The following is the text of the keynote address to the Communication Ethics Praxis Conference at Azusa Pacific University, February 9, 2012, delivered by my late wife, Angela Laird Brenton. She received her initial diagnosis of possibly advanced stage pancreatic cancer almost a year to the day later.
I want to express thanks to Brooke Van Dam and the Conference committee for inviting me to visit Azusa Pacific University. I am honored and humbled to deliver the keynote address on the 25th anniversary of the David C. Bicker Communication Ethics conference and to follow in the footsteps of so many of my friends and esteemed peers. I’m eager to enjoy the day with you, and to learn from you.
On a bright sunny crisp autumn morning on Oct. 6, 2006 a 32-year old milkman named Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into a one-room school house in Amish Country, the West Nickel Mines Amish School. He ordered the teacher and a visiting parent and all the male students out of the schoolhouse and ordered ten little girls aged 7-13 to lie on the floor in front of the chalkboard. He tied their hands and feet. He told them, “I’m angry at God and I need to punish some Christian girls to get even with him.” Then he proceeded systematically to shoot each of them in the head, starting with Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, who begged him to shoot her first, hoping to spare her friends. Besides Anna Mae, Naomi Rose Ebersole, aged 7, Marian Fisher, 13, Mary Liz Miller, 8, and her sister Lena Miller, 7, died that day. Two of the other girls suffered massive injuries that resulted in lifelong disabilities. Finally Roberts killed himself.
In several suicide notes he left for family members, Roberts talked about two motives. He talked about having sexually assaulted two family members over 20 years ago and not being able to live with his guilt, although when family members were interviewed, they said the assault never happened. He also expressed bitterness, rage, and anger at God that had been building in him for nine years since his wife had given birth to their first child, a little girl that lived only 20 minutes.
In the midst of the shocking violence and loss, the Amish didn’t cast blame or demand vengeance. Forgiveness is so engrained as a value and a way of life that family members immediately reached out with grace and compassion to the killer’s family. They went to visit his wife and children to offer sympathy and to encourage them to stay in the community. They invited his family to funerals of their children. More Amish people than his own family turned out to his funeral to offer respect. A week later, his wife wrote an open letter to the community. It said, “Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy you’ve extended to use. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”
The Amish school shooting case has fascinated scholars, journalists, and theologians in the last five years because of its sharp contrast – Charles Roberts, the killer who was tormented by the inability to give or receive forgiveness contrasted with the Amish community with forgiveness woven tightly into their very identity and culture.
Critics were quick to criticize the Amish, arguing that it is not natural or healthy to forgive so quickly with such a staggering loss, or saying that such immediate grace trivialized the loss and undermined justice. However Donald Kraybill in his book Amish Grace wrote: “The Amish willingness to forego vengeance does not undo a tragedy or pardon the wrong, but constitutes the first step toward a more hopeful future.” In fact only a few weeks after the shooting, the Amish razed the old school building and built a new school in an undisclosed location, a school named, “New Hope.” I think few of us given a choice to leave in the grace-less and unforgiving world of Charles Roberts or the grace-drenched world of the Amish would choose unforgiveness, yet we often find ourselves wounded and trapped in a maze of bitterness, anger or guilt without a clear way out.
In fact, Thomas Kahane offers an excellent metaphor on forgiveness in his book Solving Tough Problems, a reflection on his years of international peacemaking from South Africa to Columbia. He had related an account of a particularly amazing session of confession and forgiveness to a colleague. He had been amazed by the ability of human beings to recover from unimaginable brutality after they had an opportunity to tell and hear the truth. His colleague commented that his experience reminded her of an incident with her husband. They had been boating on Lake Michigan when her husband fell from the boat and was sucked into the motor, causing a deep gash in his leg. They rushed him to a hospital, seeking help. The surgeon, upon examining the horrifying would counseled them, “This kind of wound is too serious and too prone to infection to stitch up. We can only keep it clean and sanitary. The wound wants to be whole, and eventually the sides will come together.”
This morning I’d like to explore the theory and praxis of forgiveness, the wound that wants to be whole. I would also make the rather audacious claim that forgiveness has more potential to affect our lives and our world than any other form of ethical communication.
Let’s first look at forgiveness through three frames, theology, building better worlds and pragmatism. Each vantage point offers a different perspective of what forgiveness is, our motivations for forgiveness, and how we can find the path toward making the wound whole.
The first frame is, of course, theology, our concept of God and how he relates to us. Forgiveness is an important construct of most world religions. Consider this statement from Hinduism: ‘What is there that forgiveness cannot achieve? What can a wicked person do to him who carries the sabre of forgiveness in his hand?” or this from the Bahai faith: “Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. . . Humanity is not perfect, but if you look toward God you will love them and be kind to them for the world of God is the world of perfect and complete mercy.”
The Judeo-Christian God is a God of compassion and mercy toward his people. Nehemiah 9 provides a long view of God’s relationship with Israel. Even when his people chose evil over good, were unfaithful to their God, and exhibited pride and a lack of gratitude, time and time again God refused to turn his back on them and rescued them from distress. Consider these passages; “But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, “This is your God.” After years of evil when he allowed them to be captured by their enemies, he again heard their distress and “From heaven you heard them and in your great compassion, you gave them deliverers who rescued them from the hands of their enemies . . . and when they cried out to you again, you heard from heaven and in your compassion, you delivered them time after time.”
Jesus took human form and came to earth as a bridge to reconcile the relationship between God and man that had been severed in the garden of Eden. Romans 5: 6-11 “You see at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. . . God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us . . . Not only this but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.’
Perhaps no story is so poignant in showing God’s love and forgiveness than the parable of the prodigal son. You all know the story. The younger son asks his father for his inheritance (which at the time was equivalent to telling his father he wished he were dead). He goes to a far country and blows everything having a high ol’ time. Pride keeps him from returning until he finally finds himself, a good Jewish boy feeding pigs and not making enough to keep from starving. He prepares his apology and with humility prepares to ask his father to hire him as a servant. While the son is still far away, his father sees him and runs in an undignified way to meet him. He doesn’t even let him get the apology out of his mouth. He falls on his dirty, disgusting, beautiful boy, hugs and kisses him and commands his servants to bring him clothes and a ring, to kill the fatted calf and to throw a party on his return.
What does this tell us about God?
1. He never gave up hope for his son’s return and stood waiting and watching for him every day.
2. He gave his son free will. He allowed him to leave. He waited for him to return.
3. He forgave before his son returned. He didn’t wait for an apology.
4. He forgave with joy and completely restored the relationship.
5. He reached out with forgiveness to the judgmental older son as well.
Brendon Manning in the Raggamuffin Gospel writes, “What a word of encouragement, consolation and comfort! We don’t have to sift our hearts and analyze our intentions before coming home. Abba just wants us to show up. We don’t have to be shredded with sorrow or crushed with contrition. We don’t have to be perfect or even very good before God will accept us. We don’t have to wallow in guilt, shame, remorse and self-condemnation. Even if we still nurse a secret nostalgia for the far country, Abba falls on our neck and kisses us. Even if we come back because we couldn’t make it on our own, God will welcome us. He will seek no explanations about our sudden appearance. He is glad we are there and wants to give us all we desire.”
When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in Matthew 6, he sent a clear message about the relationship between God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others. Remember the passage in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” He follows the last stanza of the prayer with an admonition: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” I used to think that was the scariest verse in the Bible. Will God really withhold his forgiveness of us if we can’t forgive others in some divine quid pro quo? I’ve thought about that a lot, and that explanation doesn’t fit with God’s nature as revealed by his relationship with Israel, as revealed by his sending Jesus to reconcile the world to himself while we were still sinners, in the mad dash to welcome the prodigal son. God doesn’t need us to forgive or to be sinless for him to lavish his love and mercy on us. Because he made us, he knows that if we are not people of grace and forgiveness, it will be hard for us to accept and receive his forgiveness. And if we truly, deeply understand the depth of our sin and what we’ve been forgiven, it will be impossible not to have grace gush out from us and overflow to others.
Go back to Charles Roberts, who deliberately murdered five little girls because he felt he couldn’t be forgiven by God, and thus couldn’t forgive God. When we can’t accept grace and feel forgiven, it is hard for us to forgive others.
Max Lucado writes In the Grip of Grace “To believe we are totally and eternally debt-free is seldom easy. Even if we’ve stood before the throne and heard it from the King himself, we still doubt. As a result, many are forgiven only a little, not because the grace of the king is limited, but because the faith of the sinner is small. God is willing to forgive all. He’s willing to wipe the slate completely clean. He guides us to a pool of mercy and invites us to bathe. Some plunge in, but others just touch the surface. They leave feeling unforgiven.”
To summarize forgiveness from a Christian theological perspective, we changed into people of grace by being reconciled with God through forgiveness of all of our sins through Christ. Because God showed compassion and mercy to us even though we were completely unworthy, we overflow with love and compassion for others, even when they are unworthy. We are never more Christlike than when we are able to forgive and restore relationships with others, reflecting the glory of God.
Building Better Worlds
A second perspective through which to think of forgiveness is the theory of social constructivism. Barnett Pearce, my dear friend and a former keynote speaker at this conference, who passed from this life only a few months ago, wrote a wonderful book, “Making Social Worlds.” He explained the ways in which we create the character of our relationships, organizations, and societies by the ways in which we individually and collectively communicate with one another. If in our communication with our children we engage in blaming, criticizing, and threatening speech acts we will create selves and relationships that are threatened, insecure and disaffirming. Especially in turning points in conversations and relationships, the quality of our communication will determine the path that relationship will take. Most of us would acknowledge that we have developed a toxic nature of public dialogue with little space for respectful discussion of areas in which we disagree. How could we develop communication skills and commitments that create a different social world in which to deliberate public policy and priorities? Russel Eans wrote in an Op Ed in the Pennsylvania Tribune Democrat shortly after the Amish school shootings, “I wonder if the Amish are not giving a message to America at a time when we are so polarized and gripped by an ethos of violence . . . I wonder if we as a nation did not miss the mark after September 11. What if instead of vengeance we had spoken of grace and forgiveness? I believe now that such a response would have done more to ‘shock and awe’ our enemies more than all the bombs and cruise missiles dropped on Iraq and Afghanistan.” Whether you agree with Ean’s conclusions or not, his point is well made that our communication response, whether on the personal or international level is consequential. We could project forward in considering where our current communication patterns are leading us, or could think backward when we are in a hostile social world about what communication patterns led us to this place, and how changing our communication patterns could shape a new social world. The work of Barnett’s life was discovering, teaching and modeling the forms of dialogue, listening and affirmation that led to understanding and respect among people of different races, different moral convictions, and different ideologies.
Forgiveness is a form of communication that builds more positive affirming social worlds. Gary Hawk wrote eloquently, “When we forgive one another we uphold the possibility of defining ourselves not simply in relation to an opponent across the table, an enemy across a line, or a violator of our trust, but in relation to something far more creative. When we forgive, we create conditions in which it is possible to learn from one another rather than defend ourselves against each other. When we forgive, we affirm that the world is much larger than the injury that consumes us. The closed door opens and we step out onto a stage where it is possible to associate with one another in ways less constricted by old memories. In this light we subjugate the memory of past harm to the hope of a new future.”
A particular form of building better social worlds is the African concept of ubuntu. Desmond Tutu in his beautiful book No Future without Forgiveness about the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa describes “ubuntu.” “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When you have ubuntu you are hospitable, you’re generous and friendly and caring and compassionate. It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life. A person with ubuntu . . .know(s) that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are. To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. .”
He describes how ubuntu is involved in the most controversial aspect of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa – that fact that oppressors guilty of unspeakable atrocities in south African would receive complete amnesty for their crimes if they told the complete truth about their crimes before tribunals organized to hear the stories from oppressors and victims. He speaks of restorative justice in the spirit of ubuntu in which the central purpose is healing breaches, rehabilitating both the victim and the oppressor, who should be encouraged to be part of the community he or she has injured.
The amnesty given to perpetrators was so complete that victims had no recourse to sue or press charges, as long as the offenders told the complete truth about their offenses. Tutu explained, “This is indeed a very high price to ask the victims to pay. That happens to have been the price those who negotiated our relatively peaceful transition from repression to democracy believed the nation had to ask of victims. But to compute the price properly, we should compare the high level of stability that we enjoy with the turmoil and upheaval that have so sadly characterized similar radical change in other countries.”
I was struck by the contrast between Tutu’s description of the sacrifice that victims made in South Africa with the account I heard of the aftermath of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland when I took a group of students there a couple of years ago. We had the opportunity to interact with Anne Carr, a remarkable Catholic woman who had spent her life in Northern Ireland. She had lost dear friends and family members to the violence. She was a member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, which was instrumental in the negotiated peace settlement. One of the students asked Anne about how the victims were working toward forgiveness and she replied that she felt the burden of forgiveness should be on those who committed violence, not on the victims. Brian Lennon in his book Peace Comes Dropping Slow explains this perspective: “Why should the victims of violence make some move toward reconciliation if the perpetrators do not? This makes the victims doubly burdened by the perpetrators’ crimes.” I was struck by their language casting forgiveness as a burden for victims, rather than as the way that Tutu described forgiveness in South Africa as an opportunity for healing breaches and restoring community.
Tutu writes: “ We have survived the ordeal and we are realizing that we can transcend the conflicts of the past, we can hold hands as we realize our common humanity . . . The generosity of spirit will be full to overflowing when it meets a like generosity. Forgiveness will follow confession and healing will happen, and so contribute to national unity and reconciliation. And no one in South Africa could ever again be able to say, “I did not know,” and hope to be believed.
To wrap up the second perspective on forgiveness, the ways in which we communicate create social worlds, both at the personal and international level. We can create relationships and organizations that are open, affirming, and hopeful by communicating in ways that are open, affirming and hopeful. We can also do the reverse, creating cycles that are hostile, cynical and closed. Communication plays a key role in building better social worlds – the world of the Amish rather than the hopeless and angry world of Charles Roberts. The principle of ubuntu offers a particular approach toward building an open interdependent society through seeing forgiveness as enlightened self interest. In forgiveness we seek restorative justice in which both the victim and offender are healed and restored to community, ending cycles of revenge and retribution.
A final perspective through which to view forgiveness is pragmatism. In this view, we seek to find forgiveness as an internal process because it is the only route toward our internal healing. William H. Walton coined the apt phrase, “To carry a grudge is like being stung to death by one bee.” Lewis Smedes writes, ‘To forgive is to set the prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Research has shown that unresolved anger and bitterness have serious physical and emotional consequences. My husband Keith and I saw this firsthand as we worked with a divorce recovery group a few years ago. Everyone healed in different ways and in different time frames. However one young woman had been so devastated by her husband’s leaving her for another woman that her anger and rage was as fresh five years after the divorce as if it had happened yesterday. The effects on her were tragic. She gained a huge amount of weight. Her daughters, 8 and 12 at the time of the divorce were repelled by the venom in her home. Her older daughter got married at 17 and moved 2000 miles away. Her younger daughter chose to live with her father at age 16, another blow and betrayal for our dear friend. I’m happy to say that she finally found a way to forgive and move on with her life, but after such a cost. Today, she is a happy and serene woman who works with inner city youth. She’s re-established her relationship with her daughters and now dotes on grandchildren. All the time when our sweet sister was literally eating herself alive with her anger and bitterness, her ex-husband was going on blithely with his life, unaffected by her desire to strike back at him.
Not only could we look at the pragmatic effects of forgiveness in our own lives, but forgiveness can also have a dramatic effect on those we forgive, especially when someone is weighted down and paralyzed by guilt. I have the opportunity to teach once a semester in a prison program which prepares inmates for their ultimate release from prison. Various teachers spend an evening talking about skills and perspectives the men will need to lead a successful life in the outside world. I teach about interpersonal conflict and forgiveness. I’ll never forget one middle-aged man named Louis sitting on the front row. As we began talking about forgiveness, he started to weep so loudly that everyone in the room could hear. Now, this is a tough place, a maximum security prison where many of the inmates have been convicted of murder, assaults, rape, or other violent crimes. Men don’t let themselves be vulnerable to the others too often. Yet, here was Louis, weeping like a child. When he could speak, he simply said, “I killed a family’s only son. I took their seed. I’m so sorry. I’ve written them a dozen letters begging them to forgive me. But they’ll never be able to. Why should they? I don’t know how I’m going to be able to live with this for all my life.” Think of the new beginning and hope that forgiveness would have given Louis.
At times extravagant gestures of forgiveness have impact far beyond the two parties. In the era just before the end of apartheid an idealistic young American named Amy Biehl went to South Africa to join in the movement to enfranchise blacks in the political process. As she was leaving a meeting one night, her path crossed an angry mob of young black males, and she was brutally murdered. Her family flew to South Africa to be at the trial of one of young men accused of her murder. They shocked the whole country when instead of demanding vengeance, they begged for mercy for the young man. They said to do any less would dishonor the memory of their daughter who gave her life because she wanted a future for young men exactly like the one charged in her death. The picture of the Biehls embracing the mother of the man accused of their daughter’s murder inspired a nation with the hope of reconciliation.
There are times when our forgiveness means nothing at all to the person who harmed or hurt us. Perhaps they are unaware they have hurt us, or maybe they don’t care. Maybe they have developed rationalizations or excuses for their action. Whether our forgiveness means a thing to the other party, forgiveness ALWAYS benefits us. John McArthur wrote: “Forgiveness unleashes joy. It brings peace. It washes the slate clean. It sets all the highest values of love in motion.” Hannah More adds: “Forgiveness is the economy of the heart . . . forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, and the waste of spirit.” Forgiveness in this pragmatic sense heals us, allows us to let go of past hurts and move forward to a more hopeful future.
These three perspectives of forgiveness are obviously intertwined to some degree. If we are people of faith who believe our forgiveness flows through us from God, we probably also feel a strong commitment to create better social worlds and feel that God asks us to forgive primarily because it benefits us. Yet there are also differences. Not all people who believe restorative justice and the potential of forgiveness to restore community have a religious basis for their conviction. And not all Christians would agree that in forgiveness we may seek restorative justice, absolving offenders from the consequences of their action in order to heal them and restore them to the community. Some who write about the pragmatic benefits of forgiveness as an internal process do not necessarily believe that forgiveness leads to interpersonal forgiveness or reconciliation, while reconciliation is at the heart of a theological model.
So with these frames in mind, let me try to define forgiveness and talk about how we work toward forgiveness. Definitions of forgiveness vary based on which of the three perspective you adopt. Enright and his colleagues offer a definition very much aligned with a theological frame: “forgiveness involves the casting off of deserved punishments, the abandonment of negative reactions, the imparting of love toward the other person, a self sacrificial nature, the potential restoration of the relationship, and positive benefits to the forgetter.” Whereas Lewis Smedes offers a simple definition that fits the pragmatic frame: “forgiveness is the art of healing inner wounds inflicted by other people’s wrongs.” Waldron and Kelly in their book Communicating Forgiveness offer one of the more comprehensive definitions that might fit any of the perspectives: “Forgiveness is a relational process whereby harmful conduct is acknowledged by one or both partners; the harmed partner extends undeserved mercy to the perceived transgressor; one or both parties experience transformation from negative to positive psychological states; and the meaning of the relationship is renegotiated with the possibility of reconciliation.”
Several questions emerge when we consider the nature of forgiveness:
1) Is it an intrapersonal or interpersonal process? Do we have to tell the other person we forgive them or can we just come to an inner state of acceptance and peace? The answer to this question varies based on the paradigm you adopt. David Augsberger, a theologian at Fuller Seminary calls “internal forgiveness” an artifact of our self-absorbed society and argues that true forgiveness is always a dyadic process with the goal of restoring the relationship and healing for both parties. Since our forgiveness for others flow out of gratitude for our forgiveness from God, we practice the ministry of reconciliation just as Jesus restored the relationship between God and man. From the perspective of ubuntu, in which we are all connected and mutually responsible for each other’s well being, it would be hard to maintain an internal peace in the face of our neighbor’s torment who pleads to be released from his guilt. Forgiveness can only occur when both are healed and restored to community with one another.
However, Lewis Smedes who operates more from a pragmatic perspective states that forgiveness is always an internal process, while reconciliation must be negotiated interpersonally after forgiveness. We need not wait for repentance or a request to forgive before we forgive someone. He says requiring another person to ask for forgiveness is like being in a prison with the keys in your own hand, but waiting for your tormentor to give you permission to unlock the door. Yet the restoration of the relationship must depend on the offended party perceiving genuine repentance and a commitment to a different relationship in the future. There are times when we need to forgive people even though we have no way of communicating our forgiveness to them – finally reaching forgiveness for a parent who is dead, or forgiving a friend who we no longer have contact with. In cases of violent crime like rape, can we really expect a victim to seek out and express forgiveness for her attacker even when she achieves an internal state of peace and acceptance about the event?
Gary Hawk illustrates the relationship between intrapersonal and interpersonal processes of forgiveness with this tree diagram:
The base of the tree trunk represents the offense. The small branches from the base of the trunk represent early decisions to withhold forgiveness. The left hand large branch is a route toward internal forgiveness and healing, letting go of the offense and focusing on the future rather than the past. The right hand large branch involves negotiating forgiveness interpersonally with the party who harmed us. In some relationships, we may move immediately in one direction or the other. Yet, you will note at the top of the tree, sometimes the branches which grew separately become intertwined again in the top branches. Sometimes long after we have achieved an internal state of forgiveness, we may be motivated to reach out to the other person to try to restore the relationship, such as a child who was abandoned by a parent who never desired a relationship, but at some point when the parent is ill or when the child has children of his own place greater value on restoring some type of relationship with the estranged parent.
2. A second related question about forgiveness is whether forgiveness always involves reconciliation. The answer from a theological or ubuntu perspective would usually be yes. Once in a class when I had expressed the perspective that we can genuinely forgive another person without feeling it is wise or safe to continue a relationship with him or her, one of my students challenged, “How would we feel if God had taken that perspective with us, and told us that he forgives us but doesn’t want to have anything more to do with us?” Ubuntu sees the purpose of forgiveness as healing breaches and restoring both the offender and the victim to a cooperative community.
3. A third important question is the relationship between justice and forgiveness. Some would argue that expecting parties who have been enslaved, tortured, and oppressed to forgive without first restoring justice is placing all the burden of forgiveness on the oppressed party. This is the perspective taken by some in Northern Ireland. It is also deeply embedded in Jewish law and religious practice. If I have offended or injured a party, before I can ask for forgiveness¸ I must demonstrate repentance and make restitution. Once I have done so, the party I have offended is obligated to forgive. Dag Hammarskjold, the former United Nations leader, took a different perspective. He stated, “Forgiveness breaks the chain of causality because he who forgives you out of love takes upon himself the consequences of what you have done. Forgiveness therefore always entails a sacrifice.” Sara Paddison offered the additional thought, “Sincere forgiveness isn’t colored with expectations that the other party apologize or change. Don’t worry about whether they finally understand what they have done. Love them and release them. Life feeds back truth to people in its own way and time.” It is a difficult issue, but when we withhold forgiveness until the scales of justice are somehow balanced, the scales are never perfectly balanced, and the person who suffers the most from the forgiveness delayed is the victim who continues to live with bitterness, anger and vengeful feelings.
A final question that often emerges about forgiveness is whether it involves forgetting and absolving the offender of consequences. From a theological perspective, this is what God offers us when He forgives. Yet as humans, it is difficult for us completely to forget an offense. At times, it may be wise to remember to avoid being a victim again. While we may not be able to forget, when we forgive, we don’t “wallow’ in an offense any more, or to make it a focus of our attention. We may not have control over legal or natural consequences of an action, but we remove consequences that are under our direct control. If we forgive, we don’t continue to remind, keep score and punish the person we have forgiven. To do so undermines any future for the relationship.
Healing Through Truth
With an understanding of forgiveness, how do we do it? How do we heal the wound that wants to be whole? Gary Hawk discusses four “strands” of forgiveness. The first is truth. We cannot forgive until both parties have told the truth and faced the truth. That is why truth was the prerequisite for reconciliation in South Africa¸ and why truth was so important that victims were willing to give up legal recourse in exchange for truth. I’m presently working with an Institute for Race and Ethnicity facilitating inter-racial dialogues in communities long divided and stunted by years of segregation and oppression. The wounds cannot be healed until they are opened and the infection of years of denial and silence cleansed. Only when we have had a chance to tell our stories and hear the stories of others can we hope to build a stronger community built on acknowledgement of the painful truth of the past.
Healing Through Restraint
Hawk says that a second strand of forgiveness is restraint. We must suppress our natural instinct for vengeance – for the other person to experience hurt in the way that we have been hurt, to try to achieve some justice on our own.
Healing Through Empathy
A third very important strand is empathy. We must see our abuser or betrayer as a fellow human being rather than as a monster. Smedes tells a touching story in his book of a survivor of a concentration camp during World War II. She was tormented by a brutal guard who leered at her, continually, threatening to rape or abuse her. Her hatred became so intense for him that she feared it would totally consume her, so she sought day by day to find a way to see the humanity of the guard. She said she finally saw small indications of his better nature, a smile as he talked to a fellow guard, a brief touch on the head of a child, and that was enough for her to feel empathy and realize that he was as much a victim as she of the cruel concentration camp.
Healing With Commitment
Finally is the strand of commitment. Especially when we move from forgiveness to reconciliation or toward trying to integrate our enemy back as a valued member of a community, we must express our full commitment to the relationship. Ken Sande in his book the Peacemaker says that we make several commitments when we promise to forgive: a commitment that I will no longer dwell on this offense, bring it up against you, or let it interfere with our relationship.
There is no formula or time frame that works for every individual in working toward the difficult process of forgiveness. A friend of mine was brutally raped. She worked with a Christian therapist who helped her understand that she could never heal emotionally from the attack until she could forgive. She told him she didn’t feel she could ever forgive. He asked her if she could pray to God for her attacker. Again, she said she couldn’t honestly pray to God on his behalf. So finally he asked her just to pray to God that he would open her heart to mercy, and slowly over time as she prayed, God opened her heart to that request. Then she began to pray that God would change her rapist’s heart. Eventually she came to peace and forgiveness.
I have come to see forgiveness not just as a command of God, but as a gift of God. Ken Sande writes: Above all remember that true forgiveness depends on God’s grace. If you are trying to forgive others on your own, you are in for a long and frustrating battle. But if you continually ask for and rely on God’s strength, you can forgive even the most painful offenses.” We can see the offense and struggle to forgive not as a burden, but as stewardship and an opportunity to glorify God.
I’ll end with a final quote from Gary Hawk that offers the most beautiful description of the grace that God offers in healing our wounds that longs to be whole:
“Even though people may labor toward forgiveness through numerous internal states and stages, it is the experience of many people that one morning, we wake up and discover that what was done to us is no longer the focus of our daily attention. Like a river thawing in the middle of the night, we find that the hardness of our self-protection is falling away. Though we have knocked on a certain door a thousand times without gaining entrance, one morning it is suddenly and simply open. Though all of our best energies have been tied in the knot of memory, one day we discover that the knot has slipped out of the rope. Suddenly we are free of this constriction and the rope may be used to bind things together. This is the experience of transcendence. At times it comes to us more as an inexplicable gift than the result of a series of steps of our determined labor.”
In the end, only the Great Healer can knit together the wound that wants to be whole.