By Dr. Heather Entrekin
Christians have been rather famous, or infamous, throughout the history of the church, for opposing imagination. Well into the 20th century, some Presbyterians refused to sing any hymn whose words were not straight out of the Psalms. When the Wizard of Oz was published, Christians burned the books because they considered them satanic. More recently, it happened to Harry Potter.
Children’s author, Katherine Paterson says that Christian publishers really tip toe around fiction. “The thing that scares people about imagination is that we can’t control it: the imagination is not tamed or tamable. Therefore, we can’t be sure how it’s going to come out. It probably won’t come out safely” (In Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, 306). It opens the door to new worlds.
That is what happens in the story we usually call The Parable of the Prodigal Son. But what if the title became, The Parable of the Imaginative Father?
You know the plot. The father has a son who has cruelly “dissed” him, treated him as if he were dead by grabbing his share of the inheritance while he was still very much alive. It would be as if I went home for my father’s 90th birthday party this summer and said, “I’m taking the big screen TV, the Lazy Boy with the cup holders, the hand-carved rocker, and all your best gardening tools and a third of your retirement savings. I want them; I’m taking them now; I don’t care about you.”
The son goes off with his loot and makes a royal mess of his life, finds himself lower than the pigs and pigs are about as low as you can go if you are a good Jewish boy, or even a bad one. He’s eating pig left-overs. He gets to the point where he’s swallowed so much garbage that he is finally able to swallow his pride and he goes to the only place he can imagine where somebody might take him back — home.
Now, while he is still far off, his father sees him coming. I don’t think that his father just happened to glance down the road at the very moment his son happened to appear on it. I’m guessing that he has stood there watching and waiting and imagining his son coming home on that road day after day after day after day. So when the day comes that the son does appear, the father is there, and ready, so ready he runs to him, stops him before he can beg for help, restores him to the family, throws a great big party.
This is what imagination can do. In John Paul Sartre’s words, Imagination is the ability to think of what is not. And as our readings on forgiveness have been teaching in small groups this past week (copies in Hospitality Area), that is the starting place for forgiveness. First we image God’s world. The Imaginative Father becomes the Forgiving Father as he pictures a family that is not broken, not bitter, not blaming. Then he lives into it. Now it becomes the Parable of the Forgiving Father.
But the scary part is that we can’t be sure where it will lead. Forgiveness happens and reconciliation happens but notice that it is not all love and hugs. The older son is downright chilly. He rejects the love and the party.
And so we see that forgiveness does not require these things.
Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki writes that forgiveness is the act of imagining and willing the well-being of the violator and the victim. Feelings of love are not required to forgive. They may come, as they do in this story, but they are not required to forgive. Those who commit acts of horrifying evil: slavery in the U.S., the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Darfur, or individual acts of torture, child abuse, domestic violence, we do not love emotionally. Even neglectful or emotionally distant or demanding parents may be difficult to love emotionally, but we can will their well-being and our own, which is – to forgive. Loving feelings are not required. The father forgives the bitter, resentful older son, we trust, as well as the younger.
The older son stays outside. Another teaching about forgiveness. Acceptance of a violator into one’s space is not required for forgiveness. In this case, the older son himself chooses not to come in. But sometimes, the one who forgives must choose not to accept the violator. If the younger son had been abusive, violent, addictive, harmed the neighbors’ children, acceptance back into the family could be harmful to family and to him. But that does not stop forgiveness – imagining the well-being of the violator and living into that image. That is required and that has the power to stop the cycle of violence inside the victim and out.
Here is a true story about a family that imagined forgiveness and made it real. A 12 year old boy named John was playing with the 9 year old girl who lived next door, Marie. They found a loaded pistol in a dresser drawer and before long their make-believe game turned into a tragic nightmare and little Marie was dead. Everyone in the small town attended the Marie’s funeral — except John, who could not face anyone and refused to talk.
The morning after the funeral, Marie’s older brother went next door to talk to John. “John, come with me,” he said. “I want to take you to school.” John refused, saying, “I never want to see anyone again. I wish it was me who was dead.” The brother insisted and finally persuaded John to go with him.
The brother talked to the school principal and asked him to call a special assembly. Five hundred and eighty students filed into the gym. Marie’s brother stood before them and said, “A terrible thing has happened; my little sister was accidentally shot by one of your classmates. This is one of those tragedies that mars life. Now I want you all to know that my family and John’s family have been to church together this morning and we shared in Holy Communion.” Then he called John next to him, put his arm around his shoulders, and continued: “This boy’s future depends much on us. My family has forgiven John because we love him. Marie would want that. And I ask you to love and forgive him, too.” Then he hugged John and they wept together.
I don’t know if the family felt emotional love on that day. I don’t know if they were able to accept him into their home. It doesn’t matter.
Forgiveness is not a one time act, it is a way of life. Rowan William (Resurrection) writes that: Forgiveness is the deep and abiding sense of what relation – with God or with other human beings – can and should be, and when we imagine this God world, it provokes and stimulates us whenever we experience something less.
Forgiveness is willing the well-being of violator and victim as children of God. It opens the door to new life. Imagine that.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Dr. Heather Entrekin. Used by permission.