After holding onto a lot of grief and hurt, I recently made an effort to forgive someone I’ve despised for months who holds an authoritative position in the church. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about the absurdity of a 21st century corporation operating on the ideals that grace and forgiveness should be the cornerstone of the organization. I’ve been thinking about just how radical that actually is, whether it’s good business practice or not, and how it might be both the church’s undoing and the reason it’ll survive well beyond the 21st century at the same time.
Bear with me here. Imagine for a second that Steve Jobs, instead of firing people who weren’t getting things done or who he just didn’t like, had decided to bring them into his office, yell at them until they said they were sorry, and then forgave them. Apple probably would have collapsed, and Jobs probably wouldn’t be the visionary we believe him to be. Or, how about our government? Can you imagine a prison system that released murderers and dangerous criminals once they showed earnestly that they were contrite? I guess people do get out earlier for “good behavior,” but the world outside the church really doesn’t operate with the premise of radical forgiveness in mind, and that’s probably been a good thing for the most part.
You might even argue the church itself can be too forgiving. A friend of mine has done some great work to this end in pointing out that Biblical forgiveness is not unconditional; unconditional forgiveness is a modern construct placed onto Biblical texts which always instructed that accountability come first. And forgiving people who are likely to repeat past violent behavior dangerously gives them a clean slate they shouldn’t have. While I don’t doubt that some folks in the Catholic Church were very interested in covering up the abuse scandal, I’d be willing to bet that some of the priests who were shifted to a different parish (rather than fired) were being given a second chance because it was a church that was operating with that kind of cheap forgiveness as a chief principle. Sometimes, the church confuses forgiveness and reconciliation when it shouldn’t: you can forgive people who’ve wronged you or your organization but that doesn’t mean you allow them to keep working for you, representing you, or empowered by you.
But in an organization like the church, how much does a person have to screw up before it becomes time to cut ties and move on? That’s easy to figure out when it’s grave abuse, but it’s a much harder question to answer when it’s more common failures – showing up late, poor communication, not being very organized, mishandling funds, holding views that aren’t in line with the organization, etc. (i.e. you know, things people might really easily get fired for most places). The church, because of its history, has the hard task of trying to figure out where to draw that line – a task made much harder when it’s working with a past where some of its greatest “saints” were redeemed murderers from Moses to David to Paul. If church business includes forgiving the worst of the worst, where do you draw the line?
And that’s just it. When an organization’s legacy is the forgiveness of murderers who became great leaders, it’s probably going to continue to function as an organization that maybe forgives too quickly or too easily, and it’s inevitably and rightly going to be criticized for doing so. This backward business approach won’t necessarily foster visionaries like Steve Jobs into our world, and if we’re not careful, it can also keep the wrong people in the wrong place doing the wrong thing – all while being forgiven for those mistakes. And yet, in the midst of that radical forgiveness, there’s also a lesson about uniting community and maintaining relationship, and for the seemingly 99% of the time the church gets it wrong, there’s that 1% of the time where the church gets it right in a way that almost no non-religious organization can compare. Sometimes, the church gives the wrong people the right chance to become the right people, and then that’s exactly what happens. They won’t invent a new iPhone that way, but they might give people a radical love they can’t get anywhere else. So, for as disappointed as we’re bound to be in churches and other religious organizations when they get it wrong for being a little too loving, there’s something about that legacy worth being proud of, too. I say that as someone who’s needed to be forgiven just as much as he’s needed to forgive, and there’s something about realizing we’re all in that boat that keeps the boat floating.