Thursday, June 14, 2012

Perception in the Forgiving Mode

It is only retrospectively, in light of who we are becoming, that we understand who we have been.  This is so obviously true that we rarely think about it.  It requires change of a certain order of magnitude for it to become conscious.  How many of us have had the experience while raising our children of eventually realizing, “My God, I’ve become my parents?”  Suddenly, the narrative of our childhood is understood in a new way. The capacity to make new choices about how to relate to the past and to the future becomes available to us. 

Sometimes the understanding gained through retrospective insight can be painful to assimilate.  It is only after getting sober, or after the divorce, or after returning from combat duty that we are given the wherewithal to ask ourselves:  “Did that really happen? Was I really like that?  How was it that I made those choices?  If only I knew then what I know now.”  Yet there is a certain joy in coming to accept the past, however painful, when seen in the light of the transformation it has occasioned. 

As we follow the way of Jesus, our experience of the Risen Christ creates change of an even greater order of magnitude.  It brings us into a new way of life and a new sense of community that radically alters our perception of reality.  Jesus describes this change of perception in a familiar parabolic saying, 

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye.  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.[i]

“That is to say,” notes James Alison, “all our knowledge of each other is projective and relational:  our knowledge of someone else is inseparable from our [relationship] to that other person, and what we know of them depends on a real similarity between the other and ourselves such that we can properly project from our own experience and begin to understand the other.”[ii]

Jesus raises the question: What is the mode of projection whereby we encounter others?  Is it based on denial of our similarity, such that we see problems in others in an accusatory mode, or is it based on a sense of similarity, such that we see problems in others in a forgiving mode, as analogous, if not identical, to our own problems?  The first leads to a process of mutual antagonism and spiraling conflict. The second leads to compassion and the potential for cooperation.  The result is insight and an expansion of community.[iii]

This is what we find in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus is gathering a radically inclusive community of men and women from across social classes, sectarian affiliations, and political perspectives.  They are all learning together, eating together, and experiencing healing together, despite their manifest differences and failings. 

Jesus simply invites people, irrespective of their circumstances, to join him in the process of co-creating the world energized by God’s life-giving Spirit.  Jesus assumes that others, like him, actually desire to realize their creative potential in the image of God.  He draws people into a movement whereby they become conscious agents of God’s power to reconcile and heal.

Notice that there is no confession of wretchedness, no beating of the breast, or putting on sackcloth and ashes required to join this movement.  There is just the offering of a healing touch, the sharing of bread, and the invitation to do likewise.  It is only as one becomes drawn more deeply into this transforming way of life that one begins to discover that one has been forgiven; that the past is truly past; and that the harms we’ve caused or endured do not have the power to exclude us from this movement.

Too engaged in the joyful project of renewal to be scandalized by other people’s behavior, the log gently becomes dislodged from our eye so that we can see ourselves and others as Jesus does: as people basically like him, absolutely beloved of God and given the power to share in God’s project of making the world new. It is as we come to forgive our brokenness, rather than condemn it, that we realize the power to heal. 

For those still caught up on the accusatory mode, where identify is forged over and against those we condemn, such indiscriminate love is crazy.  No wonder Jesus’ family thinks he has lost his mind!  No wonder the authorities try to demonize him![iv]  Accepting such love is threatening, because as it dissolves the log in our eye we are forced to confront the awful, liberating truth that we are no better, and no worse, than anyone else. 

It is at this point that may choose to seek to escape, deny, or control the continuing process of creation. We freeze our experience of reality, remaining bound to perceptions that reinforce our sense of victimization and entitlement to justify our condemnation of others.  On the other hand, we may consent to the process of being made new and allow ourselves to be carried into the forgiving mode, whereby our true identity emerges as we realize our intrinsic relatedness with others.  We can joyfully accept our brokenness as but the prelude to a wholeness that is far greater and vastly more encompassing than we could have ever perceived while the log was still in our eye.

[i] Matthew 7:1-5; cf. Luke 6:39-42.
[ii] James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong:  Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: the Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), p. 242.  Alison is commenting on the parallel saying in Luke’s Gospel.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Mark 3:19b-35.

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