Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace
L. Gregory Jones and Célestin Musekura
Resources for Reconciliation series
In recent years, Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation has produced resources intended to equip God’s people to be “more faithful ambassadors of reconciliation in a fractured world.” Jones and Musekura’s contribution is a slim book (only five chapters) focused on the subject of forgiveness. As the title indicates, Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven’s purpose is to inspire and train churches and communities in “habits that make forgiveness possible on a daily basis.”
Jones and Musekura’s book is like a conversation as the writers go back and forth, one chapter at a time, listening to each other and building on what has already been said. To begin, Musekura reflects on the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. Musekura describes how his father, siblings, neighbours, friends, and fellow church members were massacred. Due to the death of his loved ones, Musekura found himself on a painful journey of testing, which led him to the conviction that “without forgiveness, we are dead.” Indeed, based on his personal experience and biblical study, Musekura concludes Chapter 1 with the assertion that forgiveness is the heart of the gospel that gives birth to new and eternal life.
In Chapter 2, Jones likens forgiveness to a dance. Many Christians have “forgotten the life-giving ways of forgiveness,” Jones explains. Consequently, Christians have tended to embrace “cheap forgiveness” – a too-quick, therapeutic absolution so that everyone can “move on,” feel better. By ignoring or rushing through the process of forgiveness, people simply bottle up their feelings of being wronged, which often leads to despair and further violence. He encourages readers to learn the difficult but life-giving dance steps that make up forgiveness – truthtelling, acknowledging anger, seeing offenders as children of God, recognizing, remembering and repenting of sin, committing to change – and to pray hopefully for future reconciliation.
Based on Colossians and stories from his work promoting reconciliation in Rwanda, in Chapter 3, Musekura encourages readers to “put on Christ.” Musekura notes that the experience of forgiveness leads to an encounter with Jesus and vice versa. When people’s identities in Christ as restored and renewed through forgiveness, Musekura explains, people “put on” new hearts and minds, which lead to new attitudes and behaviours that build up forgiving communities in which joy and thanksgiving, hope and healing – life itself! – flourish.
Jones specifically addresses the healing of memory in Chapter 4, explaining that the practice of forgiveness requires that we “remember our pasts differently.” When the past is ignored or forgotten, or the past is not remembered in healthy ways, people repeat the violent mistakes and conflict of previous generations. If forgiveness is to set people free for new life in Christ, Jones claims, Christians must remember and acknowledge past sin as a shield against future sin, but also be willing to ultimately forget past wrongs. Christians must be “guided by a vision of the redemption that will one day allow us to lose the memory of traumas we’ve experienced, even to become friends with the perpetrators who committed them.” That is, Christians must remember the past in light of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Jones outlines three church practices that allow us to remember rightly. Baptism, Jones says, reorients our life and our memories and locates us in a new world. Scripture invites us to “imagine a transformation in which…we need not remember [our histories] as sin because they have been fully healed” (Romans 8 and 12, Colossians 3). Service shifts our attention away from nursing bitterness toward our enemies, and enables us to discover the joy that comes from serving others.
In Chapter 5, Musekura draws on Scripture (primarily John 17) and the experience of the Rwandan Christians to encourage the global church to become communities of forgiveness. Musekura identifies six marks of a community of forgiveness. First, the community is called out from the death-dealing practices of the world. Second, the community is sent to proclaim and to preach forgiveness – to be a witness. Third, the community is reconciled. That is, allegiance to Jesus trumps tribal or denominational or ideological commitments. Fourth, the community spreads by practicing and modelling forgiveness in the local neighbourhood and relational networks. As people are trained to forgive, individual agents of forgiveness are connected with other groups who practice forgiveness, thus nurturing the community. Sixth, communities of forgiveness inspire socio-political transformation.
Jones and Musekura not only offer a clear and compelling call to “forgive as we’ve been forgiven,” they provide a number of down-to-earth strategies individuals and churches can put into practice. One criticism is that at times they are too general in the sense that they don’t describe enough steps in the journey of forgiveness.
Sometimes, the authors could be more specific about how communities might process the sticky details when it comes to repentance and absolution. For example, Musekura notes that for some Rwandans, talk about forgiving on behalf of those who were murdered is equal to killing the victims a second time. A description of how that tension might be resolved would be helpful, especially in light of the recent trend among churches to apologize for “sins of the fathers.”
That said, the strengths of this book far outweigh its shortcomings. In addition to providing a study guide with questions for personal reflection or group discussion, the book grounds discussion of forgiveness in real-life stories and Scripture. As a result, the authors both frequently acknowledge complexities and difficulties when it comes to forgiving others. At the same time, both consistently point readers to Jesus. For example, at one point Jones notes that the struggle to forgive is sometimes never-ending, but rather than focusing on our inability to master the steps of forgiveness, he encourages readers to look to Jesus to lead us.
Arguably the most refreshing aspect of Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven is the collaboration between the two authors. Jones and Musekura represent two theological “tribes” – Duke Divinity School and Dallas Theological Seminary, respectively – that (as Musekura notes) “can be as hostile to one another as Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.” By setting aside their differences for the sake of Christ, the church, and the world, Jones’ and Musekura’s actions speak as eloquently as their words.
When it comes to forgiving as we’ve been forgiven, Jones and Musekura practice what they preach. Which, when all is said and done, is the point of the book.