By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
IN THE LITERAL sense, “70 times 7” comes to 490. In the spiritual sense, however,it represents infinity. When Jesus Christ exhorts Peter to forgive “not seven times only, but 70 times seven” in Matthew 18:22, he sets the bar for all Christians:Forgive. No matter what.
Just as we do with Christ’s teachings about so many things, however, we tend to qualify his words here. “Oh,” we tell ourselves, “surely he wasn’t talking about forgiving what happened to ME.”But he was. The problem isn’t Christ’s instruction. The problem is that most of us misinterpret the meaning of “forgiveness.” In Western society in particular, the act of forgiveness is often misinterpreted as an act of deliberate amnesia, of martyrdom, or victim hood, a willingness to make oneself vulnerable to manipulation or abuse.
But if we often misunderstand the nature of forgiveness, just what is it, then?And how can we actually make it happen?Forgiveness doesn’t come from a position of weakness; actually, it comes from a position of power. And withholding forgiveness–even for what may be deemed “a really good reason”–is actually toxic to one’s health and soul. “Forgiveness–FindingWholeness Again” was the theme of the 2011 OPF-North American Conference, andparticipants explored what forgiveness is, what it is not, and what it means to forgivethe “unforgiveable.”
About 30 people attended the event, which was held Sept. 16 to 18 at the BishopO’Connor Pastoral Center in Madison, Wisconsin. This year’s theme of forgiveness was chosen because “it is a topic that has much to do with ‘peace,’” says OPF secretary, Alex Patico. “Conflict between two individuals or two groups can cease, but often the seeds of future conflict are there, ready to germinate at the first opportunity.• Without forgiveness, we achieve only a surface calm, not a reconciliation that is the foundation of true peace.” As with other OPF conferences, this one was designed to explore an element central to how we live our Christian faith, and because forgiveness is such a universal human yearning and concept, we chose to explore how others understand it as well.
The event’s keynote speaker, University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Dr. Robert Enright, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject.The founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, and author of a number of books on the topic, Enright has been a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness for more than 25 years. He addressed the group on Friday evening.The earliest account of forgiveness in the Scriptures, he pointed out, is Joseph’s forgiveness of the brothers who sold him into slavery. “His brothers did nothing at all (to warrant forgiveness),” Enright pointed out. “There was no apology, no repentance. Joseph’s forgiveness was unconditional. But had he not forgiven them,the Hebrew nation would have perished.”
Another Biblical model of forgiveness, Enright said, is the New Testament parable of the prodigal son. But, he said, “The Cross of Christ is the best example we have. The Cross of Christ is an example of lavish love.” Enright puts “lavish love” at the root of forgiveness. And he puts forgiveness at the root of global survival. “A lack of forgiveness puts the entire world at risk,” he said. “Humanity will continue to struggle until forgiveness is carried in the human heart.”
Enright’s writings clarify what forgiveness is NOT: forgetting, denial, excusing, or receiving justice or compensation. But there’s another thing forgiveness is not: easy. Enright outlined his “Forgiveness Process Model,” a step-by-step guide to forgiving. After answering some preliminary questions (Who hurt you? How deeply were you hurt? On what specific incident will you focus?), the wronged individual must first“uncover his anger” by recognizing how resentment and obsession is affecting his life.Next, said Enright, the individual must make a conscious decision to forgive. The process involves working toward understanding and compassion, as well as accepting the pain caused by the offense. One emerges at the other end with what Enright calls“release from emotional prison.” This, he points out, is the paradox of forgiveness:“As you give of yourself to the other, you are the one that is healed.”Much of the time, we choose not to forgive because we believe the other person doesn't “deserve” our forgiveness. But this central idea–that forgiveness actually benefits the one doing the forgiving–popped up again and again during the conference.
Milwaukee attorney Erin Manian, an Armenian American, grew up hearing about a mass slaughter most Americans don’t even know about. Between 1915 and 1923, about 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated under Turkish rule in the Ottoman Empire. They were deported by force, denied food and water, and subjected to burnings, drownings, poisons and sexual abuse.
And yet the tragedy never wound up on the world’s radar. In fact, Adolph Hitler would use it as a model against the Jews a few years later, rhetorically asking Nazi commanders, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”Turkey–the successor state of the Ottoman Empire–refuses to apply the term“genocide” to the victimization of the Armenians, and for that matter, the United States refuses as well. How can a wrong be forgiven if its existence is denied?“Why is a lack of recognition such a barrier to forgiveness?” asked Manian.“Because we think it demonstrates a lack of power. The Armenian people were stripped of power by being displaced from their homeland, by being stripped of 3,000years of history. Another barrier to forgiveness is that we equate forgiving with forgetting. Why would we want to forget? After all, we don’t want a repeat–for the Armenians or for any other people.”
For the survivors of the Armenian genocide–and for their descendants–anger has served as a kind of bond, said Manian: “We fear that if we forgive, if we forget, then we lose that bond–and again we lose power.” But Manian proposes a huge shift in perception: “If we don’t forgive you, then our empowerment is still in your hands.We have the power to forgive regardless of the actions of Turkey.”
Friday evening’s film, The Power of Forgiveness explored the transformative power of forgiveness using a number of real-world examples. The Amish community of Nickel Mines, Penn., gained national attention by its emphasis on forgiveness after10 schoolgirls were shot, five fatally. The film also included “Gardens of Forgiveness in Beirut and at Ground Zero,” and interviews of Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Wiesel, and Thomas Moore.
The Very Rev. George Morelli, Ph.D., assistant pastor at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in San Diego, addressed the conference Saturday, illustrating how Christ is our model of forgiveness. The model begins with the Godhead itself: “Love is intrinsic to the divinity of the Trinity,” Morelli said. “The depth of the communion of love can’t be understood. Mankind came into existence, but God didn’t need to create mankind–he did it out of love.”
As Christians, we are instructed to hate sin, which Morelli called “an illness and infirmity by which we succumb to our passions and make an evil choice.” He quoted St. Maximus the Confessor, who called evil “a privation of good.” However, he added,in the words of St. Isaac of Syria, “All living creatures exist in God’s mind before their creation.” “What this implies,” Morelli said, “is that their place in the structure of the cosmos is retained even if someone falls away from God.”
So, as in Matthew 5:22-26, we are not to come to the altar while we hold on to anger: “Make friends quickly with your accuser,” the scripture says. But Morelli, who is a clinical psychologist of marriage and family therapy, pointed out psychological as well as spiritual impediments to forgiveness. According to a cognitive behavioral therapy model, cognitive distortions such as “mind-reading,” “fortune-telling,” and“catastrophizing” fuel anger.
For St. John of the Ladder, Morelli said, anger comes down to pride, “the most sinister, fiercest (demon) of all.” And the cure for pride and anger is humility, such as that Christ showed on the cross. “Forgiveness does not mean we have ‘warm fuzzy’feelings toward someone who may have offended us,” said Morelli. “It also does not mean we automatically ‘trust’ anyone to act appropriately. (But) all are to be given respect and courtesy. They are to be prayed for and approached by us in an attempt to reconcile.”
The next presenter, Judith Toy, of Black Mountain, N.C., discussed forgiveness from a Buddhist perspective. Twenty years ago, Toy experienced a nightmare most of us could not begin to imagine: Her sister-in-law Connie and her sons Allen and Bobby were stabbed and bludgeoned to death by the teenage boy who lived across the street. Charles had been a family friend, and no clear motive was ever revealed.He was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison.
“Our family was unanimous in not wanting Charles dead–but not out of idealism or pacifism,” Toy wrote in her book, “Murder as a Call to Love.” “We wanted him to suffer long and hard behind bars. For the rest of his days, we reasoned, he should face what he had wrought.” A Quaker at the time, Toy began to study Zen. After several years of meditation, she felt her anger begin to melt away, and she wanted to tell him so–but before she had the opportunity, Charles committed suicide.“Could I have saved him?” Toy asks today. “I mentally put myself in Charles’ cell and hold him in my arms. … (When you forgive someone) the edges between yourself and others begin to blur.”
“Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” the afternoon film, told the story of Eva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor who, along with her twin sister Miriam, was the object of “medical experimentation” by Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. In defiance of many in the Jewish community, Eva chose to forgive the Nazis–a decision she believed liberated her from victim hood. Eva founded the C.A.N.D.L.E.S. Museum (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiment Survivors) in Indiana. The act of forgiveness allows us to experience paradise now–in this life, said the next speaker, Ágúst Symeon Magnússon, a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “The ancient tradition of the Church of the East places a philosophical and poetic link between the mysteries of forgiveness and paradise,” he said. But “How does one go about forgiving one’s enemies in a way that is appropriate to the spiritual realities in question? As we heard in the preceding quote by John Chrysostom, we must begin at the most basic level, in trying our hardest to not think of any man or woman as our enemy but to try to love them, no matter what they may have done to us or to others.”
Magnússon emphasized that such love is not an emotion or feeling. “Rather, we are asked to transcend purely psychological or emotional categories and to enter into the love of God….If we are able to open our spiritual eyes, the eyes of the and see the world and other people not only in terms of rational concepts or emotional categories but in the light of the mystery of the love of God, in light of the fact that have been forgiven, totally and absolutely–if we accept that love–then perhaps a great deal of anger, hurt and bitterness may be swallowed up in the joy and peace that is the love of God. And this is what paradise is. Simply this.”The image of a terrified little girl, running naked from her burning village, is permanently etched in the memories of many of us–however we feel about the Vietnam War or war in general. AP photographer Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning shot has been credited with shifting American attitudes against the conflict, hastening its end. But whatever became of the child in the picture?
The final session of the conference focused on the issue of war, and featured the film Kim’s Story: The Road from Viet Nam. Kim Phuc was that “little girl in the photo.”Burned over 50 percent of her body, subjected to 17 surgeries, and used by the Vietnamese government as a public relations tool, Kim Phuc (now a Canadian citizen)bears no animosity toward anyone–not even the people who flew the plane that dropped napalm on her village. A mother of two, she travels the globe promoting forgiveness and peace. The movie was followed by a discussion featuring Phan VanDo and Mike Boehm of the My Lai Peace Park Project.
Those who were able to stay until Sunday attended the Divine Liturgy at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Madison, with Fr. Michael Vanderhoef and Fr.Frederick J. Janacek serving. Inside the church, they were surrounded by the iconography of David Giffey, a member of the congregation as well as a member of Veterans for Peace.
It was the perfect conclusion to the conference, which opened minds and hearts.For Christians, forgiveness is not simply an option, it’s an imperative–and not except when it’s too hard, but especially then. As Morelli put it: “Those who have offended most egregiously and performed the most horrific of offenses are to be loved the most.”
❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 62 / October 2011