The Practice of Forgiveness
I once read a story in which two individuals, one who had been assaulted and raped and the other who had been wrongly accused and convicted of the crime, discussed the power of forgiveness in their lives. Both spoke of the horrible circumstances that brought them together and that had almost destroyed their lives. Both spoke of sleepless nights, anger, fear, depression, and shame; but each also spoke of the beauty and goodness they had found in being able to forgive. They talked about what it meant to not be defined by their pasts, to be set free from a burden they had not chosen, and how life-giving the practice of forgiveness had been.
I also want to share another story that I originally heard on NPR written by Dina Temple-Raston
For nearly three decades, Tim Zaal thought he had killed a man during his rage-filled youth. The idea haunted him, but he buried it with the rest of his skinhead past.
"This used to be my stomping grounds," says Zaal, standing on a street in West Hollywood, Calif., where he used to hang out in the early '80s. "Mostly punk rockers would hang out around here after concerts and we would be involved with violence on a regular basis. Violence for me, back in those days, was like breathing."
Zaal has a wrestler's physique These days he's a computer programmer, and most of the time it is clear that he has found a way to distance himself from his past — almost as if it were someone else's history.
But bring him to the streets of his past, and gradually, Zaal sweeps backward through rooms he has avoided for years.
When Zaal and his friends were itching to make trouble, they would stand out in front of a hot dog joint called Oakie Dogs.
Zaal recalls that particular night, when he thought he took another man's life. It began with listening to a band called Fear. During the show, a bouncer was stabbed and the police came. By the time he and his friends got to Oakie Dogs, they were juiced up on alcohol and testosterone and spoiling for a fight.
They found their victims across the street, a group of gay street kids. They were just hanging out when Zaal and his friends cornered one and started kicking and hitting him — 14 skinheads pummeling him all at once. But the small gay kid was still moving. For some reason, that enraged Zaal.
"I walked up and said, 'What is wrong with you guys, can't you do it right?' " Zaal recalls. The kid they were beating on looked up and made eye contact with Zaal. "I kicked him in the forehead with my boot and that was it," Zaal says, snapping his fingers. "He was out like a light."
Zaal says an uncomfortable silence descended on the group.
"I never talked about it because in the back of my mind I was thinking, we killed this person," he says. "So we jump in our cars and drove away."
The Man Who Didn't Die
Zaal thought that would be the end of it. He shoved the whole thing out of his mind, until 28 years later.
A few years ago, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles asked him to speak about his experience leaving the skinhead movement. Before the talk, he found himself chatting with his fellow presenter, Matthew Boger, the manager of operations.
"I asked Tim how he got out of the skinhead movement and what that was like," Boger recalls.
The pair reminisced about West Hollywood back in the '80s.
"And there was this moment in which I said that I lived on the streets," Boger says, "in which I said I hung out on this hamburger stand, and [Zaal] said, 'You know, we used to hang out there, but we stopped hanging out there after this one night that was so violent, I think I killed a kid.' "
In a flash they both knew without saying that Boger was that kid.
"It was the very first meeting that we had realized who we were to each other 20-something years ago," Boger says.
Zaal recalls the moment the way anyone in his position would.
"Of course I was ashamed," he says. "I didn't know how to handle the situation. And obviously he didn't how to handle the situation and he left as quickly as possible. It was about two weeks before I saw him again."
Reflecting On Violence
Now, in his 40s, with a son of his own, Zaal has come to understand what motivated him to be so violent, so angry, back then. When he was a teenager, his brother was shot in their neighborhood . Zaal says he became a skinhead a short time later. He thought preying on people like Boger would somehow provide protection. Instead, it has haunted him.
"You know I went through some turmoil," he says. "But at the end of the day the right thing to do was apologize. What was I supposed to do? Ignore him? Pretend it didn't happen, pretend we didn't have the conversation?"
So Zaal apologized.
Now Zaal and Boger present their story — and their unlikely friendship — to high school and middle school students around Southern California. They also do a tag-team presentation one Sunday every month at the Museum of Tolerance. It begins with a DVD film of their story and ends with a question and answer session.
Today’s text from Matthew moves us to consider one of the most difficult practices of Christian discipleship—forgiveness. Forgiveness is a hard road to walk, but it is the way to life and life abundant. Forgiveness is the way of Jesus, the way of the cross. While at first glance revenge may seem much easier and more desirable, in fact it leads to bondage and death.
From the place of death, vengeance, and coercive violence—from the cross—Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, pointing to the way that leads to life. At the heart of discipleship lies the painful and challenging practice of forgiveness.
Matthew tells us that Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” (Matthew 18:21). Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy- times seven times” (v. 22). I cherish this answer. Jesus gives clear instructions about the importance of forgiveness as a way of life in the kingdom.
Perhaps sensing that Peter hasn’t quite gotten the point, he tells a story. In the parable Jesus deftly describes our propensity to seek vengeance, to demand a righting of the scales of justice in a manner that we believe balances our accounts with others. A man experiences undeserved mercy and compassion from one to whom he owes a significant debt. Instead of shaping and defining his dealings with others by the mercy he has undeservedly received, he immediately turns to one who owes him a much smaller debt and demands the account to be paid and the debt settled.
Upon hearing what he has done, his master, who had extended him mercy, now calls him to account and hands him over for punishment. The man is in bondage to his own greed, his misguided sense of justice. He, who had been set free for life, chose the way that leads to bondage and torture. He chose not to forgive. Sadly, so many of us do the same.
In relating this story Jesus holds up a mirror for us to see our tendency to withhold the very mercy and forgiveness we have received. The only righteous judge, Jesus, says from the cross, “Forgive them.” We, from our positions of self-righteousness, cry out, “Pay me what you owe.” What a tragedy that we forfeit the gift of freedom because we are unable to allow the spirit of love to form us into a people who practice the abundant economy of forgiveness rather than the bankrupt market of vengeance, getting even, and settling the score.
I know forgiveness is a hard road. It may take months, years, countless tears, and endless prayer to say, “I forgive you.” But Jesus was clear: grace is costly and forgiveness involves the way of the cross. True life is found only on the other side of Golgotha.
Let’s be very clear about what we are talking about. Forgiveness is a practice, a discipline made possible by the grace of God, not some heroic act of the will. It is something that we practice again and again, on a daily basis, until it becomes a part of who we are. Believe me just when you think you got it down something comes along and triggers old hurts or new pains and you find yourself angry, and vengeful all over again. – then we start praying all over again.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. One cannot forgive that which is forgotten. Forgiveness involves telling each other the painful truth, not to hold something over the other person but to find a way forward that breaks the cycle of eye-for-an-eye violence in which we so often find ourselves trapped. Forgiveness is not about becoming a doormat and relishing the role of victim. Forgiveness is about being victorious, freed from the horrible things others might have done to us. Likewise, forgiveness is not a strategy for turning our enemies into our friends; it is instead a grateful response to what God has done for us. We forgive others as a way of saying “thank you” to God, who in Christ has graciously forgiven us.
Finally, practicing forgiveness does not deny the possibility or the necessity of justice. Rather, it redefines justice, and ensures that it is God’s peculiar brand of justice we are practicing and not the retribution and retaliation that often masquerade as justice.
In calling us to forgive, Jesus offers us a different kind of justice that holds open the possibility of a new future, a way through the hurt and pain that can lead to resurrection and new life. Forgiveness is about having our lives defined by the justice of God’s kingdom rather than the justice of the kingdoms of this world.
Today is the anniversary of 9/11—a day when horrible atrocities were committed in the name of God. I remember being in my little studio in palm springs watching the news. I mean I turned on the tv and the events were in full on disaster mode. The news kept repeating the events over and over again.
At first we thought it was some kind of bizarre accident. I mean what else could it have been? Then the second plane struck. I just remember watching, crying, non-believing. I became numb as debris fell from the sky, as the news cameras caught the faces of the people running out and the firemen running in.
After watching repeatedly the plane crash into the building, hearing about the plane downed at the pentagon. Watching again the faces of people on the street and then the tower collapsed. Then the second tower collapsed and I could not watch any more. I had watched the events unfold over 4 or 5 hours. I had to get outside. I needed to find some people to be with.
I remember walking down palm canyon and there being hardly any traffic as I approached arenas there was no activity on the street. I went to the street bar for I knew most everyone there and sure enough there was a small click of my friends all sitting on the patio. As I got closer all I could hear was “let’s go bomb the hell out of them . . . yea we should kill ten of their s for each one of ours.”
I was hit with another mind numbing event. All I could think of was the families and their loved ones who needed care and help. Yet here was another side to that coin let’s get out and get revenge.
The better part of that day was the many of hundreds of heroes. Right here in our foyer there is the icon of Fr. Mychal Judge. Upon hearing the news that the World Trade Center had been hit, Father Judge rushed to the site. He was met by the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, who asked him to pray for the city and its victims. Judge administered the Last Rites to some lying on the streets, then entered the lobby of the World Trade Center North Tower, where an emergency command post was organized. There he continued offering aid and prayers for the rescuers, the injured and dead.
When the South Tower collapsed at 9:59 AM, debris went flying through the North Tower lobby, killing many inside, including Judge. At the moment he was struck in the head and killed, Judge was repeatedly praying aloud, "Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!” according to Judge's biographer and New York Daily News columnist Michael Daly.
Shortly after his death, an NYPD lieutenant, who had also been buried in the collapse, found Judge's body and assisted by two firemen and two civilian bystanders carried it out of the North Tower lobby to nearby St Peter's Church.
Mychal Judge's body bag was labeled "Victim 0001," recognized as the first official victim of the September 11, 2001 attacks. September 11, 2001 resulted in a total of 2,996 deaths More than 90 countries lost citizens in the attacks on the World Trade Center,Former President Bill Clinton was among the 3,000 people who attended his funeral, held on September 15 at St Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan. It was presided over by Cardinal Edward Egan. President Clinton said that Judge's death was "a special loss. We should live his life as an example of what has to prevail".
Just this past Tuesday I was at an event at Claremont Lincoln university where the Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool from south Africa addressed a group of students, alumni, and faculty. In the audience were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, jain and humanist. He said;
“Ten years ago we saw the danger of teaching religion and loving faith in old ways, we saw the terror unleashed by religious fundamentalists upon innocent people through an act that was the apotheosis of suicide missions in the name of God. That moment unleashed a decade that reinforced victimhood, violence, and militarism as the default position of the world and banished peace, compassion, and dialogue as concepts denoting weakness.”
The events of 9/11 led to a violent response from our own nation as it pursued “justice,” also in the name of God. Thousands of men, women, and children on all sides have lost their lives. Whatever we think or feel about the events of the past several years, it might be good for us to ask, “How does one follow Jesus and practice forgiveness in such a time?”
I have to be perfectly honest and say that I’m not entirely certain how to answer that question except to say that maybe Jesus knew there would be times such as these. One day on a hill by a lake, he gathered his disciples and told them to pray like this: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. . . .” Perhaps that is where we begin. With all the hurt, pain, shame, guilt, anger, and betrayal, perhaps that is where we should begin today. Let us pray. “Our Father . . .” (David C. Hockett)
Just as a side not on Fr. Mychal Judge
Following his death a few of his friends and associates revealed that Father Mychal Judge was gay — as a matter of orientation rather than practice, as he was a celibate priest. According to fire commissioner Thomas Von Essen: "I actually knew about his homosexuality when I was in the Uniformed Firefighters Association. I kept the secret, but then he told me when I became commissioner five years ago. He and I often laughed about it, because we knew how difficult it would have been for the other firemen to accept it as easily as I had. I just thought he was a phenomenal, warm, sincere man, and the fact that he was gay just had nothing to do with anything."
In conclusion I would like to recite a Muslim prayer of remembrance --Composed by Khadija Abdullah and Omar Ricci, Los Angeles, August 2002
Dear God, as our country remembers the heartbreaking events of September 11th, 2001, we humbly turn to You in prayer. At a time where our nation is facing unprecedented challenges, we need Your Spirit, Mercy, and Strength, now more than ever, to guide us down the right path.
Dear Lord, we pray that you have taken under Your Merciful wings those who innocently perished on that tragic day. We are grateful they were once a part of our lives. We thank You for the love and joy they gave their parents, spouses, children, friends, and co-workers. We thank You for the testimony of their faith in their churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples. We thank you for the comfort and courage they extended to others in their last moments. Dear God, with Your compassion, please answer our prayer.
Dear Almighty, shower Your comfort upon the families of the victims. We pray for all who searched the streets and hospital rooms and rubble with fading hopes of finding a dear one alive. Replace the pain in their hearts with the knowledge that their loved ones are in an abode of peace. We pray their tears of grief are replaced with a tranquility of the soul that only You can bestow. Dear God, with Your compassion, please answer our prayer.
O' our Sustainer, bless the children of the victims. Bless them with bountiful lives, with direction and remembrance, with discipline and virtue. Bless them with all that is good, and protect them from all that is evil. May the loss of one or both parents be replaced by Your Merciful and Blessed guidance. For You are the best of all guides. May the country do what it must to ensure their future. Dear God, with Your compassion, please answer our prayer.
Dear God, we pray for the rescue workers and volunteers from across the nation, who worked faithfully and tirelessly to find survivors and cleared the debris. Sustain them all, dear God and please answer our prayer.
O' Lord strengthen our nation and protect us from evil. Guide our leaders, elevate our society, and enrich the fabric of the country. Dear God, with Your compassion, please answer our prayer.
O' Most Merciful, we have seen the very worst that we are capable of - vengeance, greed, and murder. But we have seen the very best that we are capable of - courage, compassion, service, faith, heroism, community, love. Strengthen us and make us better people who will choose the latter and better way.
Dear God, it is in You that we place our ultimate trust; it is to You that we pray; it is to you that we ask for guidance.
Dear Almighty, please bless the victims; Dear Sustainer, please bless the families; Dear God, please bless America.
--Composed by Khadija Abdullah and Omar Ricci, Los Angeles, August 2002