The kind people at the Unitarian Universalist Community of Lake County invite me a time or two every year to step into their pulpit and deliver a guest sermon. Earlier today, I shared this message on forgiveness with them, which serves as a kind of followup and elaboration to my post last April in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. I found it useful to return to this topic in a more expansive way after some time had passed, and I hope readers may get further food for thought as well.
Forgiveness is one of those topics we’re never quite done with in human life. The “I’m sorry/That’s OK, I forgive you” dynamic gets introduced to us sometime in our toddler years, when we inadvertently take a whack at our grandma’s nose while reaching for her glasses and our parents, aghast, tell us with great earnestness, “You hurt Grandma, tell her you’re sorry!” Mortified and confused, we mumble something and hope Grandma will still love us and sneak us candy when our parents aren’t looking.
Being on both ends of this forgiveness cycle—asking for forgiveness and needing to forgive—then follows us the rest of our lives. It never becomes irrelevant because human beings never become perfect. We fail each other and ourselves right up till our dying days, at which time we take a last accounting and, as the ideal goes, we forgive everyone who has ever wronged us, lest we take in any bitterness with our last breath.
Now: the need to accept and forgive human frailty can make many UUs a tad queasy—especially those of us who fled Christian upbringings. It reminds us of all that original sin business we wanted to be done with when we left the tradition. But I’ve always translated original sin as a basic acknowledgement of human imperfection. Not such a big deal. The alternative is either an impossible quest for perfection or heads buried in the sands of denial regarding how much attention and ongoing repair work human relationship requires.
‘I’ll take care of them,’ says God, who, being God, has seen it all before, probably too many times.
Perhaps the most difficult part of this is that most of the people who fail us and whom we fail are those closest to us—our spouses and family and friends. They are the ones with whom we share deep emotional lives and therefore great vulnerability, great capacity to feel wronged.
Yet forgive them we must if we are to maintain flourishing human relationships. I would go so far as to say that without forgiveness, healthy relationships become pretty much impossible.
That said, forgiveness can be a complicated matter. It’s one thing to forgive your spouse for leaving the milk out on the counter yet again after breakfast, but what about forgiving a terrorist who has killed your child with a bomb in order to make some vague political point? We’ll explore these distinctions a bit later on.
For now, let us observe that most every religious tradition cites forgiveness as a key to the spiritual life.
In Judaism, the Book of Isaiah has God state, “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is regarded as the holiest day of the year on a Jewish calendar that is rife with holy days.
In the Koran, Muhammad says: “If you love God, follow me, and God will love you, and forgive you all your sins; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.”
The Bhagavad Gita tells Hindus: “Though a man be soiled with the sins of a lifetime, let him but love me, rightly resolved, in utter devotion. I see no sinner, that man is holy.”
Christianity goes so far as to put forgiveness at the very center of human history, God having sacrificed his beloved son for the express purpose of forgiving human beings for their sinful, fallen ways.
“How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to 7 times?” Peter asked Jesus. “The heck with that!” Jesus replied. (I translate loosely here…) “70 times 7!” In other words: Forgive without end!
But there’s an interesting complication here, isn’t there? Even though Jesus clearly states that there be no limit to our forgiveness, his own father reserves the right to throw people into the eternal fires of hell. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord,” goes the line in Romans. And according to traditional Christian theology, God does just that to unrepentant sinners, never more colorfully expressed than by Jonathan Edwards’s classic Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God:
The Wrath of God burns against them, their
Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the
Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to
receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The
glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the
Pit hath opened her Mouth under them.
Well! How’s that for the good news of forgiveness and freedom in Christ being shouted from the rooftops on Sunday morning?!
Though we are to forgive 70 times 7 and God is regarded as all-merciful by the three Hebraic religions, let us note that God’s patience has limits. But what is it that he’s waiting for? This is a central point, and I think we do well as UUs to hearken back to our Christian roots on this matter. In Christian parlance, God’s requirement is that sinners repent, that they acknowledge their sin and beg for absolution. No repentance, no forgiveness—and into the pits of hell they are flung.
But notably, God forbids us taking vengeance, which he reserves for himself. Why? I would say it’s to preserve the domestic tranquility and spare our own spirits the dark task of stewing in bitterness and resentment of those who have wronged us. “I’ll take care of them,” says God, who, being God, has seen it all before, probably too many times. “I can handle it, but don’t you go ruin your lives and your society in an unending cycle of revenge.”
So if we maintain the willingness to forgive and our transgressor is remorseful and asks for forgiveness, relationship and covenant are restored and the cosmic ledger is set aright. Bitterness dissolves. In Christian terms, refusing to atone and ask forgiveness means God flings you into hell, but that is easily understood in UU terms as the transgressor staying in a hell of his own making, filled with hate and devoid of relationship. You don’t have to get flung into any pit beneath the earth for that—you’re already living in it.
Mandela’s apology also set the conditions for South African prime minister F.W. de Klerk to offer his own apology for apartheid. Who would have predicted THAT in the dark period of violence and turmoil that accompanied Mandela’s 27 years in prison?
When you take a tour through the self-help books on forgiveness, most emphasize the point of forgiving in order to heal yourself and avoid the anger and despair that can follow from feeling wronged. We’re supposed to forgive not only because it’s the right and moral thing to do for the imperfect human beings who have injured us, but also because forgiveness frees our own minds and hearts from the bitterness that eats away at us if we fail to pardon our transgressors.
One of the most famous examples of this is Nelson Mandela, whose capacity for forgiveness may well have completely altered the course of South African history. One can make a convincing case that it was the example of his forgiveness that prevented a bloodbath in his country at the end of apartheid. He wrote:
As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.
In thus freeing himself from his own psychological prison, Mandela also released his country from the same. It allowed for a peaceful transformation and healing process to commence that while bumpy, remains one of the more astonishing historical developments of recent times. His apology also set the conditions for South African prime minister F.W. de Klerk to offer his own apology for apartheid. Who would have predicted that in the dark period of violence and turmoil that accompanied Mandela’s 27 years in prison?
The lesson here is that just as violence begets violence, forgiveness begets forgiveness. How many times have you apologized to someone after a spat and the person says, “You know, I guess I was being kind of ridiculous, too.” Then you try to top each other over who was actually being the bigger jerk.
So: does the pretty much universal consensus on the need and power of forgiveness mean we are required to forgive everyone who wrongs us, no matter how grievously? And if so, when must it be granted? Right away, without conditions? The mega-selling evangelist minister and author Rick Warren thinks so: “Forgiveness must be immediate,” he says. And then he adds this in what would seem to be in conflict with his own Christian tradition: “…whether or not a person asks for it.” No repentance required there. Then he makes a distinction between forgiveness and trust. While forgiveness must be immediate, “Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record.”
All right, so we can forgive someone but still keep a wary eye on them. Forgiveness doesn’t mean instant forgetting. The writer Anne Lamott gives us a colorful rendition of this sentiment:
Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare.
And then there is the distinction between offenses. Must we forgive horrid transgressions such as rape or murder as readily as we forgive someone who stands us up for a dinner date? This is where calls for immediate, across-the-board forgiveness hit a serious snag.
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year, there was plentiful discussion in the UU and larger religious world about forgiveness for this heinous act. The bodies of dead children hadn’t even been released from the morgue yet; survivors were still enduring initial surgeries to get the shrapnel removed from their bodies. The entire city of Boston was still on alert. Yet we were already hearing calls in some religious circles for forgiveness and compassion for the bombers, who, it turns out, had been going to various parties during the police search for them.
Hearing from outside observers who hadn’t lost a loved one or a leg that the bombers had to be immediately forgiven struck me as both sanctimonious—in an “easy for you to say” way—and also as largely irrelevant. It made me think that a good rule of thumb might be: If you are not directly injured by an offense, it is not your place and doesn’t really matter whether you forgive the perpetrator. You may feel horror and grief, but it will not be even remotely equivalent to what those close to the incident feel. Our wisest and most compassionate course is to let them deal with forgiveness as they will.
It is difficult enough to grapple with the pain of being injured without being lectured that it’s time to “let go” and “move on.” The heart has its own timetable for grieving its wounds and washing the slate clean.
So: Forgiveness can’t be rushed. The victim must be ready to forgive. And before that can happen, the offender must ask for forgiveness. If the offender is unrepentant and just laughs in your face when you forgive him, what does forgiveness really mean? This is where I would say we confuse forgiveness with acceptance.
With the help of our spiritual practices, therapy, friends and simple time, we can certainly learn to accept an awful thing that has happened to us, regardless of the perpetrator’s feelings. Acceptance is an internal realization, not dependent on whether the transgressor is remorseful and desiring forgiveness. It is a solo act, while forgiveness involves a duo: the transgressor and the aggrieved in an exchange, restoring the bonds of relationship and the tear in the social fabric.
But this can be a very difficult process, even with just one transgression played out on a personal level between two people, much less on a societal level between groups or cultures or countries enmeshed in long-running conflicts. One need only look to the Middle East, and the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and the Arab countries, to see the complicated dynamics of forgiveness writ large.
“An eye for an eye would leave the whole world blind,” goes the old saying. (It’s generally attributed to Gandhi but was actually written by his biographer in describing Gandhi’s approach to non-violence.) Both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict have more justification than they can possibly even recall for being aggrieved and nursing fantasies of revenge. Which they proceed to do at depressingly regular intervals.
And what is it getting them? An almost perpetual state of war, fear and distrust. These are the wages of decades of righteous anger and vengeance that the players in this drama do not “leave to the Lord” but instead insist on perpetrating themselves. Perhaps the entire region still awaits its Mandela or Gandhi—one on either side and in the same era, preferably. Meanwhile, the situation remains a painful object lesson in how refusing to forgive keeps victims in an endless cycle of grief and self-justifying violence.
For our own parts, we just as clearly need to cultivate our inner Mandela and Gandhi to understand the reality that we will forever hurt and be hurt in this life. Slights both minor and severe will come our way just as surely as the sun’s rising in the morning. Taking a mature view of this means accepting that it will happen, and thus resolving to forgive and ask for forgiveness when and how it is appropriate. All without harboring unrealistic expectations or expressing abstract pieties.
The psychologist Thomas Szasz had a cogent take on the matter in these memorable lines:
The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.
With proper intention and reflection, forgiveness can come in its own time, when the heart is ready. When it does, it serves all parties in an ancient dynamic that plays out all over the world, every minute of the day. I’ll leave it to Shakespeare to sign us off here with these lovely lines from The Merchant of Venice:
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
And blessed be and amen to that, my brothers and sisters, as you go about your forgiving, forgiven, and joyful ways.
Elvis gives this Simon & Garfunkel classic his own spiritual, gospel-like sheen, to powerful effect…
The host of talented photographers whose work graces this post include: Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Small daisies and sunset photos courtesy of Julie Jordan Scott of Bakersfield, CA, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing. See more of her work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/juliejordanscott/
Red and white tulips photo courtesy of Erfi A. Seiawan of Jakarta, Indonesia, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing. See more of his work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/postflowersyndroms/
“Temple of Forgiveness” photo is from the 2007 Burning Man Festival, courtesy of Waldemar Horwat, Sunnyvale, CA, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing. See more of his work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/naturalturn/
Bamboo stalk photo courtesy of Heather Katsoulis of West Springfield, MA , some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing. See more of her work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hlkljgk/
Nelson Mandela statue photo courtesy of Chris Preen of Cape Town, South Africa, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing. See more of his work at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/framesofmind/