The play ‘The Cane’ which was at the Royal Court is unsettling. Reading the script was tough enough; I don’t want to see a performance. It tells the story of a deputy head of a comprehensive school on the eve of retirement after 45 years at the same school and the discovery that this now favourite teacher had wielded the cane as the deputy head at the school until it was banned (in 1986). He now faces an increasingly large mob of students outside his house and a brick through the window. How and on what basis should people today be judged when assessing past acts that were legal at the time?
In Science Fiction most of the world’s social situations, politics, and prejudices gets an airing. In the Star Trek Deep Space 9 episode ‘Dax’ the issue is whether a person who is made up of two beings one of which moves from host to host can be tried in a court of law for the alleged offences of a previous incarnation. If a current incarnation can remember a crime and even feel guilty for it, should she be punished, even if strictly she is another – almost new – person?
We are told that the internet never forgets. The image or words of the past can be found. Our memories do that as well – although I suspect with less accuracy and more personal retelling – than we often like to admit. And if is very important that we do remember the past, the question becomes, I think, what do I do with the person in front of me and their past? What do I do if they have hurt me or others? (If they’ve done something cruel or stupid, illegal or immoral whether momentarily or as almost a lifestyle?) What do I do with my past that I am not proud of?
Justice is the system we use to bring about some sort of reconciliation, fixing, and restoration of wrongs whereby the perpetrator makes some form of recompense. It largely works and stops things becoming chaotic but it is also rather arbitrary and subject to change (a la ‘The Cane’).
Forgiveness is also suggested as a way forward to reconcile hurt, wrong and evil done. Often it accompanies justice and is viewed as good for the aggrieved party to do – to ‘let go’ for their own sake. Forgiveness is then a form of self help.
Lent brings to us the uncomfortable message that forgiveness actually is something different. It is really something absurd when the perpetrator who has hurt, wronged, and done evil doesn’t ‘do the time’ or ‘pay the fine’ but it is the one who is hurt, wronged, or victimised who through mercy and forgiveness forgoes the payment! ‘Insanity!’ we and the world respond. And yet only mercy – an undeserved and unexpected love – seems to be the one thing that can reach perpetrators and lead them to change – to turn around – to repent. That’s what we learn as we watch Jesus in Lent. Everything he does reveals human sin and yet he is not making us receive the punishment for it.
Forgiveness is always hard because it refuses to diminish the hurt, sin and evil done while it seeks reconciliation and what is best for the one has done the hurt, sin or evil – whenever it happened. Yes, that is hard – very hard – but with Jesus forgiveness is not impossible. GS