A simple message has haunted me since I have seen it in various forms on social media as the uprisings against white supremacy and racial injustice have continued nationwide:
“You have stolen more than we could ever loot.”
A simple truth. A damning indictment to those on the top of the racial hierarchy (like myself). A reminder that when the destruction of a chain store garners more outrage than the destruction of a human life, we have gotten our priorities backwards—we have betrayed the Gospel.
So what does forgiveness mean in this context, where Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color have borne “seventy-seven”—far too many—instances of oppression and violence? How could I, as a benefactor of the ongoing trauma inflicted on racialized people, insist that those who have been harmed “set enmity aside,” “hate not your neighbor,” or “overlook faults,” as the author of Sirach writes in the first reading?
I wish I had a good answer. I don’t think Jesus gives us parables for answers, but to sit with uncomfortable questions. The parable in this Gospel is one of extremes. Lest we decide too quickly that the king is God in this parable, we must remember that the ruler is not entirely benevolent. The slave has incurred a debt that could not be repaid in his lifetime, and for that, the king plans to sell him and his family, and only changes his mind when the slave begs for mercy. God does not extend cruelty until we beg for kindness. That is the opposite of the psalmist’s description of God as “kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” I do not think God plans to “hand over to torturers” those who have experienced oppression and violence who have not opted for forgiveness.
This paradox of forgiveness is captured well by the Black feminist bell hooks, who writes, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
Forgiveness is not a decision to pretend a wrong never occurred. It is not yoked to a requirement that an abusive relationship continue. It is mystery—the grace of God transforming the wounds within us so that we have the freedom to offer love where it may, to our human minds, be least deserved. That love need not and sometimes should not be soft and fuzzy. It must be a challenging love that calls forth the best in people, believing—as bell hooks reminds us—in their capacity for transformation.
And if we are on the receiving end of such forgiveness? Heaven help us if we take it for granted. It is mystery, grace, gift—the invitation to be transformed by a love we barely comprehend.
Katie Lacz is a mother, an M.Div., and a spiritual director living outside Boulder, CO. She currently works as Program Associate for the Women’s Ordination Conference. A former Jesuit Volunteer (Raleigh ’06-’07), she continues to seek the magis while living in the messy and beautiful work of raising her two small children.