Forgiveness and reconciliation
As we go through the day with its news of events in which one person or group has deliberately threatened, endangered, offended or injured another, we respond in different ways. Often the response may be anger at an insulting remark, horror at the destruction terrorist attacks bring upon innocent people or fear of a threat or injury. Whether we are personally involved or not, many human actions include hurting others in ways which violate the great commandment: to love one another.
All of us will recall one of childhood’s first lessons that followed immediately after we took another child’s toy or were rude to anyone. We heard the clear directive: “Say ‘I’m sorry!’” We may have learned the words by rote, but we soon learned from experience that some conduct is not acceptable. Then, when another accepted our apology, we learned forgiveness. We hoped the other person would respond so life could moved on. This is the cycle of forgiveness and reconciliation that we strive to follow in our personal lives.
When we take a broader view of the need for forgiveness and reconciliation between nations, groups, races, religions, factions and countless other divisions, the solutions are not so simple. Two possible measures are open to us. First, examine our own likes and dislikes, try to find what is good on each side and attempt to diffuse the anger we may sense in ourselves or in others. This is the role of the peacemaker that is neither simple nor always successful. The second approach is to take to heart and put into action the Gospel message and pray that it may be heard and seen in our daily living.
Two of the Gospel passages that call for attention are well known to us. In Matthew Jesus says, “Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your Father in heaven will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings” (Matthew 6: 14-15). Later in Matthew is Jesus’ response to Peter’s question: “Then Peter went up to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22). As disciples of Jesus, these words apply to our personal and public lives.
One of my friends told me a modern Jesus story about the wisdom of a child. His granddaughter, seven year old Audrey, is already showing us how deeply she understands the ways of God. At a family gathering, a spirited discussion arose. The family members exchanged clear and at times heated differences of opinion. Audrey’s grandmother was not present, and several people observed that she would not be pleased with one possible outcome, would no doubt be very angry, and would make her feelings forcefully known. On hearing this description of her grandmother, Audrey said: “Grandma wouldn’t do that! Grandma is like God, slow to anger!” We could add the rest of the quote from Psalm 145: “rich in mercy and compassion.” Audrey’s words echo in me often as I listen and ponder the opposite sides of community, national and international issues.
The God we seek and the God who persistently seeks us IS “slow to anger, rich in mercy and compassion.” The forgiving God of Providence calls us forth daily to deepen our commitment to love, mercy and justice in ourselves and in our world.
Forgiveness, I believe, has a threefold reality. First we seek forgiveness of God for our personal sins and failures. There is certain hope and grace in knowing that a prodigal God is “slow to anger, rich in mercy and compassion” in my regard. God’s forgiveness is just that — a given — ready even before we ask. We also seek forgiveness from those whom we offend by word, action, or inaction. To ask another for forgiveness seems to take more courage than to ask it of God, but such is the cost of humility and the trust that the one we have offended will accept us with mercy and compassion.
The second and equally demanding quality of forgiveness is that in which we imitate the God of mercy and compassion as we experience offenses against ourselves. We might identify with Peter, the great questioner, who knew Jesus was very emphatic about our need to forgive, but felt there ought to be limits! How much offense are we expected to take from one another? We know Jesus’ answer only too well. Without limit we are called to bear with one another and they with us, in a grace-filled summons to reconciliation. We pray at each Eucharist the prayer that Jesus taught us, with its clear message. If we take God’s Word seriously we will be forgiven as we forgive those who have sinned against us. God is merciful and compassionate, but also unmistakably emphatic on the conditions required of us. We just don’t get off the hook of “loving our neighbor as we love ourselves,” even when that neighbor offends us.
Perhaps one of the ways to think of our forgiving another is that we allow ourselves to let go of the hurt, the sense of betrayal, the feelings that tie us in knots. Forgiving is basically letting go of the desire for revenge, for self-defense, for closing ourselves off from others. These unforgiving responses limit our own freedom to be loving, and deny the love we could extend if we were slow to anger, rich in mercy and compassion. You may say “Yes, but that is God’s response! I am only human.” True, but human as made in God’s image, baptized into Christ Jesus, daughters and sons of the Father, led by the Spirit, called and gifted by God’s grace to be a holy people.
The third aspect of forgiveness is that which we must extend even to ourselves. We would rather be perfect in our own eyes, with no need for self-forgiveness, but that is not the truth of the matter. We pray for courage to allow God to transform us through the people and events of daily life. In that daily life we live the Paschal Mystery, the dying and rising with Jesus. Only so do we come to the fullness of life.
This is grace, that God acts in us, giving us the kind of peace and freedom we see in others as reconciliation happens. An international example of this can be seen in the Reconciliation Assembly held for two years in South Africa, where those who were mistreated told their story of apartheid and reconciled with the offenders in a public forum. Many other nations have imitated this example with great benefit. We also see grace in action in the daily lives of holy women and men among whom we live and work. We look for God’s grace as well in the imperfect moments of our own actions and those of others, waiting in patient endurance and sure hope that God is serious about loving and forgiving all of us with mercy and compassion and is ready to welcome us into the embrace of Providence forever. The amount we measure out is the amount we will receive, and that is God’s promise.