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One of the most difficult tasks placed before humanity is the labor of forgiving. It is work. It is hard work. It rends the heart so healing can happen. How do I know this truth? I know it because I have experienced it. The words, “I forgive you” have not come easily to my lips; nor has my request to be forgiven! Sometimes, it is easier to say, “I’m sorry,” than it is to ask to be forgiven.
But stories of forgiveness seep into our midst. They can be watched on television, read in newspapers and magazines, seen in real life. They are the stuff of crucifixion and the essence of resurrection. The words of a writhing Christ hanging on a cross he knew was inevitable cut to the core of our being. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]
Is that the case? Is it that we do not know what we are doing, most of the time? Do we not realize the damage we inflict upon each other when we are self-righteous—when are so certain of our truth that all others are considered liars? Are totally unaware of our bigotry, our adherence to opinions that may or may not be based on proven facts? Do we not know that prejudice is carefully taught and more carefully preserved so that we can continue to live isolated lives?
I read about a redeemed Klansman who reunited with his long ago victim, a Jewish man whom he had terrorized as a youth. The victim, Stan Chassin—now a 59-year-old investment counselor—quite nervously approached his tormentor, Tommy Tarrants. Chassin had heard God’s voice speak to him when he had been at prayer in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He heard God tell him to forgive Tommy, now a 60 year old who had long since been profoundly changed. Not only did he hear God say that he needed to forgive Tommy for all that he had done, but Stan also had to ask Tommy to forgive him for all the hatred and disgust he had harbored in his heart. Ouch! That must have hurt!
But Stan did it. He offered forgiveness and asked for it in return. Tommy responded with quiet appreciation. Both men recognized the hand of God in the transformative action and responded with an embrace. Word of the experience spread. People called it a miracle. Chassin and Tarrants recalled the original encounter that had joined their lives with negativity and knew that they had been rejoined in reconciliation and love.
The story does not end here. Weeks later, Chassin spots a swastika spray-painted on an alley wall and is saddened at the sight. He knows that he now has a mission. Like Tarrants, he must continue to educate people about hatred, and about forgiveness. “The ignorance,” he said, “never goes away.” [National Catholic Reporter 2-22-08]
If the ignorance never goes away, neither must the forgiveness. If Easter means anything to us, it must mean we are called to be for giving more than we are for getting. We’ll not rise from our pettiness unless we seek to give to others rather than take from them. And we have a lot to give.
We can give encouragement to the downhearted. We can battle the rhetoric of extremism, fighting against hate speeches and distortions of truth. We can share looks of love rather than distaste or disgust or disapproval. We can point to the wonderfulness of our diversity instead of commenting negatively on our differences. At one of the Lenten lunches, Rich Vaughan commented upon the marvelous example of differences forming into prayerful unity. He asked everyone to note that a Roman Catholic was greeting folks as they entered the Presbyterian church for a service where Methodists were providing the meal and a Lutheran pastor was giving the message, and Baptists and non-denominational community church folks were among the attendees. He exclaimed, “We’re really ecumenical!” And the crowd spontaneously applauded. We had entered the arena of forgiveness and found joy.
The new documentary, called The Power of Forgiveness, and shown on public television stations this month, is the result of filmmaker Martin Doblemeier’s belief that forgiveness can transform the world. He also believes that America is “an angry culture, angry on the highways, angry in the movies. We’re a nation of people who are deeply hurt.”
Part of the challenge is found in Doblemeier’s statement, “Forgiveness is a decision. In other words, people don’t have to wait until they feel like forgiving to do so.” Back we go to that Calvary scene. I doubt that Jesus felt like asking his Father God to forgive those who were causing his death. He decided to ask. He decided that they would gain more from his forgiveness than they would from his judgment or condemnation or public outcry. Feelings had nothing to do with it, even if modern psychology and psychiatry would tell us that the ability to forgive can lower blood pressure and better cardiovascular health. As Doblemeier phrased it, “Jesus wasn’t forgiving because it was good for his health.” I’d add that he did so because it was good for their health.
To seek forgiveness and to offer it are the two edges of sword’s truth. Cutting through the layers of reasons to hate and excuses not to love, this sword rends the heart of both giver and receiver. It pierces to our spirit center of awareness...that place where we really do know what we are doing—and continue to do it, anyway. To request and receive forgiveness demands an open heart and mind, a willingness to admit our own flaws and failings, our errors and ignorance, our pride and prejudice. It is to die a little so that we might recognize the power of resurrection.
We have completed our Lenten fasting and abstinence, our sacrificial season. We have just celebrated Easter’s gloriously empty tomb. The journey to Jerusalem has ended. Our homeward pilgrimage is renewed. Gently and tenderly, we walk its way as forgiving people whose presence transforms the world.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master's degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Community Hospital, religious educator, retreat leader and lecture