Sacred Texts from the World’s Religions
Anne Lamott writes about forgiveness:
I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness—that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way. They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive. By the time I decided to become one of the ones who is heavily into forgiveness, it was like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age; everything inside of me either recoiled, as for a hot flame, or laughed a little too hysterically. I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years—four former Republican presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree—it was “The Twelve Days of Christmas” meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I had. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, “If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.”
Forgiveness has been on my mind these days and I’m not totally sure why. There has been no precipitating event. I first started thinking about forgiveness several weeks ago as I was writing a wedding ceremony. I was writing about how people of all religions as well as non-religious people have, throughout the ages, explored what it means to love and be loved. And how they have offered to us a kind of distilled wisdom about love. I wrote, as I often do for marriage ceremonies that wisdom has taught us that love is essentially a gift. It is not a commodity you can buy, or earn, or even fully deserve. In its essence, it is a gift—it is a grace. And our deepest response to it is gratitude. Love, I wrote, is always justice-seeking. It is tough, willing to confront the inequities and injustices that inevitably exist in any relationship. And then I wrote: Wisdom teaches us that love is radically merciful and forgiving offering the possibility to begin again and again and again.
For some reason, on that day, I was struck by those words anew and I lingered over them and what they really mean. Love is radically merciful and forgiving offering the possibility to begin again and again and again. Forgiveness—the possibility to begin again. I thought, “Where might I need to begin again?” Where is love seeking my forgiveness?
It was days later, as I was still thinking about forgiveness, that I remembered the litany that we do here at Pullen when someone is moving away from us. We call it the Litany of Farewell. I remembered that when I first came to Pullen there were several lines in that litany that somehow over the years we have dropped. The original litany included these lines:
For expectations not met and wounds not healed,
For gifts not given and promises not kept,
I don’t know when or why we took out those lines. Maybe it was when we decided like Anne Lamott that we didn’t want to be “those Christians.” Or maybe we just decided those were not words we wanted to speak at a leave taking. But I find it interesting, that after all these years, I remembered the original version of the Farewell Litany. The need for forgiveness, even in and especially in community, has stuck with me.
I imagine we all have experiences—good and hard—when it comes to forgiveness. Being forgiven and extending forgiveness are very real aspects of the human experience. You may even be thinking right now about someone whose forgiveness you need or that person that you need to go to and ask for forgiveness. And if you are like me, just thinking about it causes you to have a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Forgiving and being forgiven is not easy, especially when it involves something that really matters or someone for whom we care deeply. And I’ve been thinking also that for the most part, forgiveness is something that we treat as highly personal and private. Very rarely do we practice public forgiveness.
This week on NPR there was a modern day story about redemption and forgiveness that caught my attention. The story was about the death, last week, of Martin McGuinness, a name that I did not recognize. The story caught my attention because the person talking said of this Martin McGuinness and I paraphrase here: “He leaves a divided legacy. Some speak of him as a hero and others will never forgive him.” With forgiveness already on my mind, I reached to turn up the radio.
As I continued to listen, I learned that Martin McGuinness was a former Irish Republican Army commander. “He abandoned a butcher’s apprenticeship in 1970 to join the Irish Republican Army in a bloody campaign to end British rule in Northern Ireland. He played a key role in both the start and the end of the province’s 30-year sectarian conflict, in which some 3,600 people were killed. McGuinness [himself, would later admit that] he was second-in-command in Londonderry on “Bloody Sunday” – the day in 1972 when British troops in the city killed 14 unarmed marchers, ushering in the most intense phase of the Troubles.” (Reuters, 3/21/17, HuffPost)
The day after McGuinness died last week, the headline in The Sun newspaper — Britain’s most popular tabloid — read in all caps “UNFORGIVEN.” IRA killer can go to hell, say families.” On its cover, the Daily Mail splashed two photographs of wounded and bloodied civilians in the aftermath of IRA bombings.” (NBC news, Bill Neely) Some 45 years later, the headline is UNFORGIVEN.
While some victims of IRA violence continued to condemned McGuinness in his death, other former adversaries praised him for playing a key role in ending the struggle that claimed those 3,600 lives. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised his work on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that largely ended the conflict. Blair said after McGuinness’ death was announced, “We could never have done it without Martin’s leadership, courage, and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future.” From street fighter to peace maker to words of mercy being extended McGuinness’ story is one of redemption and forgiveness.
The most intriguing part of the NPR interview, however, came at the very end. The person being interviewed told the story of how Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle was murdered during the IRA’s struggle to end British rule in Northern Ireland. The woman then goes on to explain that even though the Queen’s beloved uncle had been murdered by the IRA under McGuinness leadership she still appeared with him publicly and spoke to him privately. And after his death, she personally wrote to his widow, Bernadette. Now I guess one could ask or wonder if that personal note was an act of forgiveness or a call to duty? Either way, it speaks of forgiveness in a powerful way. The willingness and courage to not let the past define the future is indeed one way to define forgiveness.
All of the world’s major religions have something to say about forgiveness. This morning you heard sacred texts on forgiveness from Japanese wisdom, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity. What strikes me about all of these texts is not that they all have a single common wisdom about forgiveness, actually they are quite different in speech and tone and meaning. What is interesting to me, represented in each of the texts we read, is that forgiveness is rooted in relationship. Whether it is our relationship with one another, with ourselves, with God, or with all three. And what that says to me is that it is impossible to be human and not stand in need of forgiving or being forgiven. Forgiveness is an integral part of being human and being in relationship. And I have been reminded over these last several weeks as I have had forgiveness on my mind that forgiveness is not something to avoid. Whether forgiving or being forgiven, forgiveness is simply a part of the human experience. And when we withhold it, we deny ourselves the fullness of our humanity. And when we extend it, we embrace the fullness of our humanity and we become the people that God created us to be.
I could present to you theological and emotional arguments about how withholding forgiveness only hurts the one who is unwilling to forgive. I could argue, theologically and psychologically, against some of these sacred texts and say why forgiveness doesn’t require forgetting, and in some instances shouldn’t involve forgetting. But I imagine you already know those arguments. The truth is that I don’t have anything earth shattering or new to say about forgiveness. I will simply say what I know to be true about forgiveness: forgiveness is part of the human experience. Sometimes we as humans, when we are our better selves, engage in acts of forgiveness and those acts make our lives richer and more meaningful. Other times, when we can’t quite let go of our hurts and fears, we avoid forgiveness and we let the past define our future in ways that are not freeing and healing. But I am convinced that if forgiveness was something we could take a pass on—if it were optional—all of the world’s major religions wouldn’t have included it in their sacred texts. There is something sacred and holy about the act of forgiveness—something freeing and healing; something that strengthens our relationship with one another, with ourselves, and with God. The wisdom of the world’s religions tell us that.
Anne Lamott writes that she once read in a magazine that in Czechoslovakia they say an echo in the woods always returns your own call. Maybe that is how forgiveness works, too. If it is true, as these sacred texts imply, that to be human and in relationship is to stand in need of forgiveness, then we must all hold that need for forgiveness within us. And if I know people, we hold closer to the need to be forgiven than to the need to forgive. If the Czechoslovakian saying has anything to teach us about forgiveness, it is that our own willingness to forgive is our best bet to being forgiven. I don’t know about you, but to be forgiven, really forgiven, for my mistakes, for my weaknesses, for my part in hurting others, for my own darkness – that would be amazing, freeing and healing. Forgiveness is so much more than a theological idea that we discuss in theory, it is a human act that brings us closer together and closer to God. And for that reason alone, I want to be one of those kinds of Christians.