The Miracle of Forgiveness
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 1, 2006
The scene in a Rhode Island courtroom this past week was heart-rending in the extreme. A plea bargain agreement had been concluded in the case of the tragic fire at The Station nightclub in February of 2003. Under the terms of the agreement, one of the owners of the nightclub, Michael Derderian, was sentenced to four years in prison. His brother, Jeffrey, was to serve no jail time at all, and was given a suspended sentence and ordered to serve 500 hours of community service.
When the plea bargain was announced, a wave of anger and disgust swept over New England. These sentences were just too paltry, many voices cried out, in the light of such a great (and avoidable) tragedy: 100 people had been killed, men and women all in the primes of their lives. No, this would not do. This was not justice. For the victims’ families, there was to be no trial, and the sense of closure that might provide. There was no sense of any kind of adequate payback here, many believed.
Last Friday, members of the families of those killed at The Station had their day in court, their opportunity to offer victims’ impact statements, detailing just how tragically this awful event had affected their lives. One after another, family members told their stories: sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, parents and friends—all lost. One hundred irreplaceable human lives taken in a hellish inferno; hundreds—thousands—of other lives effected. The Derderian brothers’ sentences—four years in jail, total, between the two of them—seemed so small a balance weight on the scale.
There were few voices of forgiveness in that Rhode Island courtroom the other day. Annmarie Swidwa, whose daughter Bridget, 25 years old, was killed at The Station seemed to speak for most, if not all, of the family members when she said: “We didn’t do anything wrong, but we didn’t get a trial, and we all received a life sentence.”
There are some things, it seems, that just can’t be forgiven.
In Michael Christofer’s play, The Black Angel, a former Nazi general named Engel spends thirty years in prison, sentenced at Nuremberg. After his release, he tries to make a new life for himself outside a little village in the south of France. There, he built a little cabin for himself and his wife; his own past, with its horrendous guilt now behind him—paid for, he believed, by the thirty years he spent in prison. Now, he thought, he had earned the right to make a new life for himself.
But there was in the area a certain French journalist, by the name of Moreault, who could not forget. His own family had been massacred at the start of the war, in a village which Engel’s troops had overrun. Everyone in that village had been shot dead. Moreault could not forget. So, for thirty years, he had planned and plotted revenge. If the Nuremberg court could not sentence Engle to death, then Moreault himself would carry out his own sentence.
Now, the time for revenge had finally come. Moreault had gone into that little village, and had stoked up the hatred and fear and bitterness of some of the townsfolk. He did his work well, for on that very night, they were going to come as a mob to the general’s house, and kill Engle, and his wife, and burn their cabin to the ground.
But there were some lose ends of the story that Moreault, as a journalist, wanted to get straight. There were some things about that he still needed to understand. So on the afternoon before the night of vengeance, Moreault went to the cabin, told Engle who he was, and started an inquisition. All afternoon, Moreault probed deeper and deeper, in ever-more exacting and excruciating detail, into the story of that tragic night so long ago. But as Moreault got into the soul of Engle, his own soul began to change. Revenge began to taste sour in his mouth. He changed his mind about unleashing the mob on Engle and his wife.
“They’re going to come after you tonight,” he finally told the former Nazi general. “And they’re surely going to kill you. Come with me. I can save your life. I can get you out of here alive.”
The general waited for a long moment before answering. Then he said to the French journalist: “I will go with you on one condition.”
“What’s the condition?” Moreault asked.
“That you forgive me.”
“No—no—no!” Moreault responded. “Save you I will. But forgive you I cannot. Never—never—never!” With that, he ran away, and left Engle all alone.
That night the villagers came as a mob. They burned the cabin to the ground, and shot Engle and his wife dead.
What is it that General Engle wanted more than life itself? What was it that he needed so badly that he would rather die than live without? What was it that Moreault could not find the power to give? What is the miracle of forgiveness?
A well-worn truism reminds us that, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” In the First Epistle of John in the Christian New Testament, we read: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Is it only God, then-- some power beyond us mere mortals—that can forgive? Can only God make it right in the end? Or is there hope for us, here and now, on this earthly coil? To err is human—that we know, for sure. But is the power to forgive an important human attribute, as well? Is there a power within us which can overcome limitations, transcend failures, and help to bring about healing and wholeness?
I certainly hope there is. But I know it isn’t easy.
It is so often so hard for us human ones to change direction. It seems so much easier for us, so often, to cling to our hurts rather than to change our hearts. Now, anger can be a very empowering emotion. But not if it’s the only emotion we feel. We can mire ourselves in anger; we can remain stuck in the past; the door locked against the future. We can hold ourselves—and even our children—hostage to the wrongs that we—or our families—or our tribe-- or our nation—have suffered at the hands of others. When we cling to our anger, we live and die in the shadow of the past, even while life offers its gifts unto us.
But—“May the Living let us in/ Before the dead tear us apart.” (Springsteen)
This is the prayer—and the hope—with Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—offers.
There is a story about two Tibetan monks who meet each other again after years of being imprisoned and enduring terrible torture at the hands of their captors, the Chinese Communists. “Have you forgiven them?” asks the first monk. And the other responds, “No, I will never forgive them, never!” Then, the first monk answers him very softly, “Well, I guess they still have you in jail, don’t they?”
Forgiveness is not an easy way to live. I think that for everyone except God—or for the most saintly among us—it may well be neigh impossible to forgive someone, unless that have first confessed their sins against us. Confession and forgiveness are intimately connected, it seems to me. You really cannot have one without the other. The most crucial element in unleashing the miracle of forgiveness in human relationships is for us to acknowledge that we share the pain of those we have hurt—and that those who have hurt us share our pain, as well. Only when we honestly share the pain of the others involved can forgiveness truly work it miracle of healing.
When I sincerely and honestly confess to you that I have hurt you, then I am telling you that the hurt I caused you now hurts me, too. I feel the pain which I inflicted upon you. I wounded you, and now I am wounded, too.
Only when pain is shared can forgiveness take place. When pain is acknowledged, and deeply felt, and shared, then something amazing can happen in our damaged relationships. The pain shared through confession and forgiveness becomes a bridge, upon which we can meet one another and begin again.
I don’t want to make any of this sound easy. It’s not. Forgiving someone who has hurt us may be the most difficult single thing any of us are called upon to do in these lives of ours. But it may also be where our humanity approaches most closely unto the Divine.
It’s easy to mess up (in big ways sometimes)—as individuals, and as nations. Admitting we’ve messed up is hard.
Forgiving is not forgetting, either. You don’t need inner fortitude or a gift of grace to forget. You just need a lousy memory. Forgiving is remembering still—and yet, forgiving nonetheless.
Nor is forgiving the same thing as excusing. Making excuses for people when they’ve hurt us also can be easy, especially if we don’t want to feel the pain involved in the first place. We can swallow our hurt, and numb our pain, or push it deeper and deeper inside ourselves, and ignore it, and deny it, and find a hundred excuses and rationalizations for what someone has done. Excusing can provide a handy end run around the challenge of forgiveness. But rationalization alone does not a pardon make. Nor does it bring about healing or new life.
Forgiveness, as difficult as it can be, is fundamentally a very simple miracle. It’s the miracle of a new beginning. It starts at the moment where we are, right now—not where we wish we were, neither in the past nor in the future, but in the living, breathing present moment.
It starts at the place where are, right now, together, to start all over again. When you truly forgive another person, you hold out your hand to him or her, and you say: I cannot excuse what you’ve done. I cannot understand what you’ve done. I cannot forget what you’ve done. But here’s my hand. I want to be your friend again. I want to be your husband again. I want to be your father again. I want to be your son again. Let’s begin anew.
When we are ready to forgive, we don’t have to understand everything. We don’t have to get the story straight. We don’t have to tie up all the loose ends in our minds. We do need to begin where we are—in our shared pain, and in our shared hope—and covenant with one another to walk into the future, together.
What kind of future? Who knows? A future where there will be more joy—and more pain. A future where there will be more imperfection and disagreements and conflict and struggle. A future where, God willing, there will be more forgiveness and more new beginnings, over and over again.
Forgiveness doesn’t give us a fast forward into a painless future. Nor does it turn back the clock. We have to begin where we are, right now. Sometimes, that means we have to let go of the old relationship, and begin a brand new one. A divorced person may have to forgive her estranged spouse; but then, on another basis than husband and wife. Sometimes a child—an older, grownup child—has to forgive a parent who has already died for abuses of the past. Then, the forgiveness has to be a new beginning with the memory of the parent now dead and gone.
Whatever the status of the relationship, when you sense that another person has shared the pain that he or she has caused within you, then you are ready to forgive—if you have grace enough, and courage enough, and wisdom enough to do it.
In the Jewish calendar, a new year stands ready to begin. So, if you have resolutions to make, you don’t have to wait until January 1. You don’t have to wait until the pagan new year sometime next spring, either. That’s the great thing about years: they go round and round, and a new one is always beginning right now.
This power to start over—to begin again in love-- is a precious gift we all possess, and we all share.
Sometimes, it takes a child to lead us.
Not too long ago, there was another article, in the Globe, about a different courtroom, this one in Boston. The newspaper story told of Kai Leigh Harriott, a little five-year-old girl from Dorchester, paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair, no doubt for the rest of her life.
Two years before, Kai Leigh had been wounded by a stray bullet when Anthony Warren of Hyde Park fired three gunshots into the air, just to scare two women with whom he had been in an argument. One of the bullets had struck Kai Leigh.
Now, in a courtroom, as Warren sat ready to be sentenced, Kai Leigh (all of five years old), turned to him and said, “What you done to me was wrong. But I still forgive you.”
Afterwards, Kai Leigh’s mother said, “We live in a world today that seems to want to be bitter and angry. I don’t want bitterness and anger in my life and I don’t want it for Kai Leigh… I tried to hate him but it would not come out.”
As Kai Leigh’s mother left the courtroom she turned and hugged Warren—the man who had so injured her daughter—and whispered to him: “Here is your chance for a new beginning. Don’t let God down.”
Just as long as there is life within us, and the year cycles, and the seasons return, we have the opportunity to discern our own failures; to confess them others; to repent, and to change. We have within us always, as long as we have breath, the ability to do something about the wrongs we’ve done, and to reach out to those others who have done us wrong.
What an amazing miracle forgiveness is! So very divine. Yet so very tangibly, do-ably human, as well.
A good new year to you all. And may all of our names be inscribed in the Book of Life.