15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
(John 21: 15-19, NRSV)
We were all shocked in the past week by the actions of Seng Hui Cho at Virginia Tech in killing thirty-two of his schoolmates. Cho's psychological state, however, may put these events in a category that does not require forgiveness. Some things are outside of our moral categories. We don't forgive mad dogs for biting or computers for having glitches. And we don't forgive the insane for actions for which they are not responsible.
We might consider, though, that the tragedy at Virginia Tech is an almost daily occurrence in Iraq. Violence and hate acts, in fact, are regular occurrences almost anywhere we care to look. And, much lower down in the scale of things, we all suffer from the bumps and bruises inflicted by others. So, anyway you look at it, there is much need for forgiveness and reconciliation in our world.
In the Scriptural passage that we read this morning we have a heartening example of forgiveness and reconciliation. When Jesus hung on the cross he forgave his tormentors because of their ignorance — Forgive them Father for they know not what they do. This was not the case with Peter. Peter was a braggart who, at the last Supper, said that even if all the other disciples fell away he would be loyal, even if it meant dying. Jesus knew better. He warned Peter that he would deny him three times, and he said that he had prayed for him. And of course Peter did deny the Lord three times, and he seems to have been shattered by the experience. Jesus, in the passage that we've read, very gently restored Peter. He did it without any ostentation, but he did it within the hearing of the other disciples so that everyone would know that he had forgiven Peter and that Peter had been reinstated. As Peter had denied Jesus three times, so Jesus posed the question to him three times: Peter, do you love me. Peter responded three times that he loved the Lord. And Jesus reinstated him by responding: then feed my sheep. Peter was restored and affirmed.
The Pope and Corrie Ten Boom
Forgiveness and reconciliation are things that we know are right and good and necessary, but they are always very difficult. It is one thing to talk about them in theory, but it is something totally different to put them into effect — to practice what we preach.
In January of 1984 Pope John Paul II went to Rebibbia prison in Rome in order to forgive a man, Mehmet Ali Agca, who had tried to assassinate him by firing a bullet into his chest. The pope had had a long difficult recovery, and some say that he was never quite the same after that. Nevertheless he held out his hand to Agca and said that he forgave him. I don't know that Agca had to say. Did he apologize, did he repent? Whatever Agca's response, I think the Pope was offering a genuine forgiveness, but it must have been easier to do so knowing that newspaper reporters and cameramen would be on hand to record the event for news agencies around the world. How much harder is forgiveness for those of us who have to do it privately and one-on-one or even all alone because the person who has hurt us is no longer alive or is unwilling to be forgiven?
Corrie Ten Boom tells a wonderful story of forgiveness. She was a Christian who was held in a Nazi concentration camp until a few days after the Allies had conquered Germany. When she left that camp she was filled with hatred for the people who had tormented her and demeaned her. But slowly, very slowly, she learned to forgive them in her heart. And she found it to be a liberating experience. All that hatred was taken away. Her load was lightened. Her world brightened. So she began to preach forgiveness, traveling and giving talks in Holland, France and then finally Germany itself. The German people were eager to hear her message of God's love and forgiveness, and how when we forgive one another we free ourselves. But one day after she had given her talk, a German soldier walked up to her and put out his hand: “Ah, Fraulein Ten Boom, I am so glad that Jesus forgives us all of our sins, just as you say.” Ten Boom recognized him as one of the soldiers in her camp. He had regularly forced the women to take showers together while he, the “Huber man,” looked on, leering at the helpless, naked women.
It was a moment of crisis for her. All of her hate and anger suddenly returned and rose up like a tsunami to knock down her pretensions. She still hated the Nazi for what they had done. She knew that she shouldn't. She knew that it was just weakness on her part. So she prayed in that moment for God to forgive her inability to forgive. She prayed: “Jesus, I can't forgive this man. Forgive me.” And in that instant she felt forgiven, and her hand went up to take the hand of her former enemy. In that moment several miracles occurred. God had forgiven Ten Boom. Ten Boom released the German from his guilt. And Ten Boom herself felt truly liberated from her hate.
The Unfairness of Forgiveness
Forgiveness does not come easily to us because of its unfairness. When someone hurts us unfairly, we want that person to be hurt in return, to feel the pain that we have felt. Simply put, we want revenge. In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice we encounter a wronged man who wants vengeance, who wants literally a pound of flesh. This is Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Shylock had been wronged by Antonio, who had despised him simply for being a Jew and because he was doing the one thing that European society had left him to do to become rich: lend money at interest. Shylock says of his antagonist:
[He] hath disgraced me
Laughed at my losses,
Mocked my gains,
Scorned my nation,
Thwarted my bargains,
Cooled my friends,
Heated mine enemies.
Is there anyone here who at some level cannot identify with Shylock? He may have been a man without mercy, without forgiveness, but can anyone say that his case was not just? Shylock did not want to forgive his enemy. He wanted justice. He wanted his pound of his flesh.
Simon Wiesenthal wrote a book about the unfairness of forgiveness. He was a good man, which is why he struggled with forgiveness. Evil people do not worry about forgiveness; they simply seek revenge. They follow the Irish saying, “Don't get mad, just get even.” But good moral people cannot do this. And yet good moral people can also stumble at the threshold of forgiveness because it can be so unfair. Listen to Wiesenthal's story:
He was a Jew held by the Nazis in a Polish concentration camp. The Germans had set up a hospital in the camp for wounded soldiers, and it was Wiesenthal's job to clean the rubbish out of the hospital. One day while he was doing his job a nurse interrupted him and led him upstairs to the side of a young S. S. Trooper who was dying. The soldier took Wiesenthal's hand and then told him of his crime. He and his fellow soldiers had rounded up a few hundred Jews in a Russian village. They then crowded them into a small house. Inside the house they had set up a number of cans full of gasoline. Then they threw grenades through the windows into the house. The house quickly caught fire and most of the people were burned alive. Those who tried to escape by leaping out the windows were shot down by the soldiers. The soldier then looked at Wiesenthal and said: “I know that what I have told you is terrible. I have longed to talk about it to a Jew and beg forgiveness from him. I know that what I am asking is almost too much, but without your answer I cannot die in peace.”
Wiesenthal wrote about this in his book Sunflower. After he told the story, he posed the question to his readers: What would you have done? A number of famous writers responded, and their responses are in the book. Most took the view that Wiesenthal had no business forgiving the German for a crime that he had committed against someone else. We can forgive those who sin against us, but we cannot forgive someone for sinning against another. Some took the view that the German did not deserve forgiveness. People who torture and kill other human beings are not fit subjects for forgiveness. To forgive them would be to encourage future atrocities by letting the criminals off too easily. Others took the view that Wiesenthal was himself a victim of the Nazis at that very moment, and, therefore it was not the time for forgiveness. He was then in a concentration camp; he had seen 89 of his family members killed; and he expected to be killed himself. Must he forgive a man who was part of an evil army that was then torturing him and was about to kill him?
I encountered this last argument myself when I was in Khartoum. A very well-intentioned Christian gave a talk to our students on the need to forgive their enemies. Their enemies were the Arab Muslims of the North who had spent the previous fifteen years committing genocide against the black Africans of the South. The people in the audience were not passive observers. All of them knew people who had been killed; all of them were refugees living in extreme poverty. It was not the time for forgiveness. Must a woman who is being raped forgive the rapist even while the rape is going on?
Wiesenthal listened to the S.S. trooper's story and thought hard about what he should do. He says, “I stood up and looked in his direction, at his folded hands. At last I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.” This member of the condemned and despised race could not forgive a member of the super race. And yet his inability to forgive troubled him for years and led him eventually to write a book about it.
Forgiveness is always a struggle. Regardless of how good we are, regardless of how well-intentioned, regardless of how moral and spiritual we are, when we are wronged forgiveness does not come easily. So why forgive?
One reason to forgive is the recognition that we are fragile, limited creatures who live in a complex world of fragile, limited creatures. We are all guilty at lease once in a while, and need to be forgiven by others for the unnecessary hurts that we inflict. Also, often the victims of another's aggression are not entirely innocent lambs. Sometimes we set ourselves up to be hurt by others. We don't look before we leap; or we don't weigh the costs or anticipate the possible downfalls of our decisions. Our children rebel because of our uncontrolled tempers. Our spouses are unfaithful because of our indifference or distractedness. Our friends are disloyal, but it is we who have put them in awkward situations.
This doesn't mean that we deserve what we got — not at all. But if we are able to take a long step back from the hurtful scene, we might be able to see it from the other's perspective. This may not excuse their behavior, but it humanizes it. And we are all human.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells a story in The Gulag Archipelago about a close friend of his. The two were in the army together in WWII, and they seemed to be alike in many ways, sharing the same convictions and hopes. But after the war they went in different directions. Solzhenitsyn was caught up in the Soviet gulags — the island-like prisons in Russian Siberia. He described the unspeakable tortures that he and others were put to simply for speaking out against oppression. His friend, on the other hand, became one of the interrogators whose job it was to force confessions from innocent people. Solzhenitsyn wondered how two people who had had so much in common could have turned out so differently. We tend to see people, like interrogators, as beyond forgiveness because they have become so evil. They are so evil that we want to deny their humanity. But Solzhenitsyn could not believe that his friend was a totally evil person. Knowing himself too well, he could not say that he was totally good while his friend was totally evil. He concluded:
If only there were vile people ... committing evil deeds, and it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
There are human monsters out there: child pornographers, drug dealers hanging around outside of middle schools, sexual abusers of their own children; as wells as the giants of evil who trample their own people: Hitler, Stalin, Po Pot, and many others. But we shouldn't say that they are totally evil. We shouldn't, in a sense, deny their humanity and thereby place them beyond forgiveness and redemption.
When I was living in Rwanda and thinking hard about the perpetrators of genocide in that country, I read Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Adolph Eichmann was one of the architects of the Jewish holocaust. He was caught around 1960 and tried in an Israeli court, found guilty and hanged. For the Jewish people and for much of the world, Eichmann was a superhuman monster, a man who was so evil that he was almost beyond comprehension. But listening closely to the trial, Arendt did not see him that way. To her, Eichmann came off as a boring mid-level bureaucrat. A stupid, uninteresting, unsuccessful, vapid human being. What she discovered was “The Banality of Evil.” What made people like Eichmann capable of genocide, she concluded, was primarily their inability to empathize with other human beings. They simply couldn't put themselves in the place of the despised races. These giants of evil were not giants at all, but merely pathetic and defective human beings.
Humanizing people who have hurt us, putting ourselves in their places, recognizing that in other circumstances we ourselves might be capable of terrible things — all of this should help us to forgive others.
Limitations and Qualifications
Forgiving people who have done the intolerable does not mean excusing them; it does not mean covering it over; it does not mean reducing or denying the evil that has been done; and it doesn't necessarily mean eliminating the consequences that they have earned. The Pope forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, but he did not ask that he be freed from prison.
It also has to be said that forgiveness in our less than perfect world often has to be limited and incomplete. Lewis Smedes in his book Forgive and Forget (much of which I have been following in this sermon) notes that forgiveness is a process that has four stages: we are hurt, we are angry, we forgive, and we reconcile. This can often take a great deal of time.
The Christian writer C. S. Lewis was badly brutalized by one of his teachers when he was a very young student. He was a sadistic teacher who tormented and whipped his students; eventually he was declared insane and put away. When Lewis became a Christian he tried to forgive him. He said the words, and he meant it in his heart, but we human beings are not capable of really forgetting. When Jesus said, forgive and forget, he did not expect us to have amnesia. He meant that we should forgive the person, and then put the incident behind us. But Lewis couldn't put it behind him; it kept coming back. And then, not long before in died, he wrote a letter to an American friend:
...Do you know, only a few weeks ago I realized suddenly that I had at last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood.
Forgiveness is a process, and it often takes a long time. Often the process is incomplete because reconciliation is not possible. Perhaps the person we want to forgive is no longer living, perhaps the person does not want to deal with the pain s/he has caused; or perhaps the person would simply spit our forgiveness back in our faces. Even when it is not completed by reconciliation, forgiveness is still worthwhile because it releases us from the burden and poison of hate. That is the miracle of forgiveness. If you do not forgive, you allow yourself to become frozen into a cruel moment in your past. You allow the person who has hurt you to have a power over you that goes on forever.
It is true that God demands confession and repentance before He gives forgiveness and absolution; but we weak, fallible human beings cannot afford to have such high standards. If for no other reason, we should forgive others, even when they don't want our forgiveness, in order to free ourselves. The alternative is nursing a memory that works like an acid corroding away the joy in our lives.
Under the best of circumstances we travel through all four stages of forgiveness: hurt, anger, forgiveness and reconciliation. If Jesus was truly human, he must have been hurt and then angry at Peter's disloyalty. After the resurrection as Jesus sat on the shore of Galilee and looked into Peter's eyes, he did not see an evil man; he saw a weak human being who desperately needed a second chance. And so he forgave him and restored him in a very gentle way. All of us are sometimes in the place of Jesus and sometimes in the place of Peter — and most often, we play both roles at the same time. So there should be no exceptions to those we are willing to forgive; there should be none whom we consider beyond our forgiveness. And if we look into our own hearts, we know that God has forgiveness us much and, therefore, we should forgive one another. In fact, God insists on it. The iron law is alluded to in the sentence we pray every week: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And so, let it be. Amen.
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker at the United Parish of Bowie.
© 2007 Michael T. Parker