Margaret Farley Lecture and Reflection

/ 17 September 2013

Last Wednesday I attended a lecture at CSB given by Margaret Farley entitled Forgiveness in the Service of Justice. The recording of the lecture is embedded below, and my reflection on the lecture (which I turned in to my Religion, Society, and Politics class this afternoon, but I would have attended the lecture even if it weren’t required for a class) is after the break. Instead of writing anything more specifically for my blog on this I’ll turn you loose to the lecture and reflection.

[youtube=”>] Margaret Farley’s talk discussed the correlations between forgiveness, justice, and resistance. Her talk was broken up into an introduction, her three main points, and a conclusion. The three main points were on the biblical texts of forgiveness, the meaning of forgiveness in human experience, and the relationship between the aforementioned three aspects she was correlating. Her argument was that forgiveness must never trump the need for justice but justice must not obscure the readiness to forgive. She framed this with the further statement that attitudes of anticipatory and actual forgiveness constitute a necessary challenge to churches against interpersonal violence.

One of the questions Farley contemplated as a basis for her argument was if the possibility for forgiveness has died. This will be the first point I discuss in reflection. Farley discussed a new category of forgiveness called Anticipatory Forgiveness as one way in which the possibility for forgiveness surely has not died. This is a rehumanizing effort (I use that word as my single word to describe the traits Farley discussed), which is how it ends up of greater recognition in our studies within Peace Studies. One of the wider traits of rehumanization is to not be blind to the evil that has been done, but likewise to not be in passive silence. Farley includes this as key to anticipatory forgiveness. Both Farley’s anticipatory forgiveness and rehumanization are tied up with forming lives of nonviolence. This model of forgiveness is one that (us, as I’m Roman Catholic) Christians are issued in the community of our church and that is modeled on God’s unfailing love and unconditional forgiveness. As we talked in class today (Thursday, 9/12) this is basically the definition of agape.

At the start of the talk Farley asked us all to have on our minds one time we forgave someone and another time that we were forgiven to use as an example to test her argument against. Throughout the talk I was reflecting on such times while absorbing every word Farley spoke. She noted how offenses gone unforgiven would tear at the fabric of humanity. To emphasize this in her biblical section she noted how every religion holds some similar teaching on forgiveness. For Catholicism we see this in one of the first things young children learn to memorize/say in church: “…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us…” She took two biblical passages as what labels forgiveness, yet also hands down the authority to judge as the church has interpreted it. John 20:19-23 states that if you forgive sins then they are forgiven, but if you retain sins they are retained. Mathew 16:19 further establishes what the church has taken to be its judging authority. Throughout this section of her talk I found myself equating my own experiences to their correlations to these biblical foundations.

The second point on which Margaret Farley commented which I will reflect on here is her discourse on the meanings of forgiveness. This splits into two interrelated sides, that of being forgiving and that of forgiving. Neither of these are passive in light of injury, indeed they are both complex actions. Truly it is easier for us to leave sins unforgiven yet the way to continue in a just and ethical global community is by forgiving everyone the sins they inflict against us. All of us have experiences of such that follow in line to the human reality that no one, by our ages especially, is without sin. In forgiveness we find it easier with regard to personal relationships than we do to forgive societal institutions or groups that inflict harm. I see this as a true element of humanity because it has passed within my experience. Truly it has passed within everyone’s experiences, especially since 9/11. Nonetheless it is hard to forgive because we are letting go of something of ourselves in doing so. We must, because how else do we make room for the other we have actively chosen to forgive.

On the being forgiven side we see that we must be open to forgiveness. In many ways this follows in line with the kind of embrace that I discussed in a theology class last semester. This experience is a new acceptance of nothing more than who we are. There are no masks in this picture. On both sides of the exchange we find ourselves with greater joy, love, and gratitude than before. Each of us has memory of what this is like when being forgiven or forgiving our neighbors. Even by letting go of part of ourselves as the forgiver, on both sides we are freed to be our greatest selves. In this exchange we are each surrendering something. The one complicating factor here is if the injury leaves our hearts incapable of forgiving, but we still must set the focus on justice.

Surely we have all seen such times in our lives, though we may not ourselves have been on either the forgiving or forgiven side directly. Farley noted the kernel of forgiveness that was kept alive in the concentration camps, but any such injustice usually has a correlated hair of forgiveness. It is the goal of both the many theories and practices of Peace Studies as well as religion to support such forgiveness. As Farley noted, and we’ve all seen, forgiving someone will lead to both being free. The goals of ones life ought to match to the necessity of communal life in society, which will require the freedom of all and thus ensure that forgiveness is a practiced virtue.

Farley ultimately ends by giving us the call, as an institution of higher education, to make the kinds of contributions we are designed to make to create a model of radical forgiveness that is fostered alongside the goals of Catholic education. Certainly I see within my own time here the kernels of such a thing, and the liberal arts are a helpful step in this process. Well-rounded citizens are necessarily the ones with a wide enough grasp of the picture to begin such forgiveness. We must do this.

There is much to reflect on with every point Margaret Farley made and this reflection doesn’t cover everything that it could have. I touched on the main concepts that came to mind for reflection, but even those could have been covered with greater depth. While I did discuss my insights based on the points Farley made nothing can provide solidly final answers to the questions that Farley’s talk brought to mind and that my reflection posed. In a form of conclusion let me merge my ultimate responses to the two points I reflected on here by stating that the answer to if the possibility of forgiveness has died or not is entirely dependent on how you are defining your terms. Within Margaret Farley’s Anticipatory Forgiveness the possibility of forgiveness as not died, but it is up to you to determine if such a possibility has died for other ways of defining forgiveness. From that determination you can move forward as you see fit to engage in proper forgiveness, or not, based on the needs of your society and your personal goals.