The Art of Forgiveness

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Two years ago when it was my turn to deliver a sermon in front of my peers for review, I was  nervous. When I learned that the topic would be forgiveness, I was terrified. How could I ever tackle such a broadly complicated subject? What could possibly be said about forgiveness that had not already been spoken?

I thought of that sermon last weekend when I toured the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City because my sermon on forgiveness happened to coincide with the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11. I knew the risks, but I decided to write my sermon about forgiveness in the context of that unfathomable tragedy. I began by retelling a story about an unlikely friendship.

Phyllis Rodriguez’s son Greg was killed in the World Trade Center and Aicha el-Wafi’s, son, Zacarias Moussaoui, was accused of conspiracy in connection with the attack and later sentenced to life in prison without parole. Each mother recalls in vivid detail where she was and how she felt when she heard the news. Rodriguez said she was in denial; she did not want to believe that it was true that her son was among the 3,000 souls that perished on that cloudless September morning. El-Wafi, who lived in France at the time, was also overwhelmed by disbelief. Her daughter called her to tell her that Zacarias’ picture was being shown on television, he was a suspect in the attack.

Their story is one of how two women on opposing sides of a tragedy were brought together, and how a relationship of mutual forbearance allowed the space for forgiveness to flourish. But it was a process; one that requires untangling a complex web of human emotions before finding common threads that bound them together as friends.

Rodriguez recalled, “When Greg was killed I thought, I will never forgive the people who murdered my son.” But when Rodriguez met El-Wafi, a remarkable thing happened. She no longer saw El-Wafi as the face of an enemy, but as a fellow human being and mother who was mourning the loss of her son too. As their relationship grew, the depths of Rodriguez’s compassion allowed her to do what she did not think was possible: to forgive El-Wafi’s son Zacarias. “When I watched Zacarias at the trial [where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison] my heart was broken because I could not look at him as a stranger. He is the son of my friend.”

While she admits that she does not forgive the act, Rodriguez said that “trying to understand why someone has acted in the way they have is part of the process of forgiving. She said that, “Forgiveness is being able to accept another person for being human and fallible.” For her, the process of forgiveness was part of the process of her healing. I was intrigued by their story, because such forgiveness means working against the tide of our natural human tendency for revenge. Forgiveness elicits deep compassion that liberates the wrong and wrong-doer alike, which ultimately helps us heal.

I am not suggesting that forgiveness excuses the offender from accountability (or punishment) for the crime, nor am I contending that reconciliation is always possible. But I do believe that this story models the forgiveness that Jesus explains in Matthew’s Gospel (18:21-). And there’s something to it.

Peter asked Jesus, “If someone hurts me, how many times should I forgive?” And then he assuredly answered his own question with another: “Seven times, right?” Seven times wasn’t an arbitrary choice; the number seven in Hebraic culture referred to completeness. To forgive seven times was the law.

Like most of us, Peter probably understood forgiveness as a task to be completed, and one of the most difficult at that. To have a law that limited how many times he was obligated do it must have been a comfort because there was an end in sight. It was like a finish line in an emotionally draining race.

Peter obviously expected Jesus to agree, but Jesus contradicted conventional wisdom. “No, not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Some scholars suggest that seventy-seven was a euphemism for infinity. In other words, forgiveness is not a task to approach with a prescriptive law dictating how many times it should be done. Instead, it’s a process in which we must continuously engage.

Rodriguez and El-Wafi’s story shows that forgiveness requires constant and intentional work. I confess that I’m guilty of bailing out of the forgiveness race when I’m too weary to continue. Jesus teaches that forgiveness requires endurance, but not because he relishes suffering. On the contrary, the process is necessary for healing.

Among the various religious relics found in the rubble after the collapse of the twin towers, a charred bible was on display in the museum. It had melted into a piece of twisted metal, opened to Matthew 5, where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” It was powerful invitation from a victim of this horrific act to begin the process of forgiveness. I don’t think that turning the other cheek means forgetting what happened or allowing it to happen again, instead it encourages us to seek another perspective than the one we’re naturally inclined to see. Only by resisting revenge, can we begin to see the liberating power of forgiveness.

The memorial exposes the deep and gaping wounds where symbols of human progress once stood. The artists who thoughtfully designed it included running water beginning at the edges where the names of the victims are engraved, continuing down the sides of the walls, along the floor, and then falling into the inner cavern. It has a soothing effect, but not because it washes away a painful memory. Instead for me, it’s like a balm over the scars, reminding us that healing is found in the unending cycle of forgiveness.