Rev. Megan Foley
I first started thinking about the concept of forgiveness because the term “forgiveness” meant almost nothing to me.
It began when my own father was shot and killed outside his home in the nation of Jordan. He was killed by several al Qaeda operatives looking to make a statement to the US by assassinating what they thought was a high-ranking diplomat. Because of the situation in which my father was killed, my grief and my family’s grief was not only personal, it was public and shared and could be compared to the grief of others who also fell loosely under the umbrella of “victims of terrorism.”
It was upon examination of the other folks under this umbrella that the topic of forgiveness would emerge from the conversational backdrop. It was wondered whether one might learn to forgive in this situation, or whether forgiveness was impossible. People speculated on how I was coming along on the forgiveness track, or made comments about how my family ranked on the forgiveness scale compared to other families.
The problem was, I didn’t find myself located along a forgiveness scale at all. I didn’t feel that I “couldn’t possibly forgive,” or “might forgive someday,” or “would never forgive, ever ever ever.” The concept of forgiving did not even occur to me.
My overwhelming sense at the time of my father’s death about the killers was understanding.
I knew how very different a worldview from mine a group of Middle Eastern terrorists could hold about the workings of our government, the intentions of our Foreign Service officers, and the usefulness of political assassinations to affect international policy.
I knew how such a fundamental difference in perspective could lead to devastating errors – from my perspective. I imagined, however, that the actions that my father’s killers took made a good deal of sense to them.
From my perspective, the killers made a terrible mistake. They murdered a man who in fact spent a lifetime reaching out to span differences between people, who had spent a lifetime trying to even the disparities between our nation and others’. Their choice of this particular man to kill seemed somewhat of an accidental tragedy to me.
From the killers’ perspective, they were acting in accordance to the threat they felt they were facing from Americans.
Two worldviews violently clashed, and my father, my family, was caught in the middle – this time. But that sort of thing happens all the time, much more so to foreigners than to Americans, actually.
So, as I said, I understood from the beginning that this sort of thing happens. I wished it hadn’t happened to us. But forgiveness? It didn’t seem to even be on the table. Sara touches on the same reaction in her reflection.
As a minister, though, I came to wonder, well, if forgiveness isn’t applicable to my father’s situation, then when is it applicable? When can we be expected to forgive or receive forgiveness? When does the notion of forgiving come to the forefront? And Yom Kippur, a day that encourages us to forgive, is as good a day as any to think about this issue.
After some reflections and helpful conversations with Sara, it has come to seem to me that forgiveness isn’t called for just any old time someone wrongs someone else, just any time that someone is hurt. Rather, it seems to me that forgiveness is called for when one person has deliberately wronged another, knowing that it was a wrong.
Deliberately wronged another, knowing it was a wrong.
That seemed in contrast to my father’s killing, because I am pretty sure that those who did the killing thought they were doing right. It seems in contrast to Sara’s dad’s killer as well, in my opinion, who surely acted irresponsibly, but did not deliberately intend to hurt Sara’s father.
To agree in common that an action is wrong and hurtful implies two things. One, it implies that you have a relationship with that person. And, not only do you have a relationship with that person, but that you share a set of common beliefs, an understanding, maybe even some sort of covenant.
The act of seeking or granting forgiveness seems particularly appropriate to me in the context of a friendship, a marriage, a family relationship. It also seems appropriate in the context of a UU congregational community, where we come together under a covenant, an explicit list of shared goals and ideal behavior.
I’d like to invite you to consider the role of relationship and shared understanding in your own concept of forgiveness, if only to clarify in your own mind and life experiences which situations call for your active, Yom Kippur-type efforts at forgiveness, and which situations, although hurtful and damaging, might not.
I’d like to enter into a period of reflection on this right now, in fact, before we again hear from Sara.
Take a moment to consider the situations in your own life that have caused you hurt. Take a moment to consider when you have hurt others.
Did the hurting come from a violation of a shared understanding?
Do the people in your relationships share a common understanding of what is acceptable and what is not?
If you have different assumptions, do they need to be clarified?
If you share assumptions and they have been violated, what needs to be done to mend the rift?
I’ll give you a few minute for quiet contemplation.
Sara’s Reflections on Forgiveness, Part I
I grew up observing the annual tradition of Yom Kippur with my family, casting a year’s worth of sins in the form of breadcrumbs into a local river, adding in the act of fasting for 24 hours when I turned 13, asking for an annual dose of divine forgiveness so that I might be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. These were rituals that made me feel good about myself, but that I accepted with some complacency, never really thinking too hard about forgiveness -- what it meant, to whom and by whom it could be given, and under what circumstances.
It wasn’t until a couple of decades later that I was prompted to think hard about the concept of forgiveness: specifically, when I received a handwritten letter from the mother of then 24-year old man who – driving while intoxicated -- killed my father, on the day before my PhD graduation ceremony. In this letter, the young man’s mother called upon me and the other members of my immediate family to forgive her son for what he had done. The letter arrived at a time when we were all still early in our process of grieving, still struggling to make sense and come to terms with the horror of what had happened. It came at a time after the driver had acknowledged his responsibility for his actions to law enforcement agents, but before he was sentenced to prison as punishment for his actions.
My mother and my brothers were not willing forgive him. They had suffered a terrible, irreversible loss because of this young man’s reckless actions. They felt that they owed nothing to this man, nor to his mother. They needed to figure out how to go on with their lives – and make some very significant life decisions that were not supposed to have been required, at least not yet. I understood and respected their position.
Yet I had a different response to this letter. To my surprise, it made me realize that I was at least somewhat open to better understanding the man who killed my father. I thought it was brave for her even to write the letter at all. I imagined her sitting down many times, perhaps in tears and certainly in anguish, searching for the right words to say to us. Her letter acknowledged our loss while also helping me to understand her perspective and her pain -- which, although very different than mine, was valid in its own right. I understood that she felt responsible for her son and his actions, and that she loved him, and that he was part of a family and a context that I hadn’t yet acknowledged in my own thoughts.
But forgive? It turned out that I couldn’t even begin to imagine how forgiveness was even applicable to my situation, not when I really thought about what it might actually mean.
What would it mean for me to forgive him? To absolve him of responsibility for his actions? To acknowledge that what he did was unintentional and therefore okay or at least not as bad, somehow? To let go of my anger? I had neither the ability nor the desire to do any of these things. I certainly was in no position to forgive him by offering him a page in the book of life, or a place in heaven, or even a place in my heart. I really wasn’t interested in welcoming him any further into my life than he had already stepped, uninvited. There are some perfectly good words to describe the range of responses that were available to me – even words like understanding and empathy. But these were quite distinct from any possible conception of “forgiveness” that I could think of.
I have a very vivid recollection of that day in the courtroom at his sentencing. The young man who killed my father offered me and my family words of apology and regret -- and I believed him. I think he really did know just how badly he had messed up. I had the opportunity to further drive that point home in my own comments at the sentencing, when I spoke of the magnitude of my family’s terrible, terrible loss as I stood with my newborn son – my father’s first grandchild, whom he would never get to meet -- in my arms. The judge offered me a seat, twice, but I insisted that I would stand. It was very important to me that everyone be able to see my son as I spoke. But I also took that opportunity to express gratitude for the young man’s apology and to acknowledge his mother’s letter. And then – although I not sure it was a good idea -- I felt the need to explain to the judge that I wasn’t sure that I understood the meaning of forgiveness, and that I could not forgive because I did not think forgiveness (whatever it was) was mine to give in this situation.
The judge’s response was a disappointment to me. Among other general things I only vaguely recall, he looked me in the eye, shrugged, and said: “As for forgiveness, I guess that’s something that’s between you and your god or your religious convictions.”
He was a judge, and yet that’s all he had to say about forgiveness. Somehow, I had expected more from him, but he had said nothing at all, at least nothing that was useful to me. If forgiveness had something to do with one’s god and/or religious beliefs, wouldn’t it be between the young man who killed my father, and his god and/or religion?
As my family was leaving the courtroom, I decided turn back and walk over to the young man’s mother. I wanted to tell her that I was very sorry for the pain that I knew her family was also suffering. I had just watched them wave good-bye to their son as he was being taken away for a 4-year prison term. I was now a mother, too. I only started to get the words out when she reached out her arms, and we hugged. She said nothing. We hugged and cried together for a quiet moment, and then I turned and left the courtroom without looking back.
I am quite certain that this simple, quiet act was one of the most important steps in my mourning and healing process, and I hope that it was meaningful for her as well. And I am also just as certain that it had nothing to do with forgiveness, but something else entirely.
“He’s an immigrant, isn’t he?”
“Excuse me?” I asked, disoriented by the randomness of the question.
“Or maybe his parents were the immigrants…”
“Who…?” I asked, but it was starting to become clear to me what she was talking about.
“I heard that his father’s name is Mohammed.”
“What…What could that possibly have to do with anything??” I had the presence of mind to ask.
“Oh, nothing, I’m just saying.”
“Did it remind you of how my father’s parents were also immigrants to this country?”
At that point she changed the topic and tried to offer me something to eat. Of course I knew that wasn’t what she meant. Not at all. It was stated even more clearly by another person from the neighborhood who had also come to our house to “sit shiva” and mourn with us in those days immediately following my father’s death.
“It’s so random. So random that your father was in his car at that place at that time. You have to wonder if this still would have happened if something had been just a little different….if your father had stopped at one more store before driving home, if they had never come to this country…”
“If who had never come to this country??” At this point I knew exactly what she meant, I just couldn’t understand why, I couldn’t believe that she was saying this to me. Especially now, the day after my father’s funeral, as if it would somehow comfort me.
Let me just come out and tell you what these two women meant, what other family members and friends would add to the racist chorus in the months and years following my father’s death. They meant: “We’ve noticed that the other driver has darker skin and a sort of Muslim sounding name, and perhaps if he – and others like him – were not allowed to be in the United States, your father’s death and terrible things like would never have happened.”
It got even worse after 9/11. After 9/11, the story morphed into my father being killed by a terrorist, a potential terrorist, someone who might as well have been a terrorist. Little off-handed comments, completely inaccurate and completely beside the point. And now, more recently, the manner of his death has morphed into a platform to speak out against illegal immigration, retrofitted to parallel other current stories in the media about undocumented immigrants – “illegals” – who kill nuns while driving drunk.
There’s a version of this story in which I cry out at the top of my lungs to insist that my father’s death not be twisted and misunderstood in this way. My father did not hold such views, and it is so so wrong, such an insult to his memory and the good man that he was for his story to be hijacked in this way. My father’s death was preventable, but it had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism, nothing to do with immigration reform, and I will have to figure out a way to stand up and prevent an even greater harm come out of a terrible enough situation.
However: that is not the story that I want to tell here today. The story that I want to share is the one about how discovering intolerance and racism and ignorance among those closest to me – my own friends and family, the social network that has played a role in the person I have become – how this helped me to appreciate how forgiveness might indeed have a role to play in my life.
Yes, I felt disappointed, even betrayed by people that I thought I knew. I had lost more than my father. I had also lost some measure of respect for people I had long counted on. I couldn’t understand how, despite growing up in the same reasonably diverse communities and social environments, they had come to hold such ugly views. It certainly wasn’t all of them, of course, but many more than I had ever realized.
We also saw a great deal of generosity at this time, from those friends and family who were closest to me and even from those I didn’t know as well, people who pitched in to help us clean up and settle matters related to the old house up in NJ, taking care of us at a very vulnerable, difficult time. I mean really stepping up, really doing things that required much of their time and that were genuinely helpful to us.
This was still my family and my community -- people who were good to me, who cared for me -- and it turned out that I still very much cared for them. We had history, and we all shared the pain of a terrible loss…
It was bad enough that I had lost my father. I was not prepared to turn my back on those whom I loved and who loved me back, those with whom I had an enduring relationships, even if it turned out that they weren’t quite the people I had thought them to be. We still needed each other. I cannot excuse racism, but I can understand that we all were trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy, grasping for explanations and a focus for our anger and confusion. It is a coping mechanism to seek someone or something to blame, although terribly unfortunate that this need will cause some to look beyond what the facts really warrant.
Of course, I was also naïve to think that racism and intolerance weren’t as prevalent as they actually are. The unfortunate but eye-opening nature of some of the responses to my father’s death provide an opportunity for me to transform myself, to set aside my own naïve complacency, perhaps to stand up and become more involved in the political process – and, closer to home, to figure out how to explain to my friends and family why their comments are not appreciated and how they are wrong and damaging. I do not think this requires me to walk away from my friends and family, though, and I have decided that I am not willing to do that, that I do not want to lose anyone else as a result of my father’s death.
So perhaps this is what forgiveness is about: the act of seeing a person for more than their hurtful actions – and, even more than that, of choosing to continue a valued relationship, even in the face of significant disagreement or disappointment. Yes. Maybe now I can see that there is something to this “forgiveness” concept after all.
Sara discovered a role for forgiveness in a place she did not expect. She was called upon, at least in her own mind, to forgive the members of her own family for the hurtful, unhelpful views they espoused against immigrants and Muslims. Sara, if I may put words into her mouth, assumed that her family would share the same views as she did. She was very surprised and quite hurt to discover she was wrong.
It reminds me that a factor in the forgiving process must surely be the strength and importance of the relationship between the two people considering forgiveness. There is a balancing act between the depth of the offense and the strength of the relationship that needs to be maintained. If Sara had heard these sorts of comments from a mere acquaintance or co-worker, perhaps she would have used a different calculus in determining if the offense outweighed the benefits of the relationships. But because these were her family, these were the people who otherwise loved and supported her, she chose to forgive.
There are some relationships that call for a deeper level of forgiving, a deeper commitment to letting the relationship take precedence over any offense.
Many wedding vows contain the promise to forgive, and this makes explicit the notion that a married relationship is so important that it ought to take priority over many of the actions either party might do to offend the other.
In our church covenant (again, available at the back of the room), we explicitly agree to try to stretch our boundaries of forgiveness with one another. We may not all have very deep or important relationships with one another within these walls, but because we are one community that values connection, we encourage each other to make an effort to let bygones be bygones, to let our relationships take precedence over our hurts, as Sara has chosen to do with some of the members of her family.
But all this talk of the balance between relationship and offense begs the obvious question: Are there breaches to relationship that can never be repaired, can never be expected to be repaired? Are there offenses so great that they negate the terms that the members of the relationship began with?
Sure, there are wedding vows including forgiveness, but also vows including honor, respect, fidelity, and love. Which promise wins out, in the end? Which broken promise cannot be redeemed?
In our congregation, we agree to stretch our boundaries of forgiveness with each other. But we also agree to listen carefully to each other, to take each other’s needs into consideration, and to honor each other’s well-being. Which promise wins out, in the end? Are there situations where, even if forgiveness is requested, forgiveness is just not possible?
I think the answer to this necessarily has to be yes. Yes, I believe that there are occasions when relationships have been broken beyond repair, and forgiveness – at least the sort suggested by the phrases “forgive and forget” and “let bygones be bygones” – may be an impossibility.
That said, however, I want to add two ideas:
First, I think that calculus we mentioned before, where each person weighs the offense against the value of the relationship, is deeply personal and individual.
Given a similar situation, different people may make different choices to forgive or not to forgive, along highly individual lines.
In a group situation, such as the one in Sara’s family where a number of people are offended by the same action, different people may choose and demonstrate different abilities and willingnesses to forgive.
And that’s okay – it points to the highly individual, relationship-based origin of the request for forgiveness. It points to the unique ground underneath two people in which forgiveness is to grow, if it ever does.
Secondly, I invite you to remember the scripted method recommended during the observance of Yom Kippur, the one we learned about in our skit earlier. Before you ask forgiveness, you must first recognize and discontinue the inappropriate behavior or mistake. You must then verbally confess the behavior, action or mistake to the person who was affected. You need to earnestly regret the behavior, action or mistake, and evaluate the negative impact this action may have had on you or on others. You then should devise a plan to rectify the behavior, action or mistake. Sometimes something cannot be repaired, but you may be able to change a pattern or cycle so that the chance that a repeat offense will take place is minimized. Then, and only then, may you ask for forgiveness from those to whom you have done wrong.
Quite a lengthy process. The purpose of it all, of course, is to make the person who did the offending realize the depth of the breach of the relationship that he or she has committed. By the end of the process, the person asking for forgiveness will know that wrong was done. The person will express a deep desire for a restored relationship. The covenant or agreement between the parties will have been seen, understood, and agreed upon. The offense will have been noted, discontinued, and repented. So the offending person, by the end of following this Yom Kippur model, is really asking this: Will you restore our relationship, will you value our relationship more than this terrible thing I have done? In the end, will you choose our relationship over the hurt?
And of course, the answer to that question can only be given by the person who was wronged.
But there is one more thing to remember about the religious observance of Yom Kippur. It is my understanding that it is believed that in the eyes of God, once the person who offended the other has performed all the tasks that I just mentioned, then she has done what was required. In other words, the offender’s job, the offender’s obligation in the eyes of all that is Good, is simply to get to the point where she can legitimately ask for forgiveness.
It is not the offender’s job to actually gain forgiveness. Forgiveness can only be granted by the person wronged. The offender cannot will it, or force it, to happen.
So the requirement is that the offender ask for forgiveness. The offender does not have to be forgiven to be right with God.
I like to think that there is good reason for the obligation ending right there, right when another person is asked if they forgive.
I think it is in that precious moment, after the asking, when a crack appears, and a glimmer of the divine healing that all relationships need is made evident.
In that moment, between the asking for forgiveness and the answer, all things are possible – even the tiniest beginnings of restoration of a relationship that seems unbearably damaged.
So I invite you, when you are considering forgiving or asking for forgiveness, to allow the wisdom of the ages to do its work. I invite you to follow the process and see where it leads. You may be surprised what comes of it all.
Go in peace.