Despite my temptation (and others) to completely disregard and reject outright any person or group who voted for Trump, I believe this is not only counterproductive (part of the reason many people have argued that the so-called white working class came out in droves for Trump on election day was precisely because they felt he was hearing their cries and listening to their concerns) but impossible considering that many in my family voted for Trump. The problem cannot simply be erased by ignoring those who disagree with me, or worse. The question I raised was this: how do I, knowing that the people I love and care for voted for someone like Trump, or more worryingly, voted for the policies he proposed, not only work to understand why they did so, but seek to transform the relationship so that we both become better people, citizens, family members, etc. in the process.
So there are two sides to this transformation, one on my side and one on the side of the other.
The affirmation of being that those who voted for Trump were seeking is possible only when they are able to grieve over the real loss that they’ve experienced. However, this is an embodied grief, which takes on a much different form than merely complaining or seeking retribution for those they think have taken something away from them. They must acknowledge and embody the reality of their situation, just as those who have been ignoring and devaluing them must also acknowledge and embody the reality of the situation. It is all too easy to turn to the other and urge them to accept their reality. It is incredibly difficult for those who, in a sense, have helped create and sustain that reality to acknowledge and grieve over that reality. However, embodied grief is a means to that end.
This is only the first step, however. The call to transformation and change must not be forgotten in the pursuit of understanding and acknowledging reality. Understanding, while beneficial, cannot, in and of itself bring about change. And, to reiterate, change is needed on both sides. The pursuit of something better than our current situation requires the opening up of a vertical dimension, that of the transcendent, which is the only possible path to change. It not only breaks out of the immanent frame which has enclosed our present situation, but it offers the possibility of something new, something which cannot be imagined by remaining in the immanent.
Grief and pain must be voiced, heard, and embodied if transformation will ever happen. This means that even though I try to understand others as a means to bring about change, ultimately this will only close in on itself and perpetuate the search for transformation from within the immanent, which isn’t capable of producing transformation.
So I must, as much as it might be difficult, not only allow those who feel they have been left behind, devalued, and invalidated to express their grief, but I must in some sense grieve with them.
However, and as I’ve mentioned throughout, it cannot end there. The voicing and embodiment of grief is not enough, otherwise we will continue to be stuck in the immanent with solutions that cannot do what they aspire to. There must be a call to transform. This call to transform not only opens up the vertical dimension, allowing access to the transcendent, it is what ultimately produces the circumstances for change.
So I must, after grieving, call for transformation. This requires that both sides be willing to give something up in the pursuit of some higher benefit or good. This is what I’m calling forgiveness, and is the model for transformation I’d like to propose as a way out of the predicament I described in parts one and two. It may sound trite to talk of forgiveness, especially given our current political climate. But hopefully my discussion below will remind us of the radical power of forgiveness and can help to bring about something new.
Hope amid Despair
The prophetic task, in the midst of exilic despair over destruction and displacement, is to declare an enact hope for a buoyant future that is securely in the purview of God.
– Water Brueggemann
Before discussing forgiveness, however, it is important to discuss the final stage Walter Brueggemann presents in combating the ideology of exceptionalism: hope. Talk of hope can sound just as trite and glib as “forgiveness” given our present context and the ways these words have become excarnated in our day. Yet, this is precisely the prophetic task in the midst of despair. A Brueggemann says, it is, “to declare and enact hope for a buoyant future that is securely in the purview of God.” Declaring hope is something familiar enough to most of us, but enacting it is a different story.
However, none of this can occur until the depths of lament and grief have been plumbed. The nadir of despair must be embodied, and not just for a moment. The period of grief, lament, and despair must be profound, lest we console ourselves too soon with an excarnated hope.
This, I submit, is exactly what is found in the exilic laments of Israel, the haunting, wonder, and courage to go deep into the reality of divine infidelity and disregard. In its lament Israel dares to go to the null point of despair and linger in the abyss of abandonment.
– Walter Brueggemann
I bring this up for the discussion at hand because I believe that the sort of forgiveness I will be discussing below must take place in this space of hope amid despair. To move to forgiveness too soon, without lament and grief, is to deny the possibility of transformation.
Returning to my main point, it is not enough to simply understand why someone did something. It is just as, if not more, important to work towards doing better. If understanding is the goal, then nothing will ever change. Simply understanding another person, or their feelings, beliefs, etc., is only good if it responds to the call to transform. Otherwise, we become entrenched in the immanent, constantly forcing others to understand us, each feeling more and more misunderstood because we have lost our frame of reference for understanding ourselves, namely, the transcendent.
It is also not enough to wash your hands of those with whom you disagree, however justified you may be in your position. This is to fall into the same trap: we only surround ourselves with those whom we understand, unable to understand those who would differ from us. But transformation can never happen here either. Here we are just as stuck in the immanent, but one that feigns transcendence. Just because we are justified in our position on standing with/for the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, doesn’t mean that we are open to genuine transformation.
Only through contact with the other, through those who are different from us, is transformation possible. That is the prerequisite for transformation. What needs to happen once we come together is far harder to do: forgiveness. The move through reality, grief, and hope ultimately leads to forgiveness. If hope is the call to transformation, then forgiveness is the means to enact that hope.
Returning to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, his use of Ivan Illich’s take on the Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37 in case you need to refresh your memory) would be helpful at this point:
The Samaritan is moved by the wounded man; he moves to act, and in doing so inaugurates (potentially) a new relation of friendship/love/charity with this person. But this cuts across the boundaries of the permitted “we’s” in his world. It is a free act of his “I”. Illich’s talk of freedom here might mislead a modern. It is not something he generates just out of himself; it is that he responds to this person. He feels called to respond, however, not by some principle of “ought”, but by this wounded person himself. And in so responding, he frees himself from the bound of the “we”.
As I mentioned above, transformation is only possible when we come into contact with the other. But how we respond to that contact is crucial. If we respond from the buffered, disengaged self then what we end up with is the sort of ideological denial of reality Brueggemann discusses. These ideologies of denial tend to turn this parable into a rubric to follow, a code to adhere to. But this is a corruption of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
Codes, even the best codes, can become idolatrous traps, which tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich can remind us not to become totally invested in the code, even the best code of a peace-loving, egalitarian, liberalism. We should find the centre of our spiritual lives beyond the code, deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from time to time subvert it.
– Charles Taylor
The parable of the Good Samaritan is responding to the wounded Jew not out of allegiance to a specific code or ideology, but from the very depths of his being, from his guts. “Agape moves outward from the guts; the New Testament word for ‘taking pity’, splangnizesthai, places the response in the bowels.” This form of pity, arising from the bowels, is how the Good Samaritan responds to the other in his midst. The result? A new relationality to the other that crosses boundaries previously erected:
It creates a new kind of fittingness, belonging together, between Samaritan and wounded Jew. They are fitted together in a disymmetric proportionality which comes from God, which is that of agape, and which become possible because God became flesh.
– Charles Taylor
This response and subsequent new kind of fittingness, as Taylor calls, it, is firmly within the body, the flesh, the guts. The excarnated response to this encounter, which is most likely the norm for most people reading this, is to first maintain the distance between us and them, and then to contemplate the proper response based on reason, codes, etc. The incarnated response, however, overcomes the distance by responding from our guts and not our minds.
So what does this have to do with forgiveness?
Just as I’ve been discussing how embodied grief can open up access to the vertical, transcendent dimension, without which transformation would be impossible, so too does forgiveness tap into a different source other than the immanent and horizontal. Again, Taylor:
But there can be moves, always within a given context, whereby someone renounces the right conferred by suffering, the right of the innocent to punish the guilty, of the victim to purge the victimizer. The move is the very opposite of the instinctive defense of our righteousness. It is a move which can be called forgiveness, but at a deeper level, it is based on a recognition of a common, flawed humanity.
The move of forgiveness, as described by Taylor, involves renouncing something granted by the code. When we forgive, we give up the right to receive something, something entitled to us within the code. In other words, forgiveness transcends the code. It does not operate in the same realm, the realm of the buffered self. Instead, it springs from contact with the other, that which is beyond our individual, buffered, boundaries.
Crucially, a Taylor points out, there is a deeper level that forgiveness reaches. This is the level of our shared, flawed humanity – our bodies and flesh. Forgiveness, much like the agape in the Good Samaritan story, is generated in our very bowels, through contact with the other. By giving up something according to the code we are not only transcending the code, we are descending into our bodies, into our shared fleshly existence.
Embodied grief opens the possibility for transformation; forgiveness is the means to enact it. But this forgiveness is an embodied and enfleshed forgiveness – it happens in our guts. Forgiveness, that is, renouncing the, “right conferred by suffering, the right of the innocent to punish the guilty, of the victim to purge the victimizer” opens up the possibility of transformation. It allows the transcendent to enter into our world by “tapping a source of goodness, and healing” beyond the immanent. If embodied grief and lament make transformation possible by opening up the possibility of transcendence, then forgiveness is the way to make it reality.
The way to enact the hope that has been made possible through embodied grief is through our enfleshed, gut response to the other outside of codes of conduct erected from a buffered, excarnated worldview. Only through this mode of forgiveness, of responding to the other from the very depth of our bowels, is transformation possible. It not only opens up the space for the new “fittingness,” but is the path to achieve it.
To try and recap: what I’m suggesting isn’t simply forgiving those with whom we disagree or who look at the world differently. This is too arrogant a position to take, though one I (and I fear many others) am very familiar with. Forgiveness, instead, is the response, from our guts, to those who are different from us. Those with which we have nothing in common. But it is my position that this sort of embodied forgiveness can only occur after going through the process of embodied grief and lament. There is no neat and tidy way to connect all of these elements – they are all related organically. They all inform and affect each other.
Forgiving, responding not from within the codes that dictate our interactions, but from the very depths of our being, from our guts, is an extremely difficult and vulnerable act.
This whole series of posts was prompted by the results of the election and the subsequent realization that not only did some people I love and care for vote for Trump, but that I cannot barricade myself off from those people who look at the world (very) differently from me. This series of posts was my attempt at working out my next move – how do I respond to those people I care about but who support such abhorrent policies and rhetoric? While I don’t pretend that my conclusion is sufficient for all circumstances, hopefully it has been beneficial for some who find themselves in a similar position.
I don’t think it is simply enough for me to understand the other side. While this is good and helpful, it is not enough. I want those people close to me to better themselves and their beliefs. Sure, this is an inherently arrogant position. However, hopefully, through some sort of shared, embodied grief, and through forgiveness, I can encounter these people as people, apart from any codes or conduct or rules, but in the flesh. If true transformation is going to happen – on both my side and theirs – then I must be willing to give up any rights, just as they must as well, the codes confer. This is forgiveness. Where then do I respond from, if not these codes? From my gut, from the very depths of my being.