On the front cover of the Journal ‘Spirituality and Health’ a while back was picture of three US ex-servicemen standing in front of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC. One asks, ‘Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?’ ‘ I will never forgive them,’ replies the other. Third then comments, ‘Then it seems they still have you in prison, don’t they?’
Forgiveness has been a topic of conversation high on the world’s agenda over recent years. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa focused on forgiveness. Indeed, the chair of the Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, subsequently reflected on his experiences in a book entitled, There is no Future without Forgiveness. In Rwanda after the genocidal dispute between Hutus and Tutsis, the question of forgiveness and reconciliation has been pursued carefully. It has been high on the agenda in Northern Ireland. It will need to figure in Israel and Palestine. How will it figure in Kenya? It has even been a growth area in the academic world. In the United States, there is an International Forgiveness Institute attached the University of Wisconsin and the John Templeton Foundation, has with others, started a multimillion dollar campaign for Forgiveness Research.
Forgiveness is not just an international issue, concerned with those ‘out there’ – forgiveness affects us personally. When we are wronged, we are called upon to forgive. There are times when we need to be forgiven. Perhaps the hardest of all is when we need to forgive ourselves and when we need to accept, deep down, that we are forgiven by God. But they are all related. If we cannot believe that we are forgiven, we will find it hard to forgive others and to be enthusiastic about forgiveness further away.
Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith: it is something distinctively Christian. Christianity does not have monopoly on it, but it has made forgiveness a central part of its self understanding. Forgiveness is exemplified in the New Testament.
There are hints and examples of God’s forgiveness in Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. In Isaiah when God promises to restore the people Israel after they had turned against him. Through the prophet, God speaks in a radical way, ’Do not remember the former things, but consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?……. I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.’ (43.18-19,25).
But forgiveness gains its greatest expression in the NT. Peter’s question of Jesus is how many times must he forgive somebody who sins against him. How often should he forgive– seven times? Not seven, but seventy-seven times, he is told!(Mt.18.21) The story of the ‘All-forgiving father’ in St. Luke (also known, quite misleadingly as the Prodigal son) tells the story of a son who is forgiven by his father even before his father hears his words of repentance. Once the father sees him approaching, he begins to arrange the welcome home party (Lk.15). At the Crucifixion, even as the nails were being driven in, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ This is the ultimate example of forgiveness when reconciliation was brought about between humanity and God. What is significant here is that the guilt and condemnation of those responsible is not a precondition for forgiveness. Jesus didn’t ask for the repentance of those nailing him to the cross before uttering those words of forgiveness. Forgiveness means laying aside the wrong and being willing to move forward. This is not the same as forgetting in a repressing kind of way, forgetting because it was too traumatic to remember, but rather it was an act of making sure that one was not controlled or imprisoned by it.
Having said that, although the repentance of the one who has committed the offence is not a precondition to forgiveness, it can help the one who was wronged. There are times when the memory of the offence must be kept alive for a while, as long as it is needed for repentance and transformation to occur, but then it must be allowed to die so that a new relationship can be formed. The memory of any offence, sustained beyond repentance, clouds both the memory of past love and the vision of future reconciliation. If I refuse to forgive, it damages me as much as the one I will not offer my forgiveness. Forgiveness means laying aside the offence or sin in such a way as to make sure its memory does not affect my relationship with the one who has committed it – effectively to forget it.
It is important to distinguish between forgiveness and mercy. The two are often use synonymously, but there is a difference. If forgiveness is distinctive of the NT, mercy is distinctive of the Hebrew Scriptures, the OT. Behind mercy is an understanding that there is a God of justice who recognises the offence which should be punished, however, he does not punish but has mercy. Mercy says, ‘You have committed an offence and I will let you off this time, but just watch out as I will keep your offence in the back of my mind!’ However, God’s mercy in Christ becomes forgiveness. Forgiveness says, ‘ I will not allow the memory of your offence to control me or my love for you: I will lay aside your offence as I want a new relationship with you.’ Forgiveness is about new relationships and new beginnings. Forgiveness breaks the spiral and enables us to start afresh. If we seek reconciliation, mercy will not do – forgiveness is the only possibility.
‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Forgiveness, real forgiveness (not mercy) can be the hardest gift to offer – and the hardest gift to receive. Bound up with receiving, and offering it, is an understanding of love.
I began with a conversation between 3 ex-servicemen in Washington DC where failure to forgive was compared to being locked in a prison. In the light of the fact that next Sunday is Holocaust Memorial Day, I conclude with a prayer which comes from the concentration camp at Ravensbruck where 92,000 women and children died. This prayer, which is both glorious and challenging, offered by a nameless woman and placed beside the dead body of a child, helps us understand the miracle that we celebrate over Good Friday and Easter and gets to the heart of forgiveness:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to the judgement let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.
Rt. Rev’d Brian Castle, Bishop of Tonbridge
20th January 2008