Time for Jubilee, Restoration of Right Relationships

July 29, 2022

“Forgiveness is not Buddhist,” wrote Ken McLeod in an article in Tricycle, (A Buddhist Review). I understand him to say that Buddhism in the West has tended to absorb the prevalent Christian view that forgiveness means the cancellation of a debt owed.

In one way I agree with McLeod. I don’t find it helpful to understand forgiveness in terms of debts owed and cancelled. Obligation is implicit in debts. To be forgiven of a debt engenders a “debt of gratitude,” which further erodes the dignity and personal power of a disempowered person or community. They may fare no better as the one forgiving a debt of abuse or exploitation; they may be exposing themselves to further abuse. In relationships of disparate power, to understand forgiveness in terms of debts, sustains unhealthy power dynamics.

However, I would argue that “cancelling of debts” is not necessarily good Christian theology. The origins of forgiveness in Christian thinking must trace back to its roots in Judaism. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and in the desert communicated to them the laws from God by which to live, he described a Jubilee year that was to take place every 50 years. (Leviticus 25 in the Bible).

In the Jubilee year, or “year of the Lord’s favor,” the land that had been sold was returned to its original owner and Israelite slaves were given their freedom. (This text does not treat alien slaves with the same generosity – but that indignity is for another discussion.) We often read this text as though the wealthy and powerful are forgiving/cancelling the debts of those who are poor. But that is not the meaning. Rather, in the Jubilee year the poor have restored to themselves their birthrights: their freedom and their ancestral lands.

The Bible has a lot to say about forgiveness. I am not trying to rewrite or even explain the Bible’s teachings. I am just ruminating. One of the ways we have been conditioned to understand Biblical forgiveness is as the cancelling of debts that are owed. What if we were to understand it instead as a restoring of someone to their birthright? What if God’s forgiveness towards us was not cancelling the debt of our terrible wretched sinfulness, but rather, restoring to us an understanding of the divine nature within each of us and reminding us that we have always been loved by the Creator?

This week Pope Francis is meeting with some Metis and Indigenous peoples in Canada to make a formal apology for the Church’s participation in Residential Schools and the “colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.” We all know, and Pope Francis attests that the sincerest apology will not make okay the intergenerational suffering inflicted on these people. If, in time the indigenous people are able and choose to forgive the colonial powers of Church and State, (which includes me on both counts,) it will not mean the cancellation of a debt.

It can help to borrow an understanding from Buddhism: according to McLeod, injuring another person has consequences that “cancelling a debt” cannot make right. McLeod then describes some steps that describe transformation of the offender(s) such that the pattern of living with others does not perpetuate original injuries. This sounds to me like the growing movement of restorative justice. Bring it on!

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean cancelling a debt. Forgiveness cannot deny or belittle an offence. An apology can and should be made but forgiveness cannot be demanded. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Reconciliation requires a change in relationship.

At its best forgiveness allows us to live together in the same human community, (not necessarily in the same house or the same town,) recognizing that we are all wounded. All of us fail from time to time to live up to even our own expectations of ourselves, as well as disappointing, hurting and putting down others, sometimes through ignorance, and sometimes through misguided intentions born of our fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities. Forgiveness creates “Jubilee Space” where it is possible for the restoration of right relationships, where all people are given permission to see ourselves with dignity, as beloved of the Creator, as having within ourselves divine goodness and kindness that will help us to learn to live together in mutual respect and cooperation for the good of all.    

For the script of the apology of Pope Francis along with some commentary notes:
For an understanding of the concept and practice of restorative justice: