How Can I Forgive? by Rev. Anthony D. Makar

Like the father and daughter in today’s drama, you and I each have
a picture album of the past, perhaps in physical form but definitely
in the form of memories and feelings. And we look at the old photos
often. Some of them make us laugh. Some of them make us feel soft, and
we reminisce. And then there are some that trigger feelings of hard
resentment and anger. Pictures of events and experiences that hurt us
terribly, causing changes in our lives that felt and feel so unfair.
Pictures that tend to stay with us long after we’ve closed the
album, and they eat at us-resentment feelings eating away at our
bodies in the form of upset stomachs and headaches and worse.
Resentments playing out in present circumstances and relationships so
that we find ourselves caught in old patterns and games that feel
relentless and out of control. All of this can cause us to look for
ways to numb the pain and so turn to alcohol to cope, or to gambling,
or to shopping, or something else. It’s those pictures in our
album that just won’t go away, even when we close the covers.

What do the pictures in your life album look like-the ones that
trigger resentment? For many of us, there will be pictures that
portray dysfunctional family scenes. Times when we felt unseen and
unappreciated, or when we were asked to grow up too quickly, or when
we were abused. One picture that comes to mind, in my own case, is
this: a picture of the house I grew up in, a picture of the living
room which is spotless, perfect, untouched because my mom suffered
from obsessive compulsive disorder but, as a kid, how could I
understand that? All I wanted was to be at home in my house, to feel
like I could relax and be me and invite friends over. But that was
never allowed. I see that picture in my mind, and it brings back so
many thoughts, so many feelings….

Dysfunctional family scenes like this might be in our albums, and then
perhaps scenes from institutions we encountered growing up. For
example, some Unitarian Universalists may have a picture in their
album that portrays some injustice experienced in the Christian church
of their childhood. The scene might be that of a Bible class, and the
subject is God, and God is being portrayed in human-like terms,
feeling jealousy and exhibiting cruelty and wrath and so on, and this
strikes you as strange and wrong. This couldn’t be what God is
like. So you ask a question about this, and you are told in no
uncertain terms to shut up. Your face, right after being told this, is
in the picture, and you see the shock and hurt there, the confusion,
the broken trust….

And then there might be this picture. Not one that portrays a scene
from the distant past, but one from the recent past. Say you are a
Unitarian Universalist who loves all the world’s religions but you
have a special affinity for liberal Christianity. Unitarian
Universalism is your home because you love the spiritual freedom it
promises all people to follow the call of their heart and soul,
without having to worry about violating established dogmas and
doctrinal boundaries. People have permission to be inner-directed in
their religious journeys, following the direction of the golden
compass within, and that’s what you love about this faith. It
allows you to believe in the kind of God that makes sense to you. And
yet here is the picture in your album: you are in the social hall, in
a small group of folks, and someone makes an off-hand comment about
how Christianity (even the open-minded liberal kind) is absolutely
ridiculous and has no place at all in a Unitarian Universalist
congregation. The preacher should never quote from the Christian
scriptures, or mention the name Jesus, even if all he’s doing is
referring to the very real Christian historical roots of this faith.
You’ve just been told to shut up-you’ve just bumped up against
a dogma that is absolutely contrary to the spirit of Unitarian
Universalism-and it happens in the place and time where you least
expect it. And so there, in the picture, is your face right after
hearing this off-hand comment: full of shock and hurt, full of
confusion, full of a sense of broken trust….

Our life albums have resentment pictures in them. And we could go on
and on about other pictures that portray violations to ourselves and
loved ones, violations to our sense of security and integrity. Scenes
from childhood, scenes from relationships over the years, scenes from
work; and scenes, too, from social events and happenings that are not
personal but social and political: the nineteen-year-old gunman who,
just a few days ago, gunned down a dozen or so people at a mall in
Omaha Nebraska; or the recent news that the CIA destroyed videotapes
of their interrogation of two terrorism suspects, and you wonder about
what is being covered up; or how the scientific fact of global warming
could be, for so long, fuzzed and confused by political spin
doctors….

We could go on and on. And before we move on, I must acknowledge what
is perhaps the most powerful resentment picture of all, which is in
every human being’s life album no matter who they are and where
and when they live. The picture is all about anxiety. The picture is
all about restlessness. I am talking about what it means to be a human
being, our existential situation, which is that we feel thrown into
this world, a world that is big with ambiguity and mystery, a world
that gives to us our precious freedom which can also feel like a
aching burden. For we, alone among all the higher animals, must go in
search of who we are. We must make decisions and commitments without
knowing everything there is to know. The press of time demands that.
No one can stay a spectator to life for long, and there are few if any
up-front guarantees to anything. Things happen to us, and all of a
sudden we realize that we don’t have the control over our lives
that we thought we did; and yet to live without some sense of control
is unbearable… And so we find ourselves singing a line from the hymn
from earlier, rich with a mood that is pensive: “What to give
you, what to call you, who am I?” This is the feeling of anxiety
and restlessness in the human heart, and in every one of our life
albums, there is a picture of this, a picture of the basic human
condition….

And therefore, having said all this, we have got to talk about
forgiveness. How can we live without it? How can we bear this life?
Certainly one possibility is to remain stuck in our resentments, but
we already know what that path looks like. It poisons us. We drink the
poison, thinking that it will kill the other person or situation, but
it only hurts us. We want to be part of the solution, but when we act
from a place of resentment and not peace, we just make things worse.
Above all, resentment causes us to live the violation over and over
again so that, in effect, we lose our creative freedom to act and to
be in new ways. No chance for release but only imprisonment in pain
and victimhood. Repeating past hurts over and over and over. This is
what philosopher Hannah Arendt says. She writes, “[Without
forgiveness, we are] confined to one single deed from which we can
never recover; we remain the victim of its consequences forever.”
She is saying that resentment equates to unfreedom. If we take the
path of resentment, we cannot be free. If we bring our resentments
towards religion or religious institutions to this place, and we just
indulge them and allow them free reign, then this place will be no
home for the human spirit; this place will not free minds and hearts;
this place will put people into bondage; people will want bread and we
will give them stones….

Renewal is at stake. Freedom is at stake. All the spiritual things
signified and celebrated by the wonderful holiday greenery around us,
the lighting of the advent wreath and menorah, are at stake. We must
learn how to begin again in love. So how do we do that? How do we
begin again in love?

Let’s start simply by getting clear about what forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is ultimately a matter of reframing one’s relationship
with the past so that we are no longer trapped by it and living it
compulsively over and over again. We open up our life albums, survey
the pictures within it, and rather than emotional reactivity to what
happened, there is clarity. Rather than resentful feelings, there are
feelings of mercy and compassion for yourself and for others.

This means that forgiveness cannot possibly involve forgetting what
happened. It can’t possibly be about removing the pictures that
trigger resentment feelings and tearing them up, throwing them away.
Philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and we don’t
want that. We don’t want to repeat the past endlessly into the
present. That’s the essential problem we are trying to solve to
begin with. Forgiveness is a change of heart without erasing or
forgetting any of the facts of the past.

It’s a change of heart, and as I say that, I’m mindful of yet
another misunderstanding. That the kind of change we are talking about
is that of losing our sense of right and wrong. Too many people think
this. Too many people think that forgiveness is about allowing the
person who did something harmful and wrong to get away with it,
enabling them not to have to take responsibility for their actions.
But if we Unitarian Universalists truly affirm every person’s
inherent worth and dignity, then we dare not erase the responsibility
that people bear for their actions. We may seek to understand
empathetically why they did what they did-we may realize with a shock
that, if we were in their shoes, we might have done something
similarly destructive-but if we erase their responsibility for what
they did, we erase a key constituent element of their humanity.
Affirming a person’s inherent worth and dignity requires that we
remind them and empower them to own their actions and accept the
consequences. This is part of what our First Principle as Unitarian
Universalists means….

And with this, we can expose yet another confusion about forgiveness:
the idea that forgiveness commits us to putting ourselves back into
harm’s way. Someone has abused us and is likely to continue
abusing us, and we think that forgiveness is a matter of forgetting
that this actually happened, throwing away our sense of right and
wrong, and then going back to business as usual, living a wish that
everything is going to be better from now on. But you know what?
Wishing doesn’t make it so. The forgiveness we feel in our heart
can’t act supernaturally at a distance and change a situation or a
person outside ourselves. What I’m saying, in other words, is that
we ought not confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Forgiveness is
something we do to free ourselves, but reconciliation is when all
parties in a conflict are willing to sit down at the same table and
willing to change. Of course we hope that we can have both. We do. But
very often this is not the case. The person that hurt you might not
ever want to change or even be capable of change-or they might be out
of our lives permanently, for one reason or another. And then there is
our world-our world that continues to be a place of suffering and
injustice-our world that continues to resist the old fantasy of
inevitable progress onwards and upwards forever. Our world for sure
will not ever change. Forgiveness here is still a present possibility,
but reconciliation? Maybe not.

So where are we with forgiveness? Forgiveness is about our own
spiritual renewal and freedom. It transforms our relationship with
what has hurt us without any forgetting, without any diminishment of
our sense of right and wrong, without any demand that we put ourselves
back in harm’s way, and without any necessary change in the other
person or situation. And then there is this, which is perhaps the most
important thing to know about forgiveness: that it is paradoxical,
elusive, not something you can will instantly into existence. It’s
not a grit-your-teeth-and-get-‘r-done kind of thing. You
can’t force it. The harder you try, the more resentment you feel.
See what I mean? “I know I need to forgive,” we might say,
“but I just can’t-I just can’t forgive him for what
he’s done. I just can’t.”

Consider the story of Vicky Crompton-Tedder and the murder of her
fifteen-year-old-daughter Jenny. Jenny had been dating a young man at
her high school, but after a year of this, she wanted to end the
relationship. She tried to get out of it, repeatedly tried, but the
young man wasn’t OK with this. Finally, one day he broke into the
family’s home on a Friday afternoon and waited inside the front
door. When Jenny came in, this young man stabbed her sixty-six times
with a butcher knife. That’s how the nightmare began.

Eight years later, the resentment and rage in Vicky
Crompton-Tedder’s heart was as strong as it has ever been. But her
life was falling apart. Her family was falling apart. She had a
ten-year-old and a one-year-old to care for, but she had lost her
heart for caring. She just couldn’t. So eight years after
Jenny’s death, she and her husband decided on putting into action
an idea they had toyed with for years: to go and meet with the young
man who had murdered their daughter. Go see him in prison, ask him
why, see what happens. So they drove to the prison, met with him for
four hours. Here is what happened, in Vicky Crompton-Tedder’s own
words: “I just wanted to rage at him; my husband just sobbed. But
I was into my rage, and I took photographs of her laying there dead on
the autopsy table. I was just brutal with him. I wanted to know what
had happened. He was very remorseful, and he reluctantly told us about
those last moments. […] We also told him of the terrible damage he
did to the rest of our family, and he was extremely sorry. Then I said
to him, ‘Do you grieve for her, do you cry the way that we all
do?’ He looked over his shoulders, because there were guards all
around us, and he said, ‘Oh, you don’t cry in here.’
Then we asked him about his faith, and he said, ‘Oh, I’m in
hell right now.'”

Vicki Crompton-Tedder goes on to say: “We came away from the
meeting different. Within a few days I began to realize that I
wasn’t angry with him anymore. When I did think about him it was
to pray. I was overcome with the hopelessness of his life, and so this
sense of forgiveness started to come over me….”

This is Vicki Crompton-Tedder’s story, and I am struck by how she
got more out of the experience than she had bargained for. Her whole
attitude going into the conversation suggests, to me, that forgiveness
was not on her mind. She was brutal with that young man. She wanted to
make him hurt like she was hurting. She wanted revenge, humiliation.
And yet, despite this intent, she got a glimpse of something
completely unexpected: that this murderer of his daughter-this person
who had wielded so much power over her life for the past eight
years-was himself hopeless, lost, in a living hell. This is the
insight that stayed with her after the meeting, working into her heart
and mind, and she extended compassion towards it and towards him until
she was led to the realization that, quite without intending it, she
had forgiven him. She was free.

What I take from this is the lesson that our true goal is not so much
forgiveness as it is extending compassion. Don’t aim directly for
forgiveness. Don’t try so hard. If there is to be any hard work,
any heavy lifting, let it have to do with opening your life album once
again and looking into the face and form of the people and the
situations you deeply resent. Look especially at the resentment
pictures which are of your own face, each of which represents
something you once did that has ever since felt unforgiveable,
something you have never stopped regretting, something you have never
stopped beating yourself up about. These are perhaps the most
difficult pictures of all to look at. We can’t forget about them.
Look at them, look at them all, tell the people and the situations in
them how much it hurts. Write a letter, if that is the best you can
do. And then make a decision. Decide that there’s going to be a
point at which you extend compassion towards them and towards
yourself. You are going to allow them to tell their own story, and you
are going to allow your self from years ago to tell its own story.
Work hard at THIS. Strain at THIS. And then you will see something
unexpected. You will see them as they are. You will see yourself as
you once were. Not through the lens of childhood. Not through the
distortions of our own narrow perspective. Not powerful, but burdened.
Not malicious, but desperate. Not omnipotent and all-knowing, but so
fallible, so flawed. Breathe compassion into this world in which
people can be so cruel in their anger and in their blame, in their
self-righteousness and perfectionism and pettiness, and yet beneath it
all is a hopelessness, beneath it all is that sense of devastating
worthlessness and shame. Breathe compassion into this. Breathe
compassion into this. Realize that they are merely human like us, and
we are merely human like them. This is when forgiveness will happen,
unforced, without strain, a gift of faith. This is when. Amen.