places in old Jerusalem were in unmistakable proximity to one another, revealing unmistakable purpose. They mean something.

It was on that spot called Golgatha that God, in the man Jesus, said, “It is enough,” for all of humanity, for all the revenge, all the escalation, all the continuing paying evil for evil that we do. All the lawlessness, rebellion, and harm we do to each other is really enacted against him who made us too. But it stopped, right there, with him. Because he said so. Because he was willing to end it. He took MY responsibility for me, in my place. He said, “It stops with me. I will do it. I will bear it. I will pay for it.” And he did.

He didn’t have it coming. He chose what he hadn’t earned to put an end, in an ultimate, eternal sense—not just a temporal one—to this hopelessness we are so steeped in. As completely and abruptly as the pestilence sweeping across the kingdom came to a stop at the threshing floor of Aruanah the Jebusite, so did the condemnation of death come to a stop for me at that site when he said, “It is finished.”

It was enough.

It’s enough for you too, and anyone who will say, with their hope seated in this truth: “God saves. In Jesus, God saves.” In that, I am safe to put revenge to death. I am safe to trust that whatever harm is done to me, or to someone I love, that it cannot take from me my place in his plan, in his kingdom, in his presence. This isn’t all there is, and praise God for that! But this does still matter, and a world that doesn’t know forgiveness will not get better. It won’t even stop where it is now. It will only continue to escalate.

There are two possible paths before us all—corporately and individually. We can choose to move onward toward retaliation and try to settle the score ourselves, justifying our actions and leaving destruction after destruction in our wake. Or we can choose to stop, to lay down our weapons and our claims to even the score, and to say, “It is enough. It stops here. It stops with me.”

The person I most want to be like in my life showed me how. I don’t want to face you, my friends, my neighbors, my countrymen, my fellow inhabitants of this world, with a clenched fist—not a fist held in anger, ready to assault; and not a fist clenched tightly around any possession or right I fear losing. I want to face you with an open hand—to hold, to share, to walk through this existence with.

It is enough. Because of the example set before me in that man at Golgotha, not because of any goodness of my own, I want to say “No more. Let peace begin with me.” I want to choose that path.

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