When I was a child, I was often told, forgive, but don’t forget. For most of my childhood, my parents would never buy any German products because of the Jewish Holocaust during WWII. I was made to read books and watch movies about the holocaust and I was taught to never forget that people would hate us and at some point would kill just because we were Jewish. But I was also raised to believe that we should judge people based on their actions. The sins of the parents should not automatically be placed on the children. There are few alive today who were directly involved in the atrocities. And in truth where do you draw the line.
If I didn’t buy products from every country that oppressed the Jews it would be a long list. And if I add to that Countries that invaded the birth country of my children, Korea, I would be prevented from buying any products from Japan and China as well. Where does it end. As well Post WWII Germany took concrete steps to address their role and take responsibility for their part in the tragedy of the holocaust and to offer reparations to Jews. Interestingly, in the newly formed country Israel in 1951, there was actually much conflict over whether to accept reparations from Germany.
There were many Israelis who felt that taking reparations was akin to forgiving and pardoning Germans for what they had done. Many Israelis, launched violent protests against the Israeli government at that time. David Ben Gurion the first prime minister of Israel had to use the Israeli army to quell an uprising that led to the death of many Israelis and afterward he said “I don't want to run after a German and spit in his face. I don't want to run after anybody. I want to sit here and build here.” And they accepted the reparations. I think there are a number of lessons to be learned from this story. Anger, especially righteous anger can blind one to reality.
The reparations received were critical to allow the State of Israel to build the infrastructure of their country and allow it not only to survive but to thrive. How often do we in anger do something spiteful that we know is not in our own best interest just so we can feed our resentment towards others. And don’t get me wrong. Anger is a natural emotion. There are times we should be angry, but the question is how do we express our anger. Its an old maxim that it is never a good idea to make decisions when we are filled with anger. So it is not so much forgiveness of others as it is letting go of our internal anger that no longer helps us.
We do get hurt, we do need to protect ourselves, we do need to see that justice is done so others are not hurt in the same way, but also we must heal ourselves. If we are going to grow, grow as human beings, grow past the hate that envelops us, grow past the hurt that debilitates us, we must let go of the anger so we can see our future clearly. Not to eliminate our memories, but to not let our memories of our past, control and limit our future. So we can move forward and build our own lives. And I think the same can be said for us as a country. How much of our Mideast wars were about protecting ourselves and finding justice? Certainly some of it was, but also I would ask how much of it was a lashing out in righteous anger at the hurt we felt and still feel from the attacks on 9-11. We need to take care of ourselves as a country, we need to build here. The first key to forgiveness is not always about what it does for the person we are forgiving, but about what it does for us.
The second lesson from this story is that it is easier to forgive someone when they show some repentance for what they did. When they ask for forgiveness. Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel said, “Some persons do not deserve forgiveness – to be forgiven the culprit must admit their guilt and ask for forgiveness. In the year 2000, during a speech in the German Parliament commemorating the holocaust, Elie Wiesel said to the assembled German leaders, “You have been helpful to Israel after the war, with reparations and financial assistance. But you have never asked the Jewish people to forgive you for what the Nazis did.” Two weeks later, the German president, went to the Israeli Knesset and did just that. He said, “Before the people of Israel I pay humble tribute to those who were murdered, who have no graves at which I could ask their forgiveness, I ask forgiveness for what Germans have done, for myself, and my generation, For the sake of our children and our children’s children whose future I would like to see at the side of the children of Israel”. This is how we prevent passing our own sins of anger onto our children. We need to interact with each other, to know each other, to not be “others” to each other. We need to be consciously open to the concept of forgiveness and redemption. The two are inextricably tied together. One cannot control whether someone else will forgive another. We can only ask for forgiveness and then atone for it through right actions. Even if the wronged party does not forgive, the party causing the harm can show they have learned, they have changed, and by doing so show that transformation is possible. Even if they are never forgiven, they themselves have been transformed into a something better.
History has shown us, and not only for Jewish people but for many oppressed people who have been powerless to overcome oppressors, that moving forward with forgiveness can be freeing and can lead to peace. It is one of the great complexities of life for me, why people would target complete strangers to do harm to them just because of their religious, ethnic, sexual or racial differences. Throughout history people have committed violence for many reasons, often out of desire for personal gain, sometimes to obtain resources, and as well due to intolerance. Although recent news reports highlight this intolerance in the Middle East, intolerance happens often in this country as well, there have been consistent defamations of Mulism Mosques throughout America, and of course just recently, in Minnesota there was the shooting at the Sikh Temple that was specifically targeted, whether mistakenly as Muslim, but clearly because the Sikhs represented “others” to the gunman.
And it was four years ago this summer that a man fueled with rage from talk radio, walked into a Unitarian Church in Tennessee and started opening fire. And I remember the following week we were saying prayers for the victims, and someone said a prayer for the gunman. I have to admit, I had a physical retching reaction at that moment. I had a great sadness in my heart for the people who were shot, for the children who were at risk and will always have that memory connected to Church. I didn’t have anger towards the gunman, but I thought, do I really want to say a prayer for him, and wish him well. I really had not been thinking of him at all, and lastly about whether he was suffering. But my reaction to this prayer request did make me stop and think. Is there is a difference between forgiveness and just letting go of anger.
In the movie “the power of forgiveness”, a man unconditionally forgave the teenager who had murdered his son. The teen who murdered his son had been living with his grandfather after being abandoned first by his father and then his mother. And the teenager upon being forgiven said, “no one had ever forgiven me for anything before, if he can forgive me for killing his son, I have to be able to forgive others who have abandoned me and who have hurt me.” And that forgiveness changed the grandfather as well who had been completely racked with guilt over the incident. And the father of the slain boy and the grandfather of the murderer went on to form a foundation and together went out speaking to other youth to prevent future violence. Who knows how many lives were saved by that one ac of forgiveness. This didn’t diminish the pain or loss they felt. But it showed me that forgiveness can have a power of its own. Forgiveness can not only change your life, but it can change other peoples lives in ways that we cannot imagine. Our first principle tells us that we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.
Something like this tests that principle. Yes, as I have said before, inherent worth is not lived worth, but inherent worth and dignity means it is there within all, waiting to be nurtured, waiting to be lifted up, waiting to be forgiven. Just like this story of the young boy who didn’t understand the concept of forgiveness until it was given to him, my experiences have shown me that people are willing to forgive others and accept forgiveness of others much more quickly then they are ever able to forgive themselves. I saw this often when I served as a chaplain in a hospital. On the floor I served on, individuals’ medical conditions were often self inflicted by their poor lifestyle choices.
And in almost all cases they were aware of that, and held tremendous guilt about it. And so I would ask them whether they believed that God forgave them, and in almost all cases without hesitation, always they answered yes. They believed in a forgiving, all loving God. And then I would ask them if they believed that if God forgave them, could they forgive themselves. And sadly most of them found that the most difficult part. Self forgiveness was a lesson it took me a long time to learn. It is a spiritual practice unto itself that needs to be practiced consistently.
I forget who, but I was talking to someone in coffee hour and I mentioned I am my own worst critic and the person seemed surprised because they said I didn’t seem to come off as a critical person.. I have found for myself it is beneficial to look back at what I have done, what has worked, what has not worked. How could I have handled a situation better. Often these thoughts come up when I am meditating and trying not to think of thoughts. I look at every experience I have as a learning experience. To incorporate how I missed the mark, as I move forward. I have found that for myself the key to my happiness is the ability to be able to forgive myself very quickly almost instantaneously for my faults. It allows me to live in the present moment being who I am, not filled with fear of making a mistake, For self forgiveness is about acceptance that we are not perfect, and that we will never be perfect. That acceptance should never be an excuse to stop improving, or stop learning. But it is an acceptance that we cannot control the universe. Sad but true. We often don’t even control our own personal universe. If we realize that we are interdependent with all that is, we realize that yes we can impact others with our actions but others also impact us with their actions which means there are things we cannot control.
The musical piece Kol Nidre, that Malcolm played earlier is always played on first night of Yom Kippur every year. It is asking for forgiveness in advance for the vows we will break in the coming year, knowing that we are imperfect beings, recognizing that we are certainly going to miss the mark sometimes. But it is also asking us not to make frivolous promises, but rather to think very carefully before we make a commitment.
Acceptance of our own imperfection allows an opening up to being compassionate with ourselves, being gentle with ourselves, and by doing this consistently with ourselves we can find peace within, and once we find peace within, it allows us to learn to be compassionate with others. And by doing so, by working together with others in compassionate ways, our interdependent web of life becomes more whole. When compassion is the practice we use each day, in every action we take, we will live in a more compassionate world. So as you go forth, be compassionate with yourselves and be compassionate with others. Forgive yourself and Forgive others. May it be so.