It Takes Courage: Seeking and Offering Forgiveness
A sermon offered at First Parish Dorchester October 1, 2017 By Rev. Tricia Brennan
Forgiveness is a value-laden topic if there ever was one. There are tenets and stories of forgiveness are in all religions. We bring lots of emotion and experience to the topic. I want to begin today not with values or rules to live by or stories but in the value neutral place of science.
Michael McCullough is a psychology professor at the University of Miami. In his recent book, Beyond Revenge, he analysed extensive data from social scientific studies on humans and animals as well as biology and brain chemistry to offer new insights to forgiveness and also revenge.
His posits that when we are hurt by another, a strong instinctive desire for revenge arises in us. We are hard-wired for it. When brain studies are done, the part of the brain that lights up when we are thirsty and about to get a drink or hungry and about to get a slice of pizza is the same part that lights up when we are hurt and seek revenge.
It makes us sound animalistic, I suppose, or driven, compulsed. Or it could be seen as purposeful.
Before there were police states or governments or legal systems, much of human life was tribal. Knowing that retaliation would follow an offense served to stem anarchy and modulate the retaliatory response. Revenge was the original criminal justice system – rough justice as it was.
It helps to look at revenge not as the shadow side of human nature but as the natural response, along with anger, to injustice.
This same line of thinking applies to forgiveness. Forgiveness too is normal and purposeful. We have an instinct for forgiveness that serves the common good, just as revenge does. We actually forgive all the time. A colleague forgets to bring in a promised book or file, our child accidentally breaks a treasured heirloom, a neighbor neglects, once again, to put the lid securely on the trash can and the next morning the trash is strewn into our yard. If we were to make a big deal out of all those offenses it would hard to carry on our day. We’d be bogged down in the minutiae of acrimony and accusations, and pretty miserable with all the arguments and anger stirred up by our need to set things right.
We forgive numerous small insults, errors and slights that come our way so as to work cooperatively with other people. That’s actually a pretty big deal, and it is one of the hallmarks of us humans, that we can achieve much because we don’t get mired in conflict. We can work together to grow food, create an orchestra, form a church, write the Constitution.
McCullough’s work encourages us to accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive, for in doing so we have more control over both. Which leads to the question – what does enable us to forgive more and take revenge less? And how do religious institutions and traditions assist this process?
What helps us forgive? We are more likely to forgive someone we value. We value our children and forgive them the countless sleepless nights they cause us, the crayon marks on the wall, the harsh words flung at us in anger – we forgive without a second thought, and consequently the human race carries on. We value our paycheck and are more likely to forgive co-workers or bosses for their mistakes and shortcomings so as to continue to work together successfully. I don’t mean just ignoring their blunders or offenses in the “get along to go along” style, but genuinely trying to understand where they are coming from, why they might have the shortcomings they have, and to accept an apology when offered. We value our friends and are willing to forgive a hurt because we want the friendship to continue.
We forgive more easily those whom we value. Religious traditions stretch our understanding of the word value from a self-oriented perspective of what is of value to me, to a simple powerful belief that all people have value. We hear that in the Unitarian Universalist first principle of the inherent worth and dignity of all people, and we hear that echoed in all faiths: we are all children of God, human life is sacred, no one person or people are intrinsically better than others. Human beings have value just because we are human and alive. Teachings on the value of all humanity as well as stories, midrash, parable, songs, prayers and rituals help us see, know and honor the dignity of “the other”, whether enemy or friend, neighbor or stranger.
We forgive more easily when we feel safe. So if someone apologizes in a way that seems sincere and we are trust that they won’t harm us again, we’re likely to forgive. And it does helps us forgive when someone apologizes. Seeing someone feel bad for what they have done, knowing that they realize how you felt, sincerely asking to be forgiven- these things so often go right to our heart. We can be amazed sometimes at how we can forgive a person we never thought we could by the simple act of their sincerely spoken apology.
Those conversations aren’t easy, especially for the one seeking forgiveness, and sometimes people think they can’t do it, they can’t find the words, or they won’t be forgiven. It seems an insurmountable barrier – this asking for forgiveness thing.
When our daughter was young her father and I at first did not insist she apologize to her friends if she hurt their feelings. We’d seen enough forced apologies- hers and others – and they looked pretty rote – an “I’m sorry” tossed off and then back into melee. “But how will she learn to say she is sorry?” a good friend and fellow parent asked, and we began to look at things differently.
Yes, “I am sorry” are hard words to get out of our mouths, and really feeling the pain we cause another makes us feel lousy. Taking responsibility for what we have done – when it has hurt others – is a huge step. It is hard to do at any age. I am glad we were encouraged to start young with our daughter, because though apologies will always be hard and awkward, we do learn from doing it that it can amends can be made. We learn both from forgiving and being forgiven that our perceptions of the other can be mistaken. Apologies help change perception, they deepen empathy in people and offer us opportunities to be aware of our shortcoming and aware of our capacity to let go of hurt and anger. Learning to ask for and accept apologies preserves friendships, and makes them more authentic. Churches, by the way, are equally good places to practice forgiveness, as good as any child’s playground.
There is a growing realization that to forgive another for what he or she has done to us frees us. Forgiving isn’t condoning or forgetting or minimizing or making nice. And it is not easy, especially when it is a one-sided venture, when the one who hurt us is dead or uninterested in seeking forgiveness. Forgiving doesn’t mean the hurt we feel goes away, it may never go away – but it does mean that the pain no longer masters us and it no longer defines us.
There can come a time when we just feel done with the anger that we feel toward another. We recognize that we’ve been hurt badly- but we just aren’t interested in chasing those same thoughts of hurt and anger. We see the price we are paying for the resentment and anger we are holding and we let it go. And then forgiveness comes, then we walk forward in freedom. We do it for our own good. The other may benefit from our forgiveness, or they may not, but we are free.
Bud Welch’s daughter Julie was one of the 168 people killed in the bombing of the Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. In the months after her death Bud changed from supporting the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to taking a public stand against it. Initially he said that he would have killed McVeigh himself if given the chance. Months later he said he realized that the reason that Julie and 167 others were dead was because of vengeance and rage. “When we take him out of his cage to kill him, it’s going to be the same thing. Number 169 is not going to help the family members of the first 168.”, he said.
One thing that enabled Bud Welch to let go of his desire to see McVeigh die was meeting Bill McVeigh, father of Timothy. Bud’s words about that meeting are recorded as a part of The Forgiveness Project – an international effort that collects stories of forgiveness to inspire us to do the same.
In December 1998, after Tim McVeigh had been sentenced to death, I had a chance to meet Bill McVeigh at his home near Buffalo. I wanted to show him that I did not blame him. His youngest daughter also wanted to meet me, and after Bill had showed me his garden, the three of us sat around the kitchen table. Up on the wall were family snapshots, including Tim’s graduation picture. They noticed that I kept looking up at it, so I felt compelled to say something. “God, what a good looking kid,” I said. Earlier, when we’d been in the garden, Bill had asked me, “Bud, are you able to cry?” I’d told him, “I don’t usually have a problem crying.” His reply was, “I can’t cry, even though I’ve got a lot to cry about.” But now, sitting at the kitchen table looking at Tim’s photo, a big tear rolled down his face. It was the love of a father for a son. When I got ready to leave I shook Bill’s hand, then extended it to Jennifer, but she just grabbed me and threw her arms around me. She was the same sort of age as Julie but felt so much taller. I don’t know which one of us started crying first. Then I held her face in my hands and said, “Look, honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. I don’t want your brother to die and I’ll do everything I can to prevent it.” As I walked away from the house I realized that until that moment I had walked alone, but now a tremendous weight had lifted from my shoulders. I had found someone who was a bigger victim of the Oklahoma bombing than I was, because while I can speak in front of thousands of people and say wonderful things about Julie, if Bill McVeigh meets a stranger he probably doesn’t even say he had a son. About a year before the execution I found it in my heart to forgive Tim McVeigh. It was a release for me rather than for him.
The journey to forgive that Bud Welch traveled is a long one – from wanting to murder his daughter’s murderer to being able to forgive him. As a father he grappled with the why of his daughter’s death, with all the big questions about human nature and culpability and justice and mercy, looking honestly and unflinchingly at all that happened. A desire to stop the violence enabled him to speak out against McVeigh’s execution. Compassion for McVeigh’s father and sister enabled him to forgive his son. How we will be asked to forgive in our lives ahead we can’t know, though it is unlikely that so much will be asked of us as of Bud Welch. But we will be asked to forgive, no doubt – forgive those who have hurt us in the past and those who will hurt us in the future. And we will need to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt. We will need to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we have made in life, some costly indeed. A thousand ways to forgive lie ahead of us – some harder to do than others but each instance important and healing for those involved and for the larger community. Paul Reiser, a former theology professor of mine, once shared a useful image. Imagine a mound of sand and adding to it grains of sand one at a time. The sand peaks higher and higher, till suddenly when the weight of one more grain is added, the whole mound shifts to a new formation. Every small act of forgiveness, every attempt to forgive or to ask for forgiveness, every effort to understand and to bear compassion, is a grain of sand. Someday soon all those grains of sand will cause a shift in the landscape of your life and in our world as well. And it won’t matter if it was yours that was the final grain, the final act of forgiveness and compassion that brought about the change. because each grain matters on the way to a deeper understanding and a shift toward peace. Add yours and trust that others will as well.
Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of Forgiveness. Michael McCullough. Jossey-Bass, 2008.
More information on The Forgiveness Project can be found at theforgivenessproject.com