I unfortunately had to miss the second session of Alpha, so this was the third session. Today I went through my notes trying to remember this session, but I was completely stumped. My calendar clearly says I attended this session, but I have no memory of talking about why Jesus died. And I don’t have any notes about why Jesus died. My notes for session three are all about forgiveness. Eventually I realized that the title of the forgiveness session was “Why did Jesus die?”.

This feels like a bait-and-switch. Looking through the rest of the Alpha session titles, I think it’s a consistent and intentional tactic. All of the sessions have big question titles which sound like they’re covering the big questions. Someone skimming the course overview to decide whether to attend will think they’re going to get answers to all of life’s big questions. But in the sessions the big questions are skimmed over, and the bulk of the time is spent on kindergarten-level feel-good discussions. And it’s somehow subtle enough that I didn’t really notice it during the course. Of course, I just attending as often as I was able to, so I didn’t really check the course outline before I showed up each week. Someone who was waffling over whether they wanted to bother showing up might think “wow, this is important, I get to find out why Jesus died tonight” and be more likely to show up than if the session was just titled “forgiveness”.

Of course, the Alpha instructors probably do think that “forgiveness” is the answer to the question “Why did Jesus die?” But I don’t remember that being explained in any detail. When I rewatch the videos I’ll have to pay attention. Even if it’s in there it can’t be a very satisfying answer. After all, when we went around the table answering the question “Have you ever had to forgive someone”, not a single person said “yes, so I crucified my son…”. I can’t think of a single example in human history where someone had to die for forgiveness to take place. Why would there be one in divine history? You kill your enemies for revenge, you don’t kill your friends for forgiveness.

But I wasn’t thinking along these lines during the discussion, because I had completely forgotten that there was supposed to be a connection to Jesus. Instead, the discussion questions were “What does the word ‘forgiveness’ mean to you?” and “Have you ever had to forgive anyone? How did you do it?”.

I was once again stumped into silence. Forgiveness isn’t really a word that I use very often, and I’ve never really thought about what it means before. Going around the table the definitions and examples people were giving were basically “letting things go” and not holding on to past grievances. Which I agree is a good thing. But I felt like forgiveness should mean something more. For one thing, you should let go of a lot of things with non-human causes. But you don’t forgive the weather for ruining your vacation.

I had also recently read a detailed article about forgiveness, and the definition wasn’t just letting things go. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was. I felt like it was an article on one of the Catholic blogs I follow, but I couldn’t remember any details. I just knew that the things they were saying didn’t mesh with that article. It’s not that what they were saying was bad. It was just incomplete. One of my tablemates mentioned that the mother of one of the victims of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash had said in an interview that she forgave the driver, but still felt he should go to jail. That made me realize that what I was reaching for was something about the relationship between forgiveness and justice.

So I asked “is forgiveness independent from justice”, and everyone answered “no”. But if you can forgive and still want justice (like wanting the bus driver to go to jail) then forgiveness obviously isn’t ceasing to want justice, so what is the relationship? At this point AL came over and kept redirecting my questions, which I found frustrating. He kept asking things like “why do you want justice” which was awkward to answer because we weren’t talking about a particular example, so there was nothing to want justice for. I was trying to clarify the definition of the word that was the subject for the evening, and I felt like he kept changing the subject. Eventually he went off on a long monologue, but I don’t know what he said because my brain was still stuck on the forgiveness-justice question.

TLH came in after his session was over. I asked him “what is forgiveness” and right away he answered, “forgiveness is giving up your right to justice”! Which I swear is exactly the quote I had been struggling to remember all night. I was very impressed, but by that point we were out of time, so I went home.

When I got home, I asked my husband “what is forgiveness” and he said “Are you kidding? You just read a never-ending pamphlet out loud to me in the car about forgiveness!” I thought “Of course! That quote is from June Hunt’s pamphlet on forgiveness that I picked up at the Ark Encounter Sex Conference!” Except that I reread the pamphlet, and she doesn’t say that. In fact, she contradicts it. So, I searched the internet, and can’t find a single instance of that quote or anything resembling it anywhere. So I’m not sure if that’s actually the quote I was reaching for, or if it was just close enough to some of the things June Hunt wrote to make me think it was right.

That was the experience of the third Alpha Course session. I’m going to write about June Hunt’s forgiveness pamphlet next week and get onto session four the following week.