“Another Look at Forgiveness”

Rev. Julie Kain

Whether you locate yourself somewhere within one of our world’s religious traditions or not, let’s face it, forgiveness is a touchy topic. And I do believe there is a universal reason why this is so – if we’re truly being honest with ourselves, it’s not easy to forgive.

The nature of forgiveness is challenging. Forgiving ourselves and forgiving others just doesn’t come easy. It has a lot to do with the fact that when we get hurt in life, we find it hard somehow to let go of that hurt. At times, it takes on a life, an energy, of its own. It preoccupies us. It colors our perceptions of other parts of our lives. All of this in a process of coming to terms with our own painful experiences and of either figuring a way through them or being held captive by them.

We all do this at sometime or another, sometimes when we least expect it or aren’t even aware of how vulnerable we have become, we find that we’ve opened ourselves, opened our hearts, to just the degree that the actions of another person or a particular event simply unhinges us.

And then we’re thrown into a circular pattern of thinking. I was right – they were wrong, or…I was so wrong to do that – they were right about me all along. We go round and round, just looking for a sense of resolution which continues to elude us. We hang onto the hurt. We hang onto the past.

Beginning last Sunday evening at sundown, this year’s Jewish High Holy Days came to a close with the celebration of its most sacred holy day, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Each year beginning with Rosh Hashanah and for the following ten days, practicing Jews enter a period of spiritual renewal and repentance that marks the beginning of a religious new year. The 10 day period is also known as the Days of Awe and they are marked with a series of rituals that are tied closely to communal participation in the synagogue.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a day of confession, repentance and prayers for the forgiveness of sins committed since the last day of judgment a year ago and looking forward to the next year with positive intentionality.

This process is a thoughtful variation from what many of us practice at the first of our calendar year, the practice of making New Year’s resolutions. Instead of making a list of ways we can or should improve ourselves or setting goals to increase our personal status, the Yom Kippur reflections ask us to look deeper into our own character and behavior for the ways we have fallen short on the promises of faith we aspire to keep as good people.

It’s a time to look both at how we have interacted with others in our life and at the relationship we have with ourselves, the ways in which we have not lived up to our own expectations and the ways we give ourselves a hard time about that.

Although the forgiveness of sins or some process of accountability, judgment and reconciliation appears in some form among all religions, it may be useful to revisit its meaning in Judaism, the first of the Abrahamic religions which include Christianity and Islam. In Jewish anthropology, human nature is not depraved but reflects the divine image as part of our incredible handiwork of creation. Jews have never questioned their human freedom. A sinful human nature is not preordained. But there is a strong recognition of evil and sinfulness in the world by Jews and it is attributed to human weaknesses and failures. The word sin comes from a root meaning “to miss the mark” and we know people repeatedly do. This is an unavoidable consequence of being endowed with freely chosen decisions, the basis of human agency. But to live religiously we are encouraged always towards some sort of righteousness. In the Hebrew Bible, known both as the Torah, and by Christianity as the Old Testament, we hear in the book of Deuteronomy “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

Yes, to live religiously, to keep our promises of faith we are asked to use our gifts and bless the world.

For Jews the repentance of sins requires a periodic tuning up of our spiritual selves in order to get back on course when we have missed the mark. The practices of their holy days encourage them in this important work. In Judaism, evil in this world is overcome by confessing our human frailties and embracing our potential to reflect divine goodness in the form of compassion, healing, and of course – justice.

Despite its limitations and shortcomings, the social conscience which has been the hallmark of Western civilization, we inherited from our Jewish forbears. The Hebrew prophets, a line with which both Jesus and Mohammad were identified, were a reforming political force which history has never surpassed, and perhaps has never again equalled. The main principle of the prophets is this: The prerequisite of political stability is social justice, for it is in the nature of things that injustice will not endure. Or stated in religious terms: God has high standards for us humans and divinity will not accept eternal exploitation, corruption or complacency.

Because the Jewish people recognize themselves located in Time, where events have significant meaning and there is an essential human accountability, a ritual year of reflection and atonement makes sense. This reflection of the events of Time and their meaning also gives Jewish people an understanding of a redemptive quality to suffering in our world.

Huston Smith, in his book The World’s Religions, puts it in this way, “stated abstractly, the deepest meaning the Jews found in their Exile was that of vicarious suffering: (the) meaning that enters the lives of those that are willing to endure pain that others might be spared”.

We know there is a deepening of human compassion when we move through processes of reflection, accountability and atonement. But we also know, too well in this world, the immutable presence of deeply entrenched conflict and estrangement. Unfortunately we experience in the human family, irreconcilable differences, that are the source of incredible pain and suffering, oppressions of every kind and its extreme forms of human cruelty in global poverty and war.

The world over people are struggling to make sense of our place in the larger scheme of things and even if there is the presence of some God who can help, the Jews have had their own crises of faith with the Holocaust and the unfortunate, ongoing deliberations over the creation of a state for Israel.

In our human struggles to figure out who is right and who is wrong, we are capable of such callousness and self-righteous acts of devastation and violence. If we are concerned about the destructive violence we humans are capable of in this world, we must turn our minds and hearts at times to the powerful emotions that fuel such acts. As humans, we must come to terms with and learn to master through understanding and maturity, the painful states of anger, fear, grief, disappointment and guilt. These are emotions that can take over our lives and the time-honored religious antidote, my friends, is some sort of forgiveness. Forgiveness, whose essential nature, as I said at the beginning, is downright challenging.

The process of forgiveness demands courage. As Goethe said “our friends show us what we can do; our enemies show us what we must do”.

The process of forgiveness challenges us because it takes us to the edge of what we can accept and tries to push us even farther still.

The substantive human struggle toward forgiveness of others and oneself is eloquently told in the story of one girl’s life who has run away from her father’s home after the death of her mother in the novel by Sue Monk Kidd called The Secret Life of Bees. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the book. Our protagonist’s exile from the home of her family of origin leads her to another home with a substitute family who help her uncover the past and heal some deep wounds of estrangement.

We get an intimate glimpse into that challenging process through hearing the voice of our protagonist.

“After August and I went through the hatbox (with my mother’s belongings), I drew into myself and stayed there for a while. August and Zach tended to the bees and the honey, but I spent most of my time down by the river, alone. I just wanted to keep to myself.

The month of August had turned into a griddle where the days just lay there and sizzled…everything about me was stunned and stupefied by the heat, everything except my heart. It sat like an ice sculpture in the center of my chest. Nothing could touch it.

People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard. If God said in plain language, “I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,” a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.

When I woke up in the morning, my first thought was the hatbox. It was almost like my mother herself was hiding under the bed. One night I had to get up and move it to the other side of the room.

I gave myself pep talks. Don’t think about her. It is over and done. The next minute, I swear to God I would be picturing her.

In a weird way I must have loved my little collection of hurts and wounds. They provided me with some real nice sympathy; with the feeling I was exceptional. I was the girl abandoned by her mother. I was the girl who kneeled on grits. What a special case I was.

It is a peculiar nature of the world to go on spinning no matter what sort of heartbreak is happening.

I knew August must have explained everything to Zach, and June, too, because they tiptoed around me like I was a psychiatric case. Maybe I was.

August had said (to me), I guess you need to grieve a little while. So go ahead and do it. But now that I was doing it, I couldn’t seem to stop.”

We do have occasions in our lives when the conflicts we have with others or within ourselves can exhaust us and seem to offer no course to relief. This is where some sort of practice of forgiveness comes in.

In a book that the African American writer Alice Walker calls a “gift of peace to the world”, Sharon Salzburg offers Buddhist-centered meditation practices, including one on forgiveness. The book is called Loving-Kindness, The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and the practice of forgiveness goes something like this: In a place of quiet and privacy, one repeats this phrase and allows the particular situations of one’s life to come to their observing awareness. “If I have hurt or harmed anyone, knowingly or unknowingly, I ask your forgiveness”. The next piece is harder. It requires a deep letting go that takes time. “If anyone has hurt or harmed me, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive them”.

Now it’s imperative here to state that forgiving does not condone harmful action and does not deny the despair of injustice or suffering. Forgiveness is never a passive relinquishing to abuse or violation. Forgiveness is a gradual letting go of the impact of being hurt on the entirety of ourselves. A letting go that allows us to move out of living in the past and expands the potential for psychological and spiritual well-being in the present.

We do not forgive for the sake of others; we forgive for the sake and health of ourselves.

The last piece of the practice turns the act of forgiveness towards ourselves and is not dramatically unlike the Jewish practice of atonement. We say to ourselves “For all the ways I have hurt or harmed myself, knowingly or unknowingly, I offer myself forgiveness”. Sometimes this may include our inability to forgive others or to admit our own misguided actions.

In this life where we can be held captive by the painful experiences of our past, it is good to be able to let go and begin again. May it be so, eventually, for all of us.