Sunday, July 7, 2002

Community: Forgiveness, Part 3

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44)
"Hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal." (The Dhammapada 1:5)

A scene from the movie, "Gandhi" has etched itself in my mind. Muslims and Hindus have been fighting one another as the country strives to gain independence from British rule, and animosities as old as time have fanned the flames of civil war. At the height of the conflict a Hindu man confronts Gandhi who is trying to make peace. The man's son has been killed by a Muslim and he is full of rage. He never will accept peace with the people who have killed his son but Gandhi tells him that he must be willing to forgive the atrocity or peace will never happen. In his anger and grief, the father insists he never can forgive but Gandhi tells him there is a way. The man, who is Hindu, must find a Muslim boy who has lost his father and take him to his home and raise him as his son. But, adds Gandhi, the man must raise the boy as a Muslim.

The origin of pain and suffering, the roots of conflict are many and ancient and often defy understanding or resolution. Usually the people involved have long since forgotten what started it all. The Bible teaches that the sins of the fathers are passed on to the sons, even to the third and fourth generations. My parents were divorced when I was young and my sister and brother and I grew up in a fatherless household. Years later after my father died, another family member told me about the resentment he had harbored toward some family members over the treatment of himself and his brother. His father, my grandfather, had died when my father was only four years old so my father also grew up in a fatherless household. My great grandfather had been the youngest of twelve children who was forced to leave home when he was sixteen to make his own way in the world because he had no inheritance. Perhaps his own early difficult experiences made him less than compassionate toward my father and uncle. Although my family is strong and successful in many ways, like many families, we have experienced our share of suffering and dislocation.

Pastors become acquainted with the pain and suffering of many people and hear many family stories. Most families have struggled to overcome hardships and faith plays a major role in how well they succeed. People who harbor resentment toward others often display a pattern of resentment toward many people and over many different things. Resentment poisons their relationship with others and interferes with their life and work in many unforeseen ways. It is a fact that the world is full of injustice and many people never experience justice or relief from their injuries in this life. Many problems simply don't offer ready solutions, so how is it that some people are able to move past them anyway and get on with their lives while others seem perpetually bogged down in the swamp.

Many people misunderstand the nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness does not mean one is required to forget the injury or excuse it and feel all good again. Some injuries are impossible to forget or should not be excused. Forgiveness does not mean we never suffer again because of the injustice or feel the loss or pain again that was inflicted on us. We can't help how we feel, but we can help how we think, and that is the key to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a choice, a decision that we can make. It begins in the understanding that when I am angry, I injure myself all over again. Buddha spoke of someone shooting an arrow into your chest. The first arrow hurt a lot, but nothing compared to the hundreds of arrows our anger and resentment shoot into the same wound over and over again. We may never know why the person shot the arrow, or maybe we do. It doesn't matter. We have a choice to draw our bow and fire back and keep the conflict going, or to put away our weapon and refuse to fight back. We can understand that whatever the origin of the conflict, it has a history that probably goes a long, long way back. Way past our understanding or even involvement. Who knows why that person who hurt us did it. The person probably doesn't even know himself. Who knows if we inadvertently invited the barb. The Psalmist wrote, "Who can discern his own errors?"

Whatever the reason, we can make a choice to say to ourselves, "This anger has a long history and I probably am not even a part of it. I am going to make a decision that the pain stops here, with me. I can pass it on, but I choose to let it stop here. I'm not going to give this pain any more food, any more history." When I feel the anger rising in me, I will say to myself, "Okay, here is the pain again. I acknowledge the pain. Hello pain, we have been together a long time. But now I am ready for you go away, so I am going to think about something else now." We can't help painful thoughts from catching us off guard, especially when we are not feeling strong. It is when we are having an off day, or maybe coming down sick or had a disagreement with someone else that the old pain chooses to rush back in and take sides the the new injury. Then the conflict in our mind escalates and we find we have a civil war on our hands. It takes strength to say, "Okay, break it up!. That's enough for now. Go back down there in the swamp where you belong and quit trying to spoil my day." Then we must make a conscious effort to substitute a good thought for the bad and there are lots of different ways we can do this. What is important is that we acknowledge the pain and send it on its way with the determination to focus our attention on something positive.

As time goes by, this becomes easier and easier. But remember, the forgiveness I'm speaking of is a conscious decision to substitute something good for something bad. As time goes on, the old injury has less and less power to ruin our day. As time goes on, and we make the person who injured us small enough to fit in our heart, we begin to understand that they are caught up in a cycle of inward and outward violence and to feel pity for them. We may begin to be able to see them as that small child who was hurt so deeply once that the child is going on into its adult life striking out again and again and to put them in our prayers. Then some day we may even begin to be able to see ourselves in that small hurt child and feel more than pity, perhaps even love and compassion and we take that little hurt child home with us and raise him as our own, but we allow him the freedom to be whoever he was created to be and we will discover that hate kills, but love fulfills and recreates itself endlessly. Then some day, we will come to understand that the only real enemy we have is ourselves, the only injury we suffer is self-inflicted, when we are unable to forgive.