Before Ramadan Muslims observe Lailat al Bara'a – the Night of Forgiveness – when they pray and ask God for forgiveness for their sins. Jews annually observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest of their High Holy Days, which is about forgiveness between God and human beings. Synagogues are apparently filled to capacity on that day, even by secular Jews who don’t attend synagogue during the rest of the year. Ernie Reay, presenter of Radio 4’s religious affairs programme Beyond Belief, introduced a programme about forgiveness, saying that his friends told him that – like most Ulster Protestants and most Irish Catholics – he was racked with guilt. He said that from an early age he had had it drummed into him that he needed forgiveness. Some Christian denominations have gone over the top on that need for forgiveness, but Christian forgiveness is based on the Christian belief that God forgives us and therefore we should forgive each other.
An Islamic commentator, a Jewish Rabbi and a Buddhist discussed forgiveness from the perspective of their own faith traditions, with Ernie Reay. I’ve drawn out a few strands from this discussion to share with you. The Islamic commentator, reacting to Ernie Reay’s experience of guilt, said she had never felt racked with guilt, because it’s an Islamic concept that God does not burden people with what they cannot carry. She reflected that guilt can be a very debilitating process and she was very grateful that guilt wasn’t in her religious upbringing. Islamic justice is based on reparation, rather than on making statements of repentance, and Muslims are required to atone for wrongdoing in practical ways. Forgiveness is between people and God, and there isn’t an emphasis on people saying sorry and asking for forgiveness, but human beings have to deal with the practicalities of their wrongdoings, and make reparations for damage caused.
For Buddhists, without a concept of God, there isn’t a concept of divine forgiveness, but the Buddhist commentator talked of forgiveness entailing a willingness to look and see what can be transformed within ourselves. He emphasised that the wounded party often needs to be heard, and to have the fault acknowledged before they can forgive. Sometimes it’s not easy to forgive until one has allowed oneself to express one’s anger and been asked for forgiveness from the perpetrator. This process of being allowed to express one’s anger provides a spiritual space in which to begin the journey of forgiveness. All of the commentators stressed that forgiveness is a journey that may take some time, rather just a once-and-for-all glib statement.
The Buddhist spoke about ‘the middle way’ – a common concept within Buddhist thought – and suggested that some abuses, either in our own personal relationships or in wider affairs, might be so appalling that we feel forgiveness is too big a step to take. In this case Buddhists advocate the meditative practice of equanimity, to safeguard a person from retaliatory action. If one can’t actively forgive, equanimity allows one not to hold on to the burden of hatred. If one can’t forgive, striving for equanimity is the best thing to do, for one’s spiritual health and general well-being.
Ernie Reay also interviewed a South African priest who had been an African National Congress activist. His hands had been blown off, and one of his eyes rendered sightless in a letter bomb attack. He was asked if he could forgive the person who had sent the letter bomb. No one had ever been charged for the crime, and he said he couldn’t really forgive until he was asked for forgiveness by the perpetrator. If the perpetrator came and asked to be forgiven, first he would ask ‘are you still making and sending letter bombs?’ If the answer was ‘no’, he would be happy to forgive him, and he wouldn’t want him to go to prison. However, what he would want was a contribution towards the payment of the assistant he had to employ, because of the loss of his hands. He believed in restorative justice, which chimes with the Islamic thinking mentioned before. He had reached a place where he was willing to forgive but it seemed that in some way he was still carrying that load with him. The Buddhist, having heard this story, suggested that maybe forgiveness can come from within us, despite not knowing the perpetrator, maybe through a prayerful acknowledgement that the perpetrator has been living out their journey carrying a burden of hatred.
The conversation moved on to the very difficult question of forgiving on behalf of a community, or on behalf of those who have died. Relatives, whose family members have been murdered, can sometimes think they owe it to the one who was killed not to forgive. However it was suggested that forgiveness can provide a journey of liberation for them, as they see that their state of paralysis is not what their loved ones would want for them.
Nevertheless, the Islamic commentator gave an example of people who were killed by the secret police in Iran, saying many people found this an impossible situation in which to give forgiveness, because that system of secret police has not been dismantled. It can be very hard to forgive when you are on the losing side, and very especially, when the injustice is still going on. The Jewish commentator mentioned that there had been individual forgiveness by many Jews of Germany as a state, and of individual Germans, but there has been no corporate forgiveness of the German perpetrators of the holocaust from within Judaism.
Is it possible to forgive on behalf of those who are dead? All of the commentators agreed that forgiveness on behalf of others is not truly possible. However we need to think of the future, and therefore a corporate asking for, and giving of, forgiveness is a step in the right direction, and should be supported. Corporate forgiveness in some situations is needed in order for communities not to be caught up in a cycle of hatred, but it’s very definitely not straightforward.
One of the commentators used a phrase which struck me very deeply: ‘We must learn to hold our labels more lightly.’ If we could do this, we might see much more of what we have in common rather than what separates us, and if we had this spirit of moving forward with our commonalities, we would have a better world.
Maybe true forgiveness is for God and for the dead victims to give, but what we can commit to, as human beings, is stepping forward and building bridges, rather than putting all our energies into emphasising our differences.
Two years ago, we welcomed Jean Paul Samputu to St Mark’s, to speak about his experience of forgiveness, all who heard him were deeply impressed by the huge and difficult journey of forgiveness he had made. Forgiveness of the people who killed his parents, brothers and sister in the Tutsi genocide seemed so impossible, and undesirable, that it eluded him for years. Only when he found that his own spirit and body were consumed by his own hatred, could he forgive, to heal himself. In an amazing transformation, this man, who previously was full of hatred, became full of love. And that love extends to the greatest extent possible, to the killer of his loved ones. Jean Paul powerfully lives out his message of forgiveness, by remaining in active contact with his family's killer and sharing a platform with him, to speak about the necessity and power of forgiveness. Jean Paul says: ‘Forgiveness is the most powerful unpopular weapon against violence that exists. This weapon does not only fight against community injustice; it also works on one's own heart. Sometimes there is nothing you can do about a particular individual or the situation. Therefore retaining the anger in your heart continues to bring pain and bitterness to you, and may affect your children in future. Forgiveness is therefore not for the other person, but for you who are bitter. When you forgive, you heal yourself.’
Most of us don’t have huge or harrowing crimes to forgive, but we all have grudges that we hold against another. One form of forgiveness is throwing off our grudges and encountering people afresh, even if specific words of forgiveness aren’t spoken.
Forgiveness is at the heart of much religious practice and experience. Whether one involves God or not, asking for, and giving, forgiveness are important spiritual practices for all of us.
Bernard Meltzer, a popular American radio host said ‘When you forgive, you in no way change the past, but you sure do change the future.’
Copyright Maud Robinson
used by permission
given in St Mark’s on 22 May 2016