‘The Anchors of our Faith‘
This year I would like to reflect on the ‘anchors’ of our Christian faith. What ‘makes’ our faith? What are core ideas and concepts?
This week: FORGIVENESS
Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ Luke 15:21-24a, NRSV
“Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” Lily Tomlin, comedian (born 1939)
On October 2, 2006, an armed man entered an Amish* schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He allowed the boys and some pregnant women to leave the building and took the remaining 10 girls between the ages of 6 and 13 hostage. This man was not part of the Amish community, but was known in the area as a milk truck driver. In the end he shot 8 of the 10 girls in the head, execution style, and then killed himself. Five of his victims died.
Every day we encounter senseless gun violence in the USA, but this incident struck a special nerve – not only because the victims were children, but also because the Amish (like the Mennonites) are known for their pacifism and rejection of violence. In this case, the most vulnerable were attacked. What astounded the nation and the world back then was that the families of the victims and the entire community forgave the murderer. Members of the Amish community visited and comforted the family of the perpetrator – the widow, children and parents – and collected donations for them. Some Amish attended the funeral of the shooter.
A community that had been deeply hurt and inadvertently changed by the massacre grieved, forgave and thus began a process of healing. The little schoolhouse, riddled with bullet holes and a witness of the horrors of the day of the shooting, was torn down; a new school, called ‘New Hope School’, was built on a different site.
Forgiveness paved the way for a hopeful future. The victims haven’t been forgotten – but the affected community was and is mindful of the fact that hate, vengeance, bitterness and blame can’t bring back what once was – and that such negative feelings destroy anyone who harbors them. Comedian, author and actor Lily Tomlin summarized it brilliantly, ‘Forgiveness means giving up the hope for a better past.‘
How often do we get stuck in the past? How often can’t we let go of anger against someone who hurt us? How much energy do we spend on people and situations we have unpleasant memories about?
Now I am not saying that we should deny the existence of bad experiences – but we have to work through them and unburden ourselves and go into the future with less baggage. To forgive does not mean to forget. To forgive means to free ourselves from the demons of the past in order to have a new and hopeful start.
The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son was hurt deeply by the decisions of his younger son; and yet he can forgive him and accept him back into the community of home and family. The past is gone – what counts is the present and the future. What counts is that we spend the time we have together as lovingly as we can. What counts is our transformation into the community of God, where grace and mercy reign.
That’s why Jesus Christs calls and admonishes us to forgive those who do us wrong – not seven times, but seventy-seven times. And we are beneficiaries of this commandment as well, because we will be forgiven abundantly whenever we make mistakes (which is, all the time). Forgiven and forgiving we go into a new future – God’s future in which death and suffering and pain will be no more. This is what we hope for. This is what we live into.
*The Amish are a Protestant community in North America, which split in the late 17th century from the Mennonites. The Mennonites have their roots in Southwest Germany and Switzerland. The Amish as well as Mennonites are known for their opposition to violence. The Amish reject many modern inventions and technology and often still live like in the 16th century – without electricity or motor vehicles, for example. Many Amish live in remote farm communities.
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