Mohandas Gandhi said: “Forgiveness is the glue of the universe. Forgiveness is the might of the mighty. Forgiveness is the quiet of the mind.” Yes. Thus the existence of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the acceptance that we cannot change what happened in the past coupled with the intention to live in the present with peace and freedom. Forgiveness is an intentional practice. It is a process. Forgiveness is an age old human challenge.
I believe it is always a good time to consider forgiveness. What does it mean to forgive? Is it what those old adages say: forgive and forget; let bygones be bygones; don’t hold a grudge; turn the other cheek; to err is human, to forgive divine? No, no, no, no and no. To forgive does not mean to forget; some wrongs must never be forgotten. Nor does it mean letting bygones be bygones. When harm is done, whether intentionally or not, relationships change and those changes need acknowledgment if the relationship is to survive. Nor is forgiveness the exclusive provenance of the divine. Forgiveness belongs to humans as well; it is a human process. And more.
I used to host a radio show called Spiritually Speaking and one of the people I interviewed was a priest, Petero Sabune, a chaplain at Sing Sing, who went to Rwanda to visit the prisons there. You may remember that in 1994 a civil war took place between two tribes and extremist Hutus massacred as many as one million Tutsis in a hundred day period. The government of Rwanda had established gacaca (ga-cha-cha) courts whose emphasis was on reconciliation. Nine judges sat and heard accusations and listened to people tell their stories. Everyone was asked to tell the truth and to take responsibility for what they did. In Rwanda there were reconciliation villages, in which Hutus and Tutsis lived together, victims and those who victimized them, lived together. Their children played together. Can you wrap your mind around that? I asked Father Sabune how such an attempt at restorative forgiveness could even begin to take place. He answered that forgiveness is a practice that is practiced every day, some days more effectively than others. You understand life backwards. You accept that you cannot change the past. You make an intention, and set up safeguards if necessary, not to repeat the past but to live forward into the present with peace. And then you renew that intention every day.
I believe that the human impulse to love, to connect with others, is ultimately stronger than the impulse to separate through hate. Thus forgiveness is possible, even in cases of great harm. But forgiveness is not a moral virtue and when harm is done it can do more harm to think that we must move toward forgiveness because it is the right thing to do, or the religious imperative. Thus the title of today’s sermon: Turn the Other Cheek – Really? I’m not telling you that you have to forgive or even that forgiveness is necessary. Forgiveness cannot be coerced. We move toward forgiveness because it gives us a way to heal, to repair, to recover when damaged.
Sometimes we need forgiveness; sometimes we offer forgiveness. What helps us when we need forgiveness: from ourselves or others?
Confession is a path toward forgiving. “For many people, the term ‘ confession’ conjures images of a dark wooden booth and whispering one’s sins to a priest through a screen. However, confession is really just an expression of remorse about the past and hope for the future – the process of telling our story.” (Aaron Murray-Swank) Through telling and hearing the story, we begin to find greater acceptance and understanding of the past. We make sense of ourselves and each other and begin to form the intention of living in the present with more peace and freedom. We make a different meaning of our lives as we move along into more of who we want to be. “Remembering is a moral act,” writes the Reverend Michael Boardman. “In our remembering we take possession of a past. In our remembering we acknowledge who we are. In our remembering we keep alive our commitments and our aspirations.
Confession begins with a mindfulness of regret and remorse for what we have done. I say regret and not guilt because we can easily become caught in cycles of guilt and self-blame and thereby short-circuit the healing process of forgiveness.. Guilty self-blame ‘shifts the interior dialogue from actions to self-image: a person will harangue himself or herself as blameworthy, bad, evil . . . emotions churn in self-destructive ways . . . ’” (William Sneck as quoted by Aaron Murray-Swank) We get so fixated on how bad we are that we get stuck in it. Does any of this feel familiar?
If and when we express regret, we take the next step of making a sincere commitment to do our best to refrain from repeating the action we regret. This may sound simple, but it isn’t. All too often people do not take the next step. They seem to think that apologizing is enough. But if we make no effort to change, then it’s not really forgiveness we ask for, but rather permission.
For confession to work, it helps to practice a gentle, non-judgmental resolve not to repeat the action and/or words we regret. This is the transforming part. Feeling guilty and fixating on that guilt can actually keep us from accepting responsibility for changing ourselves. How could we ever change, we’re so bad? How would we know ourselves if we changed? Guilt keeps us wishing the action had never happened rather than honestly looking at the consequences, intended or unintended. Also, imposing a standard of perfection upon ourselves and/or others has this effect. If we expect ourselves never to do anything regrettable again; if we demand goodness, capability, intelligence, whatever, all the time, and nothing short of that will do, we’re perpetuating a cycle of failure. We’re giving ourselves no way out of the mind set that we have to be perfect or we’re no good. Non-judgmental regret, on the other hand, makes it more possible to honestly see what we have brought about through our words and actions, to pay attention to what’s in front of us and try most sincerely to learn from it. We stop judging ourselves as no better than our worst acts and perhaps we start to see ourselves as good as our better actions. This is the point of the story we heard, An Ounce of Mud. When we need forgiveness, can we, will we, tell our story, express our regret and commit to change?
Confession helps when we need forgiveness. What helps when we are asked to forgive? When we have the opportunity to offer forgiveness, to ourselves and to others, how might we take it? Remember though, forgiveness cannot be demanded or coerced.
Desmond Tutu said: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” And I would add that forgiveness does not exclude protecting oneself; does not mean forgetting; does not mean everything goes back to the way it was as if nothing ever happened. Tutu goes on. “ However, when I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person, a better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred.” It’s like the person who, to punish the one who harmed her, drinks poison and wonders why the one who did harm does not suffer. “Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.” While there is no timetable regarding when one should or could or ever forgive, “If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained . . .” (Desmond Tutu) To cultivate and harvest one another’ s potential for goodness; to live freely now, in the present, we must find a way to release ourselves from the past. Forgiveness is a way.
How does it happen? It has to do with an intention and a desire to let go: of our need for revenge; to let go of our need for vindication; to let go of our need for the wrongs committed to be acknowledged. Sometimes that means an acceptance that those things might never come. Sometimes it means an acceptance that we might never hear an apology, or that we might never be able to offer an apology. Forgiveness is a letting go of our need to be right, even of our need to be good. It’s a letting go of our need for everyone else to know we are right, or good. Forgiveness is a letting go of our dreams for living happily ever after. It is an acceptance that there is no happily ever after, that everyone is flawed, that everyone will disappoint us sometimes, including ourselves. It is a learning to be disappointed and still finding a way to keep going and not lose sight of all that is good. Remember when our babies seemed perfect and could do no wrong? Or our parents? Or our friends? Or our lovers? Now they, and we, are older, with faulty lives and faulty personalities. We don’t like or approve of all their choices, their values, their habits. Can we accept that they disappoint us, let it go and forgive them? Can we accept that they disappoint us and still love them? Forgiveness is letting go of our desire to have life work out on our own terms. Forgiveness is an acceptance that things are not always the way we would like them to be. Our expectations of what our lives should be do not match the reality. Our expectations of what our relationships and families should be do not match the reality.
Forgiveness means accepting that we can’t change what happened in the past. Forgiveness means that even though we can’t change it, we do not want to be imprisoned by it. Forgiveness is an acceptance and a letting go. And in that acceptance and letting go we may not change the past, but we do change the present and the future. “Life can be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Forgiveness isn’t a matter of making a rational decision to forgive and there you go. It isn’t even a matter of gaining more intellectual understanding and there you go. Forgiveness is a healing process. It takes time and one might go through a lot of grieving, a lot of anger before one comes to acceptance and letting go. Maybe it’s so hard to forgive because it hurts so much. How do you let go of feelings? The same way you start to swim–by getting in the water. The same way you cross the street–by walking into the road. Buddhists tell a story of two people, teacher and student, walking across a wide lawn to enter a large house, when the big, loud, vicious dog of the house breaks loose from its chain and runs full speed toward the visitors. The student stands still, clueless about what to do. The teacher begins barking furiously and running toward the dog. The dog looks at the teacher, turns and goes away. So with feelings. When we walk toward them, when we embrace them, when we feel them, they go away faster. The tide ebbs and flows. So with feelings. They go away when they have a chance to touch the shore, to find expression. Grieve the damage, grieve the loss, grieve the hurt someone has inflicted on you. Or you have inflicted upon yourself. Name it, feel it. With trusted friends, family, minister, therapist, let it out.
Forgiveness begins with a desire not to be enslaved by our past. It begins by getting in touch with our need for connection, happiness and love. When we need forgiveness, confession helps. We tell our stories, we feel our feelings, we take responsibility as appropriate and do what we can not to repeat the past. When we offer forgiveness, we tell our stories, we feel our feelings, we accept and we let go. In the largest context forgiveness is restoring the connections that lie at the heart of life. If we don’t live them, affirm them, we become disconnected, isolated, estranged, lost. We forget that we belong and that can hurt far more than not forgiving.
I would leave you today with some questions. Is there someone you would like to forgive? Someone who has wronged you, who has hurt you, who has disrespected you? Someone whose behavior has estranged you? . . . Is there someone whose forgiveness you desire? Whom you have estranged by words and deeds you now regret? . . . . Is there a need for self-forgiveness? Can you love yourself even though you are not perfect? . . . Is there a possibility of comfort? Of a genuine expression of caring and sorrow for the damage caused? Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr suggests that the final form of love is forgiveness. Is it possible to forgive ourselves and each other and to begin again in that which connects us and to which we belong? Is it possible?