Friday, March 25, 2005

Forgiveness

One of the hallmarks of modern Christianity is forgiveness. Who here hasn’t heard of the parable of the Prodigal Son? (To sum it up, son leaves father, son ends up in trouble, son goes back to father, father accepts his son’s return, no questions asked.) Yet people either misunderstands the concept or misconstrues it to suit their predicament or situation.

Perhaps one of the biggest hindrances to modern Christian belief is the existence and division of the Old Testament and the New Testament. I mean your priest or pastor tells you to read your Bible whenever you go to church. The Bible, unfortunately, is divided into two parts, namely the Old Testament and the New Testament. Of course much like any body of work, the text mentioned should be digested as a whole rather than just the individual parts. I mean I can quote a passage from the Bible but it’s totally worthless (or could possibly even mean the opposite of what the Bible is implying) unless it’s used in the right context. Strangely enough, as much as the Philippines is perhaps one of the dominant Christian countries in Asia (we’re said to have one of the most corrupt governments, by the way, but that’s not my point), Filipinos don’t really read their Bibles. At least not in its entirety (sure, we read verses, chapters, and even entire gospels, but I have yet to meet someone who’s neither a priest nor a pastor who’s read the Bible cover to cover). Okay, so maybe we can attribute that to the country’s illiteracy rate. But how about the literati? How about the educated, the college students, the people who are voracious readers and claim that they’re Christian? I’ve seen people with their reading lists, whether it’s a bunch of fiction novels, romance novels, fantasy, science-fiction, nonfiction, or even fanfics, but when was the last time that I saw the Bible in one of those lists? My point here is that we don’t do book reviews based on just reading a certain passage of a book (we stop reading the book and we complain to our friends about how horrible the writer is, but we don’t really start out writing a book review just based on reading a few pages). And in a way, it’s wrong to pass judgment on something we haven’t experienced in its totality (well, at least we can do so with a book because it has a definite beginning and ending). Unfortunately, much like a lot of things in life, we do just that. In the case of the Bible, we become selective about our interpretation of things. Just a few weeks ago, I got into an argument with my driver because he was cursing the entire time he was driving. I told him that it was wrong, that it was a sin. His excuse was that if he didn’t do so, that if he didn’t show people a piece of his mind, then they’d continue to abuse him. And much like the stereotype we see in movies, he gives me the Biblical passage in the Old Testament about an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. And of course disregards the rest of the New Testament.

Now I’m not saying that I’m perfect or anything, or that the Bible is wrong, but as I mentioned before, everything must be taken into context. Do the wicked deserve to be punished? Yes. But as Christians, we must also learn to forgive. And from a rational point of view, instant retaliation would only result in destruction. It’s an old and overused statement, but an eye for an eye makes the world go blind. Honestly, we all make mistakes. We’ll inevitably hurt the people around us. Retaliation can’t be our only answer. We’d only get caught in a loop of retaliation to the point that no one will even remember what triggered the initial conflict. Of course I’m not saying (and neither is God saying) that those who harm us should get away with it either. Rather, there are other institutions that mete out those kinds of punishments. There’s the law enforcement agencies and the government, for example. I’m also not saying to always depend on them. I mean there are some conflicts that can be settled peacefully, such as when you or your friend loses their temper and dukes it out one on one. Chances are, the insult can be reconciled (but not necessarily forgotten) and things can be worked out. For those that can’t, appeal to the higher authority, whoever that may be (i.e. the school officials if you’re in school, perhaps your parents in cases of squabbles with relatives, or your boss at work). If you find that the higher authority’s decision is unjust, respect it nonetheless and perhaps some sort of appeal could be made later (and hey, isn’t the Philippines famous for People Power, overthrowing its own dictatorial government in 1986?). I’m also not saying never to retaliate, but more often than not, there are other options available, and while those options could be the more difficult of choices, in the long run it might be the one most beneficial to both parties.

Of course my driver also did bring up an important point. Some people have this perception that the meek and forgiving are weak people to be abused. Well, first off, to those who share this perception, I’d just like to point out that sometimes, it takes greater courage and self-control to restrain yourself. Just because someone doesn’t retaliate doesn’t mean that they can’t. It’s possible that such people are merely being patient with you. Don’t abuse forgiveness. And hey, even the meek have their own way of retaliating. I mean no one really thought Filipinos would rebel against the reigning government in 1986 did they? I’m not saying that People Power was a total success, but it sure made a mess of the plans of the oppressors. Or as Sun Tzu would put it, don’t corner the desperate. The desperate have nothing else to live for, and while they might die, they’ll go down fighting. Of course the other people I’d like to address are the people doing the forgiving themselves. I don’t believe in extremes but more in balance. Honestly, there’s such a thing as being too forgiving. Or rather, just because you forgive doesn’t mean you don’t ask for reparations. I mean if an assassin murders your parents, should you forgive the assassin? Yes, you should. But just because you forgive the assassin doesn’t mean he’s not going to jail. There are consequences for our actions. Some people mistake that forgiving means eluding the consequences. That’s not really the case. If somebody owes you money and doesn’t pay you on time, forgive that person. But that person must still pay you the amount he or she owes you as soon as he or she is capable of doing so. And if you’re going to quote the parable of the Prodigal Son to me, remember that the prodigal son himself didn’t have an inheritance to return to once his father passed away. Sure, he got back into the family and is reunited with his father once again, but any luxuries he might have is at the mercy of his father. Once his father passes away, there’ll be nothing left for him except what the older brother, who inherited the rest of the wealth, deems fit to give him. Forgive, yes, but that doesn’t mean the person doesn’t face the consequences of their actions.

Now let’s turn the tables. Rather than the one doing the forgiving, let me take the point of view of the one being forgiven. I think that many people often overlook one vital component of forgiveness. That’s sincerity. I mean for one thing, God’s willing to forgive, but unless you realized that you did something wrong and ask for forgiveness, God’s generosity doesn’t really do you much. The same goes with asking forgiveness from those we love. I mean our parents or our friends might be willing to forgive us, but unless we realize that what we did was wrong and ask for an apology from them, it’s all worthless. Of course some people act as the better person in some situations. Even though you’re the one who was in error, they’re the ones asking for forgiveness. I think if it reaches that point, you should be ashamed of yourself, swallow your pride, and ask for forgiveness yourself. Nothing makes a reconciliation better than if both parties are sincere in their intentions. But of course one must also remember that this won’t happen all the time. If you know you’re the one who made the mistake, go ask for forgiveness yourself. And if you’re the one in the position to do the forgiving, think of what you would do in the other person’s situation, and if you need to be the better person in that situation, why hesitate?

For me sincerity is a vital component in forgiveness. Why? Because without it, there’s a huge potential for abuse. I mean many Christians are abusing it at this very moment. I mean I’ve heard people and some friends urge their own friends to do things that they won’t normally do. These aren’t exactly wholesome things but rather vices or actions that people know on some level is wrong. And what’s the ultimate excuse they give? God will forgive you anyway. And you know what, God will. But what’s the use of asking for forgiveness if you’re not sincere about it, if you’re going to do the same action again and again when given the opportunity to do so? My driver also uses that argument to avoid self-improvement. I’m only human he says. I’ll make mistakes either way. Why bother changing when God will forgive you anyway? I’ll be Kantian about this and well, the fact is, if we all used that as an excuse, no one would become a better person. Why bother with Christianity altogether if things are just going to stay the same? Christianity is not just about being saved, it’s not just about having God in your life, it’s about living your life the way God wanted it to be. I mean we all want the good things in life, we all want fairness and justice in the world, but we all know that’s not going to happen. But we can come close to that. I mean I’m sure there are places you find more comfortable than others, friends you find more agreeable than others. That’s the same with finding paradise, with finding our own personal heaven. And the only way we can achieve that is by living our lives the way we want the world to work. If I want to meet good and honest and forgiving people, I should start by being one myself. I can’t perpetually justify my errors by saying God will forgive me or this or that person will forgive me. For example, our parents provide for us but that doesn’t mean we should abuse their generosity. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean you utilize it given the chance. There’s a time and place for everything and I’m just glad that I have parents to go back to when I’m faced in such a situation, or that God will forgive me if I sin. But that’s definitely no excuse to go into debt and have your parents pay off your debt, or go commit every carnal desire you want and in the end go back to God and tell him he’ll forgive you anyway.

Can forgiveness be abused? Yes, of course! That’s why we should be responsible about it, both in giving forgiveness and asking for it. And rather than be selective about how we perceive forgiveness, we should look at the bigger picture and empathize with other people when placed in a similar situation. The spirit of the Good News isn’t in the literal text itself, but in the spirit and how it’s interpreted. In the end, anything can be misconstrued, which is why it’s important to know where you are and how you fit in the scheme of things, not just for the sake of others but for your own sake as well.