First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Forgiveness: The Final Form of Love?

October 2, 2016
Rev. Sandra Fees
Reading 1 by Reinhold Niebuhr
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone;
therefore, we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint
of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint;
therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Part 1

Immaculée Ilibagiza is a Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Her father, mother and two brothers were killed by Hutus. For three months she survived hiding in the bathroom of an Episcopal priest with seven other women. She fought feelings of hatred and prayed for forgiveness. She said:

The people who’d hurt my family had hurt themselves even more and they deserved my pity. There was no doubt that they had to be punished for their crimes against humanity and against God … But I prayed for compassion as well. I asked God for the forgiveness that would end the cycle of hatred —hatred that was always dangerously close to the surface.

When the man who killed her mother and brother was captured and she saw him face-to-face, she offered forgiveness.

It is hard if not impossible for many of us to imagine forgiving such incredible horrors, such terrible acts of violence and cruelty. Yet we learn of individuals like Immaculee and groups, like the Amish and the people of South Africa, who are indeed able to practice forgiveness in the face of the unforgivable.

Immaculee’s story is an example of someone who is coming to terms with forgiveness in a very personal way, but also in the context of a much larger pattern of devastation that impacts a whole religion, culture, and community. Her example can serve to inspire and agitate the rest of us into a deeper contemplation about the meaning of forgiveness in the face of such sweeping injustices. How do we forgive the unforgiveable?

Is it our place, my place, to offer forgiveness to perpetrators of genocide, mass murder, or ecological devastation, for example? Whose place is it, if it is anyone’s? Can only God or the “Spirit of Life” forgive the most egregious acts and the ones that impact whole groups of people or creatures? Will that forgiveness help to play in role in reducing and stopping today’s horrors - torture, terrorism, conflict, systemic injustice, racism, murder?

Martin Luther King Jr. said, 

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.  (Conversations about Forgiveness, http://fetzer.org/sites/default/files/images/resources/attachment/2012-07-12/forgiveness_facilitator.pdf)

As people of faith and as citizens committed to a social ethic, we do indeed need to develop a capacity for forgiveness. Forgiveness allows us to opt out of the cycles of hate, violence, and revenge, and grow compassion toward our enemies as well as our friends. Like King, Reinhold Niebuhr recognized the connection between love and forgiveness. Niebuhr was part of the Social Gospel movement in the early 20th century. This Protestant Christian movement focused on the call to social reform, responding to and striving to address, among other issues, industrialization, poverty, immigration, and civil rights.

Niebuhr was operating in the context of the rise of Nazism and a profoundly disturbing war. According to Niebuhr, attention needed to shift from an individualistic social ethic to the role of forgiveness in creating an ethical, moral society. (THE IRONY OF AMERICAN HISTORY. 1952. Reinhold Niebuhr.)

When he spoke of forgiveness as the final form of love, he was acknowledging a love that transcends personal relationships. This kind of love has to do with our interconnection as living beings and our capacity to recognize that our fates with all life on this planet are linked. To heal, to love, demands forgiveness.

I’m not convinced that forgiveness is the final form of love. I’m not sure forgiveness can be final at all. But forgiveness is a form of love. When viewed within the larger framework of human relations, forgiveness leads to deeper reflection. Shall we forgive the unforgivable? Isn’t forgiveness our best hope for peace and justice? Isn’t it the path to end the cycle of hatred?

What other choice but forgiveness and love can heal the world? What but love can mend the brokenness in human relations and communities?

Reading 2 by Noah Levine

The truth is, the experience of forgiveness is a momentary release. We don’t and can’t forgive forever. Instead we only forgive for the present moment. This is both good news and bad news. The good news is that you can stop judging yourself for your inability to completely and absolutely let go of resentments once and for all. We forgive in one moment and get resentful again in the next. It is not a failure to forgive; it is just a failure to understand impermanence. The bad news is that forgiveness is not something that we’ll ever be done with; it is an ongoing aspect of our lives and it necessitates a vigilant practice of learning to let go and living in the present. (Refuge Recovery)

Part 2

A few years ago, a friend had for the second time within the span of two days let me down. The first time there was a conversation, an apology, and acceptance of the apology. The second time there was a conversation and an apology. But there was no forgiveness. Instead I found myself blurting out these words: “I don’t want your apology. I want you to change your behavior.” I held tightly to my sense of injury and righteous anger. My friend held tightly to her sense of shame.

I wasn’t done with my resentment. I had a mixed bag of feelings. I wanted my friend to suffer a little. I also genuinely wanted her to change. How else, I wondered, could we actually really be friends. I could not get out of my head the idea that to remain in this friendship might mean subjecting myself to more such disappointments in the future. Forgiveness seemed fleeting, temporary, anything but final, and what I wanted were some assurances. I wanted to be done with this hurt once and for all. But forgiveness doesn’t work that way. There are no guarantees. As Marina Cantacuzino says, forgiveness is “not a single magnanimous gesture in response to an isolated offence; it is part of a continuum of human engagements in healing broken relationships.” When we mistake forgiveness for a single magnanimous gesture rather than viewing it as part of a continuum, we are certain to be disappointed.

Forgiveness is not something we’ll ever be completely done with. It is an ongoing aspect of our lives. That’s why we must begin again in love, again and again. This requires a rigorous practice of letting go. Noah Levine expresses this idea as the need to live in the moment. He says:

The most important thing to remember is that we must live in the present, and if in the present moment we are still holding on to old wounds and betrayals, it is in this moment that forgiveness is called for. (Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries)

To experience healing with my friend, I realized I would have to make a choice to forgive. The choice I saw before me was to forgive and remain friends, or I could forgive and walk away from the friendship. Either way, I needed to find a way to forgive and let go of the resentment in the present moment.

This is the point where we have to do a lot of soul-searching. We have to be honest with ourselves about whether our expectations are unrealistic and we need to be a little more accepting of human fallibility. In a situation like the one I described, was I expecting too much? Could she change? Yet, forgiveness ultimately is not about changing the other person, as much as that may be our desire. On the other hand, I had to ask myself if this particular behavior was causing physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering to the point that I could no longer have a meaningful relationship with this friend. It was entirely possible I could find myself in an endless cycle of predictable wounds and betrayals.

In the end, I chose forgiveness and acceptance. My forgiveness was not a single magnanimous gesture, nor was it without thought beyond the present moment. Yet forgiveness invites us to love boldly right now. What but forgiveness in this present moment can mend the brokenness in our lives and in human relations and communities? What but forgiveness can offer us all the final form of love?