“The Capacity to Love, The Ability to Forgive” by Jolie Olivetti – March 20, 2016
Opening Words from “Failure to Forgive” a sermon by former UUA President John Buehrens:
What Jesus succeeded at—perhaps the only thing he truly succeeded at—is just what we most fail at. Forgiving. Forgiving others. Forgiving ourselves. We even crucify poor Jesus again by thinking that what he did with forgiveness was preach it, command it. Phooey! Why, we can do that! “Everyone says that forgiveness is a lovely idea,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “until they themselves have something to forgive.”
In fact, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about forgiveness, it’s that preaching forgiveness to anyone can almost always be counted on to fail—even when we’re preaching to ourselves. “Why the hell should I?” something inside cries out. “What do you know about my hurt, or what I’ve suffered, or what I’ve lost?”
I will be preaching on forgiveness this morning, sharing insights I have gleaned from school and from internships I have had. Stories from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC, have continually cropped up since I started seminary. The TRC was a restorative justice process assembled in the years after the fall of apartheid, in which victims and perpetrators could testify about their experiences, and perpetrators could seek amnesty. It was imperfect, and it is also a powerful model of truth-telling, restoration, and how a society can practice forgiveness. For this morning’s service I chose an excerpt from a book by South African psychologist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. The book is called A Human Being Died That Night: A Story of Forgiveness, and it’s about her experiences interviewing a former operative of the Apartheid regime, a man who was formerly nicknamed “Prime Evil,” a man named Eugene de Kock. Here is what she wrote:
“I have mentioned another extraordinary encounter with victims of atrocity. I am thinking of the meeting between de Kock and the widows of the two policemen murdered in the Motherwell bombing. Pearl Faku responded to de Kock’s apology with the fullness of her humanity, saying: ‘I hope that when he sees our tears he knows that they are not only tears for our husbands, but tears for him as well… I would like to hold him by the hand, and show him that there is a future, and that he can still change.’ Her statement of forgiveness was profound. As an invitation to de Kock to turn the page, to come onto the path toward the road of peace, it had no equal that I was aware of on the TRC, nor was I aware of any such gestures made by victims in the history of atrocities in the 20th century. Her response surpasses much of what we know about people who have been victimized when their victimizers ask for forgiveness. It is hard to resist the conclusion that there must have been something divine about forgiveness expressed in the context of tragedy. How else can we understand how such words can flow from the lips of one wronged so irreparably? Archbishop Tutu, whenever we were witnesses to such inexplicable human responses at a public hearing of the TRC, would be driven to call for silence ‘because we are on holy ground.’ There seems to be something spiritual, even sacramental, about forgiveness – a sign that moves and touches those who are witnesses to its enactment.
When I was trying to decide whether or not to go through with my plan to quit my awesome job and bury my head in books at seminary for three years, I had my friend Mallory over for dinner. Mallory and I knew each other as members of “Da Force.” Da Force was also known as the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Task Force on Racial Disparities. We were a group of youth and adults working to end the overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile system in Massachusetts.
I wanted to talk to Mallory about this strange notion I had to stop being a farmer and start studying theology, because my initial draw to divinity school included a desire to learn something about the ideological basis of the prison system in this country. With 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, I wanted to understand more about what the deeper meaning of prisons is in our society – what do we tell ourselves we’re doing by locking up over two million human beings, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Latino?
As Mallory and I ate the pizza I had made, she offered her perspective on my drive to learn about our addiction to punishment. Though the majority of people who are locked up are not in there for violent offenses, there are some people who are. Mallory said that she feels it is her duty to work on alternatives to incarceration, because she said, “I have the absurd privilege of knowing two mothers who have sat down with the men who murdered their sons, who have not argued against their parole, who have worked tirelessly for peace.”
Since starting seminary, my call has expanded from learning about prisons and punishment. Obviously, here I am, learning to be a minister. Also, since starting seminary, during my search for an understanding of how to deal with harm, the complicated question of forgiveness has surfaced and resurfaced. I’d like to share some of what I’ve found with you today.
I also know those mothers that Mallory mentioned. I too have had the privilege of learning from Janet and Tina, who both lost their sons to violence. These mothers’ sons were killed at different times, under different circumstances, but both Tina and Janet have had similar concerns with what would happen if the men who killed their sons returned to their neighborhoods. They both recognize that a life in prison also brings loss to families and communities. These women are concerned about perpetuating cycles of pain and violence, given the punitive justice system we have, which may offer no real repair or relief to surviving family members of homicide victims. Tina and Janet have met with the men who were responsible for their son’s deaths. These mothers have developed connections with the families of the perpetrators. Both have also gone on to do peace work guided by principles of restoration and forgiveness.
One of my favorite theology professors at school, Shelly Rambo, has done extensive work on trauma. I loved a lecture she gave about the preconditions for forgiveness according to a passage in the Gospel of John. In this passage, Jesus has just risen, leaving the tomb empty, after the Roman imperial government had executed him on the cross. The disciples, who haven’t yet seen their resurrected messiah, are deathly afraid, with the doors barred against rivals who are closely aligned with the Romans. The scripture reads:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
According to Shelly, this passage echoes what she has learned about harm and forgiveness from her work with people who have experienced trauma. It’s important not to rush to a forgiveness message. First, we must attend to the needs of those who have been harmed. The first words that Jesus says to the disciples are, “Peace be with you.” The first response to harm is to dispel fear and establish safety. Just after tragedy comes a prayer for peace. Jesus then shows them his wounds on his hands and his side. This is another condition for forgiveness: when someone witnesses our pain, we can begin to rebound and even heal. Finally, Jesus says, “Receive the Spirit.” You know the well-worn saying, “to err is human, to forgive, divine.” We may need a little gulp of something bigger than us – perhaps this is God’s work, or perhaps this is the power of love – however we understand this, we may need a little extra something to do this difficult work of letting go and re-humanizing the ones who have harmed us.
It’s like when Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for silence because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had found itself on holy ground, the holy ground that Pearl Faku inhabited when she said to the man who killed her husband, “I would like to hold him by the hand, and show him that there is a future, and that he can still change.”
One of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s primary questions in the book I read from earlier is: “How can we transcend hate if the goal is to transform human relationships in a society with a past marked by violent conflict between groups?” She then goes on to say: “The question may be irrelevant for people who do not have to live as a society with their former enemies.”
I would venture that this question of how to transcend hate and transform human relationships is not irrelevant to our society. Here in the US, we bear the pain of ongoing cycles of violence and trauma, and this cycle is intensified by our prison system. We may tell ourselves we are dealing with the violence of our society through our prisons, but really prisons, sites of so much degradation and so little rehabilitation, are dealing violence into our society.
Our Universalist spiritual ancestors disavowed eternal punishment for any soul.
Here on earth, this means we have believed in the good in all souls. Though it is difficult, and even scary, this tenet of Universalism includes even those who have done grave harm. We are called to seek restoration over punishment. And, we are invited to believe in a source of life that underwrites the possibility of forgiveness.
The Reverend Michael Tino, a UU minister in New York, said the following about Universalist theology: “The first promise that Universalism gives us is that all of us are ultimately forgiven. Our spiritual ancestors could not imagine a loving God worth worshipping who was not able to forgive even the most egregious evil perpetrated by humanity.” Tino continued, “Now, I know that many people have a problem imagining this kind of forgiveness being readily available, especially for acts of great evil and people whose lives seem to embody a readiness to commit evil deeds. And yet, that’s precisely the point—that the love of God is greater than we can imagine. Bigger than the human imagination. Almost unfathomable.” Tino said, “Some people put it this way: we are held by a love that will not let us go.”
All last year I worked at the Louis D Brown Peace Institute in Dorchester. This organization, which I mentioned in last month’s sermon, is a center for healing, teaching, and learning for families and communities dealing with murder, trauma, grief, and loss. The founder, Tina Chéry – one of the mothers I mentioned earlier – and others at the Peace Institute, have lost family members and friends to violence. Seven Principles of Peace guide the work of the Peace Institute. One of these is forgiveness.
This is no casual, easygoing forgiveness. Often, only half-jokingly, people at the office call forgiveness “the f-word.” Some expression of forgiveness is absolutely not a requisite for receiving services and joining the Peace Institute family. But forgiveness is part of the vision. At the Peace Institute, they know that the lines between perpetrator and victim are not always rigid. It is understood that “hurt people hurt people.” And that the perpetrator and their family may very likely also have lost people to previous homicides.
Remember the lessons that Shelly Rambo identifies in the Book of John? The conditions for forgiveness are to establish peace, attend to wounds, and receive the spirit. Cultivating safety, healing, and spiritual wholeness are all ongoing at the Peace Institute: Families who have lost loved ones to violence, and perpetrators and their families are all welcomed into healing practices, restorative circles, peace advocacy, and more. The Peace Institute is working towards creating the conditions for forgiveness and stopping cycles of violence.
I have just a few more people to bring into the conversation here: a scientist and a Catholic nun. Shelly Rambo showed us a video of a neuroscientist named Robert Saplosky speaking at a recent college commencement about what distinguishes humans from other creatures. According to him, humans are unique among animals because, for us, “The less it is possible that something can be, the more it must be.” As an example, he talked about Sister Helen Prejan, the nun who has dedicated years of her life advocating against the death penalty, and ministering to people on death row as well as to the families of their victims. Sister Helen insists, “The less forgivable the act, the more it must be forgiven. The less lovable the person is, the more you must find the means to love them.” The neuroscientist went on to reflect about this: “This strikes me as the most irrational, magnificent thing we are capable of as a species.” He said we are unique because we “take the impossibility of something to be the very proof that it must be possible and must become a moral imperative. The harder it is to do, the more important it is.”
Two years ago, for a class project, I was interviewing Unitarian Universalists about their reasons for working with prisoners. “What about your faith led you to this work?” I asked. One woman I spoke with described an epiphany at a lecture by the same Helen Prejan. Sister Helen said, “We are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.” So what makes us human is that we are drawn to hugely important contradictions like forgiving the unforgivable. And what makes us Universalists is that we agree with Sister Helen – we are all greater than our biggest mistakes, and we can try to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgivable.
Our prison system, with the highest incarceration rates in the world – is fueled in part by the drive to punish and seek retribution, and we especially target and scapegoat people of color. As a society, we need to flex our Universalist muscles and seek not vengeance and punishment for those who have caused harm, but rather seek real safety for our communities. We are called to believe in the humanity even of those who have done terrible, apparently unforgiveable things, trusting in our faith that we are all more than the worst thing we have ever done.
One of my former coworkers at the Peace Institute says, “The capacity to love is followed by the ability to forgive.” This is both an empowering encouragement, and an expression of responsibility. I believe, like the neuroscientist I mentioned earlier, that this is ultimately what makes us human. I think the maxim could also be: to err is human, to forgive, human. For some, God does God’s forgiving work through us humans. For others, forgiveness is about recognizing the humanity in those who have done harm. Forgiveness is also about honoring our own humanity – a humanity that is defined by this incredible capacity to love.
Reverend John Buehrens, in the opening words Eileen read this morning, said – we crucify Jesus again when we say he preached forgiveness, he commanded forgiveness. What Buehrens is getting at here, is that what matters is that what Jesus did was Forgive.
We are under no obligation to forgive; we need no general mandate to forgive.
Rather, we are invited to realize our power to forgive.
By Rev. Michael Tino
Universalism promises us that the love in our midst is big. Really, really big.
Furthermore, Universalism promises us that our weaknesses—however big or small they are—are immaterial in the light of that love. I’ll say that again: a Universalist theology of forgiveness promises us that whatever is wrong with us is of no consequence to the ultimate source of life in our universe.