Enter with me, for a moment, into the landscape of this Sunday’s Gospel parable. Who do you most identify with, today? Is it the King with decision making power over the wellbeing of others? Is it the first servant, who has been afforded great mercy, but struggles to extend grace to others? Maybe you relate more to the second servant, who is responsible for smaller debts, but knows their impact nonetheless, and has been unable to find relief. Or still you could be a community member, who knows wrongdoing when you see it and advocates for its redress.
Without a doubt, I have worn each of these shoes at various times and sometimes all at once. In my work of restorative justice at Catholic Mobilizing Network, I enter into sacred relationship with people and communities at countless points in their journeys from harm toward healing. And as I gingerly step into the sometimes fraught territory of forgiveness, I want to honor you, dear listener, wherever you may be in your healing journey.
Personally, it has taken me time and prayer to untether the radical forgiveness of the Gospel, from the one that is too often misused inside and outside of the Church. What I’m thinking about is anytime someone puts the words “you should just” in front of the word “forgive”.
To the woman enduring domestic violence seeking the safety she deserves. To the crime survivor, desperate for answers, restitution, and accompaniment for the long haul. To people of color, whose dignity has been personally and structurally trampled upon for generations.
Far too many times, the language of forgiveness is co-opted by individuals and groups in an attempt to maintain an oppressive status quo. And, let’s be honest, it has also escaped from well meaning lips, my own included, uncomfortable with the prospect of holding space for suffering and injustice before us.
But Jesus never put the words “you should just” in front of “forgive”. Because it is no small task, not then, not now. In Jesus’ time, defaulting on debt meant complete rejection from the community — this was not part of God’s vision. Jesus’ message was radical and subversive, intended to defuse escalating vengeance and division.
I can’t help but think of a woman I admire named Andrea Hug. When Andrea’s three children were all less than 5 years old, her husband was struck and killed by a drunk driver. She recalls a morning standing in her kitchen while family members aired their anger in the next room. She made a decision in that moment to forgive this man — a decision that she would remind herself of for years to come.
When asked how she managed to carry on with life, functioning on a daily basis and raising her children as a single parent, she identified this choice to forgive as critical to avoiding a spiral of self destruction.
There is a certain cultural narrative that says forgiveness is the end of a process, but in Jesus’ Gospel, it signals the beginning of one. The gift of God’s forgiveness liberates from shame that paralyzes, freeing its recipients, you and I, to “go and do likewise”.
Divine mercy is without limits and God delights in our return time and time again. When people harm one another, though, we create very real needs that beg to be met — physical, material, and emotional. In other words, the demands of justice still stand. So what, then, does justice look like in light of forgiveness?
As Andrea’s children were entering adulthood, they had their own questions that only the man responsible for their father’s death could answer. Likewise, they desired for him to hear and understand how the loss of their father impacted them. In ways, their own needs for justice had not yet been met. So, with the help of skilled facilitators, Andrea and her children participated in a two day restorative justice process where these stories were told and questions were asked and answered.
After a powerful exchange between the two of them, Andrea describes “At that moment, I knew he was a real person. I knew he had feelings, regret, a life that went off track at the exact moment that mine did. We were the same…he wasn’t the “other” I had imagined. That’s when I started calling him Ron. He became a person who also needed to heal.”
This is the vision of mercy and justice that I believe God has in mind and heart for us. One in which, forgiving is not a box to be checked. But an ethic cultivated in community that boldly proclaims “my humanity is bound up in yours” (from Archbishop Desmond Tutu's reflections on Ubuntu in his book No Future Without Forgiveness). It is a way of being that acknowledges and reclaims our connectedness — even in the wake of harm.
Forgiveness is fundamentally an individual act, but with social implications. Every harm has repercussions, rippling impacts through time and community. Really living into the fullness of forgiveness means moving toward as full a reclamation of human dignity and communion as possible.
When this becomes the way in which we move and live and have our being, suddenly seven times seventy becomes far more attainable — not a heroic act for the few. But we cannot do it alone. We need to encourage one another daily. And build up systems (legal and otherwise) that create vessels for mercy and grace to shape the labor of justice itself.
Because of Christ’s sacrifice and the gift of the Holy Spirit, this forgiving way of doing justice is not out of reach. It is being taken up in communities across this country, and has been alive in native and indigenous cultures for generations. What’s more, it abides within each of us. We might need to peel back the layers of retribution and individualism that mask it, but at our core dwells this desire, God’s desire to love one another as God loves us. May it be so. Amen.
Caitlin Morneau serves as Director of Restorative Justice at Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice through education, advocacy and prayer. In her role, she oversees program and resource development that advances healing approaches to harm and crime with people of faith. Caitlin is a Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union where she is completing a MA in Ministry with a concentration in Spirituality and holds an MA in Conflict Transformation from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. She co-authored the preface of Redemption and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Restorative Justice with Howard Zehr and adapted this work into the faith formation guide Harm, Healing and Human Dignity: A Catholic Encounter with Restorative Justice. Caitlin is also the host of CMN’s Encounters with Dignity podcast. She arrived at CMN after working in direct social services, volunteer management, and ministry leadership at local and national non-profits such as Catholic Charities of Baltimore, Catholic Volunteer Network, Youth Service Opportunities Project, and Bethlehem Farm. Caitlin is a facilitator of peacemaking circles and trained in restorative community conferencing. She lives in Alexandria, VA with her husband, two children, and black lab.