Monday, 12 September 2011

Retribution, reconciliation, restoration?

 It seems somewhat apposite that the gospel reading for this Sunday, 11th September, comes from Matthew 18: 21-35 - the parable of the unforgiving servant.
The story features a king and two slaves.
In the opening sequence, the king calls his servants to account for outstanding debts.  The first of the slaves is brought before the king: his debt is vast - ridiculously vast.  The king decides that the best option available is to not only sell off the slave, but to sell off the slave's family and all their possessions.  The slave falls on his knees, begging for time to pay the debt.
Mercy.
The king, moved by pity, releases him and forgives the debt.
...
But the story doesn't quite end with that.
Having been shown mercy, and now released, this slave decides that he will do his own reckoning as he bumps into another slave who owes him a pittance.  He asks for his money and the same scene plays out:
2nd slave falls on his knees and utters virtually word for word what the first slave had said to the king.
However, this time, no mercy.  A pound of flesh is sought and the chap thrown into prison.
The other servants, distressed by this, go to the king who has the initial slave hauled in before him.
This time, no mercy, quite substantial wrath.
The message: to forgive one another from the heart.
Reconciliation - debts paid/ offences forgiven.
Restoration of ... relationship, status, dignity.
Retribution on those who don't forgive.
[which is a strange kind of irony - ultimately no forgiveness for unforgiveness?]

In the course of my research, wading through various 16th century kirk session records that note the offences and required/ performed repentance of everyday people [and some high heid'yins as well] I've been doing some work on the place of the church and community reconciliation.  This ranges from flyting to blood feud.

Flyting was your basic neighbourly slanging match and defamation of character [and by heck, these 16th c folks really knew how to insult each other rather amazingly] with the parties coming before the session, talking through what had been said, and working through to the requisite ritual of repentance: usually a speech formula in which the offender somehow physically held their own tongue, and then commenced their apology/ contrition with the words 'tongue you lied', and that they knew 'nothing but good and honest of [insert name here].'  This, usually done on one's knees in front of the offended party.  The response to this ritual was then the offendee noting their satisfaction with the offender's apology and the ritual of shaking hands in front of the session.  Sometimes, if it were a rather big stooshie, the shaking of the hands would also be seen in a public place, generally done at the market cross.  It was a visible ritual which signalled to the community as well as those reconciling, that this was the end of the dispute.

In the case of the blood feud, 4 representatives from each family were required to work through to an agreement, deciding what 'compensation' would restore the peace between the affected families.  This did not always involve monetary compensation - the offender might go to live with the family of the person who had been killed and, in a sense, replace the labour lost to that family.  When families had reached agreement, and the conditions of that agreement had been met, the family of the deceased would issue a letter of slains - a document stating that all compensation had been made and that the offender was now released from their obligations.
Satisfaction had been made; while life might never be the same again, restoration of relationship/s and community harmony had been achieved for a while.
Time for all to move on.

Of course, it was not always hunky dory afterwards: in the session records there are cases in which the same names keep coming up, with the same arguments.  People are only human after all!  But this reconciliation process fascinates me, particularly in light of the preamble to the telling of the parable mentioned at the start of this post.  Peter comes to Jesus wanting to know the exact number of times one should forgive a fellow member in the church.
"Seven times," suggests Peter rather magnanimously given the Rabbinical rule of thumb was three times.
And then from Jesus the astonishing answer 70x7.
That's 490 times... and the question floats about in my head 'how would you keep track of that?'  And the point is, the number is so large, it's almost impossible to keep score.
So don't keep score, let it go. 
A crazy number which demonstrates that forgiveness should be the default position: letting go, working through to wholeness - personal, communal, spiritual.

Retribution, however, seems to be a natural default position:
you insult me, I insult you;
you hit me, I hit you right back;
you bomb me, I drop a bomb on you;
you kill me, my family/ friends/ fellow citizens/ God smites you;
and so the cycle of violence goes until all that's left is the dust and ashes.

Reconciliation and the restoration of relationship is harder.
It's an action in which the process of dehumanisation is reversed:
after all, t's easier to follow the path of retribution if you reduce the offender into a non-human first.
The act of reconciliation requires more effort: it is easier to destroy and much harder to build.
Reconciliation brings us face to face with a fellow human being - not a monster, not a scumbag, not an animal.
It is somehow a harder, more terrifying thing to treat as human someone who has done something that society, that you, think is utterly reprehensible.
I wonder why, and partly think it is perhaps because in the act of confronting a fellow human, as opposed to 'an animal', it brings us uncomfortably close to confronting our own dark side.
In the long reaches of the night, perhaps it terrifies us to think what we, too, might be capable of - or how our own behaviour may have caused such a reaction.

The practice of forgiveness / or non-forgiveness eventually comes down to control and power.
The act of forgiveness could even be said to have an element of self-preservation/ self-interest about it - I vaguely recall Desmond Tutu saying something along those lines, but am a bit woolly and the time is late and my eyelids drooping.
So the question:
Do we keep score - hold onto the wounds - nurse the anger until it makes us bitter and dehumanises us?  Because to do so is to enable the one who has offended to continue to hold the power over the situation.
Everything done will be done working within reference to the one who has caused, and continues to cause harm...because we keep holding on.
We want to equate retribution with justice, and they are utterly different.
Retribution, while  satisfying initially, is ultimately hollow, for the need for vengeance is, in the end, never really satisfied.  It's a little like pick-pick-picking at a scab and never allowing it to heal.
Do we learn to forgive - let go of all that threatens to dehumanise us?
And how do we learn to be people of forgiveness - to do justice with mercy?

Which brings me full circle to this particular day, September 11, and thoughts on retribution, reconciliation, and restoration.  A decade on, and there is a sense that the constant picking at the scab of retribution has resulted in bodily mutilation.  A process of maiming resulting in ongoing loss of life through armed conflict, and for some the inability to move on with their lives through nursing their hurt.
What lessons can we learn and how do we actively work towards breaking down the chains of unforgiveness that hold and shackle, and prevent lives from being lived in all their fullness?
Perhaps now, a decade on from Sept 11, those who have kept the hurt and who marked this 10 year anniversary around the world in some way today, may now let go and begin to heal.

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