It was a terrible thing when, a few years ago, a gunman opened fire and killed 3 school girls and wounded 7 others in an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster, PA. Joan Chittister comments on this terrible tragedy:
Without doubt, to see such a peaceful people brutally attacked would surely leave any decent human being appalled. But it was not the violence suffered by the Amish community last week that surprised people. Our newspapers are full of brutal and barbarian violence day after day after day-national and personal.
No, what really stunned the country about the attack on the small Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania was that the Amish community itself simply refused to hate what had hurt them.
“Do not think evil of this man,” the Amish grandfather told his children at the mouth of one little girl’s grave.
“Do not leave this area. Stay in your home here,” the Amish delegation told the family of the murderer. “We forgive this man.”
No, it was not the murders, not the violence, that shocked us; it was the forgiveness that followed it for which we were not prepared. It was the lack of recrimination, the dearth of vindictiveness that left us amazed. Baffled. Confounded.
Forgiveness – true forgiveness – in our society is quite rare. Most people – and I would include most church-goers in our country would want revenge, not only on the shooter, but also on his family. We don’t really accept the idea that forgiving one another is the other side of the coin of being forgiven ourselves. It is not because God will not forgive us unless we forgive others. It is that, unless we are able to forgive, then we will never believe that we are forgivable ourselves. But most churches teach that God will never forgive us unless we forgive others first. It puts limitations on God’s forgiveness, as well as God’s love and acceptance of each of us. Richard Rohr clearly summarizes the difference:
“There are two utterly different forms of religion: One believes that God will love me if I change; the other believes that God loves me so that I can change!”
- What the Mystics Know
Somehow, we must set aside our upbringing, that for most of us included the first idea, that God will love me if I change, and put in its place the second idea, that God loves me already – with no preconditions – and that enables me to change.
Part of the change that needs to happen in us is to find a way to forgive the people in our lives who have hurt us deeply, or hurt the people we love. In their book, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, Desmond Tutu and his daughter Umpho tell the following story about a man and his siblings and the abuse they suffered at the hands of their father:
He has never said he was sorry for what he did to me, to our family. He has never explained why he was so violent or angry. I have no idea how he could beat and torture his own flesh and blood and seem to find so much joy in the process. I used to think he wasn’t human. I used to pretend he didn’t exist.
Eventually I realized that I was carrying him with me everywhere I went, into every intimate relationship, and even into my own parenting. It was this more than anything, I think, that made me simply turn my motorcycle up his driveway one afternoon. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. The pain of constantly carrying him with me was finally greater than the pain of the beatings I took as a child. Something had to give.
It was something bigger than me that made me forgive him. One day I drove up his driveway and he came out side and we talked about motorcycles. We both really like motorcycles. And in that instant, when we both were bent down looking at that greasy engine, side by side, I forgave him. I looked at his long gray hair, his wrinkled face, his obvious weakening from hard living and old age. He was human. He was so flawed. He loved motorcycles just like me, and somewhere in the middle of seeing all that, I simply forgave him. It was like this huge boulder was lifted off my chest and I could finally breathe again. He didn’t ask me to forgive him. He wasn’t sorry or remorseful. Still, I forgave.
We didn’t skip off into the sunset together. In fact, years later I saw him again and he said something to me that felt hurtful and critical, and for a moment I wondered if the forgiveness had worn off. Instead, I learned that I had an expectation that my forgiveness would magically turn him into a nice guy, a different guy, a better guy. And with this expectation I was making myself a victim to him all over again. The magic didn’t happen to him. The magic happened to me. I felt lighter. The world seemed a more hopeful place. I learned not to take things so personally, and I learned that I was the only one responsible for what kind of father I turned out to be to my children. I wasted decades of my life reliving the victimization I endured as a child. When forgave my father, it all melted away. I was free. Forgiveness didn’t save him or let him off the hook. It saved me.
This is the true meaning of forgiveness. It does not make everyone else different, sometimes not even the one we forgive. But it does make us different. It is the only thing that allows us to escape the abuse, the tragedy, the worst events of our lives. In their book on Forgiveness, the Tutu’s describe the reaction of Kia Scherr, whose husband and 13-year old daughter were staying at the hotel in Numbai when the terrorists attacked. Both were killed. Her response was not what anyone expected. She said, as she learned the news: “we must forgive them.” Later, she reflected on that decision:
Forgiveness has allowed me to keep my heart open and soft. I chose to forgive because I knew that if I did not, the unforgiving would have kept me closed and hardened inside. I made an instantaneous choice when Alan and Naomi were murdered to let go of anger, hatred, and any desire for retaliation.
This is true transformation. When we unleash the power of unconditional love, we create an environment for positive change. There is still a world of possibility, even when the worst thing happens that could possibly happen. Forgiveness gives me the capacity to contribute something of value – to create a positive outcome to a terrible tragedy. I have lost Alan and Naomi, but I now know I will spend the rest of my life inviting people around the world to open to the experience of peace, love, and compassion through the power of forgiveness. Our survival as a human race depends on it. It was not my choice to have this horrific experience. But it is my choice as to what happens next.
As Kia Scherr says:
We don’t’ have choices sometimes as to what life brings to us, but we do have a choice as to what happens next. Without forgiveness, we can never fully extricate ourselves from the experiences and people that have hurt us. Without forgiveness, we cannot fully live life afterwards. Otherwise, we remain prisoners of our grief, our hurt, our need for revenge.
As we are able to forgive, then we are able to move into life, the life we have now, not the one we left when we were not able to forgive. And the amazing thing is that, when we are able to forgive, then we are able to really believe that God is able to love us and forgive us, even for the hurt and the pain that we have caused in our life. It is then that we can pray with the assurance that our prayer will be answered: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”