In the wake of the execution of Kelly Gissendaner, I find myself without words. I have read and heartily agreed with the pleas for her life, the tragedy of capital punishment, and the theological case that makes it impossible to align the decision to end Kelly’s life with anything that resembles Christianity.
I have nothing to add to the discourse except sadness, prayers and hope that this case too will be used to one day eliminate capital punishment for good, and that her amazing transformative legacy will live on.
However, I find myself thinking a lot about forgiveness.
What would life be like if we really forgave everybody everything?
I think it might resemble the realm (or kingdom) of God – what we pray for regularly in the Lord’s Prayer each week. If we really forgave everybody everything, it would greatly reduce our justification for so many systems in our society that do little more than perpetuate the very ills they supposedly set out to lessen.
I am not saying the families of murder victims should just snap their fingers and forgive. But I see very little in the research literature that suggests that capital punishment aids healing for victims’ families. In fact, I find growing evidence that it does the opposite: prolongs suffering, puts lives on hold waiting for some kind of “closure,” and re-traumatizes families each time the details of the murder are relived for yet another legal purpose or news story.
I have never lost a loved one to murder. I realize I have no place to tell the families of murder victims that they need to forgive. I am a therapist and a minister.
The therapist in me has strong reactions towards anyone who tells anybody they need to forgive. The therapist in me wants to assure those who have been victimized that no one else can have a timetable for their healing or an agenda as to how that should look. The therapist in me wants to say as victims move towards healing, the protection and wall of anger that has been helpful and necessary will always be a helpful friend.
But I cannot.
Then the therapist and minister in me integrate and know that there is a reason our scriptures resound with the message about forgiveness – because not forgiving eventually and literally kills us.
The process of getting free and staying free is ours to do by the grace of God.
The community can support us in that, and at its best, that is what the church does.
But, nothing that happens to anyone else, nothing that another does or does not do, nothing external to us sets us free from pain, trauma, anger, and resentment. We do that work with God’s grace and the love of community.
But it is work. Forgiveness is not lip service, making nice or pretending.
Cheap forgiveness might paint a better picture, but it does not set us free.
It is work that is truly life giving, even if it is gut-wrenching. It does not mean being buddies with perpetrators or those who never really take responsibility for their hurtfulness. Instead, it means that the power the pain once had over us is eliminated and then used to empower us to really live, fully and freely.
That is transformation. That is resurrection.
Because in the end, we have to forgive everybody everything. Thy realm come. Thy will be done.
Rev. Barbara Lea Callaghan is the Second Minister at Hancock United Church of Christ in Lexington, Ma. and a licensed psychotherapist. Barbara is passionate about building communities of depth and love that are engaged in liberative social transformation through the power and grace of God. Barbara is a runner, cyclist, hiker, writer and general lover of life. When Barbara is not working she can be found outside exploring near and far with her wife Kate and their dogs Bela and Cuzco.