Back in May of 2017, I was privileged with the opportunity to be able to go on my very first missionary trip. We went to Trinidad and Tobago which is considered a third-world country. We visited areas of this country that made us forget we were not in the United States. However, to get to these tourist areas, we drove through villages that redefined what poverty is to me. We went on a few house calls with a pastor who was over multiple churches in five separate regions of the country. I saw whole families living in dirt-floor structures with very scarce resources. When I was in middle school I imagined the primitive dwellings described in the Little House on the Prairie novels and even that was luxury by comparison. When we entered these homes, both the kids and adults had smiles on their faces as they offered us hospitality. Their families were close knit and anxiety and depression was virtually non-existent in these homes. Upon returning to the States, the high anxiety and depression levels of all levels of society seemed more obvious to me. I began to wonder what do the barefoot, joyous, and thankful people in the homes with dirt-floors and the tin roofs have that the middle-class folks in the United States are missing? After a few years of pondering this phenomenon, I concluded that they had the freedom of transparency. You may be asking, what does that have to do with forgiveness?
Over the past decade, I have observed the norms of society shift as people discuss and compare their antidepressant medications and which therapist they’re seeing. So many people seem to have so much bottled up inside and their only release is through paying for someone to talk to and chemicals to alter their brains. People are so overwhelmed with life in general that they are becoming more and more incapable of thinking outside of themselves. When a person is in this overwhelmed, self-focused state, there is a natural tendency to exalt their problems as unique and of higher significance than those around them. And then if someone can convince themselves that they have suffered a unique and significant injustice they are able to justify harmful and hurtful retaliations. If you add racial prejudice into the mix, you have people harassing and hurting entire groups of people. They feel no remorse since they are able to justify their actions in their own mind as a righteous punishment. A culture of unforgiveness leads to all of this.
We are a people so connected that we can reach out to numerous people any time we want via numerous methods. We can engage with entire groups of people on social media at the drop of a hat, yet we have to pay someone in order to release all the emotions we have bottled up after engaging with these people. A culture that is unforgiving is quick to point out the mistakes of others and, even if the person who has hurt or slighted us apologizes, it is never enough. It only justifies our overwhelmed, self-focused, and self-loathing state. In fear of social shaming, people have to project an image they see as acceptable to be welcomed into a semblance of community and then they have to adopt the values of that community to be allowed to stay in fellowship. Children see their parents and other authority figures attacking and shaming anyone who thinks differently and they do likewise. Then, since they are kids, they are labeled bullies for copying society and are themselves socially shamed. The kids being bullied and the bully both start the cycle of social conditioning, bottling-up their problems and trying to project a facade. Unforgiveness robs a culture of the transparency needed for healing and reconciliation.
Protecting the Facade
Imagine living in a legalistic culture where the rules are unwritten and constantly changing based on whatever new thing is considered offensive to someone. In this culture there is no learning curve and to be seen as righteous you have to publicly expose everything that is culturally “unclean.” The most offended or “oppressed” become the rulers, dictating in real time the social codes. To keep subjects in line, the rulers enforce “no mercy”, so that if you break one law you break them all and are punished by social shaming and being ostracized. Any questioning of the group, even logical and reasonable questioning, is against the law. Subjects must adhere to the ever-evolving laws which means they have to constantly be attentive to the leaders so they are current and don’t accidentally stumble. In a culture where everyone is self-seeking and elevation comes through exposing everyone else's shortcomings, there will be no trust, no true friendships, no transparency, no identity, no mercy, no grace, and no love. Just constantly protecting and repairing whatever the facade is currently being demanded. But, on the inside, the person is boxed in, anxious, bottled-up, and in chains. A person in this frame of mind is easily triggered as they internalize everything people around them say. They constantly wonder if people are attacking them indirectly and hang on every word but never listen to what is actually being said. They pay attention in order to find agreement with their preconceived notions and negative self-identity. Life is exhausting. If only people lived according to a higher standard and encouraged each other in who they are made to be and not by who they are not.
The Two Kingdoms Observed
Back in November of 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected into office, a journalist posted a photo of two students at SIUC (my alma mater) to his 400,000+ followers on Twitter to display Day 1 of Trump's America. In the picture, the two students' faces were painted black while making funny faces with a Confederate flag hanging behind them. In addition, he posted photos of their Facebook pages with their names so people could find them in order to be shamed and ostracized as an example. Social media erupted as thousands of people hunted down these two students and flooded the University with demands to expel them. The girl in the photo was harassed so much that she left the school while her boyfriend in the photo deleted his accounts. They have since received numerous threats to their lives as the witch hunt continued and followed them even after anyone who cared to investigate realized the message they thought was being expressed was untrue. It turns out that the photo was taken weeks prior to the election, the flag was cut in half and defaced as a protest, and the two in the photo were simply taking selfies to show them doing charcoal masks together. See here. People were so eager to attack these two students because of someone trying to paint a narrative. As a result, they completely destroyed these kids’ lives. I remember one of my favorite skits was one of Jimmy Kimmel impersonating Karl Malone. It always made me laugh and I never heard anyone say anything negative about it. That is until all forms of “blackface” were deemed racist regardless of motive. What was funny to black and white people years ago didn’t get the memo of the changing rules. There are instances of blackface in the past that were indeed racist and I imagine even now. The issue is that intent is not even considered, but only what people can imagine as the intent. Dave Chappelle also performed skits on his show in the early 2000's with him doing "white face" quite a bit and, likewise, white and black people found them funny (including myself). The difference is he wasn't impersonating just one person, but white people in general. As a result, he may be a target in the future when rules change again due to someone seeking elevation and deciding they are offended.
Watching these stories unfold, I think back to when my now-wife, who is white, and I first met in college. Though her sister is black, she was raised in an extremely white culture and had never learned what is politically correct (PC) in black culture. When I began to attend an all-black Southern Baptist church, she started to tag along with me. The women there were so loving to her and even gave her a key to the church so she could get the building ready for guests every Sunday. At first, she would say things that were not PC out of pure naive ignorance. The women would just go “oh honey, don’t say it that way”. They would explain why, my then-girlfriend would turn red and apologize, and then they would answer her question. They didn’t judge her based on preconceived notions or according to how they could have interpreted what she meant. They exhibited what the Apostle Paul called ‘preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ from the fourth chapter of Ephesians which states:
“ With all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:2-3)
The Key to Peace
Yes, forgiveness is a command from Jesus Himself, but it is also a key to the type of unity that yields healing. An unforgiving culture will march people away from all that is needed to empower. It will make subjects out of them and then manipulate the masses into labeling things “good” that are evil. The rulers of this dark kingdom will work to silence all dissention and try to blot out any and all light that tries to expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness. At the same time, the rulers twist righteousness and justice with speech that is intended to manipulate subjects into feeling justified in their unforgiving culture of hate. Meanwhile, the truly righteous ones are insulted, persecuted, and must endure people falsely speaking all kinds of evil against them. Still they rejoice and are glad through their sacrifice because of the hope that is within them is greater than the opinions of man. Love cries out from those who are called peacemakers, those unwavering children of God, “Father, forgive them!”
In Part 5c, I will talk about the greatest reward forgiveness yields for each person and a society.