The recent death of Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president of the United States, has given us an opportunity to reflect on his presidency and on the circumstances that brought him to office in the first place.
Ford was appointed, not elected vice president, after Spiro Agnew was forced to resign over a financial scandal. Ford then became president when Richard Nixon resigned his office in the face of almost certain impeachment growing out of his role in the Watergate break in and cover up.
And so Ford became what some have called the accidental president. He came to office with Americans bruised and divided over Vietnam and Watergate. Ironically, he was in office during America’s bicentennial. After 200 years of an experiment in democracy, we were being led by a man not elected to the office he held.
Fortunately President Ford was a man of integrity. He understood the ambivalence of being an un-elected President, and sought to lead from the middle. In fact, the only real controversy of his brief presidency was his first act as president–he pardoned Richard Nixon.
Though highly criticized at the time, the pardon was an act of tremendous courage. Forgiveness always is. Forgiveness does not mean that the wrong done was not wrong. Forgiveness does not mean that it is necessary to continue to have a relationship with the offending person–that is reconciliation and involves a whole other dynamic.
And forgiveness also does not mean “forgetting” what was done. The whole idea of “forgive and forget” grows out of a misunderstanding of what the Bible means by “remember.”
The Bible says that after we receive our pardon, God “remembers our sins no more.” This does not mean that God goes through some mental gymnastics where our behavior is blotted from the divine consciousness. It simply means that God chooses not to hold our failure against us.
This becomes clear as we consider the other side of “remember.” The Bible describes God hearing the cry of the people of Israel and “remembers the covenant.” Does that mean up until that point God had forgotten the covenant? No, it means that God begins to act in a way that honors the covenant. Remembering is honoring, not remembering means not holding it against us.
Besides all that, forgiveness is not something we do for the offending party. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves. In choosing not to hold onto the anger, the hurt, the sense of betrayal, by “letting go,” of the offense, we begin to heal ourselves. The opposite of forgiveness, whatever name we may give it, eventually consumes us with anger and resentment.
So from that point of view, what President Ford did was a gracious act of healing for the whole country. He provided a way for us to let go of our disappointment and disillusionment and get on with our lives.
It is perhaps worth noting that Jimmy Carter, who succeeded Gerald Ford as president, also began his presidency with an act of forgiveness. Carter pardoned all those who had illegally avoided military service during the Vietnam era. It may have provided some benefit to those pardoned, but it was mainly an act of healing for the whole country after a long war.
We can admire both Ford and Carter for their willingness to heal our nation and resist the instinctive urge to punish those who hurt us. It was for both of them an act of tremendous courage. Forgiveness always is.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.