“Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such powerful weapon.”
I had the opportunity to watch the movie “Invictus” the other night. It recounts the story of Nelson Mandela’s efforts to bring together the people of post-apartheid South Africa through the support of their national rugby team. The above quote is spoken by Mandela at the beginning of the movie. A very powerful statement, I think, the meaning of which I have yet to fully understand experientially. I am learning in a very practical and painful way that forgiveness is a very costly gift to give. And yet a case could be made that lack of forgiveness is the motivation for most of the awful things that occur in our world. As the AA saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.” When we have been hurt by others in our vulnerability, if we choose not to forgive and instead choose to protect ourselves in FEAR, we simply perpetuate the problem.
I think when I first started this blog I expressed that I wanted to use it as a sounding board for some of the things I need to work through in terms of understanding my vocation. For the next few posts I will be reflecting on forgiveness, and in that vein, will begin by clarifying the concepts of fear and love using Scripture.
I think I only began to understand the great power that FEAR has over humanity many years ago in the Novitiate as I meditated on the creation story. The book of Genesis is ripe with symbolic meaning in regard to brokenness of the human person. The Original Sin of Adam and Eve was certainly a sin of disobedience and pride in wanting to be “like gods,” but that at the root of this rupture of relationship between God and humanity was FEAR. The significance of the encounter between the serpent and the woman in Genesis 3 is often overlooked. I wanted to spend some time “breaking open” this Scripture in this post today. I include a link to the text of Genesis 3 (http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/genesis/genesis3.htm) .
First, the biblical view of a serpent is not one of a little snake that we might see in the garden (scary enough!), but a large, powerful creature that embodied for the Hebrew people all that was evil. So when the serpent questions Eve, his inquiry could be interpreted as a threat as well as just a simple question. The serpent finds his “in” when Eve responds by saying “God said ‘You shall not eat [of the tree in the middle of the garden] or even touch it, let you die.’” (Gen 3:3) Eve reveals some resentment or distrust about the command God has made about the Garden of Eden by her addition that they are not even to touch the tree, which was not the case.
The serpent appeals to this emotion by stating that God is withholding something from the first couple. He claims that God does not want them to be like Him; rather, God wants to keep them in ignorance and subjection. This completely contradicts the expressed intention of God in Genesis 2 where God makes the statement, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 2:26,27) The serpent capitalizes on Eve’s distrust of God or perhaps the fear she is experiencing in this encounter with him, and leads her to believe that by rupturing the covenant of trust between God and the first couple that they have something to gain rather than lose.
The question is not always asked when reading this text: where was Adam? It was Adam’s job to “cultivate and care for”(protect) the garden, as well as his bride. Clearly the serpent is an intruder, a threat to the harmony of the garden. The text tells us Adam’s whereabouts in verse 6: “So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Sometimes what Scripture doesn’t say speaks more loudly than what is written. So why doesn’t Adam say something if he was with Eve the whole time? And why doesn’t he say anything when offered the fruit? It was to Adam that God’s command was given in the first place. (Gen 2:16-17) One conclusion that could be drawn is that Adam sensed a threat in this situation that caused him to respond in fear rather than truth.
The full implication of what they had chosen becomes absolutely clear to the first couple after the rupture the covenant. Scripture says that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked.” (Gen 3:7) The ruptured covenant relationship makes clear to them their vulnerability, and by that same token reveals to them the vulnerability of the other – the weaknesses that can be manipulated or used to gain power over the other. Scripture indicates that this propensity of persons to operate from a place of power rather than love in relationships is a result of Original Sin; and therefore the power that FEAR has in our lives is due to this result. We, as Adam and Eve, feel we must protect ourselves in relationships. When we are called to relationship, just as God calls Adam, we understand his response: “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself.” (Gen 3:10)
This rupture that Original Sin causes in all relationships – between God and humanity, humanity and creation, man and woman, and even a loss of harmony in the person – helped me to understand the meaning of John’s letter where he states, “There is no FEAR in LOVE, but perfect LOVE drives out FEAR because FEAR has to do with punishment, and so one who FEARS is not yet perfect in LOVE.” (1 Jn 4:18) This was a real eye opener to me, as I had formerly believed that the opposite of LOVE is hate. But it’s not; hate, more often than being an indication of not caring, is often frustrated or embittered love for another. But it is FEAR that is the motivation behind most of the grave injustices committed in the world. It is because of FEAR that we are able to “dehumanize” another, to look at that human not as a person but as a “non-being” or “moving object” in order to make it easier for us to treat them as less than what they are.
I have had this conversation about FEAR with others more specifically in terms of Nazi Germany. How could a highly educated, civilized group of people justify singling out races and groups of people for destruction? I used to be confounded by this, but the “school of hard knocks” has helped me to see that this type of behavior goes on every day. It is easy to let oneself out of FEAR label a person as “less than” in order to guard oneself from behavior that threatens our concept of safety. The labels we can assign are legion – they are “morally bad,” “different,” “strange,” “not worthy of help or respect”… the list goes on and on. Sometimes we can even find reason to justify behaviors towards these labeled persons in order to limit their freedom. We did this in America during this last century – those who were labeled as “idiots” and “threats to society” were sterilized in government institutions against their will. Some of these people are still alive. We do this as a society in our tacit support of abortion of fetuses (a Latin word for “little one”). And then of course there is our history of race based slavery and discrimination. Of course, America is not the only country that has done this, just the one I am familiar with. The point is, operating from FEAR is an everyday occurence, and I believe stating the truth about this can help us be aware of how we marginalize people in order to protect ourselves. When I start to recognize the barriers I erect in order to protect myself in relationships, only then can I start to heal and strive to recognize the presence of Christ, the profound worth and dignity of the human persons that I have the opportunity to encounter each day. Whether that presence of Christ is easily discernable or hard to see, it is there.
The next post will be another reflection on FEAR, and I will try to unpack what Scripture says about how we are to respond to this propensity to live from FEAR, and what role LOVE and FORGIVENESS have in this response.