To Err is Human; To Forgive Divine
In my early days as a teacher, there was a lady on the staff who, on the first morning of a new school year when she met her new class, set them a task whilst she got on with the necessary clerical duties; those of entering up the new register, collecting the dinner money and so on. That was, of course, a common practice with most teachers. But her set task was not that usual one, to write on “What I did in the holidays”, or “My Best Friend”. The assignment she set was to write out the Lord’s Prayer – from memory. After all, it was one of the first things committed to memory in virtually every school in the land, and was repeated each morning in assembly at the beginning of the day.
Later, she would reveal to the rest of the staff room the mistakes she had discovered. Many were what we used to call by that rather dated phrase, schoolboy howlers. I wonder why they were always called schoolboy howlers and never school girl howlers? Perhaps it was because only boys made silly mistakes.
I’ve long forgotten most of the errors, but one commonly recurring one was “Our Father, with chart in heaven”. One imagined God with the aid of a road map finding his way round heaven. Many apparently believed God’s name to be “Hello”, which certainly sounded friendlier than to be called “hallowed”. What is interesting looking back now is that the scorn was directed at the pupil’s ignorance; never considered was the possibility that he or she might have been inadequately taught. But that is another story.
I must confess that I was long puzzled as a youngster by the use of the word “trespasses” in the same prayer. I had always associated trespassing with notices threatening prosecution to anyone straying over the boundary. Yet, perversely, along with many others, even if the meaning of words is obscure, I cherish the old language of prayers and the bible, with phrases and usage of yesteryear, and resist the efforts of the modernisers. To trespass fits nicely with the frequently used analogy of straying from the narrow path. Perhaps that is how the word came to be used for wrongdoing. And of course within the prayer the concept of wrong doing, or trespassing, is linked with, contrasted with, that of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a central feature of the Lord’s Prayer, and of Christian teaching generally. “To err is human, to forgive divine” was a saw much loved by our Victorian fore-bearers, even if they, as is true of most of us, behaved as humans but less frequently acted divinely. And it is on this theme of forgiveness that I should like to say a few words this morning.
In life, virtues and vices are often paired. A copy of that old board game, Snakes and Ladders, which I once owned illustrated this graphically. At the top of each snake was a sin and at the bottom, the consequence which followed from the wrongdoing. Thus, the word “crime” at the snake’s head led down the snake’s body to “punishment” at the tail, greed led to selfishness, and so on. The reverse was true for the ladder. The foot of the ladder might show generosity and the head joy. Climb the ladder from repentance and you gained reconciliation. Land on faith and you climbed the ladder to salvation. And so it went on.
Forgiveness does not exist in isolation. It lives in a present tense. It arises from a past; it leads on to a future. What has gone before is its genesis. Exercising forgiveness has consequences for what has yet to be.
If no wrong has been done, then there is no call to forgive. But forgiveness can be an option if the wrong is an act that has affected one personally. If Peter robs Paul, then it is for Paul to forgive, rather than Tom, Dick or Harry, who were not personally affected. Tom may be saddened at Peter’s fall from grace. Dick may feel sympathy for the victim of this crime and want to see Peter harshly punished “to teach him a lesson”. Harry might wonder what had driven Peter to commit such a heinous crime. But none of the three are asked to forgive Peter. That right belongs to Paul.
And what does forgiveness mean in these circumstances? Let us consider first what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that the theft is ignored as of no consequence. It doesn’t mean that the crime is excused, or worst still ignored, or that Peter is exonerated. What forgiveness implies is that no barrier is erected which denies any hope of normal human relationship for ever into the future.
Ideally Peter will have sparked off Paul’s act of forgiveness by an act of contrition. He will have apologised and made some restitution. He will have repented of his wrongful act, and given an undertaking not to repeat it. Forgiveness in this context is something that eases the distress of the wrongdoer. If we have done “that which we ought not to have done”, and are genuinely sorry for it, filled with remorse as the saying has it, then to know the victim understands this is so, has forgiven the crime, is a comfort.
But in the wide spectrum covered by the word forgiveness, this is only a part, and possibly not the larger part at that.
When Jesus said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, he was not simply referring to his own persecution. Beyond the attack upon him as a person, the oppressors were committing what the media nowadays describe as “a crime against humanity”. Freedom of speech, the right to argue against established thought was being stifled.
From earliest times right up to the present day dissenters, whether philosophers, scientists, theologians, writers, preachers, cranks or eccentrics, have been prosecuted, persecuted, harried, imprisoned and executed. Where does forgiveness fit in these cases?
The wrong is not simply to an individual, or a small group of individuals. It is much wider than that. It affects us all. If one person’s opinions are to be silenced, why should not another’s be also suppressed? Oppression in one case may be used as a precedent, to give legitimacy to oppression in general.
This question of forgiveness is one I find extraordinarily difficult. Should the Jewish race forgive the Germans and others responsible for the horrors of the concentration camps? Should displaced Palestinians forgive Israeli settlers? Should victims of genocide as practised in many places throughout the world forgive the perpetrators? What do we mean by forgiveness anyway?
Though there are immediate victims of evil, in a wider perspective, evil affects us all – whether perpetrator, victim or onlooker. It creates a seedbed in which the pernicious weeds of hatred, enmity, violence and the like flourish. Ignored and unchecked, the alien plant grows freely, choking all other growth.
Forgiveness is the hoe that chops down the unwanted growth, separating it from its roots and cleansing the plot. Love is the fertiliser that prepares the ground for healthier growth. Flowers of tolerance, fruits of understanding, foodstuffs to feed the frightened and the fearful take the place of the stifling foliage of the rampant, harmful weed.
But forgiveness is not about ignoring the evil men and women commit. Far less is it about accepting or excusing acts which harm, frighten or plague fellow citizens. Forgiveness is, as I have indicated a tool, albeit a powerful implement, in the battle against evil.
Ideally forgiveness follows remorse, apology, reconciliation and compensation. But the world is not an ideal place. To await the ideal is to encourage the propagation of all that is evil in the soul of mankind. Where there is no forgiveness, there dwells hatred, thoughts of violence, dreams of vengeance. Without the therapeutic properties of forgiveness, the world is doomed to ever increasing acts of aggression.
But forgiveness does not imply forgetfulness. Forgiveness is not incompatible with punishment. The forgiven are not excused penance. When Jesus responded to the question as to whether seven times was the top limit for the number of occasions to forgive, by saying seventy times that number was nearer the mark, he did not say that the incidents should be ignored, that no action should be taken. He was pointing out that there should never be a time when all chances to be united within the human society had expired.
What I am saying is that doctrine of forgiveness is not a soft response to an offender. It is rather an antidote taken by others, including the victims, lest the very poison which has seeped into the perpetrator destroys the souls of the rest.
“What is forgiveness?” I asked earlier. I have tried to give some answers that appear to me to help answer the question. But the subject is huge, for this doctrine lies at the very heart of Christian philosophy. It is applied to the most trivial of incidents and to the most depraved of human behaviour.
It encompasses such abstract ideas as those of mercy. It recognises the forces that prey upon us all, and the frailty of human judgement to which we all subject.
It is a shield to protect us from invasion of evil into ourselves. It is a guard against passing judgements through eyes clouded with rage. It is the cement of human society. It is the balm of tortured souls.
Theologians have written tomes upon the subject. Shelves of Christian libraries groan under their weight.
But my theme is simple. The ability to forgive is the essence of Christianity.
In its absence germs that destroy our very being infect us. The Victorians pointed out that we are all subject to error, but the salvation lay in forgiveness.
To err is human, to forgive divine
C.J. Rosling 13 August 1995
Fulwood 13 August 1995
Hucklow 12 November 1995; 27 January 2002
Chesterfield 8 September 1996
Mexborough 27 April 1997
Stannington 3 September 2006