Read Part 1 here.
We pick up Fr Hopko's radical teaching of forgiveness with his discussion of the commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as your own self," from Jesus' words in Matthew 22:39, and from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:18.
Today's money quote:
There is such a thing as a tradition of evil. That’s why I like to use the expression that forgiveness is breaking the chain of evil. But everyone is given that possibility to break that chain. As long as I’m understanding, justifying, explaining, I become just one more link in the chain of evil.______________
... I started reading the Church Fathers in this light, and that’s what they all say — “Your brother is your life.” I have no self in myself except the one that is fulfilled by loving the other. The Trinitarian character of God is a metaphysical absolute here, so to speak. God’s own self is another — His Son. The same thing happens on the human level. So the minute I don’t feel deeply that my real self is the other, then I’ll have no reason to forgive anyone. But if that is my reality, and my only real self is the other, and my own identity and fulfillment emerges only in the act of loving the other, that gives substance to the idea that we are potentially God-like beings. Now, if you add to that that we are all to some degree faulty and weak and so on, that act of love will always be an act of forgiveness. That’s how I find and fulfill myself as a human being made in God’s image. Otherwise, I cannot. So the act of forgiveness is the very act by which our humanity is constituted. Deny that, and we kill ourselves. It’s a metaphysical suicide.
You are making a distinction here between the individual and the person.
The individual is the person that refuses to love. When a person refuses to identify in being and value with “the least,” even with “the enemy,” then the person becomes an individual, a self enclosed being trying to have proper relationships — usually on his or her own terms. But again, we would say that the person only comes into existence by going out of oneself into communion with the other. So my task is not to decide whether or not I will be in relationship with you but to realize that I am in communion with you: my life is yours, and your life is mine. Without this, there is no way that we are going to be able to carry on.
Forgiveness is not an achievement, an act, so much as the development of an understanding of reality?
It is a decision in the sense that you have to will it. You have to choose life. A person can choose death by not forgiving. So there is a sense in which you can destroy yourself by not saying “yes” to the reality that actually exists. That’s the choice: “yes” or “no” to what truly exists. Forgiveness is the great “yes.” So there is a choice. In the Greek patristic tradition, the more a person is a person, the more we realize and will our communion with others in the act of love, the less we choose. So the freer we are, the less choice we have.
That’s almost opposite to the post-Enlightenment, secular Western thought. We tend to think the freer we are, the more choice we have. For example, if you would sin against me and I want to love with the love of God, then I do not have a choice whether or not I should forgive you, I only have a choice whether or not I will. And I must, if I want to be alive. If I were truly holy, I wouldn’t even choose — it would be a spontaneous act.
As an individual, if someone or insults me offends me or betrays me, it is impossible to forgive them, lacking this understanding of the reality of our interconnectedness. So this understanding is needed.
Otherwise there is no reason to forgive.
There is a reason, because one suffers from not being able to forgive.
Yes, but within the categories of what we would call “the fallen world,” there is no reason, unless communion enters into the picture.
I think that in our culture the willingness to admit there is real evil is difficult for us — it is such a violent and awesome position towards life. Of course, people in tremendous pain — rape victims, incest victims, etc. — have to forgive if they are going to go on living. But the main forgiving that needs doing in everybody’s life, the central act of forgiveness and one that indicates spiritual maturity in every case without exception, is the forgiveness of the parents. We tend either to blame parents or idealize them — both of which cripple life. In order to forgive them, one must first admit the offense, and that may mean enduring incredible pain. Rage and sadness have to be faced in order to forgive. The reason that we can’t forgive is because we don’t want to face the pain and rage, to admit what really happened.
So people try to live without facing all this. Or when that becomes impossible, it can mean trying to lose oneself in a cult or other form of collective. You sell your soul so that you don’t have to choose anymore. This wish to escape is what fueled a great deal of what happened in the ’60s and since. People wanted to lose themselves; they couldn’t handle the individual freedoms, because they weren’t on a deep enough level. So there was a flight. I think even the feminist movement is a response to this. In The Flight from Woman, Karl Stern shows that in Western culture there has been an almost pathological flight from the feminine, from woman, which means a flight from communion, a flight from the other. The individualistic, radical, fallen, male values became the values for the culture as a whole, and that’s the cause of the Western neuroses.
The burden of freedom is cruel — “how cruel is the love of God.” But that’s what we are called for. The individualistic or the collectivistic solutions will not work. We are persons made for free and voluntary communion in love and truth in reality with other persons. This means that in the way we experience life, mercy and forgiveness are at the heart of it, beginning in one’s own family. That’s where it’s so, so painful.
My feeling, being a radical Orthodox Christian, is that God is not removed from the world but rather enters into the world and gets nailed to a cross. Unless we accept Christ crucified, which is a scandal to those who want God to be some kind of power figure and total foolishness to those who want it all to fall into place intellectually, within our terms, there’s no Gospel. But if Christ crucified is at the heart of the matter, then evil is real and forgiveness is real and freedom is real, and there’s no other way to deify life but through an act of mercy.
There are some who feel that to understand all is to forgive all. If we could see the entire chain of causality, there would be no reason to forgive, because we would understand.
I wouldn’t agree. Actually, when you see things clearly, you can see that certainly we are victimized. There’s a woman I’m thinking of who must forgive her father and her uncle for raping her over a period of years when she was a child. Once she begins to see things, she can admit that her father was also a victim, that in many ways he was conditioned — that’s what the Bible means when it says sins visited to the fourth generation. There is such a thing as a tradition of evil. That’s why I like to use the expression that forgiveness is breaking the chain of evil. But everyone is given that possibility to break that chain. As long as I’m understanding, justifying, explaining, I become just one more link in the chain of evil.