“Increase our faith!”  Luke 17:5

Reflections on forgiveness in the context of occupation

How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times [seventy times seven  KJV].” (Matthew 18:22)

Forgiveness is an essential component of Christian faith and life. From the earliest years, we teach children to pray “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Mt. 6:12). God’s merciful forgiveness of sins, through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, is the central message of the Gospel. Even from the cross, our Lord said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).

There is no Christianity without forgiveness, and yet the practice of forgiveness continues to be a spiritual challenge for followers of Jesus today. Recently a small group of Palestinians and local internationals met at the Sabeel office in Jerusalem to reflect on the meaning of forgiveness in this particular time and place. We prayed together,read Scripture, and reflected on what forgiveness looks like in this context, amid ongoing occupation and state-sponsored oppression.

Some common themes emerged from this conversation:

  • How do we understand forgiveness when the violation is not in the past, but is ongoing?
  • Is repentance required to receive forgiveness? Is it required in order for us to give it?
  • Does forgiveness help or hinder the cause of liberation and justice?
  • Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” But what if our oppressors know very well what they are doing?
  • How do we find the courage/strength/faith to forgive?

First, it must be said that for many, it seems premature to be discussing forgiveness in this context at all. As someone in our small group stated, perhaps we should have waited until the occupation is over before we publish a “Cornerstone” issue on this theme! Even so, these friends of Sabeel felt it was important, as people of faith, to faithfully reflect on the scriptural command to forgive.

This was by no means an exhaustive study of forgiveness, either in Scripture or in Christian practice. In fact, we discovered that there are at least as many ways to interpret Jesus’ words as there are people in the room! But what became very clear is that it is impossible, in this context, to discuss forgiveness as merely a theological concept. In the context of oppression, conversations about forgiveness necessarily lead to discussions of justice, reconciliation, and reparations.

One of our group, an Ecumenical Accompanier ( in Yanoun, shared with us the story of standing with a resident in the rubble of his family business, which had been destroyed by Israeli soldiers—again. Not once, but many times, this man’s means to support his family was taken away. Not once, but many times, he was stripped of his dignity.

This situation is not unique. The Palestinian experience is filled with this kind of repeated violation. Entire villages are razed, again and again. Humiliation at the checkpoints occurs day after day. The separation wall blocks the sun, blocks the road, and blocks liberation not once, but every single morning. How does one forgive injustices that are not in the past, but are ongoing even now?

When we look to Scripture, we read that Jesus has said we must forgive “as many as seventy-seven times”. And again, he said: “And if that same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive”(Luke 17:4). This seems to suggest the need for a Christian to forgive even ongoing or repeated offenses.

When we consider this in the context of the occupation of Palestine, we wonder: Would Jesus ask a man to forgive the demolition of his home seventy-seven times? Even seven times a day? We know that when the disciples of Jesus heard this teaching, they responded in disbelief, saying, “Increase our faith!” To our ears, this command also sounds unbelievable, maybe even unhelpful.

First of all, we know there are religious leaders, community leaders, and family members who rush grieving people into forgiveness before they are ready. It is actually a form of theological oppression to demand that a man standing in the rubble of his house must forgive. It is theological oppression to insist that a mother who has lost her son to violence must immediately forgive—or to even praise God that he “died for the cause.” Forgiveness may come, but are not the grieving allowed to weep first?

Secondly, when we consider Jesus’ teaching to forgive ongoing and repeated offenses, we wonder: Does forgiving let the offenders “off the hook?” Would forgiving these sins diminish the possibility of achieving justice? And what about compensation for our pain? What about reparations?

We started discussing forgiveness, and as you can see we have already moved to repentance, justice, and reparations!We really don’t understand how to forgive while our families, our neighbors, and our communities are not yet free—and we cannot let go of our desire for justice. For this reason, we join the disciples in praying to Jesus: “Increase our faith!”

Although forgiveness is never simple or easy, it is always simpler when the offense is in the past. It’s also much easier if the offender shows repentance. We are in a situation today in which some occupiers deny they are occupying Palestine. Some even deny the existence of Palestine or the existence of Palestinians! For this reason, the relationship of repentance to forgiveness was a major theme of our discussion.

When Jesus commanded us to forgive, he said, “If another disciple sins, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” But what if there is no repentance at all? Are we still required to forgive? Is it even possible to forgive in this circumstance? What would such forgiveness look like?

A staff member offered the example of people who never receive a confession or repentance, but still choose to forgive their offender—for example, women who have been victims of sexual violence. Although such abusers often never admit to their crimes, many women have found the act of forgiving them to be powerful. Forgiving the offender becomes an important part of their own healing.

Forgiveness is costly. The great sacrifice involved in offering forgiveness is something many in our group affirmed. Especially when we are talking about forgiving injustices that are ongoing, and forgiving offenders who deny they are hurting us, it is important to acknowledge that this can be painful.

Of course, as followers of Jesus, we are familiar with sacrifice. We know that our Lord took on the sins of the world when he was crucified in Jerusalem, and we have heard his call to all disciples to also “take up the cross and follow me.” The way of the cross is never without pain and struggle—but we also believe the way of the cross leads to life.

As we continued to ponder the relationship of forgiveness to repentance, our group spent a lot of time discussing what is important to see from a person (or a state) requesting forgiveness. At this point, it was clear that we had moved on from forgiveness and repentance, and now we were discussing the ultimate goal of both: reconciliation.

In order for forgiveness to lead to reconciliation, it seems clear that a number of things must occur. First and foremost, it would be important to hear an admission of guilt and responsibility. In our context, for example, we hope to one day hear the state admit that the occupation of Palestine was wrong. Along with this admission of guilt, one would hope for a confession and the desire to be forgiven.

Admission of guilt and the desire to be forgiven must also be accompanied by repentance. Repentance literally means “to turn back”. It is impossible to turn back time and to erase the injustices of decades of occupation. However, if forgiveness is to lead to reconciliation, there would need to be a real change in behavior, an intentional turning away from tactics of oppression and turning toward liberation, justice, and human rights.

These steps are critical for imagining a time when the occupation as a whole could be forgiven. One of our group shared the story of going through a checkpoint recently, and for some reason he and the soldier started talking. He could see that this soldier, although he wore the uniform and carried the gun of the occupation, was uncomfortable with the job he was made to do. In fact, at one point, as he was checking his ID, the soldier said, “I’m really sorry for this.” And he said, “I forgave him! I really did. It is easy to forgive an individual. But I do not forgive the unjust system which puts the gun in his hand, and gives him the power to oppress me. That is something much different.”

Again and again, the contrast between forgiving individuals and forgiving systemic injustice came up in our group conversation. Although a person can imagine forgiving small, daily offenses, the task of forgiving these many years of suffering and oppression requires something more. Love alone cannot do it. Maturity alone cannot do it. We look to how our South African sisters and brothers have worked so diligently for truth and reconciliation after the end of apartheid, and we see that while it is difficult, through grace, real repentance is possible. Liberation and living together are possible. Forgiveness is possible. Reconciliation is possible.  But this is the work of grace.

So where does this leave us? How do we understand forgiveness in the context of occupation? What have we learned through our praying, studying, and reflecting together?

Forgiveness will not end the conflict. Forgiving the occupiers will not close the book on our grief, nor does it release them from responsibility for their actions. It does not take away our passion for justice. Sometimes we are so burdened by our own anger that we become stuck. Perhaps when Jesus commands us to forgive, it is to release us from the prison of grief, anger, and bitterness, so we are freed to pursue justice for our neighbors.

Forgiveness is very important for our faith, and for our context, for when we forgive, we are the ones who are liberated. When we forgive, we take away the power the oppressor has over us. When we forgive, it is out of a responsibility to break the cycle of violence.

Above all, when we forgive, we do it because of our faith in God, who through Jesus has already forgiven us.

Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Jesus has also called us to seek justice, to liberate the oppressed, and to speak truth to power. We seek to be faithful in all of these commitments, and so we pray along with the disciples: “Show us the way. Increase our faith!”

Prepaired by the Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith from the Evangelical Luthern Church of America, currently serving the English-speaking congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem. This article is based on a Sabeel Bible Study.