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A better way that 'justice'

In the thoughtful script for the Sydney Pollack political thriller The Interpreter (2005), UN interpreter Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), born in the fictional Central African country of Matobo, faces Secret service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) with a better way - an African way - of grieving over loss than wanting revenge:

Everyone who loses somebody wants revenge on someone - on God if they can't find anyone else.

But in Africa, in Matobo the Ku believe the only way to end grief is to save a life.

If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial.  There's an all-night party beside a river.  At dawn, the killer is put in a boat, he's taken out on the water and he's dropped.  He's bound so that he can't swim.

The family of the dead then has to make a choice.  They can let him drown, or they can swim out and save him.

The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they'll have justice, but spend the rest of their lives in mourning.  But if they save him - if they admit that life isn't always just - that very act can take away their sorrow.

Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.

The Interpreter (2005 - Working Title)
Charles Randolf, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian


A forgiving town : Warrington

Michael Henderson, who has just published Forgiveness : Breaking the Chain of Hate in the UK, recently added a postscript to his report on the Warrington reconciliation project:

In the Northern English town of Warrington in 1993 a bomb set by the Provisional IRA killed two small boys and wounded 56 other people.  The town responded with initiatives for reconciliation, including exchanges and festivals, peace walks and the building of a centre for peace named after the two children who died.  Indeed, the recent Archbishop of Dublin, Donald Caird, says that Warrington has become a byword for gracious response in the face of evil.

In December 2001 the former IRA boss Martin McGuiness, now Northern Ireland Education Minister, met-the parents of the murdered boys.  He had been invited to Warrington by The Bridge, a local organisation set up to forge links with the people of Ireland.   Wendy Parry, whose 12-year-old son Tim was killed, said, "At first I felt like I was betraying Tim by talking to a member of the group that killed him.  But meeting McGuiness and speaking to him has helped me realise that we must put things behind us and carry on working for peace and reconciliation."

McGuiness said he was conscious of the hurt inflicted, and told the parents that the killing of the children was wrong and shouldn’t have happened.  "I am indeed sorry that an Irish republican was responsible," he says.  "But we now have a need to face the wrongs of the past."

Not everyone in the city welcomed the presence of McGuiness. Indeed, a poll taken at the time showed that most opposed his visit.  Which underscores the courage of the parents and those working with The Bridge to move ahead anyway and the fact that forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation arc not isolated acts but a long-haul journey.  

(Scottish Catholic Observer, 15 March 2002)


A gift he does not deserve

John Arnott illustrated 'what grace can do,' in a talk he gave in Toronto in May 1998:

We talked to a man on this platform at one of our Catch the Fire conferences.  He told the story about how his son was shot dead by a drug dealer.  It was a case of mistaken identity. Fortunately, the police caught the guy, and it went to trial, and justice was served.

But it hooked the father big time, and he’s angry, and unforgiving, all choked up with the bitterness of it.  Finally he said, ‘God you’ve gotta help me.   What am I to do?’  And God said to him, ‘Well there’s only one thing you have to do.  Give the guy a gift he does not deserve. That’s to forgive him.’

The man worked through it and worked through, and finally the day came when he said, ‘You know, I need to write that young man in jail, and tell him I’m a Christian, and the dad of the person he shot, and I forgive you – you owe me nothing.’   The guy wrote back and said ‘Thank you for forgiving me,’ and a few letters went back and forth, and finally he got a letter one day saying, ‘I, too, have accepted Jesus as my saviour.’  See, we’re starting to see redemption kick in.

And the father said, ‘You know, I felt I needed to go and see him face to face, and I asked him, Will you see me, and he said, Yes. And I went to the prison, and talked to the guy face to face, the tears running down his face, and I said, I forgive you for the murder of my own son. You owe me nothing. I lay it all down, I put it on Jesus’ account.’

And the two of them just wept together, and rejoiced in the stuff called the grace of God. That’s what grace can do – it takes the worst of tragedies and turns them around into blessings. It’s redemptive. God causes good to come out of bad.


A guy in a hole (The West Wing)

Aaron Sorkin's multi-award winning TV series The West Wing explores moral and spiritual issues alongside and inside political and personal ones, often bringing great insight to issues of wrongdoing and forgiveness.  In the episode "Noel" (series 2.8) Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) has been shot and wounded when the presidential party was attacked by two gunmen.  Some weeks after the shooting, he is behaving wildly and dangerously:

The President orders him to be interviewed by a traumatologist. Josh does allow his vulnerability to surface, but then fears losing his job. After the lengthy interview he finds his boss, Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), waiting patiently for him outside. Josh hesitantly admits his extreme behaviour, and Leo tells him a story:

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole.  The walls are so steep he can’t get out. 

“A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey, can you help me out?’   The doctor writes out a prescription, throws it in the hole, and moves on.

“Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole.  Can you help me out?’  The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down the hole and moves on.

“Then a friend walks by.  ‘Hey Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out?’  And the friend jumps in the hole.  “Our friend says, ‘Are you stupid!?  Now we’re both in the hole!’

“The friend replies, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’”

Leo looks at Josh.  “Long as I got a job, you got a job.  You understand?”


A little bit brave (The West Wing)

In the episode Take out the trash day (Series 1.13), Leo McGarry (John Spencer), the White House Chief of Staff, is facing a trial by media and a possible Senate hearing when opposition senator Lilianfield gets hold of papers detailing Leo’s time in rehab six years ago, for alcoholism and drug dependency.

Another senior staff member, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), finds that Karen Larsen, a junior staff member working in Personnel, leaked the documents to Lilianfield and his colleague Claypool. The latter is a trusted family friend of hers.   Sam summarily sacks her when she acknowledges that she did pass on the papers.  Later in the day, Leo asks her to come to his office.  She enters, reluctantly, clutching her box of office belongings. sheepish and resentful.  Leo is very polite, careful and gentle:

LEO:  I wanted to meet you, and I wanted you to meet me … When you read in my file that I’ve been treated from drug and alcohol abuse, what went through your mind?
KAREN:  My father drank a lot.
LEO:  So did mine.  In fact he died from it.
KAREN:  Is that why you drank and took drugs.
LEO:  I drank and took drugs because I’m a drug addict and an alcoholic.
KAREN:  I don’t understand.
LEO:  I know.  Hardly anyone does.
KAREN: You’re not like what I thought you’d be like.
LEO:  You haven’t answered my question yet.  When you saw my personnel file, when you saw I’d been through treatment, what went through your mind?
KAREN:  My father used to … You have all these important decisions to make … about people’s lives
LEO:  Karen, what you did caused a lot of problems, for me, for the President, for a lot of people we don’t even know.  But I’m not sure it wasn’t a little bit brave.  Did you like working at the White House?
KAREN: Yes, sir.
LEO: OK. Well, why don’t you go, unpack your carton, and you and I will give each other a second chance. OK?
KAREN: (astonished) OK.


A mother forgives her son's killers

In August 2005, the brutal racial killing of black teenager Anthony Walker, who was attacked with an axe in Huyton, Merseyside, horrified Britain.  Anthony was killed after he was subjected to racial taunts while waiting for a bus with his 17-year-old girlfriend and a cousin, Marcus Binns, also 17.

In the initial responses, Anthony's sister said she forgave his attackers.  Dominique Walker said "we have to forgive" the gang who used an axe to kill her 18-year-old brother.   "Seventy times seven we have to forgive, that's what Jesus said. So we have to, we have to forgive."

A few days later after the two involved in the killing gave themselves up.  In December 2005, after their trial and conviction, Anthony's mother, Gee Walker, confirmed her family's readiness to forgive, saying:

"Why live a life sentence? Hate killed my son, so why should I be a victim too?   Unforgiveness makes you a victim and why should I be a victim?  Anthony spent his life forgiving.  His life stood for peace, love and forgiveness and I brought them up that way.  I have to forgive them... we don't just preach it, we practise it.  I don't feel any bitterness towards them really, truly, all I feel is... I feel sad for the family."

She even said she could ‘admire’ Paul Taylor, who butchered Anthony, because he expresses remorse.  Sunday Times columnist Jasper Gerard felt compelled to write, "Walker’s goodness forces even us agnostics to bow before her religious faith.  Could the godless be so forgiving?" 

(Main reports, BBC News)


A ‘place’ for forgiveness to aim for

Here's another of my own stories:

One of the people who helped me see the power of forgiveness was a guy called Ian.   I met him when I headed up a congregation which met in a historic building.   The roof had to be re-laid, and Ian was a slater working on it.  The job went a little wrong, and I met him first up there on the roof, in cold rain and wind.   Happily, our conversation moved away from mistakes with the roofing job, and I learned a little of his life.

His first marriage had ended, and he had been vilified by his local, fairly fundamentalist congregation for the break-up, his mistakes, and his loving but careless lifestyle.  He found it hard to expect much good from any church.  I knew that the congregation I headed had a big desire to grow in forgiveness, and filled Ian in on some of where I was at.   I emphasised that forgiveness is a core value in Christianity, and how open and loving I believed the congregation would be with him.  He started attending, shyly at first, then with his new partner.  Gradually both of them grew in confidence and in faith, married, and shared in leading prayer ministries.

Ian didn’t try to change overnight, or to abandon his complicated past.  When we were at a big conference overseas, he nipped out to the local casino for a night, for example!   Many of us wondered at his enthusiasms, but we never demanded that he give them up.  He was in a process of transformation, and what mattered most was providing a framework in which he could work things out gradually.

He helped me see that forgiveness involves many levels, including personal letting-go of hurts and condemnations, words of permission and release, listening to someone’s story, warts and all, working together for a common cause, and so on.  These are all partial aspects of forgiveness.  But full forgiveness needs to reach a goal, a goal that is practical and structural – in this case it was about full incorporation into a loving community.  Congregations have the power to provide this, as a framework for growth, not a condition for entry.  So I framed a mission statement for us which everyone felt they could own - it read: "to be a people of freedom and forgiveness / a place for all to meet God."

Mature forgiveness needs its ‘place,’ its practical focus. Outwith congregations, it needs to be aiming for restored relationships – in a family or work-place.  And, since this is not always possible – people may be too broken and hurt, or too lacking in confidence and vision – if not restored relationships then helping people to establish new ones, maybe with new partners and friends, or a new job.


A poet's release

NFDA grief educator Victor Parachin retells the popular story of poet Edwin Markham's journey into forgiving:

As poet Edwin Markham approached his retirement years, he discovered that the man to whom he had entrusted his financial portfolio had squandered all the money.   Markham's dream of a comfortable retirement vanished. He began to brood over the injustice and the loss.  His anger deepened.

Over time, Markham's bitterness grew by leaps and bounds.  One day while sitting at his table, Markham found himself drawing circles as he tried to soothe the turmoil he felt within.  Finally, he concluded: "I must forgive him, and I will forgive him."  Looking again at the circles he had drawn on the paper before him, Markham wrote these lines:

He drew a circle to shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout; 
But love and I had the wit to win, 
We drew a circle to take him in. 

Although Markham wrote hundreds of poems contained in many book volumes, the words he wrote while forgiving are his most popular and memorable.  As he forgave, a tremendous act of creativity was released.

(Ten guidelines to help you forgive)


After false accusation

One of the most public examples of forgiveness in recent years occurred in the aftermath of a false accusation of sexual abuse levelled by Steven Cook against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.  After four months of world-wide, ugly publicity and a lawsuit, Cook withdrew the accusation.  On the threshold of death from pancreatic cancer, Cardinal Bernardin gave an account of the meeting in which the two were reconciled.  Cook had wanted the cardinal to tell the story for both of them.  These are Cardinal Bernardin's words:

"I felt deeply that this entire episode would not be complete until I followed my shepherd’s calling to seek him out.  I only prayed that he would receive me.  The experience of the false accusation would not be complete until I met and reconciled with Steven.  Even though I had never heard from him, I sensed he also wanted to see me ...

"I explained to him that the only reason for requesting the meeting was to bring closure to the traumatic events of last winter by personally letting him know that I harboured no ill feelings toward him ... The words I am using to tell you this story cannot begin to describe the power of God’s grace at work that afternoon.   It was a manifestation of God’s love, forgiveness, and healing that I will never forget."

(Archdiocese of Detroit PA)


An elder brother returns home

The eminent spiritual writer Henri Nouwen told, in The Return of the Prodigal Son, how he found himself suddenly and abruptly placed in the position of the elder brother in Jesus' famous parable, wondering if he might ever know the kind of joy and love lavished on the younger son:

While hitchhiking recently, I was hit by a car and soon found myself in hospital close to death.  There I suddenly had the illuminating insight that I would not be free to die as long as I was still holding on to the complaint of not having been loved enough - by the one whose son I am.  I felt strongly the call to lay to rest my adolescent complaints and to give up the lie that I am less loved than my younger brothers.  It was frightening, but very liberating.

When my dad, far advanced in years, flew over from Holland to visit me, I knew this was the moment to claim my God-given sonship.  For the first time in my life, I told my father explicitly that I loved him and was grateful for his love for me.  I said many things that I had never said before, and was surprised at how long it had taken me to say them.  My father was somewhat surprised and even puzzled by it all, but received my words with understanding and a smile.

As I look back on this spiritual event, I see it as a true return, the return from a false dependence on a human father who cannot give me all I need to a true dependence on the divine Father who says, "You are with me always, and all I have is yours."    The return to the "Father from whom all fatherhood takes its name" allows me to let my dad be no less than the good,loving but limited human being he is, and to let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger, and the need to please or find approval.  (pp 82-83)


'As foolish as you'

Friends was the definitive comedy sitcom of the 1990s. 

In the riotous final episode of series #5 , The One in Vegas Part 2 (written by Gregg Malins and Scott Silveri), Ross has drawn a moustache and small beard on Rachel in indelible ink.  She has moved through anger to self-conscious shame, and cannot bear to be seen in public in the Las Vegas hotel and casino where they are all staying.

Ross is paralysed by guilt, and feels he has to remain in the hotel room with her while the other friends enjoy their own adventures.  Eventually, after various attempts to entertain themselves, Ross and Rachel reach a level of closeness where he can 'atone for his sin', and she can forgive and love him:

ROSS:  I want to get out of the room.  I really miss downstairs.

RACHEL: Ok.  You know what.  There is only one way I am leaving this hotel room.

They then appear downstairs in the lobby, arm in arm, Rachel still with the black facial hair, and Ross now adorned with a black mouse nose and whiskers inked onto his face and the name "ROSS" inked on his forehead.  United by Ross' willingness to become as foolish as Rachel, they happily joke to the other patrons, and move on to an evening of freedom and joy.


Bishop asks forgiveness for supporting Iraq war

Dr Tom Frame, a former naval officer, is the Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force.  In an article was originally published in The Age on June 18, 2004, he apologised for supporting the war and raised awareness the responsibility we all have to seek God's forgiveness:

As the only Anglican bishop to have publicly endorsed the Australian government's case for war, I now concede that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. It did not pose a threat to either its nearer neighbours or the United States and its allies. It did not host or give material support to al-Qa'ida or other terrorist groups.

But did the Australian government and the Australian Defence Force really believe that Iraq possessed WMD and would employ them in support of its national interests? Definitely. Were intelligence assessments of Iraq's WMD arsenal and its ability to mount military operations exaggerated and inaccurate? Certainly. But in the absence of any clear mitigation, there is no alternative to concluding that the March 2003 invasion was neither just nor necessary.

Let me be clear on two points: I am not saying the war failed to produce any positive outcomes - happily, the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein has gone - nor that it cannot be explained in constructive political terms - the shift to democracy in Baghdad is most welcome. My judgement is simply that the war cannot be reconciled with just war principles.

Is this of concern? Yes. The relationship of trust that needs to exist between the government and the people for a healthy democracy to exist may have been damaged by what must be regarded as an unnecessary pre-emptive military strike ...

On March 18 2003 - two days before the war began - I addressed students in the United Faculty of Theology at Melbourne University. In reply to the question: "Is the proposed war against Iraq just, or just another war?" I said: "We are, as yet, unable to say with complete confidence. The final determination cannot be made until we are acquainted with the information now known by the government, when we have seen the extent of the WMD that the 'coalition of the willing' alleges Iraq maintains, and when the full human cost of war has been calculated." I am now able to answer that question: it was just another war.

Looking back on the events of the past 18 months I continue to seek God's forgiveness for my complicity in creating a world in which this sort of action was ever considered by anyone to be necessary. Even so, come Lord Jesus.

The Age


Blame culture

In Philip Kaufman's 1993 movie Rising Sun, a stripped-down version of Michael Crichton's detailed and controversial novel, a scene between Web Smith (Wesley Snipes), a young black policeman in Los Angeles, and John Connor (Sean Connery), an older and world-weary ex-cop, vastly experienced in Japanese culture, exposes our recurring obsession with blaming someone (else):

SMITH: The chief says we fucked up.  He’s blaming us …
CONNOR: The Japanese have a saying, "Fix the problem, not the blame. Find out what’s fucked up and fix it."  Nobody gets blamed.  We’re always after who fucked up. Their way is better.


Bono calls for debt forgiveness

The Irish rock singer Bono of the group U2, made a big impact at the World Economic Forum in New York in February 2002.   He was advocating international debt forgiveness and the redoubling of international efforts to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.

He took part in a debate on foreign aid with, among others, US Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill.

The rock star told an audience of business leaders and politicians that they could not deny to others the living standards they demanded for themselves.  Major nations at the forum have already agreed to cancel $40bn worth of debts owed by developing countries.

Mr O'Neill has accepted Bono's invitation to accompany him on a fact-finding trip to Africa next month.  The singer also joined the computer billionnaire, Bill Gates, at a forum news conference on Aids prevention in Africa.


Building someone a roof

Last year BBC TV ran a series of documentaries called 'The Builders', which week-by-week followed a handful of different small construction businesses as they worked to fulfil their clients contracts.   Most of the builders featured were involved in a subtext of class struggle with the usually rich upper middle-class home owners who could afford to buy in their labour.   As many of us can identity with when we reflect on our own habits and behaviour, there were many hilarious asides, but little coming together, encounter or even straight talking.

Jonathan, a young builder featured in the series, was stalled halfway through building a large bungalow for a working-class couple, because they didn’t have enough money to pay for the roof until later.  Jonathan wasn't a brilliant businessman himself, and lived in a somewhat hand-to-mouth way a lot of the time - but he conveyed an endearing open attitude and compassion for other people. 

The couple had put all their savings into the new home, and lived (with two school-age children) in a tiny caravan on site.  The weather turned foul, and rain was threatening to damage the foundations.  With little fuss, Jonathan decided to pay for the roof himself, trusting that they would pay him back later.  And they did.


Business improves when people apologise

Jeff Grabmeier reports on a new study at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business by Professor Roy Lewicki, Edward Tomlinson and Brian Dineen.  Their results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Management.

Researchers found that people who are wronged in a business transaction may be more likely to say they would reconcile if the offender offers a sincere apology – particularly if the offender takes personal blame for the misdeed.

While it seems common sense that apologies would help smooth a bruised business relationship, such messages of regret are not common enough, said Roy Lewicki.   “We read in the news all the time stories about CEOs and other leaders who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and refuse to apologize for their offenses.  But our research suggests a willingness to take blame and offer amends can have a positive effect, and may be necessary to help repair a loss of trust in a business relationship.”

The study involved 45 graduate-level business students who took part in a survey. Nearly all the students had real-world business experience: the average amount of business experience was six years, and about half were working full-time while enrolled in an evening MBA program.

The subjects read a story in which they were put in the role of running a small printing company that was fulfilling an order for a client. At the last minute, the client drastically reduced the order, meaning the subjects lost revenue. After reading the basic story, the subjects were shown 48 possible scenarios involving how the situation unfolded, including different combinations of apologies vs. no apologies from the offending client, sincere vs. non-sincere statements, large losses of revenue vs. small losses, and so on.

The subjects were asked, after each scenario, to rate how likely they would be to continue the business relationship with the offending client, how willing they would be to allow the client to reconcile, and how difficult it would be to rebuild the relationship.

The results showed that the victims were much more willing to consider reconciliation when the client offered an explicit apology rather than simply an attempt to placate the victim. Moreover, apologies were most effective when the client took personal blame for the situation rather than blaming outside forces.

“Any kind of apology is better than none,” Lewicki said, “but we found victims appreciated it when the offender took full responsibility for their actions instead of shifting culpability elsewhere.”

Sincerity was the most important factor in helping repair damage to the business relationship, according to the findings. Reconciliation is more likely when victims believe an offender is sincerely sorry and is taking quick action to remedy the problem. The study doesn’t show how to determine whether an apology is sincere, but the important factor is whether the victim believes the apology is sincere, Tomlinson said.

The full report in Ohio State's Research News is at:


Compassion for under-age sex

A 29-year-old single mother who had sex on numerous occasions with a 15-year-old boy was freed immediately upon conviction at Truro Crown Court in England.

Janice Harding, was convicted in July of two counts of indecent assault.  Judge Giles Forrester gave her a three-year Community Rehabilitation Order and ordered her to sign on to the Sex Offenders' Register for five years.  He told her:  "It seems to me that the public interests are best served by such an order and you will benefit from it. 

"Go away and do not re-offend."

During the trial, the prosecution said mother-of-three Harding had a torrid affair with the boy - who cannot be named for legal reasons - which started before his 16th birthday and went on afterwards.

The judge said: "He was a willing participant in the events that happened between the two of you, but it is also right that young people may need the protection of the law."

The defence had said that the difference between a sexual relationship that many people may not like and a relationship that is criminal in nature was just two months, and that there was genuine feeling on both sides between Harding and the boy.


Deeper friendship

Anne Naylor sends this story:

Two friends were walking through the desert.  During some point of the journey, they had an argument and one friend slapped the other one in the face.  The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything, stooped down and wrote in the sand:


They kept on walking, until they found an oasis, where they decided to take a bath.   The one who had been slapped, got stuck in the mire and started drowning, but her friend saved her. After she recovered from the near drowning, she wrote on a stone:


The friend, who had slapped and saved her best friend, asked her, "After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand, and now, you write on a stone. Why?"

The other friend replied: "When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away, but when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it."


Discernment and healing

Smith Wigglesworth, the Bradford plumber who became a world-wide evangelist and healer in the first half of this century, was often asked to visit particular people who were sick.  In his biography, "Smith Wigglesworth - the secret of his power," Albert Hibbert illustrates his authority and ability to evoke positive repentance:

The pastor of a church where Wigglesworth was leading a mission asked him to accompany him to visit a member of his church, a lady who was ill. Wigglesworth agreed.  When they reached the house it was evident to Wigglesworth that the woman was a person of considerable means.

The two ministers were taken to a room where the woman was lying in bed.   Several bottles, containing a large variety of pills, were on the nightstand near her.  The pastor said, "We have come to pray for you."  But Wigglesworth, looking at the woman, immediately said, "I haven't.  You are enjoying that sickness.  You don't want prayer."  With those words, he walked back to the car to wait for the pastor.

After consoling the woman, the pastor, with a very distressed look on his face, joined Wigglesworth in the car.  He said, "You have done the church a great disservice.  That dear sister contributes a lot of money to us." Wigglesworth retorted, "Aye, that's the trouble!"

"Well, I don't suppose we shall see her again," said the pastor.   "Oh, she'll be back, and very soon," replied Wigglesworth calmly.

They went to the pastor's home for tea, then to the church for the evening service. The lady who had been sick in bed that afternoon walked into the service.  She came forward for prayer.  Wigglesworth asked her, "Are you ready now?"

"Yes I am," she replied.  Then she added, "After you left this morning, I was convicted that what you said was true."  That evening she was healed.


Divorce services in German churches

German churches are planning to offer special divorce services for parishioners who want to end their marriages in a religious way.

Evangelical church leaders and therapists in southern Germany have come up with plans to allow couples to say goodbye in the presence of God.  In a ritual called "The end as a beginning," couples will ask God to forgive them and admit their joint responsibility for the break up.

The service will include the sentence: "I have been injured and have injured.   I admit my guilt before God and beg for forgiveness."

Church leaders in Munich hope the ritual will also have a positive effect on concerned children who may be calmed by the service.


Doing favours and gaining power

Seen by many as one of the highest pinnacles of movie-making, The Godfather (three films) is the story of the rise to power of the Corleone family through the Mafia, and of the love, pride and honour of those people in their private lives.  'Family' and family.   Scripted by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, the films provide great insight into the way power is generated in both these institutions ... particularly through creating obligations, doing favours and expecting a 'return'.   The inverse of the tit-for-tat of a favour is the tit-for-tat of revenge - constant vendettas which drive all three films.

As retold in 'the Epic' version of the first two films, the story begins with the young Vito, smuggled into New York's Little Italy as an eight-year old child, the only survivor of a vendetta against his family in their native Sicily. While a young man learning the various gangland businesses in New York, Vito (Robert De Niro) falls victim to an extortionist, Don Fanucci.   After a meal, he prepares two friends for his plan, and an action that will transform his status - boldly assassinating Fanucci:

VITO :  Now what I say stays in this room.  If you both like, why not give me $50 each to pay Fanucci?  I guarantee he'll accept what I give him.
TESSIO : If Fanucci says $200 ... he means it, Vito!
VITO : I'll reason with him.  Leave everything to me.  I'll take care of everything.  I never lie to my friends.  Tomorrow you both go talk to Fanucci.   He'll ask for the money.  Tell him you'll pay whatever he wants.  Don't argue with him.  I'll go and get him to agree.  Don't argue with him since he's so tough.
CLEMENZA : How can you get him to take less?
VITO : That's my business.  Just remember that I did you a favor.  Is it a deal?

After he has shot and killed Fanucci, Vito is then seen in a sequence of brief meetings which confirm his new power and status - first with a street vendor who gives him an orange:

VENDOR : It's my pleasure.  I don't want money.  Take it as a gift.
VITO : Grazie ... grazie.  If there's something I can do for you ... you come we talk.

He is then asked for help by an old lady, Signora Columbo, who has been evicted by her landlord Roberto for having a dog.  He agrees to do her a favour, and talks to Roberto:

VITO : I told her that I'd talk to you.  That you're a reasonable man.  She got rid of the animal that caused the trouble.  So let her stay ... do me this favor.
ROBERTO : Who the hell are you to come and give me orders? Watch out or I'll kick your Sicilian ass right into the street.
VITO : Do me this favor.  I won't forget it.  Ask your friends in the neighborhood about me.  They'll tell you I know how to return a favor.

In the extraordinarily powerful opening of the first Godfather film, which follows chronologically, an older Vito (Marlon Brando) is found in his dark study hearing requests for help on his daughter's wedding day.  An undertaker, Bonsera, is pleading for retribution against his daughter's attackers.  Vito is hesitant to help; his method is unchanged:

VITO : We've known each other many years, but this is the first time you came to me for counsel, for help.  I can't remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child.  But let's be frank here: you never wanted my friendship.  And ... uh ... you were afraid to be in my debt.

He turns his back to Bonsera ...

BONSERA : Be my friend ... (then, after bowing and the Don's shrug) ... Godfather?
VITO : (after Bonsera kisses his hand) Good ...  Some day, and that day may never come, I'll call upon you to do a service for me. But uh, until that day ... accept this justice as a gift on my daughter's wedding day.


Don't play by the rules (Dharma and Greg)

This is from a TV script by producer/writer Chuck Lorre.   It conveys a concise example of the magic of a change in direction in forgiving, which, even though small-scale, encourages us in larger steps.

"Dharma and Greg" is a US comedy series about Dharma, a free-spirited hippie, and Greg, a successful young New York lawyer, who fall in love and marry, bringing a huge clash of cultures with them.  Early on in the first series, the couple engage in their first big argument, having gone out onto to the roof-top to escape the bickering between their respective sets of parents. They say foolish things to one another, ‘ending’ the marriage, and sit a distance apart on the rooftop, Dharma on a rowing machine. After a short silence, Dharma speaks:

DHARMA: OK, let’s make up.
GREG: What?
DHARMA: I’m done arguing. Let’s make up.
GREG: But we haven’t resolved anything. Nobody won.
DHARMA: Good point! You win.
GREG: But you can’t just do that!
DHARMA: OK. I win.
GREG: No you don’t!
(Pause. DHARMA walks over to GREG.)
DHARMA: Boy, you really love to argue, don’t you?
GREG: I do not.
DHARMA: Then stop it.
GREG: But we’re not done yet.
DHARMA: Yes we are.
GREG: No we’re not.
DHARMA: (smiling and standing in front of GREG) I love you!
GREG: What?
DHARMA: I … love … you.
GREG: (smiles and relaxes) Oh man, you really don’t play by the rules, do you?
GREG: (kisses her) I love you, too.


Don't sack, show compassion

Business firms in the UK are being urged to deal compassionately with workers who are addicted to drugs, rather than sacking them.

Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth, addressing a conference of business leaders in London in February 2002, said the performance of a company can be "substantially damaged" through sickness, absenteeism and criminal behaviour at work.  But he is calling on businesses to develop a "compassionate workplace culture" by offering to help staff overcome any addiction.

"Business may feel that the only way to deal with drug users is to dismiss them, but I would urge them to think again," Mr Ainsworth has told a business conference in London.

"Dismissal should be the end of a process of trying to help the employee overcome their addiction.  Work can often be the only thing that holds a person together and prevent a freefall into more severe addiction, with all the problems this brings."   (Associated Press)


Ending a marriage

In her account of forgiveness in therapeutic work, Susan Reimer describes the loving courage of 'Anna':

Her husband of almost 25 years and the father of her three children said he was leaving.  "I found it impossible to believe," says Anna, who agreed to talk about her broken marriage as long as she wasn't identified.  "He said he does not love me anymore.  That hurt more than anything I could ever imagine.  It represents total rejection."

She asked him to stay for six months while she found her footing, found a job.  He did.  They told the children in April.  By the time he moved out 10 days later, she had already forgiven him.  During their last months together, Anna did more than steel her heart for the pain of his leaving.  She realised that she could not build a future on hating him.  Neither she nor her children would survive if they fed on that kind of poison.

"I also recognise that there were things in our marriage that were not good.   In forgiving him, I have to recognise my own faults.  There is a huge difference in how I feel now.  The true feeling of forgiving is definitely there. I have prayed, and I have a deeper spiritual understanding of who God is, a true feeling of peace and comfort.  I know that I am still a good person.  And there is a sense of freedom. It is so liberating.

"The anxiousness and depression are gone.  There are still plenty of tears, but they are tears of healing.  I'm not stuck.  People usually blame the person who leaves, and I am asking my friends not to do that, to be there for both of us.  I tell them they don't have to worry about condoning the act.

"Do you remember the story of King Solomon and the two women who each claimed the baby was theirs?  The lesson of that story is that out of true love and concern, sometimes we have to let go.  We don't always have the answers, and we don't always win.  It is much easier not to forgive. But then we are the big losers."


Excuses and transferring blame

In the middle of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (Book 3), Pippin has ‘borrowed’ the mysterious ball taken by good fortune from Saruman at Orthanc, and looked into it.  He finds it to be a seeing stone, opening his mind to the terrifying gaze of evil Lord Sauron. He faints, and after recovery Gandalf the wise explains what he has now understood about the seeing stones.  Pippin, like most of us, tries to shift the blame for his actions onto those in responsibility (implicitly, Gandalf) for not warning him:

‘I wish I had known all this before,’ said Pippin. ‘I had no notion of what I was doing.’
     ‘Oh yes, you had,’ said Gandalf.  ‘You knew you were behaving wrongly and foolishly; and you told yourself so, though you did not listen.  I did not tell you all this before, because it is only by musing on all that has happened that I have at last understood, even as we ride together.  But if I had spoken sooner, it would not have lessened your desire, or made it easier to resist.   On the contrary!  No, the burned hand teaches best.  After that the advice about fire goes to the heart.’

The Two Towers   p 249


Father and son

"The Capitol of the World," one of Ernest Hemingway's memorable (fictional) short stories, tells how a Spanish father was overcome with remorse after his son Paco (a common name in Spain) had run away to Madrid.  

The father decided to try to be reconciled with the young man, and took out an advertisement in the newspaper El Liberal.  It read, "Paco!  Meet me at Hotel Montana, noon Tuesday.   All is forgiven.  Papa."

When the father went to the square outside the Hotel Montana, he found eight hundred young men called Paco, waiting to be reconciled with their fathers.


Forgive us our international debts

President Bill Clinton told a gathering of finance ministers and the heads of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund at the beginning of October 1999 that the US will take a major step to help wipe out the debt owed by some of the world’s poorest countries.

"Simply put, unsustainable debt is helping to keep too many poor countries and poor people in poverty," the president said.  "I am directing my administration to make it possible to forgive 100% of the debt these countries owe to the United States, when needed to help them finance basic needs and when the money will be used to do so."

Clinton noted the international organisations are meeting at a dramatically different time than last year, when Asia’s economy was plunging and fears of a global crisis were spreading.  He said it was perhaps the most severe crisis since the Second World War.  But now, the president said, "economies that were sliding are rising again".   He lamented that 1.3 billion people survived on less than $1 a day and that nearly 40 million people died of hunger each year.

"I hope we will start the new millennium with a new resolve, to give every person in the world, through trade and technology, through investments in education and health care, the chance to be part of a widely shared prosperity in which all the people’s potential can be developed more fully ... For me, it is a personal priority of the highest order."  Clinton played a major role in urging partners from the wealthy industrialised nations to provide quicker, faster, and deeper debt relief to poor countries at the Cologne summit in June 1999.  (AP report)


Forgiveness for the Holocaust?

Rabbi Albert Friedlander, Dean of the Leo Baeck College in London, was asked by the BBC to provide an essay exploring the present-day attitude of Jews to the Holocaust.  He emphasised the deep Jewish commitment to remembering and never forgetting, and explored with painstaking honesty what this means for the possibilities of forgiveness:

Once, at a Kirchentag in Nuremberg, I talked about the anguish of Auschwitz. A young girl rushed up to me after the lecture. 'Rabbi, she said, I wasn't there, but can you forgive me?' and we embraced and cried together. Then an older man approached me. 'Rabbi', he said, I was a guard at a concentration camp. Can you forgive me?' 'No, I said. I cannot forgive. It is not the function of rabbis to give absolution, to be pardoners.' Between the New Year and the Day of Atonement, we try to go to any person whom we have wronged and asked forgiveness. 'But you cannot go to the six million. They are dead I cannot speak for them. Nor can I speak for God. But you are here at a church conference. God's forgiving grace may touch you, but I am not a mediator, pardoner, or spokesperson for God."

A number of my Christian colleagues were unhappy with my stance. An Oxford Chaplain with great respect for the Jewish community still felt he had to enunciate the Christian principle that one must forgive. He concluded that our refusal to forgive might lead to a recurrence of the Holocaust. A refusal to forgive is seen as a fatal human weakness. However, throughout rabbinic literature, there is an awareness that an act of forgiveness is a relationship between humans requiring action from both sides.

Can the "class action" of pardoning a nation take place at all? In Judaism, we see this as the prerogative of God.  Nevertheless, we are approached and asked as a people to forgive.  What can we do?  ... A possible reconciliation depends upon much self-examination on both sides.  The shadows still live in the present and will be part of the future.

Fifty years later, we are closer to a time of peace between Israel and the German people. There have been many acts of contrition and compensation. We have also noted the Righteous Gentiles of that time, who have been honoured in Israel and in the world. Germany has regained a place in society; yet its task of self-examination is not yet complete.

An honest peace must always contain within itself the remembrance of the past.   Christianity has begun to overcome the prejudice that Judaism is a religion of stern justice, confronting a Christianity of gentle love. Love and justice exist in equal measure in our faiths. Arising out of the feeling of natural sympathy, many still feel that the survivors of the Holocaust cannot forgive because they are filled with hatred. We could not have survived if we had been filled with hatred. If we insist that the world must not forget the Holocaust, it is our sense for justice, and our awareness that one cannot blot out the past upon which the present rests.


Forgiveness: the cost of doing business (The West Wing)

In the programme "Celestial Navigation" (Series 1 #15), we meet HUD Secretary (Housing and Urban Development) Deborah O’Leary is the highest-ranking African American woman in government.  She spoke rashly in an interview, implying that her Republican Counterpart, Secretary Jack Wooden and indeed the whole Republican Party are racist. She is summoned to the White House to meet with Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, who tells her she must apologise:

O'LEARY: The man’s a racist.  He’s using his Oversight authority to spit at poor people and minorities, which in his mind are the same thing … He’s doing it because he can score points with his narrow-minded constituents.
McGARRY: His narrow-minded constituents are also our narrow-minded constituents. We need their votes on any number of issues, including by the way the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development! … You’ve got to apologise.
O'LEARY: I’m sorry.
McGARRY: Not to me, Debbie …
O'LEARY: I won’t.
McGARRY: You will.
O'LEARY: Leo, if I’ve got to go and ask Wooden for forgiveness, he’s going to lord it over me from now until the end of time.
McGARRY: It’s the cost of doing business.
O'LEARY:(Pause.) Done. (With great resignation) How did it happen?
McGARRY: You forgot what your grandfather told you – never argue with a drunk or a fool.


Forgiveness is so very human

Steve Goodier  is a professional speaker, consultant and author of numerous books. This is from his newsletter, Life, Love and Laughter:

My father taught me a powerful lesson on forgiveness.  His own father was a mining engineer and his family lived in the Philippines prior to World War II.  They were captured by the Japanese and incarcerated there during World War II.  He, his mother and sisters were sent to a prison camp at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila where they remained until the Philippine Islands were freed at the end of the war.  His father, an enlisted man, was separated from the family and imprisoned with captured military personnel.

My dad was a teenager at the time.  He, like other prisoners, struggled to survive.  To keep from starving, he learned to eat his small, daily rations of rice without first removing the carcasses of worms in the bowl.  But he ate better than most prisoners - he worked as an orderly in the prison hospital and, on occasion, was able to finish leftover food from patients.  Though almost six feet tall, when he was finally freed he weighed only 95 pounds.

Life was difficult there by any standards.  Numerous prisoners became ill and many died.  Anger and bitterness toward their captors abounded.  For years, even decades, after their eventual release from the prison camp, the men and women of Santo Tomas (like other prisoners of war) felt a smouldering bitterness toward the people who incarcerated them.

My father lost almost everything.  His family lost their home.  They lost their possessions.  And harder still, they lost their freedom.  But he also lost his father.  My grandfather did not survive his captivity.

Yet I never heard my dad express any anger or resentment toward the Japanese soldiers or the Japanese people.  Just the opposite.  He taught me to regard ALL people with respect.  He taught me to honor people of all races, nationalities and religions.  He knew that bitterness only kept his wounds open and infected.   Like a disease, his festering resentments could even infect others.  And they could kill.

Alexander Pope has said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine."  But that is not accurate.  It's better said, "To err is human, but to forgive is human, too."  Forgiveness is not an option for human beings.  Forgiveness is essential for our health as individuals and necessary if we are to live together.   To err is human, but to forgive is human, too.  Perhaps to be perfect is divine.  But to forgive is one of the most human things we can do.  And its never too soon to do something so very human.


Forgiving a murderer

Wendy Cole (Time, 5 April 99) tells the story of the transformation in the mother of a 19-year old woman who was brutally murdered with a male friend:

Aba Gayle, 65, learned to forgive and to let go.  Gayle says she knows all about "the big lie" - the promise that prosecutors make to relatives of murder victims that "everything will be OK" once a murderer is caught, tried, convicted, sentenced to death and executed.  

In 1980 her daughter Catherine, 19, and a male friend were stabbed to death on a pear farm near Sacramento, California.  Virtually disabled by what she called a kind of temporary insanity, Gayle attended the sentencing of Douglas Mickey as he received the death penalty for the killings.  She left the proceedings "horrified" that such a sentence could be imposed so matter-of-factly.  Yet when Mickey's execution date was set, she asked for a seat as a witness, hoping to be able to see him pay for her daughter's death.

Then one night in 1992, Gayle wrote her daughter's killer a letter.  "It just flowed," she says.  She told him she forgave him and was willing to visit him.   "The instant the letter was in the mailbox, all the anger, all the rage, all the lust for revenge disappeared," she says.

And Mickey wrote back.  He told her that what he had done was an "unspeakable burden" to his soul.  He said that if he could undo the night he killed Catherine and her friend, he would gladly give his life.  Since then, Gayle has visited Mickey several times and corresponded with him regularly.  And she has joined Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a group that opposes the death penalty.  

"It is the way I honor Catherine," she says.  "To murder someone in her name and to say we are doing it for her is horrible."  Gayle sees herself as a spark for smaller mercies.  "People think, If she can do that, maybe I can forgive my sister for what she did to me or my brother-in-law or mother - or whomever they've been holding a grudge against all these years."


Forgiving each other

Stanley Cavell is one of the pre-eminent contemporary philosophers in the USA.  In his autobiographical book "A Pitch of Philosophy" he relates this episode as part of his move to change his surname:

My father had, unprecedentedly, come alone from Atlanta to see me while I was still teaching at Berkeley, on learning that my first marriage was failing.  As he and I sat in my newly rented, raw apartment, I felt his devastation begin to look for words of destruction.  I said in effect: "Don't, for once, start this.  You don't know what there is to be apoplectic about.  I would rather live here, in these two rooms, than in your apartment that I have never called home."

I realised that I had never before seen words simply fail him, instead of suffocate him.  Letting him know that his guilt and sympathy toward me were misplaced was the beginning of my forgiving him.  I was at once rewarded.  We talked more than we ever had about the two families, his virtually a generation older than my mothers.

When, later that afternoon, my father was gathering his things for the return flight to Atlanta, he asked, "What do you want?"  I found myself answering: "To put together the Segals and the Goldsteins."  "It's too much," he said.  I felt the seriousness and sincerity of the moment, as if it contained the reason for his having made the trip.  We were forgiving each other.  (pp 29-30)


Forgiving my daughter's killer

In a YTV/Discovery programme for UK's Channel 4 TV, directed by David Wright and produced by Sheldon Himelfarb, Marietta Jaeger was filmed talking to the Homicide Support Group in Fairfax, Virginia.  (Her story is also referred to in Johann Christoph Arnold’s The Lost Art of Forgiving, pp 68-70.)

In 1973 Bill and Marietta took their five children camping in Montana.  In the early hours of June 27th their seven-year old daughter Susie was kidnapped from her tent.  The family stayed on in Montana for over a month, while the area, including the river, were searched.  Nothing was found.

The other children were being torn apart by the uncertainty. Marietta says,

"I reached a point where I admitted I was seething.  I was filled with hatred and desire for revenge.  Even if the kidnapper were to bring Susie back alive and well, I could kill him for what he had done to my family … But no sooner had I uttered these words, that I somehow knew – heard – within me that that’s not how I should feel."

Marietta wrestled all night with God and her conscience:

"In the end I knew I would have to comply with what my conscience was calling me to do – and yet I couldn’t say ‘I forgive him’ because I didn’t.   Those were not the feelings that I had.  So I said what I could say: ‘OK, I will be willing to forgive this man’."

A suspect was detained but eventually released.  Nothing more was heard, until Marietta received a phone call on the first anniversary of the abduction – timed to the minute. "Is this Susie’s mom? … I’m the guy who took her …"  Marietta recalls,

"Even though he was calling to taunt me, all that I had committed myself to came to fruition in me, and I was filled with genuine feelings of concern and compassion for him."

Marietta and Bill taped the phone conversation, and the caller’s voice clearly changes, softening and breaking.  Marietta asks, "What can I do to help you?" He replies, "I wish I knew the answer to that … I wish the burden could be lifted off me."

Following the call, the earlier suspect, David Meirhofer, was arrested.  Shortly after, he confessed to four other murders, and Marietta says she realised then that he had killed Susie as well.  Yet she urged the authorities to spare Meirhofer the death sentence.

"I felt that I would better honour Susie’s life and Susie’s spirit by having an attitude of concern and compassion towards the man who took Susie away from me, than by wanting to have him killed in her name.  That would be a violation of all the beauty and goodness and sweetness that was in her."

Meirhofer committed suicide in jail before he could be brought to trial.  But Marietta befriended his mother, saying, "I think that David’s family were victims too. I hope that it helps his mother, in knowing I have forgiven David."   Meirhofer’s mother says: "I felt amazed too – that she could want to do that, to bring a bouquet of flowers to my son’s grave."

Some years later, visiting the ramshackle little ranch where Susie was held and killed, Marietta said,

"I’d like to think he was good to her while she was alive.  That’s what I want to think, and from what I’ve heard about him there was that part of him that would have been good to her - but there was that other part of him that was sick and distorted, and ended up taking her life."


Forgiving my father

In Decision Magazine, writer Kate Morrow told how she began to forgive her father's rejection of her:

The moment I had waited for all day never happened.   My grandmother said. "Your daddy will call in the morning. I'm sure that he has had car trouble."  But I was now 14 years old, and he lived fewer than 45 miles away. I hadn't seen or talked to him much in the past few years.  Being stood up that day was one more item I could add to his list of failures, a tabulation I had kept since my mother's death.

When I was in elementary school, I told classmates that he lived in New Zealand.   Sometimes I told people that he died shortly after my mother died.  By the time I was a teenager, though, I just stopped talking about him.  But I was haunted by questions: What's wrong with me? Did I do or say something that caused him not to like me? Maybe if I lost weight … maybe if I got better grades … maybe if I looked prettier … then he would love me.

That day my dad stood me up, I chose to hate him.  I had dreams of confrontations with my father, in which I demanded answers to questions: "What have I ever done to you to deserve this treatment?"  The dreams ended with my sobbing and asking, "What can I do to make you love me?"  Bitterness consumed me.   Boyfriends seemed to fill the void I felt.  During my second year of college, my best friend took me to her church where I listened to a message on forgiveness.  I asked if I could go with her again the following week.  Again the message was on forgiveness.  When the invitation to ask Jesus Christ into our hearts was given, I went forward and dedicated my life to Jesus Christ.

Having listened to other sermons on forgiveness, I knew what I needed to do.  But I didn't know if I wanted to forgive my father.  "I have a right to be angry," I thought.  One of the Scriptures from those sermons stood out to me:   "Since you have been chosen by God who has given you this new kind of life, and because of his deep love and concern for you, you should practice tender-hearted mercy and kindness to others … Be gentle and ready to forgive; never hold grudges.   Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others." (Colossians 3.12-13)   I realised that I could choose to forgive my father, or I could continue to be led by angry feelings.   "I'm ready to change, Lord," I finally prayed.  "Please show me how."

The first step that I took toward healing was to be thankful for all that my dad did for me - even if it seemed minuscule.  I prayed that God would give me a grateful heart.  Eventually, as I chose to think positively about my dad, I stopped having dreams in which I angrily confronted him.  I soon had another dream.   This time I revisited the home where for a brief time I had lived with my father when I was a little girl.  I walked from the front of the house to the back of the house, saying, "Thank You, God, that Dad provided a roof over my head.  Thank You, God, that Dad gave me food."  When I exited the house, my grandmother stood waiting for me.  "Thank You, God, that Dad let me live with Grandmother."

When I woke, I brought the thankfulness with me.  I focused on what my father had done instead of what he had failed to do.  When bitterness crept back in, I prayed.   Eventually the harsh feelings left.  This change of heart caused me to pray for my father, something I had never done before.  While reading a book about mending relationships with parents, I learned that the next step was to let God be my Father.   I also listened to testimonies and read articles about people who found God to be the perfect Parent.   These stories still encourage me to trust Him as my Father.

By the time I finished college and married, the chip on my shoulder had disappeared.   I wish I could say that Dad and I are close today, but we're not.  We do, however, have pleasant conversation, for which I am grateful.   (


Forgiving myself

In his beautiful booklet "Kingdom Mercy", John Wimber told how he reacted to a friend of his:

I had a friend who seemed to be able to make all kinds of mistakes and mis-steps, and then to simply forgive himself, shake it off, and move on.  He drove me crazy!   It just didn’t seem fair to me that he should let himself off the hook so easily.  Shouldn’t he at least feel crummy for a while first?

It was few years later before I came to realise that my friend had been operating in a healthy way.  I found myself in a situation where I had quite literally ‘blown it in a big way’.  I had done something wrong, something that had caused a lot of pain and heartache for myself and others.  And there was nothing I could do about it.  I couldn’t retrieve it, retract it, or rehabilitate it. I was miserable.   I knew that God forgave me, and I knew that the people I had hurt forgave me, too. It was I who wouldn’t forgive me.  I finally had to come to grips with the fact that if I was going to move ahead in life, I was just going to have to extend the same mercy to myself that I knew God extended to me.   (pp 19-21)


Free to choose?

David & Stephen Koepp's screenplay for Ron Howard's 1995 movie The Paper wittily explores the difficulties in choosing between family and (over-)work and how little we are really free to choose.  The narrative builds towards a climactic scene between Henry (Michael Keaton) and his very pregnant wife Martha (Marisa Tomei).  Henry is a workaholic news reporter for The Sun, and keeps getting pulled away from his about-to-expand family to chase a new story, even sacrificing an opportunity to take a less all-involving job with the upmarket paper The Sentinel.   Martha shouts at Henry outside the restaurant:

Martha: You did it (lose the Sentinel job) on purpose. You did exactly what I asked you not to do ... You don’t listen to anything. You don’t see ..... how scared I am (of their future with the new baby).

Henry: I will be there. I swear to God I will be there. ‘We’ means more to me than anything. You know that.

Martha: Let me give you a hypothetical … A guy breaks into the apartment. He’s got a gun. He holds it to my head. He says (to you), “Either I blow your wife’s brains out or I blow up the Sun building. Choose, now.” What do you say?

Henry: What do you think I say? !! It’s ridiculous; it’s not going to happen …

Martha: But that is exactly my point, Henry. It is NEVER one big, dramatic choice. It’s little, vague situations every single day, and you’re either there or you’re not. You keep waiting for the guy with the gun to show, and it’s going to be too late.

Henry (wilting): I will be there. I promise.

But predictably his co-reporter then arrives, and takes him away to follow up a scoop.


Gandalf and Saruman: an exchange

In J R R Tolkien’s "The Lord of the Rings," Saruman the Wise gets into trouble precisely because he can't countenance the limits of his own power.   (This is one of the deceits embodied by the Ring itself – people believe that they can control it, rather than being taken over by it.)  He began as a Wise One, sent to aid stricken Middle Earth, but his enormous abilities deluded him into arrogating more power to himself than he could use well. By contrast Gandalf, also a Wise One sent to aid stricken humanity, knows his limits and his need to rely on the goodness of others.

The two know they stand as enemies - Saruman even imprisoned Gandalf, and Gandalf has now put into effect the destruction of Saruman's army.  In a remarkable exchange about forgiveness between Saruman and Gandalf at the door to Saruman's fortress, Orthanc, Saruman seem to ‘forgive’ Gandalf, and to want to be reconciled (The Two Towers p 226).  We sense this is false; yet when Gandalf seems to proffer forgiveness to Saruman (p 227-8), this seems genuine.

What is the difference between the words and intentions of the two?  Obviously as readers we know their track records and therefore their likely intentions - Gandalf is our hero, Saruman his power-mad colleague; yet is there anything in what they offer one another which marks a specific difference?

"Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle Earth?" Saruman mused.  "Our friendship would profit us both alike." (p 226)

"You need not fear for your skin," answered Gandalf.  "I do not wish to kill you or hurt you ... You can leave Orthanc, free - if you choose ... When I say 'free,' I mean 'free': free from bond, of chain or command: to go where you will. (p 228)

Tolkien writes that to the other hearers, Saruman’s subtle voice conveys “Of loftier mould these two were made; reverend and wise. It was inevitable that they should make alliance.” (p 227)  What Saruman offers is, “Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk.” (p 226) What Gandalf offers is protection, since the old securities of “so many things in which you still have trust … prove less strong than your hope and fancy made it.” (p227)

Gandalf recognises where evil really lies, with the demonic Lord Sauron, master of the Ring. He therefore sets boundaries to what he can and cannot improve (evil itself cannot be, though people can be rescued from evil). He is not afraid to acknowledge his own limitations and therefore his fears, as we also find earlier in Book Two when confronting the dreadful power of the Balrog. He seeks to bring Saruman, his old colleague into a similar realism and safe boundary:“I have the power to protect you.” But Saruman still hopes to manipulate Sauron to his own advantage, and in the end is destroyed.

The powerful exchange illustrates that gift that makes forgiveness deep and true is the power to change someone’s situation, rather than merely seeking or requesting an ‘alliance.’


Gossip and evil

Lori Palatnik and Bob Burg have published a new book and support website: "Gossip: Ten Pathways to Eliminate It From Your Life and Transform Your Soul." Their work reflects much Jewish wisdom about speaking well of people.

A nineteenth-century folktale tells about a man who went about town slandering the town's wise man.  One day, he went to the wise man's home and asked for forgiveness.   The wise man, realizing that this man had not internalized the gravity of his transgressions, told him that he would forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, and scatter the feathers to the wind.   After he had done so, he should then return to the wise man's house.

Though puzzled by this strange request, the man was happy to be let off with so easy a penance.  He quickly cut up the pillow, scattered the feathers, and returned to the house.

"Am I now forgiven?" he asked.

"Just one more thing," the wise man said.  "Go now and gather up all the feathers."

"But that's impossible.  The wind has already scattered them."

"Precisely," he answered.  "And though you may truly wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers.  Your words are out there in the marketplace, spreading hate, even as we speak."


Grace in a 'bad' man

Mike Yaconelli, long-time trainer of youth workers, editor of The Door and a radical public speaker, related in Dangerous Wonder how his own attitude of condemnation to other people was humbled and broken.  (Incidentally, the story is a wonderful illustration of what Jesus meant in his parable of the Good Samaritan - being open to grace in the unlikely outsider.)

For a number of years my wife and I volunteered with a Young Life club in our town.   A young man in the club was not doing well in school, was in and out of juvenile hall, and we struck up a friendship with him.  His home was a mess.  Dad was an alcoholic who emotionally and physically abused the entire family.  For six months we spent a lot of time with this young man while his dad went through detox.

Some time later, we decided to redo the tile in our kitchen, and because we life in a small town we ordered the tile from the 'big city' sixty miles away.  The tile company told us they didn't have enough personnel to lay the tile for three weeks, but we could get the job done immediately if we used someone local.  They gave us his name.

"Absolutely not!" I yelled into the phone.  "That man is an alcoholic, knocks his family around, and I don't trust him."  It was the father of the young man we had helped.  Startled, the company promised to get someone else, but everyone was booked up, so I reluctantly agreed to hire the man.  I told my wife, "I am going to watch him like a hawk.  He is not going to cheat me."   I demanded a written estimate from him, and got one: $350 for three day's work.

On the third day it looked like he would finish on time.  "Come by my office and I'll write you a check," I said.  "Oh," he said, "I need to talk to you about the money."

I stormed out of my office and angrily reported to my wife, "I knew it.  I knew he was going to try to cheat us out of some money ... Leave the door to my office open, so you can see how I handle this guy."

At 5 pm he came into my office and began writing out a bill.  I glanced through the door at my wife, with a look of testosterone on my face.  He started to hand me the bill, then paused and said, "I'm an alcoholic.  A couple of years ago I almost lost my family because of my drinking.  I mistreated my wife and children, especially my oldest son.  But you and your wife spent a lot of time with him, when he could have gone either way.  Shortly after that I went to AA, and I've been sober ever since.  Because of you and your wife, I still have a relationship with my son.   I've never been able to thank you, but I'm thanking you now."

He handed me his bill for $350.  "Paid in full" was written across the page.  We shook hands and he walked out.  Humiliated, I slumped down in my chair, speechless.  This alcoholic, abusing, untrustworthy man had just shown this arrogant, self-righteous snob the meaning of grace.  All of us are broken, all of us are flawed, all of us are undeserving.  There's no room for pride, a judgmental attitude, or arrogance.  All of us have had our debt "paid in full."  (pp 127-29)


Having a past

William Willimon, theologian and Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, wrote about how unwilling people can be to let someone else's past go:

Garry Wills recalls that at one time a woman of unsavoury experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as "having a past" (in Reagan's America: Innocents at Home, Doubleday.)  Well, Bernadine Dohrn "has a past."   In the early '70s, she took part in 12 bombings.  The police never caught her.  After almost 11 years on the lam, she gave herself up in 1980, plea-bargaining for three years of probation and a $1,500 fine.  Dohrn, a lawyer since 1967, is today director of North-western University Legal Clinic's Children and Family Justice Centre.

"I live fully in the present," says Dohrn.  "I'm as settled about my past as anyone who's 51 can be."  But some colleagues at North-western will not overlook her past.  Says Professor Daniel Polsby:  "This woman set a bomb off in the US Capitol, for heaven's sake!  And then she says, 'Ha, ha, I'm not sorry.'   This is a school of law, not a dental school!"

Dohrn's attorney Don Rueben counters:  "She picked herself up from her past and has done socially good work for years now.  What do they want her to do?  Do they want a public flogging?" (Interview in Time, September 27, 1993)


Hillary Clinton on forgiveness

Hillary Clinton gave a TV interview about her personal values and experience to Trevor McDonald on the British ITN Tonight programme (June 2003: "The Hillary Clinton interview").  Though of course promoting her new autobiography "Living History," she was willing to take questions about forgiveness after the public investigation of her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky:

McDONALD:  Have you forgiven your husband?
CLINTON:  Yes I have, absolutely.  You know, I think that this very excruciating process, which I would not wish on anyone, especially under the circumstances that I experienced it, turned out to be one of those turning points where, you know, I learned a great deal as well.
McDONALD:  Is there more trust in the marriage now?  Do you trust him?
CLINTON:  We are hoping to grow old together.  That is something which is our goal, and I think that learning to forgive is important because I know that every single day every one of us do something that we probably should be forgiven for.  Maybe it's just a small slight, or maybe it's something large, but nevertheless life is challenging and hard work ... and marriage is very hard work.
McDONALD:  Do you feel sorry for Monica Lewinsky?
CLINTON:  You know, I feel sorry for everyone who was caught up in this relentless partisan investigation.
McDONALD:  But about her in particular?
CLINTON:  Absolutely, absolutely ...
McDONALD:  Because she was a victim too, in a way ...
CLINTON:  Absolutely, but there were so many victims ...


His failure is your failure

Juan Carlos Ortiz related a courageous example of stepping into solidarity with a sinner, in "God is closer than you think":

A member of my staff in Argentina began a church in another city and was enjoying great success.  Then one day he fell into a horrible sin.  "Juan Carlos, I know I am wrong," my friend confessed to me in tears.  "I am guilty 100 per cent.   I place myself in your hands.  If you tell me to throw myself in the river tied to a big stone, I will do it.  If you tell me to go to Brazil or Australia, I'll leave.  You tell me what you want."

So I said that according to our rules I would remove him from his ministry.  I told him his salary would be cut off, and I was not sure if he would preach again.

I went into my office to pray.  My conscience said to me, "How easily you did that.  When he was doing well, you shared his glory.  Now that he is doing badly, you don't want to share the blame.  You cut him off.  Maybe he will die of sadness and depression, but you have saved your own life.  The holy man Juan Carlos Ortiz doesn't allow any sin in his church ...  Juan Carlos, the truth is that his failure is your failure, just as his success was your success.  He is part of you."

So I went and told my friend, "Forgive me.  I haven't really forgiven you.   If I had, I would have treated you differently.  I wouldn't make you pay first.  You will have your full salary back, for you will need it more today than ever, since you must stop preaching and deal with the full consequences of this sin."

"Pastor, this is crazy," he said.  "Don't you know what other people will say about you and about our church?"  I said, "You should have thought about that before you sinned.  Now you will see how much we will pay for your sins.  But because we love you and you are one of us, we will suffer the blame together."

And we did.  The criticism and gossip were worse than any discipline I could have invented.  My friend even asked me to release him, so he could go to another country.   He learned - we all learned - what it meant for Jesus to identify with our sins.   Jesus laid down his life for the brethren and we have to do the same.  Jesus received the lashes that we deserved, and sometimes we have to receive some of the lashes meant for our brother or sister in Christ. (pp 65-67)


How many times?

The Little Monk by Harry Farra includes this lovely if cautionary tale (passed on by Philip Noble):

A villager asked the little monk, "My neighbour slapped me. Should  I forgive him?"  "Yes," answered the monk. 


"How many times should I forgive my neighbour?" the villager asked.


"How many times did he slap you?"  "Once," came the answer. "Then forgive him once," said the little monk.

"But what if he slaps me fifty  times?" the villager asked.
"Then you should forgive him forty-nine times," came the reply.

"Why only forty-nine times when he slapped me fifty times?"  the villager asked.
The little monk said, "Freely accept the fiftieth slap. You deserve it for being such a fool as to allow yourself to be slapped the first forty-nine times." (p 89)




'How much is it worth?'

The early Christian monks, the Desert Fathers, included this story in their sayings:

Abbot Anastasius had a book written on very fine parchment which was worth eighteen pence, and had in it both the Old and New Testaments in full.  Once a certain brother came to visit him and, seeing how valuable the book was, stole it.   Later in the day when Anastasius went to read his book, he found that it was gone and realised that the brother had taken it.  But he did not send a message to him to inquire about the book, for fear that the brother might add perjury to theft.

Well, the brother went down into the nearby city in order to sell the book.  The price he asked was sixteen pence.  The book-buyer said: "Give me the book, and let me check whether it is worth that much."  With that, the buyer took the book to the holy Abbot Anastasius and said: "Father, take a look at this book, please, and tell me whether you think I ought to buy it for sixteen pence.  Is it worth that much?"

Anastasius said: "Yes, it is a fine book.  It is indeed worth that much."  So the buyer went back to the brother and said: "Here is your money.  I showed the book to Abbot Anastasius, and he said it is a fine book and is worth at least sixteen pence."  The brother asked: "Was that all he said?   Did he make any other remarks?"  "No," said the buyer, "he did not say another word."

"Well," said the brother, "I have changed my mind, and I don’t want to sell this book after all."  Then he ran to Abbot Anastasius and begged him with tears to take back his book.  The Abbot would not accept it, saying: "Go in peace, brother, I make you a present of it."  But the brother said: "If you do not take it back I shall never have any peace."  After that the brother lived as a monk with Abbot Anastasius for the rest of his life.


Ananova News - Compassion for under-age sex

Ananova News - Divorce services in German churches

John Arnott - A gift he does not deserve

Associated Press - Don't sack, show compassion

BBC documentary - Building someone a roof

BBC News - Bono calls for debt forgiveness

Joseph Bernardin - After false accusation

Stanley Cavell - Forgiving each other

Bill Clinton - Forgive us our international debts

Hillary Clinton - Hillary Clinton on forgiveness

Michael Crichton - Blame culture

Wendy Cole - Forgiving a murderer

Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo - Doing favours and gaining power

Harry Farra - How many times?

Desert Fathers - How much is it worth?

Albert Friedlander - Forgiveness for the Holocaust?

'Friends' - As foolish as you

Steve Goodier - Forgiveness is so very human

Ernest Hemingway - Father and son

Michael Henderson - A forgiving town : Warrington

Jeff Grabmeier - Business improves when people apologise

Marietta Jaeger - Forgiving my daughter's killer

Andrew Knock - A place for forgiveness to aim for

Chuck Lorre - Don't play by the rules (Dharma and Greg)

Kate Morrow - Forgiving my father

Henri Nouwen - An elder brother returns home

Juan Carlos Ortiz - His failure is your failure

Victor Parachin - A poet's release

Randolf, Frank & Zaillian - A better way than 'justice'

Susan Reimer - Ending a marriage

Aaron Sorkin - A guy in a hole (The West Wing)

Aaron Sorkin - A little bit brave (The West Wing)

Aaron Sorkin - Forgiveness: the cost of doing business

Smith Wigglesworth - Discernment and healing

William Willimon - Having a past

John Wimber - Forgiving myself

Mike Yaconelli - Grace in a 'bad' man


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