Sunday, February 19, 2006

Holy Amnesia

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Amen. Isaiah 43:18-19

“Do not remember the former things.” What is it, precisely, that the Jewish exiles in Babylon were supposed to forget? They were invited, I believe, to forget the memory of their own sin. The people of Israel had sinned grievously against God. They failed to practice justice and mercy; they exploited the poor, oppressed the aliens among them, abandoned widows and orphans. They placed their trust in riches and their security in alliances with imperial powers. Their religion had become little more than a veneer to cover their naked greed and ambition.

When the idols of wealth and military power failed, as they always do eventually, Israel was defeated by Babylon and its leaders were sent into exile. Realizing the consequences of their choices, the depth of their sin, the exiles felt certain that God had abandoned them. They finally had gotten what they deserved. Whatever life remained to them and to their children would be defined by the sins of the past. Their captivity in Babylon was nothing compared to their captivity to the condemnation of their own relentless memories. We might even go so far as to call them diabolical memories, memories that divided them against themselves, separating them from a sense of their own humanity and dignity as God’s people.

In the midst of this vicious cycle of diabolical memory, God announces through the prophet Isaiah what can only be described as a kind of holy amnesia. God says, “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” God refuses to allow Israel’s relationship with him to be defined by the past, by the power of diabolical memories. “Forget about the things of old,” says God, “for I am about to do a new thing. I’m bringing you home.”

It is all too easy for us to be locked in the past, unable to forgive sins committed by ourselves or others that were cast long ago into the abyss of God’s holy amnesia. We can become paralyzed by a sense of condemnation rooted in events of the past that blind us to the invitation to be at home with God in the present moment. God invites us to forget our diabolical memories, and accept the invitation to be “at home” in God’s gracious, loving presence.

Jesus takes this teaching a step further: “so that you may know that the Human One has authority on earth to forgive sins – he said to the paralytic – I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” The healing of the paralytic becomes a sign of something else: the capacity of all those who are truly, fully human to release others from the paralysis of sin so that they may “go home” again. Not only does God forgive sin: human beings have authority to forgive sin as well. The question is, “Are we willing to exercise that authority?”

Katy Hutchinson decided that she didn’t really have any other choice.[i] After her husband Bob was beaten to death while investigating a party being thrown by their neighbor’s son, Katy found herself having to explain to her four year-old twins, Emma and Sam, that their daddy had died. “I looked into their eyes,” said Katy, “and knew that I could not allow their lives to become dominated by their father's death. I promised them and I promised myself that underneath the horror of what had just happened we would find a gift.”

Katy did not want her family’s lives to be forever captive to diabolical memories. She knew that forgiveness was the only hope for healing and freedom, even as a wall of silence soon grew up around the murder. It was four years before Ryan Aldridge admitted to having delivered the fatal blow. Ryan was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.

After his arrest, Ryan stunned police by asking to meet Katy so that he could apologize for what he had done. Within 24 hours, she found herself face-to-face with the young man who had murdered her husband. As he sobbed it was all she could do not to hold him. Describing the experience, Katy said, “Second to the day I gave birth, it was probably the most human moment of my life.”

Together, Katy and Ryan participated in a victim-offender reconciliation program. It took place in the prison and lasted most of a day. In that meeting Katy told Ryan that she had forgiven him. While Emma and Sam fully supported her choice to forgive Ryan, others asked, “How could you?” The answer for Katy is that “Forgiveness became an opportunity to create a new and hopeful beginning.”

“Katy’s forgiveness is the most incredible thing that anyone has ever given me,” says Ryan. “It changed my life. My life would still be full of anger and violence if it wasn’t for Katy. Doing time is easy compared to the guilt I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. But with Katy, Emma and Sam’s forgiveness – I hope that perhaps, one day, I’ll be able to forgive myself.”

There are several things to notice about this true story. The first is how forgiveness releases us from the power of diabolical memories: Katy refused to allow her children, Emma and Sam, to have the rest of their life defined by their father’s death. Forgiving Ryan Aldridge gave them the freedom to see themselves as more than simply victims who remained paralyzed by the past. “Forgiveness became an opportunity to create a new and hopeful beginning,” as Katy stated so eloquently.

Second, it is important to emphasize that forgiveness created the opportunity for a new beginning for Ryan as well. In Ryan’s words, “It changed my life.” Note the order of events here: Ryan was forgiven, and then his life changed. We tend to think forgiveness should operate the other way around. But Katy, like God, chose to blot out Ryan’s transgressions for her own sake, as an expression of her own freedom. In exercising this powerful freedom to forgive, Katy gave Ryan the opportunity for a new beginning.

Finally, Katy saw Ryan for who he could become, rather than for who he had been. Reflecting on their relationship, Katy commented, “I’ll never understand how our universes collided – but they did, and as Bob can’t make further contributions to society, then perhaps Ryan can.” Katy saw Ryan as the person who in the future would carry on her dead husband’s legacy, rather than as her husband’s murderer from the past. This is holy amnesia indeed.

Now, by holy amnesia I do not mean literally forgetting past sins; that is impossible. We can not pretend to "not know what we know," nor should we. Holy amnesia is refusing to define ourselves or others in the present moment in terms of diabolical memories. Through forgiveness, such holy amnesia is possible. We can begin to accept ourselves and define our relationship to others in terms of our identity as God’s children, here and now, rather than remain frozen in images from the past.

Ryan, of course, might well have hardened his heart and refused to perceive that God, through Katy, was doing a new thing. The point is that through forgiveness, Katy created an opening, a possibility, for a new thing to spring forth: a new Ryan and a new Katy. She allowed that both of them might be free from the burden of the sins of the past.

The consequences remain unchanged: Bob is dead. Ryan is in prison. How we choose to respond to those consequences, however, can make all the difference between exile and homecoming, paralysis and walking ahead into the future with hope. That is the power of forgiveness.

People have a remarkable capacity to move beyond the static image of them that we cling to in our hearts and minds. All too often, we want them to remain the person who harmed us, so that we can nurture our resentment and bind ourselves ever more tightly to the past. Similarly, whether victim or perpetrator or both, we can lock ourselves into a static identity that refuses God’s invitation to perceive a new thing, a new possibility for us to grow far beyond our self-pity or our self-loathing.

Ryan Aldridge has only begun to sense this possibility through the forgiveness he has been offered. A hunger for the peace and freedom that he perceives in Katy Hutchinson has been awakened. He, too, may yet take up his bed and walk, no longer paralyzed by sin.

At our baptism, we affirm in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sin.” Now you know why. Forgiveness is the most powerful means by which we can exercise our freedom and dignity as children of God. It is God’s greatest gift to us in Christ Jesus, who sets us free from the past to experience God’s loving presence here and now.

The wonderful thing about Christian community is that it affords us so many opportunities to practice forgiveness. With a little time and effort, our participation in the life of the church can only result in our getting better at it! But we must be willing. We must be willing to go beyond the words of the creed, doing what we believe and not just saying it.

Consider then, the diabolical memories that bind you today. Acknowledge those relationships that remain frozen in time, captive to sins of the past that continue to define you and others as you were, rather than as you are in God’s eyes. Open yourself to the possibility that God is doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it? Amen.

[i] The story of Katy Hutchinson and Ryan Aldridge is taken from The Forgiveness Project website at

No comments: