PEACE AND RECONCILIATION

BEING WITH THE OTHER - JESUS MODEL, JESUS CALL & THE CHARACTER OF GOD

Stockman 4C Launch

Two 4 Corners Festival quotations have struck a long chord with me. The first was at The New Irish Arts performance in Clonard Monastery in 2015. Taking a mainly evangelical Protestant group  onto the Falls Road for the first time is very 4 Corners Festival. That the them was the First World War, even more so! In that performance was a line, “Hatred is compromised by friendship”.

Then in 2019 we had Catholic Priest Fr Greg Boyle spoke in Skainos on the Newtownards Road about radical kinship. The responder to Fr Greg was PSNI Temporary Assistant Chief Constable, Tim Mairs. This was again poignant as we were just days after the murder of Ian Ogle just a few streets away. In Tim’s address he said, “It is hard to demonise someone you know”. 

Recently, in my BEING WITH sermon series in Fitzroy I was looking at BEING WITH THE OTHER. Friendship. Knowing someone. It is all about relationship. BEING WITH.

Jesus was WITH the OTHER. Whether a Samaritan woman who was OTHER in gender, politics and religion. Zacchaeus who was OTHER in being seen as a traitor, collecting taxes for the oppressing Roman Empire. A Roman centurion who Jesus described in some of the most radical of all his sentences, “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel”. Oh my!

Jesus modelled BEING WITH THE OTHER. He also called us to it. For those of us who live in conflict zones Luke 6: 27-36 is a tough Gospel passage. Here Jesus calls us to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”. This is heavy stuff. Jesus most radical call perhaps. 

Yet, Jesus goes on to explain to us that this is the very stuff that his followers are about. To love those who love you? Anyone can do that. He then repeats the loving and the doing good before he brings this call back to the character of God - “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

When I sued to take University Chaplaincy team sto South Africa we met with a man called Rev Dr Spiwo Xapile. Spiwo used to say how we always seem to have excuses about feeding the poor or looking after the marginalised. Oh how that is the case with BEING WITH THE OTHER. We have so many excuses. Political, theological even. Yet, in this sermon on the plain Jesus leaves us no excuses.

BEING WITH THE OTHER, compromising hatred with friendship and eradicating the demonising of people by getting to know them. It is the model Jesus leaves us, the call that Jesus gives us and it all comes from the character of God. Let us quit the excuses!


HOW U2 RESPONDED TO THE OMAGH BOMB

Bono Slane

Tears started running down my face. U2 tugged my emotions. I was in a lecture theatre at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They had a screen that filled the entire wall of the theatre. The sound was great. I was showing U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday from the U2 Go Home: Live From Slane Castle film. 

The obvious reason for the tears was that this was filmed in Ireland. I had only been away from home for a few days but there is nothing like seeing home in a faraway place to feel that yearning. 

Bono was playing all the moves. Sunday Bloody Sunday is, of course, all about Belfast and our Troubles. In 2001 when they played Slane Castle we had had three years since the Good Friday Agreement but politicians were still in talks as to whether they could make our peace deal work. 

Bono use the concert to encourage the “brave men” to compromise for peace. He then literally turned the song into a prayer. Bono walks out across the Elipse stage into the middle of this Irish audience and chants:

“Put your hands in the sky
Put your hands in the air
If you’re the praying kind
Make this song into a prayer
Put your hands in the sky
Put your hands in the air
If you’re the praying kind
Cos we’re not going back there”

On that big Calvin College screen, this was epic. This is about home. This prayerful hope sung across a vast crowd. The screams of “No more!” Wow!

Then, as if that wasn’t enough Bono turns the thoughts of this Irish crowd to the events of August 15th 1998. Just three years earlier the Real IRA, opposed to the IRA ceasefire, left a bomb in the centre of the market town of Omagh, on a Saturday afternoon. When it exploded 29 people lost their lives. The island went into shock and grief.

Slane Castle was U2’s first gig after Omagh. As Sunday Bloody Sunday ends Bono starts to name every victim, one at a time. With the band pumping out the beat of Sunday Bloody Sunday the emotion is palpable. Bono’s voice cracks.

Then with Bono sitting down the band move into a stripped back Wake Up Dead Man. Oh my. This is the most perfect location that that song ever had. Right there. After Sunday Bloody Sunday. After the names of the Omagh victims. The grief, the anger, the confusion, the grapple for faith. It has the catharsis of the blues, the protest of folk and the power of stadium rock. Tears… 

This wasn’t actually U2’s first public reference to Omagh. On November 20, 1998 RTE’s Late Late Show broadcast an Omagh Tribute Special that also included The Corrs, Bob Geldof and President Mary McAleese. 

U2 sang two songs on that show. North and South of the River, written along with Irish folk legend Christy Moore, came cross as almost a grown up Sunday Bloody Sunday. 

In this co-write there is an awareness that religion has led minds astray, and there is yearning for repentance, reconciliation and mutual understanding without any need for surrender, a reference to the clarion call of Ulster Protestants: “No Surrender!” The lines that became most powerful and poignant as U2 performed the song for the TV special were those that suggested the loneliness of hurting your own. There are also fragments of hope in the midst of the evil that love is not lost and has its place in the future.

The band also played All I Want Is You which, in this context, metamorphosed from a yearning for love, in a romantic sense, to a lament for those who lost loved ones in the bombing. It was again powerfully emotional.

On the album that the band were actually promoting at that 2001 Slane Castle concert, All That You Can't Leave Behind had already started reading out the victim's names on a song that wrestles with God the Christmas after Omagh about the angel's song about Peace On Earth:

They're reading names out over the radio
All the folks the rest of us won't get to know
Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann and Brenda
Their lives are bigger than any big idea

Today, 21 years on and I will make a little playlist of these 4 songs, as I remember those lost in that horrific afternoon and indeed everyone who lost lives or limbs, or their sight, or mental health or whatever else as a result of our terrible Troubles.


COULD 4-WAY STOPS MAKE RECONCILIATION POSSIBLE AT STORMONT

Michelle and Arlene in cars

Let me transport you to the roads of Vancouver in Canada. As another impatient Canadian driver honks his horn, and makes to shout obscenities through windscreens, I want to stop him and tell him how much I am looking forward to treating him as he is treating me when he is trying to find his way around Belfast! The roundabout at The Royal in rush hour will sort you out pal!

The psychological and social implications of cars are frightening. There we are in this little confined space with our entire worldview defined by what we are thinking and where we are going. How dare he turn left here and slow me down. Does she not know I am late? Are they not aware that I am trying to decipher a foreign city’s road signs on the wrong side of the road with two young children
screaming in my ear!?

In our cars, we are Kings and Queens and Presidents; almost dictators! We rule the world and everyone should do as we need them to do. There is no understanding of the crisis going on in the cars around us. There are no rights for those drivers. They need to serve my needs of getting to where I want to go. Anything short of that leads to finger gestures, bad language and road rage violence!

Transporting you back to our little piece of Ireland, we live like we are in cars without regard for the stories and histories around us, the hopes, fears and hurt of those who are travelling alongside us. Our world views are confined making us feel we are totally right and they are wrong if they are not serving our ambitions and dreams. If they get in the way of us reaching our destinations then they can be cut off.

Jesus calls for another way. His revolutionary plan for peace was forsaking our own egos to serve, forgive and love the guys in the other world view cars. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said. He knew they would change the world for the good of everyone in every car.

Bizarrely the North Americans have such a place on their roads. At crazy places called 4-Way Stops, every driver is disarmed from his arrogant self seeking and in order for this road junction to function, everyone needs to be heard, given time, and served. You literally give up yourself to let others go.

When we observe such an alternative to normal road attitudes driving is made possible, easy and thoroughly pleasant. What about bringing the etiquette of 4-Way Stops into our attempts to get our local government up and running again? Could all sides change the mindset of their confined world views and give the other road users priority so that life would not continue to be chaotic and dysfunctional but possible for all. 

Come on Arlene and Michelle!


TAKE ME TO THE PLACE - A Song And A Story For Northern Ireland's Day Of Reflection

 

Belfast Troubles

 

"Take me to the place where your heart hurts most

Lead me through the dark world gates down there

Where all the ghosts of sorrow and pain

And fear and despair stay hiding

And well walk right through to our own way, our own place"

- from Take Me To The Place by Deacon Blue


I had an amazing experience using this song in a Day Of Reflection event in 2012. June 21st, the longest day is when Northern Ireland takes time to remember those who were injured or lost loved ones in the Troubles. Invited to be part of an event I reached for this amazing pastoral song by Deacon Blue. It was a b-side, not one of their best known songs.

After the event a woman asked to speak to me. She had lost her husband near the end of the Troubles. Loyalist paramilitaries walked into the printers that he was working in and shot him. He was not involved in The Troubles. He had been a Deacon Blue fan and on the way to the event we were at she had reached for a Deacon Blue CD as a way of remembering. When I played this she sensed that something beyond us was happening. It was moving for us both and a reminder to me how important music is in our healing.

Donald and Emily Saliers wrote a fascinating book together called A Song To Sing, A Life To Live. The fascination is that both of this father and daughter duo are musicians, Don a Professor of Theology and Music and Emily one half of the popular rock duo The Indigo Girls; thus bringing Saturday night and Sunday morning together in their ponderings. Sharing their own personal loss of Emily’s younger sister they write, “Music was one of our primary ways of coming to terms with her death.” I believe that one of the conduits for God’s comfort is lament.

The Bible is full of it - angry, frustrated, painful. Songs of lament do something deep in our souls. They can drill to the nerve centre of our pain, somehow empathise, soothe and mysteriously be companions as we journey through dark days. As a pastor I often give friends or parishioners a song or some music that will be a resource through their grief.

Deacon Blue’s song Take Me To The Place is the most perfect catharsis song I have ever heard. It was written in memory and dedicated to Italian Scottish photographer Oscar Mazaroli. Growing up in Church writer Ricky Ross has a real sensitivity for such scared places and spaces and based the song on the hymn Abide With Me and the traditional melody “eventide.” It’s stunning poignancy in Ricky’s yearning breaking voice, Lorraine Macintosh’s angelic wail, the sorrowful stark piano, the words and the tune, opens doors to the soul and let’s out the raw ripped up heart pain and let’s in some healing holy balm and the daring and courageous almost alien thought of hopefulness and grace.

I offer it as song to be used on every Day Of Reflection.



 

 

 

 


JUNE 21, DAY OF PRIVATE REMEMBERING - FR MARTIN AND I, SPEAKING AT WAVE EVENT

Day Of Reflection

You might not be aware of it BUT June 21st, the longest day of the year, has become a special day in Northern Ireland for honouring anyone killed in the Troubles. Started in 2007 by Healing Through Remembering, it is offered as a day of private reflection rather than any large public events.

In 2012 Paul Gallagher, then working for VAST (Victims and Survivors Trust) invited Fr Martin Magill and I to lead a short reflection. It was one of the first things that Fr Martin and I ever did together and ever since I have found June 21st a poignant day.

This year Fr Martin and I are guest speakers for another small event organised by WAVE at their Belfast Centre, 5 Chichester Park South, Belfast, BT15 5DW. 

Wave is a cross community, voluntary organisation formed in 1991 to support people bereaved of a spouse as a result of violence in Northern Ireland. It has since been expanded to include anyone effected by The Troubles.

Fr Martin and I are thrilled to be invited to speak, by Alan McBride, Centre Director of the Belfast WAVE Trauma Centre, at this significant evening. Tommy Sands will be singing. The event runs from 6pm to 8pm and will include a barbecue. The event is free but your name must be given to reception 02890779922 or adminhq@wavetrauma.org

Please, take some time on June 21st to remember those still living with the grief, injuries or trauma of our Troubles and, if you're the praying kind, pray for their healing, our community's healing and a brighter day ahead. If you can make it along to the WAVE event it would be great too ee you.


VOTE THAT WAY!

VOTE

The prophet said,

Seek the peace and welfare of the city

Pray for its well being

Because if it fairs well, we all fair well.

Vote that way!

 

Jesus said,

Seek first the kingdom of God

And his justice

Then everything you need, you will have

Vote that way!

 

Jesus also said,

Love your neighbours,

Just like yourself

And love your enemies

Do good to those who hate you

Bless those who curse you

Vote that way!

 

Then on he went,

Cloth the naked

Feed the hungry

Welcome the stranger

Visit the sick and the prisoner

Vote that way!

 

The apostle wrote of love

Holds no grudges

Hates evil

Protects

Hopes

Perseveres

Vote that way!

 

If we voted that way

God’s kingdom come

God’s will would be done in our Councils

As it is in heaven.

 

Now there is an election result!


PRAYER ON 21st ANNIVERSARY OF GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT

GFA

Lord,

The Good Friday Agreement,

 

We give you thanks

For the prayers, played by so many for so many years, finally answered

For the miracle grace time peace we have enjoyed for 21 years

We give you thanks that we know longer fear bombs or bullets

Or morning news headlines

We thank you for all of those people alive today because of our peace

We thank you for a city thriving with night life

With development, opportunities, art, imagination and hopefulness

We thank you that we do not remember being searched every time we went in

We thank you for a generation who has no idea what this prayer is about

We thank you for the new relationships

On the ground

Between Churches

And even tenuously, as it is, among politicians

We thank you Lord for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace makers who made it and continue to make it possible.

 

Lord we ask for your forgiveness

When we have frustrated the potential of the Agreement

With those we have voted for

When we have put the new wine of peace into old wineskins

When we have lived the past in the present and curtailed the future

When we have continued to live in our apartheid area rather than love neighbour

And beyond that followed your clarion call to love our enemies

Lord we celebrate the Good Friday Agreement at a time of void and impasse

We feel frustrated and sometimes angry

Lord forgive us for the part we play in frustrating your miracle Grace time peace.

 

Lord give us resilience

In the uncertainty of Stormont, Brexit, hard borders and back stops

May these steps backward not derail the leap forward

Help us to see that coming out of conflict is long and hard

Give us patience with each other

Give us patience with the politicians 

In the delicate task that they have of leading the communities that for them

To come with them on the journey of bringing well being to everyone

And help us to make our contribution in bringing hurting, hating communities together in peace

Lord, when we take the inevitable step back

Help us to hear Ignatius advice

To run towards your doubts

May we not run from the challenge 

But constantly recommit 

Help us to try and try and try again

Lord we have no choice but to be involved in the long haul of trying

You call us to peace making

You give us a ministry of reconciliation

Your gift of grace in Jesus

And his death and resurrection are your example

That we should follow

Particularly in a divided, sectarian, violent place very like the one he taught us from

So, Lord give us your resilience and mercy and wisdom

To be involved in your miracle grace time peace

As the Father sent Jesus into a work of reconciliation

Send us 

To bring your shalom

On the streets of Northern Ireland 

As they are in heaven

In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray

AMEN.


SURMISING THE HORRIFIC EVENTS IN CHRISTCHURCH... WITH AN ANTITHESIS OF A TRUE STORY

Love Your Muslim Neighbour

Like all of us, I woke up to the horrific news from New Zealand that a white supremacist terrorist had murdered 49 Muslims while they were at worship. 

As I prayed for the injured and the families of the dead and despaired at the evil and hatred that is poisoning our world, I was reminded of this true story shared by Jim Wallis. It speaks more eloquently than any words of mine. It describes beautifully the kind of world that I want to build and live in.

Jim Wallis tells the story in his book On God’s Side. It is of how Steve Stone, a Christian pastor in Cordova, Tennessee, was concerned when he heard that the Memphis Islamic Centre was moving onto his block, across the road from his Church. However, after praying, Steve decided that Jesus was telling him to love his neighbour. Having put a sign in front of his Church that read, "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Centre to the Neighborhood,” friendships developed and both communities learned more about one another. They became good neighbours.

It remind me of two phrases that we at the 4 Corners Festival have been sharing. Fr Greg Boyle at this year’s Festival said, “It is hard to demonise people that you know.” It was an echo from a line in a musical evening about World War I by New Irish Arts a few years ago - “Hatred is compromised by relationship.” Christians and Muslims in that community of Memphis had indeed compromised hatred!

Yet, the story goes. When a national media hot story arose over another pastor Terry Jones’ planned burning of Qu’rans, CNN ran a piece that interviewed Steve Stone and his neighbouring Imam. Their obvious friendship had prophetic impact.

That impact was not just in America. A group of Muslim men seeing the news package in a Mosque in Kashmir, north-west India, responded in a remarkable way. 

They were so moved by Stone’s welcome to the Islamic Centre that one of them went to the local Christian Church and cleaned it inside and out. They phoned Steve Stone to tell him that they would now be supporting this neighbouring Christian community in whatever way they could. 

This is not a diluting of Steve Stone’s theology or his belief in Jesus. It is the very opposite. This gives the life, cross and resurrection of Christ robust proof and positive witness. The radical way that Jesus laid down his life for the world is preached in our actions as the word is literally made flesh in our neighbourhoods, media centres and across the world! 

That is the world I want to live in. That is the Jesus I want to follow. Let us stand against these atrocities against God and humanity in Christchurch. When it seems too massive an evil for us to make an impact, then remember those most powerful weapons of peacemaking from the 4 Corners Festival and compromise this hatred with relationship. Love your Muslim neighbour... and any other neighbour... just as Jesus called us to do! 


RECONCILIATION AT THE HEART OF GOD

Me  Marty and Cups

(Fr Martin and I are writing for the Youthscape Website this month... here's my contribution.)

READING: LUKE 6: 27-36

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

Growing up during the Northern Ireland Troubles, I decided to follow Jesus as a 17 year old. When I read “Love your enemies” I did not need to think too hard about what that meant and who they were. Yet, for maybe thirty years I was what I would call a passive peacemaker. I was against the violence. I wished for peace. Prayed for it, even. Yet, I wasn’t doing very much about it. 

These words of Jesus are a radical challenge, an other worldly attitude towards your enemies. This is not just passive non retaliation, this is actively living in a way that benefits the conditions of your enemy. It is serving your enemy. It is loving your enemy. It is doing for others what God has done for us, in Jesus. 

The Amish community live this out in their everyday lives. Their idea of forgiveness is to reconcile with the enemy to the point where you make them a friend! 

In 2006 Charles Roberts entered an Amish Schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and shot ten young Amish girls, killing five of them dead.

Within hours of the shootings, the Amish had visited the killer’s wife and family. They not only told them that they forgave them but they actually set up a charitable fund for the killer’s children.

Love for the family of the killer of your children. This is loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate and mistreat you. Forgiveness for the Amish is not about wiping some objective slate clean. Forgiving is a loving act that seeks to build friendship with those that they should be at enmity with. Every Thursday night Charles Roberts’ mother now reads and prays with a severely brain damaged little girl her son shot.

This kind of mercy and love is at the heart of the Christian faith. God doesn’t only forgive us… he reaches out to build relationships with us. When we find ourselves in spaces where there is need of reconciliation we find ourselves in places where we can get closest to the heart of God and with opportunities to follow our call to follow Jesus.

God’s love led him to action. He didn’t just talk about his love. He didn’t just believe it as an idea. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). There was nothing passive about that. We don’t follow Jesus into ideas… but to action. Revolutionary action.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

    for they will be called children of God (Matt 5:9)

 

PRAYER: Lord, lead us close to your heart, to be about what is closest to your heart that you might make our hearts like yours. 


FORGIVENESS - BR THIERRY'S TALK AT FITZROY, JANUARY 2019

Thierry

Brother Thierry

Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, Belfast

20th January 2019

Forgiveness

 

“God knows that when you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” (Gn 3:5)

Since the beginning of human history, the words of the serpent have found an echo in our hearts and minds. We all are moved by this desire to be like God on our own terms, in our own way. We can say that all our sins are marked by the stamp of the false promise that we can be like God while relying on our personal or collective strength and intelligence.

We are told that the serpent “was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” (Gn 3:1). Indeed it was! The serpent knew that our resemblance to God was/is at the core of God’s creation. God did not create us and the world without investing himself in it. He “created humankind in his image” (Gn 1:27). Despite the sin of Adam and Eve, there is within us a longing for something more original than the first sin, our original likeness to God.

As we wrestle with this longing, God does not leave us without help. In Jesus Christ, he gives us a sure way to resemble him, to become like him: it is the way of forgiveness. When we forgive, we are like God, but on his terms, according to his will and his power working in us.

In the same way that St Paul writes: “Jesus Christ is our peace” (Eph 2:14), we can say that he is our forgiveness. When we forgive, we become Christlike. The more we forgive, the more we are transformed into the Lord’s image, the more we reflect him (cf. 2Co 3:18) and the more the world, this world – not a place somewhere far away – can reflect something of the beauty of the original creation.

Why is it so difficult for us to forgive?

It is hard to forgive because forgiveness is about the Cross (cf. Heb 9:22). For Jesus, our forgiveness passed through his death on the Cross, for us to forgive cannot be any less costly than to die to our self-sufficiency and pride. To forgive is to let go, and since we seem to be wired in such a way that we cling to everything, even to what seemingly hurts us, it will always be difficult for us to forgive.

The first stumbling block on the way to forgiveness is labelling. Despite St Paul’s warning that “we know only in part”, seeing things only in a mirror (cf. 1Co 13:8.12), we want to believe that we know everything about people and their motivations. So in our desire to be in control and to feel secure we label ourselves and others. 

One consequence of the labelling process is that we end up identifying ourselves with our wounds, clinging to them. They become the expression of our whole identity. While it is true that who we are today is the consequence of all that happened to us over the years, we must be careful not to think that we are our wounds and failures. The Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf is very clear on the subject: “Christians believe that neither what we do nor what we suffer defines us at the deepest level. (…) No human being can make or unmake us. Instead of being defined by how human beings relate to us, we are defined by how God relates to us. We know that fundamentally we are who we are (…) because God loves us. (…) Absolutely nothing defines a Christian more than the abiding flame of God’s presence, and that flame bathes in a warm glow everything we do or suffer.” (The End…, p.79)

To reduce ourselves to our wounds and reduce the one who hurt us to his or her evil deed is to dehumanise our self and the other. We have to remember who we are, what our true identity is. To forgive is to respect our own identity as well as the identity of the one who has hurt us.

St Paul warns us: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1)

When we refuse to forgive, we make ourselves prisoners of what has been done to us and we hold captive those who have hurt us. Could this situation not be the best definition of what hell is?

The link between forgiveness and liberation is rooted in the Sacred Scriptures. Almost all the authors of the New Testament use the Greek word aphesis with the double meaning of liberation and forgiveness. This word is found in the passage from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus reads in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Is 61:1 in Lk 4:18). “To let the oppressed go free” could be translated “to let the oppressed go forgiven”, a translation which does not sound too odd if we remember that “unforgiveness” is a force of oppression and imprisonment.

The main symptom of the refusal to forgive is the inability to move on in life. When I have been hurt, the temptation is for me to be an eternal victim or when somebody has made a mistake, for them to become a failure. The labels are powerful, they stick; they prevent us from growing in freedom, from having life and having it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10).

Like the people of Israel who is called to leave the land of slavery, to forgive is to humbly consent to engage ourselves on a journey which may be long and arduous, yet we believe that, guided by the Lord, it is a journey which leads us to the land of freedom and renewed life. On the contrary, the refusal to forgive is a futile and desperate attempt to remain in control of the course of our lives and it is a sure and sad promise of mere survival.

And here we face another stumbling block to forgiveness: for the offended and for the offender the real cost of forgiveness is change… and we do not like to change.

It is clear that the offender has to repent and experience a conversion. But the offended has to change too. For the offended, the change implied by the process of forgiveness is first a conversion of the memory.

Maybe it is important to stress that forgiveness is not about ignoring the hurt which has been done to us, it is not about pretending that nothing happened, it is not about forgetting. Forgiveness is about remembering correctly – in a life-giving way.

To refuse to forgive is to remember in an unhealthy and unchristian way. Whether we are victims or wrongdoers, and we all enter into both categories to some degree, the refusal to forgive and to be forgiven imprisons us and others in the past. It makes us connect to our past in a harmful way, it is a form of self-harming.

Let us be honest, often the main problem is not the hurt which has been committed, but the feelings of humiliation, anger and resentment which accompany the hurt. These feelings keep the hurt alive and hurtful. So the problem is that of a memory which ruminates the events and allows them to fuel the pain and to distort our right judgment. When this happens, our whole life is focused on the hurt, our whole existence rotates around the offence.

It is normal to feel resentment when we are hurt and when a relationship has been betrayed or broken. In a way this is a healthy reaction, it is a question of self-respect. But resentment, anger, and disappointment are only one step on the journey, a first and necessary step perhaps, but certainly not the last. The next step is to renounce resentment, to accept to let go of it, because it is becoming an enemy within us, a poison which consumes our heart, drains our energies and kills life within us.

Moreover, from a religious perspective, to withhold forgiveness, to refuse to engage into a process of letting go, to look at everything through the prism of one hurtful event, could be considered as an act of adoration of the past, a form of idolatry, when in fact it is the present which requires our attention and our energies. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, our eyes and attention should be fixed not on our wounds but on Jesus alone (cf. 12:2) – Jesus who is our wounded healer. The words of the psalmist exhorts us: “Look towards him and be radiant, let your faces not be abashed” (33(34):6)

Our memory has to be converted, purified and evangelised over and over again. A wounded memory – and we all have wounded memories – must learn to put things into perspective and come back to what is essential: if this brother or sister of mine is lost to me, I am lost to God. The words of Martin Luther here are a warning to all of us: “A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love.” (The Freedom of a Christian, in Faith in Christ and the Gospel, p. 105)

The last point which challenges us deeply in our attitude towards forgiveness is that the process must be initiated by the victim.

This affirmation goes against all we spontaneously believe and experience. When we are offended our first reaction is to wrap ourselves up in our dignity, to cling to our special status as a victim, and to wait stubbornly for the offender to come and beg our pardon. We feel forgiveness ought to be initiated by the offender.

However this is not how God deals with us, his pardon is given to us without any prerequisite. It is not repentance which makes us gain God’s pardon, but it is the free and gracious gift of God’s pardon which makes us repentant. 

If we want to be like God, if we want to resemble him then we cannot make repentance a precondition, we cannot say; “I will not forgive you until you come to ask for it”. When we do that, we fence in grace at work within us. Let us remember St Paul’s words: “God proved his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8).

The initiative is from God, the offended party, who comes to us, the offenders and forgives us.

Let us return to the Garden of Eden and we see that it is always God who takes the initiative. He looks for Adam and Eve, and ever since then, it is always the Lord who takes the first step in our direction. The Lord is unceasingly looking for us, coming to us, over and over again the Lord says to us as he said to Zacchaeus: “I must come to your house” (Lk 19:5).

In Christ, God comes to us and makes peace with us, he alone is able to move us away from a situation of enmity to a positive life-giving relationship. Christ is the central agent of overcoming sin by forgiveness, he frees us and opens the way forward. In our relationships with one another, we, as Christ-bearers, have been confided the message and the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation (cf. 2Co 5:18-19). In his generosity and humility, God gives us the grace and the power to become like him and to break the deadly circle of bitterness, all forms of violence, including those most subtle forms of violence which are the silent treatment and exclusion of others.

In our hearts, in our families, in our Churches and between our Churches, we are called to refuse to let hurt and violence committed against us contaminate our souls and poison our relationships. Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jewish woman killed in 1943 in Auschwitz, wrote in her journal: “Every atom of hate we add to this world makes it still more inhospitable”(J. 23.09.1942, p. 259). As Christians, what kind of atom do we want to add to our world?

Forgiveness is a small and narrow door that cannot be entered without stooping and struggling. It requires the courage to be humble, to hope “against all hope” (Rm 4:18), and to choose life, to choose the Lord who is life (cf. Jn 11:25).

Today and every day, the Lord knocks gently and with patience at the door of our hearts, repeating the words said to the people of Israel: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (Dt 30:19).