Folding Screens and Forgiveness

Forgiveness is difficult and intractably concrete. This difficulty and intractability mirror the violence and suffering that make forgiveness necessary. Frequently, our responses to either violence or forgiveness are eerily similar. They are protective responses: the building of walls before another assault can be launched or before the reparations of forgiveness can be undertaken.

There are as many ways to observe this behavior as there are forms of human culture and industry. The studied innocuousness of gated communities and the illusion of safety attached to SUV's and the rash of legislative maneuvers intended to erode the social and civil protections of same-sex relationships and the marriage of technological genius and ideological lust on display in so much modern warfare and in prisons distended with real criminals and imagined threats. To name a few. And this is, to be perfectly honest, what I choose to see. There is much more that I can't or don't want to see.

This protective, insulating behavior can be imaged in countless ways, but its redemptive, merciful dismantling is singularly discovered as the power of a crucified and risen Messiah. So I want to pull back and chart a path through a couple of narratives, by the end of which I hope we will find our world and our lives are always and constantly being transformed in the presence of our crucified and risen Lord.

I'll begin with a novel: in Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the struggle to live an authentic human life is cast against the totalitarian crush of the Soviet empire. The Czech society Kundera describes is largely constituted by political theater, blacklists, intrigue and the necessity of secret lives. The roots of these social conventions and associated institutions are sunk deep into and nourished by denial.

Denial governs even the aesthetic sensibilities of the culture. In this culture actions and expressions are considered good, true or beautiful to the extent that these reflect a denial of that which is unpleasant or unacceptable. More often than not, the things denied are related in direct fashion to the human body and its attendant needs and vulnerabilities. The narrator of The Unbearable Lightness of Being names this aesthetic sensibility kitsch affirming it to be "absolute the literal and figurative senses of the word." So thoroughgoing is the power of kitsch to deny that it "excludes everything from its purview which is unacceptable in human existence" (p. 242).

Now when most contemporary people hear the word kitsch, they rather immediately conjure things that are tacky, maybe a little gauche or just tastelessly earnest. A purple quartz geode with a pewter dragon and wizard doing battle on top. Portraits of Elvis painted on a velvet tapestry. A knitted, flowery cover for a box of Kleenex or roll of toilet paper. Much in addition to these harmless, unartful expressions of kitsch, Kundera is pointing to more damaging expressions of it. In a society based on exclusions and a necessity for violence--as all unredeemed human societies are--kitsch takes on a much larger, more sinister role.

In the words of the novel's narrator: "kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death" (p. 247). How many walls in our institutions are these folding screens? How many structures considered by us to be good, beautiful or true are in fact kitschy displays obscuring more life-giving expressions of truth, goodness or beauty?

Now carry those questions with you into the scene set for us in today's Gospel reading. Jesus' disciples are gathered together and discussing among themselves the experiences that have left them with the dawning awareness that their Teacher has risen into new life. Their conversation turned on events that had transpired in the days since Jesus' crucifixion and burial. Jesus' female disciples discovered an empty tomb and the angelic messengers within announced to them that "He is not here but has risen." Then two more of Jesus' disciples were on the way to the Emmaus village when they found themselves companions with a traveler who explained to them how it was "necessary that the Messiah should suffer and enter into his glory."

And, then, during the meal the revelation deepens: bread is broken and the disciples recognize in this stranger the living presence of their Lord.

In the midst of discussing these things, the crucified and now risen Jesus interrupts their conversation. The description of this scene in Luke's Gospel is quite vivid, and we would do well to take account of the details invested here. In particular, let's consider the body of the risen Jesus and the range of words used to describe the reactions of the disciples to him. Jesus speaks an offer of peace to them and they were "startled and terrified." Jesus invites them to "touch and see" that he has the flesh and bones of a real body and not the pseudo-substance of a ghost. Though joyful, the disciples continue to disbelieve and wonder: uncertain of what it means to embrace a body that has passed through the hellishness of violence, the utter isolation of death and risen into endlessness of God's life.

And then he eats a piece of broiled fish. A human act and the very gross sort of material, physical act that is required of embodied existence. Eating the piece of fish could be construed as proof that the risen Jesus was not a ghost and simply left at that. Or we could see this act as the eternal and risen Jesus offering a simple demonstration of the body's profound significance. To be human is to have a body and to have a body is to eat, to hurt, to feel pleasure and to experience lack.

Jesus gestures to his wounds and then eats the piece of broiled fish. To be human and to have a body is to be vulnerable, liable to death and yet made for the endlessness of God's life. The crucified and risen Jesus knocks down the folding screen that we have set up to curtain off death.

In the presence of the risen Jesus, the disciples--and we along with them--find that our minds are being opened up to receive the truth disclosed in scripture. In the presence of the risen Jesus, the body's holiness is disclosed, the threat of death is evacuated of its force, and we begin to see that these and every promise of God begins in repentance and forgiveness of sins.

This is the truth of scripture and its trajectory will not be complete until it has been "proclaimed in [Jesus'] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." Which is to say, proclaimed to everyone, everywhere. A universally redemptive sweep that begins in the particular tissues of concrete events, in the lives of real people with real bodies and real wounds. The crucified and risen Jesus discloses the difficult, intractable concreteness of forgiveness: a forgiveness that begins wherever human judgment excludes and destroys. A forgiveness that must begin "in Jerusalem" and radiate outward, confronting the sins and violence of every nation.

Before we begin to reassemble and re-erect the folding screen, let's consider one more narrative. In an essay that appeared recently in the New York Times, Francois Bizot wrote about the upcoming trial of his former captor and notorious Khmer Rouge commandant Comrade Duch. Here is a life of murderous, mendacious violence for which there is a desperate need for the repentance of sins. But is forgiveness possible?

During his trial Duch was brought, as a prisoner, to sites he had despoiled with his murderous crimes. Bizot reports that during one of these visits, Duch spoke: "'I ask for your forgiveness--I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might,'...before collapsing in tears on the shoulder of one of his guards."

Bizot goes on:

It could be that forgiveness is possible after a simple, natural process, when the victim feels that he has been repaid. And the executioner has to pay dearly, for it is the proof of his suffering that eases ours.

The genocide of the Khmer Rouge will be judged as a "crime against humanity," a crime against ourselves. As such, Duch's guilt exceeds his immediate victims; it becomes the guilt of humanity, in the name of all victims. Duch killed mankind. The trial of the Khmer Rouge should be an opportunity for each of us to gaze at the torturer with some distance--from beyond the intolerable cry of the suffering, which may veil the truth of the abomination. The only way to look at the torturer is to humanize him.

Folding screens are easily and cheaply built. Forgiveness is always concrete and difficult. The risen Jesus' ministry of forgiveness begins in Jerusalem.

In the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus, the folding screen falls down and the possibility of forgiveness enters: a wounded body resplendent with a fullness that not even death can diminish.

Let us pray. O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread, open the eyes of our faith that we may behold him in all his redeeming work to live and reign with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.