Message 82, “An Overlooked New Year’s Resolution: The Power of Forgiveness”, 1-15-12

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC.  All Rights Reserved.

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On November 4, 1977, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and his brother Eddie came across two young lovers, David LeBlanc and Loretta Ann Bourque, who were in a parked car on an isolated road.  After pretending to be police officers and accusing the young lovers of trespassing, the Sonnier brothers abducted David and Loretta and drove them to an abandoned oil field.  David was handcuffed to a tree while one or both of the brothers took turns raping Loretta.  While pleading for their lives, the young couple were led to a ditch, forced to lie face down, and then shot in their heads.

Patrick and his brother were convicted of murder and sentenced to die in Louisiana’s electric chair.  Eddie’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison.  Patrick Sonnier, however, was executed by Louisiana in April of 1984.  His spiritual advisor was Sister Helen Prejean who became a vehement anti-death penalty advocate and who wrote the famous book, Dead Man Walking.

In the hours before his execution, Patrick Sonnier remained defiant and belligerent. He had heard that Loretta’s father expressed the desire to pull the execution switch himself.  Sister Helen implored Sonnier not to allow his last words in the execution chamber be ones of anger and bitterness.  She told him that only by accepting his crimes and seeking reconciliation with his victims could he redeem his life and ultimately rise above his notorious actions.

Just minutes before he was executed, strapped into the electric chair nicknamed “Gruesome Gertie”, Patrick Sonnier turned to the fathers of the two victims and said, “I can understand the way you feel. I have no hatred in my heart. As I leave this world, I ask God to forgive me for what I did. I also ask your forgiveness for what I did.”

Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of David, nodded his agreement to Patrick Sonnier and several years later joined with Sister Helen Prejean in forming the advocacy group, “Parents of Murdered Children Against the Death Penalty”.  This group works to abolish the death penalty primarily on the grounds that killing criminals does not bring closure to victim’s families.  Instead, it brutalizes and reduces them by stoking feelings of hatred and revenge.  Additionally, the death penalty diminishes our justice system by perpetrating additional violence.  Indeed, as Lloyd LeBlanc and Sister Prejean have noted, executing another human being for murder is itself a form of murder.  Neither victims nor society find the peace they seek.

While I have no desire to engage in a discussion of the death penalty today, my purpose in sharing this story is to illustrate the spiritual implications of forgiveness.  Such a story shakes me to the core when I read of parents and families who find the ability to forgive brutal murderers of their precious children.  I cannot imagine the strength of character such an action must take.

Indeed, I often struggle with forgiving much smaller slights against me.  Inside, I can quietly rage at the pain I have suffered and I will too often desire to return the hurt.  I reduce myself, my values and my ethics simply by thinking angry thoughts.  Even more, I hold onto these feelings and nourish them by reliving the hurtful experience.  I plant a garden of weeds and thorns in my soul.  The only person harmed, in reality, is me.  I wallow in the depths of this dark garden as I am prevented from being the person of love and charity that I wish to be.

As we engage this month in a look at overlooked New Year’s resolutions, I believe that cultivating a forgiving attitude is essential for creating a more peaceful world.  It is not only a resolution we ought to consider, I believe it is one we should adopt.

We are exposed throughout our lives to a continuous series of insults, slights, and hurts inflicted upon us by others.  Whether by intention or simple indifference to doing the right thing, we get hurt a lot.  The most damaging insults we suffer often come from those who love us the most – our parents, children and partners.  But we are also routinely treated poorly by store clerks, co-workers, other drivers and total strangers.  We might rage for a minute or so at small insults but then we often move on.  Even so, for a moment or two of anger, we are not our true selves.  We are petty, fuming, immature actors who forget all of the spiritual truths we know – to turn the other cheek, find empathy for the perpetrator, and maintain peace in our hearts and minds.

For the sake of our families, our work places, our communities and, indeed, our very souls, finding ways to practice genuine forgiveness are essential, I believe, to our work in helping build a better world.  Forgiving daily petty hurts is important.  Of greater importance are the people we must forgive for much deeper hurts.  Those are the hurts that fester inside and grow like cancers – destroying the joy and peace we really seek.

And as quickly as I utter such words, I understand the profound reasons why forgiveness is so difficult to practice or define.  If one says, “I forgive you”, what does that mean?  Is it genuine in the sense that a victim no longer feels the sting of hurt?  Is it absolution and a wiping away of the injury – as if it never took place?  How do we forgive, for instance, the slave traders of the eighteenth century, Adolf Eichman of Nazi Germany who methodically planned the killing of millions, the many child abusers who take advantage of youthful innocence, or – more recently – Osama bin Laden for his role in murdering thousands?  Should victims simply say, “Oh, that’s OK.  No big deal.  We forgive you”?

Many people in this room have been traumatically hurt by people in their past.  Such wrongdoers may have never acknowledged their sins and may now be deceased or nowhere to be found.  How does one forgive someone who has never expressed remorse?

Indeed, there are some psychologists who argue that holding onto and venting anger toward those who have hurt us is therapeutic and necessary. Child abuse and rape victims, some experts say, benefit from feelings of rage in order to bring them to the surface and thus remove their shame and guilt.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, even recently stated that in our contemporary world of crime, genocide and terrorism – it may be dangerous to forgive too quickly.  We lose the protective indignation we need in order to prevent future crimes.  The greater good of protecting society, Rowan says – by holding onto anger and vengeance – is better than offering forgiveness that might open the way to further hurt.

But Rowan Williams is at odds with Bishop Desmond Tutu, also of the Anglican community, and many other spiritual leaders.  Desmond Tutu said that forgiveness is not about the wrongdoer.  It is ultimately an act of self-interest.  We forgive others to benefit our lives.  In this sense, for any person, practicing forgiveness is an act of self-healing.

For me, forgiving others is essential to my personal well-being.  My spirituality focuses on improving my inner self so that I am better able to improve the world.  Hatred and anger are never cleansing.  There is no joy in them.  My soul is not uplifted, I am not inspired and nothing is improved when I return insult for insult, hate for hate.  How can I help build heaven on earth if my heart is full of bitterness?  Indeed, I see this as the major stumbling block to a better world.  People too often – myself included – stay stuck in their self-righteous anger against others.  That anger feeds an equally angry response from the other and the two sides get trapped in a downward spiral of verbal or physical violence.  Everybody ends up getting hurt.

It takes amazing strength and courage to stop this cycle.  Indeed, as one anonymous observer noted, saying you are truly sorry is the best way to have the last word.  Even more, I believe the appropriate response to someone who has hurt me is to take back control of my life, forgive and then live fully and happily.  My motivation is not to show up the perpetrator but to indicate that he or she no longer has the power to hurt me.

Experts tell us that practicing forgiveness takes time and effort.  It is not a simple task.  First, one must genuinely review what needs forgiving.  Honestly examine the facts and rigorously note areas where both sides might be at fault.  One need not condone the hurtful act and it is perfectly appropriate to call it what it is – wrong.

Second, in order to forgive, one should examine how one has reacted to the hurt.  Did I lash out in some way to try and hurt the other – ignoring or treating him or her poorly?  Is that really how I want to act?  How is my anger affecting how I think?  Does it consume my thoughts and cause me to spend wasted energy, time and sleep?  Would my life be better – would I be happier – if I was not dwelling on the hurt and consumed with anger?

As I realize the negative impact my thoughts and actions have on my life, I can then resolve to forgive the person who hurt me – and thus restore my sense of peace and happiness.  This does not mean I condone the bad actions.  It does not mean I forget them.  It does not mean that I will immediately trust the other.  That will take a lot of healing.

What it does mean is that I let go of my anger at the person who hurt me.  I must consciously choose to think non-angry thoughts about the other.  This means I stop being a victim and become the one with real power.  It is me who is now acting.  It’s me who is taking control.  It is me who sees the misdeed in its human perspective – an action frozen in time that is evil, while the person is not.  This is what some call – “hate the sin but love the sinner”.

This attitude gets at the crux of forgiveness.  It does not remove the guilt of the other party.  Instead, this attitude of loving the sinner offers empathy and understanding.  It says that I am placing myself in the shoes of other and seeking to understand why he or she acted as they did.  Empathy also seeks to understand one’s own role in what took place.  This does not excuse bad behavior but instead sees it in its full light and is the path to forgiveness.

As some of you know, I have had a few life-long issues with my father.  I am not saying anything here that I have not said to my dad.  He has said things to me that deeply hurt.  Many years ago, he said something particularly mean spirited to me and I then vowed that unless he apologized, I would cut myself off from him.  Even worse, I refused to allow my daughters to spend time with him.  About a month went by when I realized how awful I was acting.  I wrote him a letter apologizing for my behavior, asked his forgiveness and promised to visit and bring my girls.  A day later he appeared at my door and I welcomed him in.  We exchanged some small talk and did so in a way that showed we were beyond our anger.  As my dad turned to leave, he reached out, put his hand on my shoulder and said he was sorry.  And, for the first and only time in my life, he told me he loved me.

What I came to realize then, and still must remember today, is that my dad is himself a wounded man.  His father was very hard on him.  And my dad is a product of his generation – he was raised to be macho, gruff and suspicious of sensitive and quiet men – like me.  He loves me but I am not the macho son he wanted.  While such facts do not excuse some of the things he has said to me, forgiving my dad involves finding empathy for him.  Such empathy allows me to understand the human conditions that caused his harmful words.  It allows me to see that my dad is a human being, a child of the divine, subject to flaws and failures like I am too.  Most importantly, continuing to forgive my dad gives me much greater peace.

Empathy caused Sister Prejean to reach out to Patrick Sonnier.  It caused Lloyd LeBlanc to forgive the killer of his son.  We have all done things for which we are not proud – not murder or other brutal sins – but nevertheless actions which we do not want used as the ultimate definition of our lives.

It was in this fashion that Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery as he challenged her accusers to cast a stone against her only if they too had no sin in their lives.  It was Jesus who asked his followers to forgive others in the same way as they daily prayed for forgiveness.  How could they ask something be given to them that they were not willing to grant others?  That intended lesson is for us to also ponder.  We ought to forgive as we too ask to be forgiven.

And, we cannot soothe ourselves by claiming that our small misdeeds are worthy of forgiveness while more serious ones of others are not.  Jesus taught that a hateful act is a hateful act. I may not murder with my hand but I can murder with my angry thoughts and my words.  A person might not literally commit adultery but he or she might in their hearts and minds – as Jimmy Carter once famously admitted.  There is no difference according to Jesus.  A wrongdoing is a wrongdoing.

The importance here is on empathy, understanding and acceptance of one’s own role in any misdeed.  Letting go of the anger toward a perpetrator does not excuse the wrongdoing.  Instead, it creates peace.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that, “The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”  And an unknown commentator added that, “To forgive is to set the prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner was you.”  I do not claim that with my simple words today forgiveness will be easy.  Nor do I begin to comprehend the mountain of pain that may have been inflicted on you or others.  But I do know of our common aspirations to live contented lives.  I do know that we are a people who yearn to be kind, generous, loving and gentle.  Let us focus our energies and our time in crafting a peaceful and happy existence – in ourselves, our homes, schools and workplaces.  To do so, I encourage us one and all – make a New Year’s resolution to practice forgiveness to those who hurt you – choose to banish anger toward them. You will find, I promise, understanding and love.

I wish you all much peace and even more joy.