Forgiveness: The Great Change of Heart
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 5, 2003
Mere words? Perhaps. Certainly, simple words of apology can’t turn back the clock. They can’t undo all the wounds done during four years of bloody warfare in the Balkans—undo the sad specter of the quarter of a million killed in Bosnia; the additional tens of thousands killed in Croatia; the hundreds killed when NATO bombs reigned down of Belgrade.
Nor can they undo the generations (if not centuries) of hatred and strife and distrust between Serbs and Croats: the thousands killed at the hands of the fascist Ustasha during the Second World War, or in the bloody aftermath that followed.
Words of apology, however well meaning and sincere, cannot undo the crimes of the past, and do not, in and of themselves, answer the cry for justice.
But they are a first step. A very good first step. Perhaps the only possible first step on the road toward our better selves. When we apologize for and confess the sins we have committed towards others, we initiate the process of atonement—of forgiveness—and we begin the great change of heart, the great turning, which leads us away from more war—more violence—more hurt—more despair—and toward a new life of love, and peace, and hope-- and maybe even, someday, justice.
Certainly, this old world of ours cries out for the healing touch of peace and reconciliation. Most countries (ours included) are not brave enough to admit their sins; courageous enough to seek a better way. Perhaps the case of Croatia and Serbia will be an exception. Another was South Africa:
The sin of apartheid dominated every aspect of South African life for generations. Gradually, a monumental and heroic opposition movement led by Nelson Mandela grew within South Africa to resist legalized racism and oppression. More and more, the world community was mobilized to use its financial and political influence to pressure the white South African government, until its leaders, too, finally saw no alternative to change. Free elections were held; Mandela became president; South Africa was transformed. Seven years ago, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to provide a vehicle for a national dynamic of confession—forgiveness—reconciliation to take place.
It has not been easy, and it has not been perfect, and South Africa still faces mammoth social problems and challenges. But the amazing thing is how much, through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the people of South Africa have been able to move beyond the past and get on with their lives.
Perhaps the South African model offers some hope to our war-torn world. Part of the reason that my colleague, Rev. Henry James of the First United Methodist Church in Stoughton, just up the hill from us, will be leaving for his homeland, Liberia, later this week is to help establish such a Truth and Reconciliation Commission there. Over the past several years, the Liberian civil war has cost the lives of perhaps 200,000 people (in a total population of just over 3 million); up to one-third of the country has been displaced as refugees. Now, a cease-fire has been achieved, and Rev. James and a small group of American clergy of Liberian heritage will attempt to do what they can to put the pieces back together. He and his church will also be collecting medical supplies for the people there in the months ahead, and I’ll keep you informed about ways we can help with this most worthwhile project. In the meantime, may our prayers and good wishes be with Henry as he undertakes this very important work.
As in South Africa, Liberia will only be able to begin its journey into the future if it turns its back on the tragic ways of the past. Forgiveness and reconciliation are never easy. But what other alternative is there? We can refuse to change directions; we can refuse to change our hearts and cling to our hurts. We can refuse to admit our guilt and seek forgiveness of others. We can refuse to accept the healing balm which reconciliation offers. We can mire ourselves in anger. We can remain stuck, locked in the past. We can keep our fists clenched, our hearts frozen; we can hold our children hostage to the wrongs we have suffered. We can remain in the past, and die in the shadow of the past, even while life offers its gifts to us.
This is the prayer of Yom Kippur, and the hope which Yom Kippur offers.
There’s a story about two Tibetan monks who meet each other again after years of being imprisoned and enduring terrible torture at the hand of their captors. “Have you forgiven them?” asks the first. “Forgive them!” the other responds. “I will never forgive them! Never! Never!” And the first monk responds, very softly, “Well, I guess they still have you in jail, don’t they?”
Forgiveness is not the easy way to live. No, rationalizing away everything wrong that we’ve ever done is easy. Being callous about other people’s feelings is easy. Treating other people like objects is easy. Giving in to our most base instincts and emotions and appetites and desires is easy. Taking our freedom and abundance for granted is easy. Getting all that’s in it for us and the rest of the world be damned is easy. Failing to give thanks for the gift of life we’ve been given is easy. Squandering our birthright for a mass of potage is easy.
Screwing up (big time, sometimes) is easy—as individuals, as communities, as a nation. Admitting we’ve done it is hard.
Forgetting is easy, too. Forgetting is not forgiving. You don’t need inner fortitude or a gift of grace to forget. You just need a lousy memory.
Forgiving is not forgetting; forgiving is remembering—and forgiving still. That’s most certainly not easy. No, it’s extremely difficult—perhaps the most difficult pursuit in which we human beings will ever engage. And, perhaps, the most divine. “When we forgive, we come as close as any human being can to the essentially divine act of creation,” wrote Lewis Smedes.
Forgiveness—and the great change of heart—the great change of direction—it represents—represents our turning—as individuals, and together, and even as nations-- toward our better selves. Forgiveness is about our cosmic-human journey toward wholeness and peace. We are called upon as children of the creation to forgive—to give forth—to live forth—to move on with our lives.
Yom Kippur is called the “Day of Atonement”—the Day of At-One-Ment, and reconciliation is about being “at one”—at one within ourselves, at one with one another. It reminds us of our essential unity and oneness with all that is.
It points us toward that better way. It calls upon us to experience teshuvah— in Hebrew, “turning”. The essential question which forgiveness sows in our hearts is not “Why me?”, but rather “What’s next?. In this new year we have before us, the voice of all that we call Holy calls upon us to turn—to change: toward a new beginning, as new as the year before us; perhaps toward a new way of life, new insights, new experiences.
But the new year is not created out of nothing; every new year has enfolded within it the blessings and the curses of all the years that have come before. You can not turn toward the future as long as the past is haunting you, or paining you, or dragging you down. It has to be dealt with before you can move on.
In the comic strip of the same name, Calvin says to Hobbes: “I feel so bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it.”
“Maybe you should apologize to her,” Hobbes suggests.
To which Calvin finally responds: “I keep hoping that there is a less obvious solution.”
At Yom Kippur, the voice of our Jewish heritage reminds us to stop looking for the great cosmic, perfect, once-in-a-creation “solution” to the problems of the world and reach out, very simply, to those whom we have wronged and who have wronged us. It calls upon us to do what we can—as haltingly and partially and imperfectly as we inevitably will—to discern what is truly important in life and move toward it.
And if we don’t get it all done this year (and we won’t), we need not despair, because we’ll have another chance next year, next Yom Kippur, to try to do it again. “God and I make a wonderful pair,” Sam Levenson (I believe it was—I know I’m dating myself if I’m quoting Sam Levenson) once said. “I love to sin, and God loves to forgive me.” We will all have plenty of failings to go around, plenty of things that need forgiving (and that we need to forgive). But the wonderful thing in the confession-forgiveness-atonement-reconciliation endeavor is that there is no ominous Game 7 always looming on the horizon (or, in the Red Sox’s parlay this year, no Game 3, or 4, or 5) when it all will be over, one way or the other.
Just as long as there is life within us, and the year cycles, and the seasons return, we have that opportunity to confess, repent, and change. We have the ability to respond; to do something to atone for the wrongs we’ve done and to reach out to those who’ve done us wrong.
Among the different religious traditions of the world, I don’t think that any can match Judaism for the balance it has achieved in its ritual between feasting and fasting—days of celebration and days of contemplation. A Jewish writer, William Arthur Ward, has cast this ritual in terms of its deeper meaning. On this Yom Kippur, may we all:
Fast from words that pollute; feast on phrases that purify.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism.
Fast from complaining; feast on affirmation.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.
Fast from boredom; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from suspicion; feast on truth.
Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from shadows of sorrow; feast on the sunlight of serenity.
So may it be as we go forth this holy day, and every holy day, every day, of our lives. L’Shanah tovah tikatevu. A good new year to you all. Indeed, may our names be inscribed in the Book of Life. Shalom. Amen.