A recent interview with an actress in Global Heroes, a magazine insert in The Wall Street Journal, perfectly exemplifies the therapeutic turn. When asked, “What is one good choice that everyone can make to improve the world around them?” she answered, “Look for your own truth, LIVE your own truth instead of repeating anyone else’s.” She elaborated: “What’s crucial to me is to make my audience . . . [question] old beliefs.” She counsels her fans to engage in a daily practice of asking, “What do I need today?” and then to go and get it.
Gregory Jones sees this therapeutic turn as perhaps the greatest reason that we have such “impoverished contemporary understandings and practices of forgiveness in modern western culture. . . . If all that matters is individual autonomy, then forgiveness and reconciliation—which are designed to foster and maintain community—are of little importance.” Today, Jones argues, forgiveness is either discouraged as imposing a moral burden on the person or, at best, it is offered as a way of helping yourself acquire more peaceful inner feelings, of “healing ourselves of our hate.”
In contrast, the Bible orients us toward “Christian life embodied in eschatological community.” The church is to be a foretaste of the future world of love and perfect community under the lordship of Jesus. Our sin inclines us to behaviour that regularly weakens and breaks relationships, but through the Spirit we are given the ability to realize—partially, never fully in this life—something of the beauty and joy of those future relationships through practices and disciplines of forgiveness and reconciliation now.
In October of 2006 a gunman took hostages in a one-room Amish schoolhouse at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He shot ten children ages seven to thirteen, five of whom died, and then he committed suicide. Within hours members of the Amish community visited both the killer’s immediate family and his parents, each time expressing sympathy for their loss. The Amish uniformly expressed forgiveness of the murderer and his family. The forgiveness and love shown toward the shooter and his family amazed many. Numerous voices called Americans to emulate the Amish and become more forgiving.
Four years later a group of scholars wrote about the incident. One of their main conclusions was that our secular culture is not likely to produce people who can handle suffering the way the Amish did. They argued that the Amish ability to forgive was based on two things. First, at the heart of their faith was a man dying for his enemies. Through communal practices this self-sacrificing figure was seen, sung, believed, rehearsed, and celebrated constantly. For Jesus to give his life and forgive his tormentors was an act of enormous love and spiritual strength, and so within their worldview orientation, the Amish saw forgiveness as the greatest gift and virtue. In American culture, in which church attendance is declining, this view of Christ is slipping more and more out of daily view.
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