Grace to be Forgivers

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To pardon the other is the greatest challenge of the Christian life. It is so, because everything that Christianity is based on is rooted in this idea. It is the reason for the Incarnation and for the cross. It is the the wisdom of God in stark contrast to the ‘wisdom’ of the world. It is the very force of God’s love, and, if we really understand it and practice it, it is the only force in all of creation that can bind up our present wounds and bring healing to the future. More, it is the force that strengthens our ability to love one another as God loved us.

We Christians know this is true. We agree with it. We preach it. But the other truth is that we find it to be the most difficult thing in the world to practice. We are often overwhelmed by the hurt and pain that others bring to us through their decisions and actions. We look at a world where inconceivable horrors against humanity are committed with seeming impunity every day. Our first inclination is to ‘return the favor’ in like kind, or worse. Now, this is not to deny that some evils must be confronted and stopped in order to prevent them from causing further, unjust suffering. We do have a right, even a duty, to defend ourselves and the innocent from mindless evil. But when it is finished, and here is the real challenge of our Christian faith, we are to forgive those who have sinned against innocence. Why? Because, it is the only force that has the power to potentially bring conversion and healing and the possibility of hope for the future.

That is all relatively easy to write and say. The actual practice of it takes a courage and a faith that can only come from believing in Jesus Christ. Let me offer an example of this from a real person and a real story that I read about in Northwest Catholic Magazine.

Immaculée Ilibagiza survived on of the most horrifying genocides in history. That genocide took place over a period of 100 days in Rwanda in 1994. During that time the Hutu majority of Rwanda (85%) attacked and killed up to 70% of the Tutsi minority (14%). The terrible irony here is that both Hutus and Tutsis are Catholic. (I refer you here to my opening paragraphs and the sad truth that there is often a gaping chasm between what we say we believe and our practices in reality.)

To pardon the other is the greatest challenge of the Christian life. It is so, because everything that Christianity is based on is rooted in this idea. It is the reason for the Incarnation and for the cross. It is the the wisdom of God in stark contrast to the ‘wisdom’ of the world. It is the very force of God’s love, and, if we really understand it and practice it, it is the only force in all of creation that can bind up our present wounds and bring healing to the future. More, it is the force that strengthens our ability to love one another as God loved us.

We Christians know this is true. We agree with it. We preach it. But the other truth is that we find it to be the most difficult thing in the world to practice. We are often overwhelmed by the hurt and pain that others bring to us through their decisions and actions. We look at a world where inconceivable horrors against humanity are committed with seeming impunity every day. Our first inclination is to ‘return the favor’ in like kind, or worse. Now, this is not to deny that some evils must be confronted and stopped in order to prevent them from causing further, unjust suffering. We do have a right, even a duty, to defend ourselves and the innocent from mindless evil. But when it is finished, and here is the real challenge of our Christian faith, we are to forgive those who have sinned against innocence. Why? Because, it is the only force that has the power to potentially bring conversion and healing and the possibility of hope for the future.

That is all relatively easy to write and say. The actual practice of it takes a courage and a faith that can only come from believing in Jesus Christ. Let me offer an example of this from a real person and a real story that I read about in Northwest Catholic Magazine.

Immaculée Ilibagiza survived on of the most horrifying genocides in history. That genocide took place over a period of 100 days in Rwanda in 1994. During that time the Hutu majority of Rwanda (85%) attacked and killed up to 70% of the Tutsi minority (14%). The terrible irony here is that both Hutus and Tutsis are Catholic. (I refer you here to my opening paragraphs and the sad truth that there is often a gaping chasm between what we say we believe and our practices in reality.)

On April 7, 1994 the killings began. On April 9, 1994 hundreds of Tutsis, who had sought refuge at the Pallottine Missionary Catholic Church in Gikondo, Rwanda were massacred in the church by Hutus. This was the first sign that a genocide was taking place. On April 15-16 another massacre took place at the Nyarubuye Roman Catholic Church. Thousands of Tutsis, men, women and children, were killed, first by grenades and guns, then by machetes and clubs. On the 18th of April an estimated 12,000 Tutsis were killed at the Gatwaro stadium in Gitesi, where they had taken refuge, and another 50,000 were killed in the hills of Bisesero. More were killed in the town’s hospital and church. In 100 days, it is estimated that some 800,000 Tutsis had been killed in the killing spree. During that time Immaculée Ilibagiza lost her parents and her brothers, Damascene and Vianney. Unimaginable!

During all of this Immaculée Ilibagiza hid in a 3 by 4 foot bathroom with seven other women for 91 of those 100 days. That bathroom, ironically, was in a Protestant minister’s house, who was himself a Hutu. Thousand of Hutus were also killed during these 100 days because they opposed the killing and the Hutu forces that were conducting it. While she hid in that bathroom with those seven women, Immaculée went from 115 to 65 pounds. She began to wonder, ʺWhere is God? How can this happen if God is a God of love? It doesn’t match. How can he allow this to happen to innocent people?ʺ These questions are familiar to us. Indeed, they are often the questions unbelievers confront us with when terrible things happen. But she continued to pray. Immaculée’s father had given her a rosary before these events took place. During those 91 days she prayed with it fervently, over and over again.

On one of those days Hutu killers were in that house. They even came up to the bathroom door and touched it, then, for some unexplainable reason, they turned and left. When the women were told what had happened she thought, ʺOh my gosh, God is real!ʺ Then she started asking the deeper more intimate questions: ʺWho are you, God? Why is this happening? Why hatred? Why killings?ʺ The Protestant minister had given a Bible to the women. They read it together and separately and Imaculée became aware, more than ever before, that God had given us all rules by which to live well, rules like: Love one another, care for the sick and the elderly and those who cannot help themselves. She began to wonder what had gone wrong in Rwanda and came to the conclusion that is before all of us, all of the time; people (we) had failed to follow the rules. That rosary and all of those prayers helped her survive those terrible days, but there is more.

In the rosary you say the Lord’s Prayer six times. She struggled with the petition in that prayer that says, ʺForgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,ʺ for a long time. Wouldn’t you? Indeed, do we not struggle with that petition even in the little hurts that we have received unjustly from others? She says that coming to terms with that idea was a process. She had to work through her legitimate anger, but she came to a conclusion that had to have been the product of grace and her constant prayer. She finally realized that hatred is foolish. And here is the most articulate explanation of forgiveness I have ever seen. She says, ʺForgiving doesn’t mean that you condone the wrong. It doesn’t mean that you become weak and others become stronger. It’s luggage that you put down that you were carrying on your shoulders. It is putting down the grudges and the bitterness.ʺ There it is. Why carry bitterness and grudges? They weigh you down, not the person who injured you. Forgiveness is the force that liberates you from the foolishness of hatred in return for hatred. Immaculée took the scriptures and her prayers into her heart. She came to the only conclusion a Christian can claim ultimately. In her experience she came to see the truth of forgiveness:

ʺDo not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.ʺ

If Immaculée Ilibagiza can come to this conclusion after such an experience, out of her profound Christian faith, so can we. It is a struggle. It is a process. But with faith in Jesus Christ, we too can come to forgive those who have injured us, just as Jesus forgave every one of our transgressions, and in this we will experience the fullest grace of our faith both here and now, and in the promise of the heavenly kingdom.

Lord, give us the grace to be forgivers that we may bring the healing force of forgiveness into our lives for our good and the good of all others. Amen.

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On April 7, 1994 the killings began. On April 9, 1994 hundreds of Tutsis, who had sought refuge at the Pallottine Missionary Catholic Church in Gikondo, Rwanda were massacred in the church by Hutus. This was the first sign that a genocide was taking place. On April 15-16 another massacre took place at the Nyarubuye Roman Catholic Church. Thousands of Tutsis, men, women and children, were killed, first by grenades and guns, then by machetes and clubs. On the 18th of April an estimated 12,000 Tutsis were killed at the Gatwaro stadium in Gitesi, where they had taken refuge, and another 50,000 were killed in the hills of Bisesero. More were killed in the town’s hospital and church. In 100 days, it is estimated that some 800,000 Tutsis had been killed in the killing spree. During that time Immaculée Ilibagiza lost her parents and her brothers, Damascene and Vianney. Unimaginable!

During all of this Immaculée Ilibagiza hid in a 3 by 4 foot bathroom with seven other women for 91 of those 100 days. That bathroom, ironically, was in a Protestant minister’s house, who was himself a Hutu. Thousand of Hutus were also killed during these 100 days because they opposed the killing and the Hutu forces that were conducting it. While she hid in that bathroom with those seven women, Immaculée went from 115 to 65 pounds. She began to wonder, ʺWhere is God? How can this happen if God is a God of love? It doesn’t match. How can he allow this to happen to innocent people?ʺ These questions are familiar to us. Indeed, they are often the questions unbelievers confront us with when terrible things happen. But she continued to pray. Immaculée’s father had given her a rosary before these events took place. During those 91 days she prayed with it fervently, over and over again.

On one of those days Hutu killers were in that house. They even came up to the bathroom door and touched it, then, for some unexplainable reason, they turned and left. When the women were told what had happened she thought, ʺOh my gosh, God is real!ʺ Then she started asking the deeper more intimate questions: ʺWho are you, God? Why is this happening? Why hatred? Why killings?ʺ The Protestant minister had given a Bible to the women. They read it together and separately and Imaculée became aware, more than ever before, that God had given us all rules by which to live well, rules like: Love one another, care for the sick and the elderly and those who cannot help themselves. She began to wonder what had gone wrong in Rwanda and came to the conclusion that is before all of us, all of the time; people (we) had failed to follow the rules. That rosary and all of those prayers helped her survive those terrible days, but there is more.

In the rosary you say the Lord’s Prayer six times. She struggled with the petition in that prayer that says, ʺForgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,ʺ for a long time. Wouldn’t you? Indeed, do we not struggle with that petition even in the little hurts that we have received unjustly from others? She says that coming to terms with that idea was a process. She had to work through her legitimate anger, but she came to a conclusion that had to have been the product of grace and her constant prayer. She finally realized that hatred is foolish. And here is the most articulate explanation of forgiveness I have ever seen. She says, ʺForgiving doesn’t mean that you condone the wrong. It doesn’t mean that you become weak and others become stronger. It’s luggage that you put down that you were carrying on your shoulders. It is putting down the grudges and the bitterness.ʺ There it is. Why carry bitterness and grudges? They weigh you down, not the person who injured you. Forgiveness is the force that liberates you from the foolishness of hatred in return for hatred. Immaculée took the scriptures and her prayers into her heart. She came to the only conclusion a Christian can claim ultimately. In her experience she came to see the truth of forgiveness:

ʺDo not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.ʺ

If Immaculée Ilibagiza can come to this conclusion after such an experience, out of her profound Christian faith, so can we. It is a struggle. It is a process. But with faith in Jesus Christ, we too can come to forgive those who have injured us, just as Jesus forgave every one of our transgressions, and in this we will experience the fullest grace of our faith both here and now, and in the promise of the heavenly kingdom.

Lord, give us the grace to be forgivers that we may bring the healing force of forgiveness into our lives for our good and the good of all others. Amen.

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.