Unless you’ve been living in a cave or in some state of disconnection from all forms of media, you’re probably aware of the controversy that has surrounded Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers basketball team. That controversy began when Sterling was secretly recorded making racist remarks — and this from an owner of a mostly black professional basketball team, part of a league that is dominated by African-American players. The response of the NBA was relatively swift: Sterling was banned from the game for life. The league seems now to be trying to figure out how to separate the owner from his team. Players and fans alike seem to agree that Sterling has no place in the game of basketball.
Recently, Sterling had an interview with Anderson Cooper in which, by trying to make things better, he seems to have made things worse by making negative comments about Magic Johnson — comments that also seemed tinged with a racist overtone. Nevertheless, Sterling also in that interview admitted that he had made a mistake, and asked for forgiveness.
It is that request for forgiveness that interests me. I wonder what you make of it? Would you be inclined to grant him his request?
The reality of American culture seems to me inclined to withhold that forgiveness. As a society, we’re not really big on the whole forgiveness thing. Witness the many zero tolerance policies in place in many of our institutions: one slip, and you’re done. And, generally, when a public figure makes a mistake, the public seems inclined to hold that mistake against the person forevermore — or at least for a long time. Forgiveness is just not something Americans tend to value, perhaps because it isn’t as interesting as perpetuating a public scandal by occupying a place of righteous indignation.
Yet, this is not the way of Jesus. For those of us who would be his followers, we have a heavy obligation of forgiveness to bear.
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’ (Matthew 18:21-22)
And Jesus certainly lived this ideal of forgiveness out in his own life. The Gospels tell us of countless episodes in which Jesus encounters someone considered famously sinful — perhaps an ancient Palestine version of today’s public scandals — who finds forgiveness and new life with Jesus over against the condemnation of her or his society. Indeed, immediately after the verses quoted above, Jesus tells a story about an unforgiving servant who owned a substantial debt to his master. He pleaded with the master to forgive the debt and, moved with compassion, the master did so. No sooner does the servant receive this forgiveness then he goes and demands payment of a much smaller debt owed by one of his fellow slaves. Rather than emulating his master and forgiving the debt, this slave has his colleague put in prison until the debt is paid. This failure of compassion comes back upon the slave, for after his master hears of his actions, he withdraws his forgiveness of the debt and puts the slave in prison.
The story is meant to establish a strong connection between our extension of forgiveness to others and our reception of forgiveness from others. Jesus describes what appears as almost a kind of karmic dynamic, in which the forgiveness of God is made dependent upon our willingness to forgive. This principle is even enshrined in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I am not sure that God deliberately withholds forgiveness to the unforgiving, but perhaps the unforgiving are unable to recognize and receive the forgiveness offered to them because a heart that is unable to forgive is also unable to receive.
We should remember, however, that forgiveness does not always involve a resetting of relationship, and it most certainly does not involve a forgetting of that which elicited the forgiveness in the first place. To forgive Donald Sterling, as he has requested, does not mean that his racism is forgotten, nor that the NBA should reverse its decision regarding his role in the game of professional basketball. But to forgive him does require us to let go of our emotional hold on him; it requires that we leave that emotional place of righteous indignation and anger, and allow not only him to go on with his life, but to allow ourselves to do so, too.
Of course, we may not wish to forgive him. We often find the place of righteous indignation to be a rather comfortable spot. But for those of us who are followers of Jesus, we are not allowed to ignore a request for forgiveness. Jesus’s answer to Peter, and the whole tone of Jesus’s life, clearly requires us to wrestle with the request, until we get to the place where we are able to give the forgiveness requested, as much for ourselves and our own health as for the one being forgiven. Sometimes, reaching this place takes time and hard work. Yet, that journey toward forgiveness is not one we can opt out of.