This is not my usual kind of essay. It may not be an essay at all, and it’s not even nice. I am writing this because I can’t be the only one who goes through this particular challenge—it must be ubiquitous enough—and I hope (I hope!) that maybe my rather improvisory train of thought could spark something in you, my reader, that might one day be useful.
You see, I’ve been having a diseased relationship with someone close to me. Usually trouble starts when what I think to be a discussion on an exceedingly neutral topic becomes an argument, and I try to be rational, but it turns personal and awful, and I walk away after a final insult thrown in my direction, regretting everything about it, regretting ever opening my mouth and wishing only not to be there and promising myself never to let it happen again and knowing that it will. Because I’ve tried that promise before, and it happens again and again. Because neither I nor my interlocutor can change our natures.
It takes two to fight. Two for any interaction. I feel I don’t make them into fights, don’t make it personal, and I feel wronged and misunderstood. I know for sure that the person on the other side of the table feels exactly the same way. The last time this happened, I was ready to give up. Because I sincerely didn’t mean for our conversation to go awry and cannot put my finger on the moment it did, I don’t know how to prevent the problem from repeating, other than persistently and demonstrably ignore somebody who is in my life on a regular basis. And so, walking about my chores, in the aftermath of another day marred by enmity between people who care for each other, I find myself thinking about forgiveness. And I find myself wondering: If I were on my way to a neighboring village to hear a rabbi from Nazareth teach, and if I were to bring him my problem, what would Jesus say?
This is a way I often probe my conscience—I and about a billion other people. What Would Jesus Do? What would Jesus say?
I get the first hint and reminder of it when, mentally disheveled and emotionally spent, I feel his hands on my shoulders and something between a whisper and a smile that says, “Calm. I am here. I am joy. You will not be swallowed by this. Think.” We all have our ways of regaining ourselves, but then—we do have to think: What do we do about the thing that has just almost swallowed us whole? What would Jesus do?
This question, for Christians, is a way to step out of our muck and chaos, to shake off what’s muddying our thinking—resentment, worry, hurry—and descend the stair from our heads to our hearts, to the pillars of our moral identities and the foundation of our goodness and dignity. Christians call it “the Gospel message” and open the scripture. Not always. Often.
Today, I think about forgiveness, the ties that bind, and patience. In the world of my mind, where Jesus and I are leafing through the Bible together, I ask him questions and he points to a passage. I push, complain, and provoke. He challenges, soothes, and explains. Question, answer. This is the conversation.
Me: My Love, I can’t take it anymore. I’m drowning in animosity and unpredictability—wave after wave, I’m swallowing water and just trying to paddle and only create more waves. I don’t like myself when this happens. I can’t just stop talking to a person, can I?
Jesus: Bear wrongs patiently. I didn’t say this one—it’s a Work of Mercy—but I like it. As long as you guys don’t misinterpret what it means and start letting bullies and racists off the hook. But you know what it means: Wrongs will come. Wrongs will go. They don’t own you. Breathe.
Me: I don’t know that I have enough patience. It feels as though every other encounter we have, my heart is under assault in the same fashion. I’m wearing thin.
Jesus: Blessed are the merciful, my dear. If your brother sins against you seven times a day, and seven times a day turns back to you saying, “I am sorry,” forgive him. Seventy times seven forgive him.
Me: I don’t have a brother.
Jesus: It’s a catch-all in ancient Judah for “one of your own,” which you know perfectly well. Are you sassing me, or do you really think that table-top temper inflammation is such a serious sin?
Me: No. But, maybe, lack of benevolence is. Maybe, letting yourself become insufferable, erratic, and defensive, maybe letting others carry your emotional burden is. Maybe, when your loved ones are afraid to ask you for help or share troubles with you, it’s a sin.
Jesus: Maybe. You know what I said about that?
Me: What? Forgive and forgive? Keep taking it? What if your “brother” doesn’t turn to you with a “sorry” seven times a day? You know, my Love, you yelled at people plenty.
Jesus: True love is not blind, and divine forgiveness is not endless sitting, letting an aggressor run rampant while you congratulate yourself on being meek. That’s the kind of misunderstanding people tend to have with bearing wrongs patiently. If you see your brother sin, it is your job to talk to him—one on one, be kind. If you can’t get through on your own, bring wise people to help.
Me: Matthew 18:15… They call it “admonishing the sinner” in the Works of Mercy. But…it just sounds so arrogant. Don’t you think I’ve tried talking, to the degree I could? Either it would end in an explosion or disappear into a fog of memory like nothing ever happened. Yet I always wonder if it’s my place—it takes two, after all. You know? It takes two for a bad thing to happen between two people, so I keep looking for my part in this, and I know there is. Though more often than not I end up thinking that my part was engaging in the debate in the first place.
Jesus: It is your place: you are one of the two. It is your place to touch all touchable things, though each thing has a right time and a way to be touched. Have you done your best, have you called for help? Have you taken the next step: involving the church?
Me: What church? My Heart, we have no church in common! We have no community, no authority, no forum at all we both answer to other than some abstract conceptions that don’t seem to matter here, on the ground. Rabboni, there is no church!
Jesus: There is one final step in my instructions should all else fail.
Me: “Let him be to you as a Gentile”? Sever the connection, treat the person who used to be a loved one as a stranger: with courtesy and decency, benevolence and a smile. Help when help is needed if you happen to find out. Chat when passing by if you happen to have time. Don’t argue, stop short of frustration. Don’t correct errors if they’re not life-threatening. Don’t mind about his plans because yours don’t depend on them. Ever.
Jesus: Are you ready for that?
Me: I don’t know. I’m not… I don’t know about that. I don’t even know I want to treat a stranger like a stranger.
Jesus: Let me say, when I gave my instruction, I was referring to generally more serious problems. Sins of harm and moral bankruptcy, the cleaving of families, held on to stubbornly, out of evil, cowardice, or pride. The price is banishment. You’re craving more serenity and loving atmosphere in mundane interaction, but really: is this enough to make a big deal?
Me: Not when you put it like that… But you know, you gave your instructions under very different circumstances!
Jesus: There are pluses and minuses to every change. Have you tried arguing less and praying more?
Me: Have you met me, Darling? I argue for a living. Yes, I’ve tried. I’m trying my best, but they—
Jesus: Let me put it this way: Remember when I said that, before you bring your offering to the altar, you must reconcile with your brother?
Me: I remember. Matthew 5. Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus: Have you noticed how I never said a word about whose fault it would be and how that would matter? That’s because it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter who starts it, who takes offense first or last. It takes two to make a bad thing happen—takes two to make good. Go, reconcile with your brother.
Me: I understand. I’ll try again. Except…
Jesus: Except what?
Me: It’s a bit complicated. Mundane interaction wears on our minds and hearts, it accumulates, it’s not unimportant. It’s how we live our lives. In your ancient Judah, people didn’t tend to have a choice of family and neighbors, not always even friends. In the 21st century USA, we usually do. And here, other people depend on me and how I handle this, what they now call “emotional dynamic.” What if I can’t fix it, change it? What if I keep trying and get stuck in a hamster wheel? And bury not only myself in it but other loved ones?
Jesus: It happens. Not every battle can be won, not each one is worth fighting. Some people just shouldn’t be friends, some should never come near each other—they bring out the worst in each other. It happens. But you are already connected, and deeply, to this brother of yours, so you will keep trying until you realize with every fiber of your being this isn’t your brother in the way you thought. You will give up only if and when you no longer feel the ties that bind between you, and then you will be strangers—never as strange to each other as foreign passersby but never as familiar as you used to be. Should the moment come, you will know. But until then, you will try and try again, find new ways within yourself, forgive and bear patiently—and while you do, I will be of greater help to you as a real voice and warm embrace in prayer, not your intellectual construct flipping Scripture pages. [dissolves into the ether of my mental abstraction]
Me: I know. Thanks. See you soon, then? [sigh]