On Sunday morning, June 25, 2017, Barbara Gate’s presented a message on the topic of forgiveness to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark’s congregation. Many people have requested copies of that message so we are posting this here. If you are interested in having an audio copy of the sermon please reach out to Joan Wheeler. Joan’s contact information is available to members through the Congregation Builder website.
Forgiveness and New Beginnings Revisited
Several years ago, during an intergenerational service in Tucson, where I live during the winter months, the pastor and the religious education director alternately read a series of wishes. Among them was: “I wish you to have around you people who love easily and forgive quickly.” This struck me strongly at the time, and still does, perhaps because forgiveness is not formally a part of our usual Unitarian Universalist services. Because of its importance, today I am readdressing this subject, one I discussed here a few years back, for two reasons: first, because in consultation with our Worship Associates this seemed a good time to think about forgiveness and new beginnings, given important congregational concerns that include the recent resignation of our minister. But, still more importantly, because rarely does one of us as Unitarian Universalists, myself included, come forward to light a candle and ask for forgiveness for some offense.
Yet back when I was growing up, I, like many of us here, recited the Lord’s Prayer at least weekly and so was reminded over and over again to “forgive my trespasses as I was to forgive those who trespassed against me.” Around the same time in my young life, my Roman Catholic friends often took me to church with them on Saturday mornings, where they waited in line to confess and be forgiven before we could go off to a Saturday matinee. I remember being almost frightened by the statues of bruised and bloody saints that surrounded me as I quietly waited for friends to recount their Hail Marys and their own Our Fathers and meditate on their young wrongdoings. Sometimes as we would walk out of church, they would ask me to forgive them for some almost imperceptible offense; at others, they would simply look relieved.
My Jewish friends, too, have sometimes asked me for forgiveness, again often for some offense I barely recall. Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the birthday of Adam and a time of the turning of the Jewish year, reminds them to review their transgressions of the previous year before beginning anew. I admire their tradition. For ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, those friends reflect upon what they may have or have not done, what they might or might not need forgiveness for, so that on Yom Kippur they can atone and begin their new year with a clean slate. One of my friends took this so seriously that she fasted to the point of fainting.
Reflecting on these other traditions makes me wonder if we are not missing some important part of human ritual, some kind of freeing and purgation. In dispensing with regular confessions and requests for forgiveness, is it possible that we are not just dispensing with unnecessary guilt, which I personally think is good, but also with an important source of growth and mental health? Forgiveness and new beginnings seem central to the Judeo-Christian belief systems as to self-help programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet they are not directly mentioned in our seven principles, nor, I would add, in our brief summary of the living traditions from which we draw sustenance. In that summary we are, however, beholden to seek “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual lives.” So let us for another few minutes think about forgiveness, an idea so central to the world’s great religions, along with new beginnings here at mid-year in 2017.
I have a sense that our current American culture is pervaded with a strong need for forgiveness but with less desire to explore its roots. Warring, taking advantage of the uninitiated in our lending practices and our stock markets, harboring fears and hatreds of others and otherness, and brutalizing our planet, we, as Wordsworth would say, “lay waste our powers.” Such actions do of course, corrupt our inner lives and demand forgiveness. Popular films of about a decade ago recognized this time and time again, but in these times, if my film-going is not too limited, we seem to be exploring revenge or greed or cruelty rather than forgiveness, particularly if we take as our examples, films like “The Revenant” or “The Big Short,” both honored with multiple nominations for Academy Awards.
Yet a few years back, in 2009, one of my UU film groups went together to see a very different kind of film, “Invictus,” about Nelson Mandela–set after Mandela’s twenty-seven-year term in prison for opposing apartheid and having been accused of communism. In that film, Mandela is the president of South Africa and working toward a new beginning—in a country still strongly divided by hatred and mistrust. In Invictus, we see little of Mandela’s early struggles and the pain of his incarceration—just a brief look at his tiny jail cell. But what we do see is his largesse, his forgiveness of the culture that had destroyed so much of his personal life.
Today let’s pause for a moment not to look at the injustices Mandela suffered for so long but at how Mandela overcame bitterness so that he was able to forgive his captors and move ahead. He tells us that that was the way he, and I quote, “liberated his soul.” Among other things, he spent time exploring the message of “Invictus”– that powerful, Victorian poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela says got him through his lengthy captivity. Let me refresh your memories of the poem, one that high schoolers like me used to be asked to memorize but that is no longer even included in most anthologies of Victorian poetry, which was my field:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
This is a harrowing message. The gods here are not givens, the darkness seems impenetrable, life is full of pitfalls, and the years can be menacing. But the message is, of course, that one can survive such things though one’s own fortitude. In Mandela’s case, incorporated into fortitude was forgiveness, what he called a necessary component of his recovery. Mandela had to forgive the racists of his country, his jailers, and those who accused him of being a communist and enemy of his people in order to emerge as the visionary leader he would become. And he had to restrain resentment and practice generosity of spirit in order to forgive.
Many of us know people who, unlike Mandela, are unable to forgive–their spouses, or children, or parents, or co-workers, or other neighbors, or even fellow churchgoers–for some real or perceived transgression. Over and over again, they may tell us the tales of their persecution, the unfairness of their lives or situations, their inability to “get over” hurts they have sustained. Some may have been beaten or otherwise abused and some may even have at one time or another gone back for more, hoping that the situation would somehow change. And it did not. Such hurts build up resentments that are difficult to dispel. Forgiveness like Mandela’s is a choice, one that calls for conscious, adult understanding of past situations that can no longer be changed—since only attitudes toward the past can be altered, not the past itself. In my other UU congregation, the minister at one point requested that we all keep reminding ourselves of a phrase: “As a UU I forgive . . .”– and we were to fill in the blank ourselves. His sermon came at a crucial time for me, personally. I kept going over and over the waste of my cousin’s life during Christmas week a year and a half ago, when he, who was like a little brother to me, was strangled to death for a backpack and a few dollars. Such an act seemed unforgivable at first, and a good reason for the charge of first-degree murder that was pronounced on Howard’s murderer. But as I found out more–and this did certainly not diminish my deep sense of loss over Howard’s death–I began to learn more about the murderer. He himself was lost, the victim of a dark night–a parolee, a street prostitute, and homeless. I thought of him again two weeks ago, when Rev. Andrew reminded us of Kenneth Patton’s words about “the anguish beneath cruelty.” May “whatever gods may be” work with him in his continued hours of darkness. My own journey to forgive him has certainly begun, including many reasons for me as a UU to forgive him, as had been suggested by the Tucson minister. This young man had somehow become exiled from simple, day-to-day decencies and comforts. He is a victim as well as a perpetrator.
What, then, is the crux of forgiveness? What’s the point of it? How does it affect situations? What does it do for the forgiver and the forgiven? Most psychologists, and my cousin was himself a psychiatrist, believe that forgiveness aids the forgiver far more than the forgiven. One Unitarian minister, the Reverend Matt Tittle of Houston, even suggests that forgiveness involves “radical self-interest.” Here I understand “radical” literally, as signifying the root of things, a self-interest that affects our deepest center. Those of us who need to forgive sometimes have pent up resentments that can be very self-destructive. In failing to forgive, we often begin to victimize ourselves, perhaps even more than we initially may have been victimized. Stored resentments curdle us; they can lessen creativity, joy, and the ability to love others. They can become obsessions, deplete our energy, lead to deep depression. In short, they can make us sick. The ironic thing about this sort of self-damage is that it connects us even more deeply to those we fail to forgive; we keep them close to our memories and ourselves, going over and over difficult past situations until through our own thinking they gain yet more power over us.
This is not to counsel the old adage about forgiving and forgetting. By forgetting we might fail to change or grow through deepened knowledge of our situations–what has led to them, how we can learn to avoid them, and so on. In Mahayana Buddhism, one’s enemy can be considered one’s best friend, a kind of Bodhisattva, or guide. This does not mean that we are to emulate enemies but to learn to deal with their kinds of behavior and our own towards them as well. Golden rules and the Christian gospels abound in this kind of advice. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Judge not, that ye be not judged. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke). And remember the warning of Jesus’ famous parable of forgiveness: we are not to forgive seven times but seventy times seven he tells his disciple, Peter. That is the kind of forgiving that was required of Mandela. It did not require that he find reconciliation with his captors, though he did that as well, but only that he would forgive them.
Forgiveness is, then, serious business. At the University of Wisconsin there is a whole institute to study its nature. Reading about it made me think of its closeness to grief as famously described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross. There are, according to the International Forgiveness Institute, four phases of forgiveness. One must first acknowledge the injury and confront the emotions it has created face on, accepting one’s own anger at or disappointment in the situation that has called forth the forgiveness. Then, in the second phase, one has to realize that continued focus on the situation will only cause more, at this point unnecessary, suffering. As one person describes it, one has to “start feeding the wolf of vengeance only scraps and start nursing the health of the wolf of forgiveness.” (Sermon on “Finding Forgiveness” by Rev. Titra Rahnema). I like this description because forgiveness is not a lamb; it is strong. It has sharp, pointed teeth. The third phase, the next phase is perhaps the hardest, the work phase. In this phase one has to try not to pass on the pain or the situation to others, as when the beaten might choose to beat someone else, or as a friend might stress out another friend by telling and retelling his or her story of pain or anger– until the second party cannot stand to listen one more time. Eventually, however, one might enter the fourth and final phase, that of a deepening sense of relief, one that encompasses the paradox behind all forgiveness: that through forgiveness of others, one’s own self can become the healed self, the more generous, more merciful, self. Only after this process, which can be short, or long and drawn out, can one understand the mystery of forgiveness.
Sometimes self-forgiveness seems impossible, for many reasons that some of us here know well. This was vividly shown in another film, entitled “Brothers,” also popular at the time of the one about Mandela. In its story a captain, previously a good man, winds up under duress killing one of his own Marines, a man whom he himself had taught to hold out against torture and oppression of the worst sorts. How does one live with such a thing? In the film, the hero does not. He breaks down and winds up in a Marines’ mental institution, the truest victim of the war. He cannot bear to tell his story because it is so abominable. Yet, as we have seen, scriptures, psychiatry, and the wisdom of the world would tell us that unlike him, we must recognize our humanity even in our worst deeds and greatest weaknesses and learn that difficult thing called self-forgiveness in order to attempt to live new lives. We only poison and isolate ourselves by failing to work on forgiving ourselves as well as others.
At this time of considerable concern here at the UUFN, let us try to embrace, perhaps even institute, forgiveness as a part of our practice. Let’s put it in a space that Rev Andrew recently reminded us of, the space between emotion and reaction as counseled by Victor Frankel. And let us recall our group’s historical roots in human fellowship. We are indeed a UU fellowship–not a church, not a congregation. We can never alter what has happened in our past, even our near past, but we can make inroads into new sorts of lives, including a fuller, deeper life in fellowship and community. And, we can remember that:
Every morning is new
Every morning, the world begins again.
Every morning, life could be different.
Let us all celebrate, here and now, the opportunity that this very morning brings.