This article first appeared in Itchen Valley News November 2020
Every November we mark two events which cause us to think back – Remembrance Sunday and All Souls Day. On Remembrance Sunday we stand (doubtless socially distanced this year) at each of our war memorials and remember those who have given their lives for our country; in the First World War, the Second World War or in conflicts since then. On All Souls Day we pause to remember those we have loved who are no longer with us. This period of time is known in the Anglican church calendar as ‘Remembrancetide’.
A couple of encounters that I have had in the Parish recently have prompted me to think about how we reflect on those who have died and the circumstances of their deaths. We can of course think back with gratitude and respect at lives which were well-lived, even if those lives were shorter than they might have been. But it seems to me that it is at least as likely that some of us think back with anger and resentment at those lives cut short, perhaps directed at those we see as responsible for the deaths of our loved ones: the enemy action, the drunk driver, the incompetent doctor, whatever.
I worked for three years in my young adulthood as a lawyer in Dubai. I remember one particular evening ringing my mother who I knew was in hospital in England having an operation to see how she was. I reached the nurse on the ward who said, ‘Has no-one called you? We don’t expect her to survive the night!’ Of course, I got on the first plane home available, but she had died before I could get there. I was very angry for a long time, particularly as I discovered that the hospital concerned had failed to diagnose her illness correctly and then (as I perceived it) sought to cover the fact up. On one occasion a few months later I met a doctor at a party and told her this story at length and how angry I was. She said, ‘I hope you feel better’….which of course did not help me much at all! It took me some years to forgive the hospital and doctor concerned. But I was wrong to take so long to forgive them.
When we fail to forgive, we end up damaging ourselves. As one commentator has put it, ‘failing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die’. Jesus was asked (Matthew 18:22) how many times we should forgive someone who has injured us. He was asked ‘should I forgive him as many as seven times?’ Jesus replied ‘not seven times, but seventy times seven’. ‘But’ you may say, ‘You don’t understand. If you had any idea of the lack of justice, the appalling behaviour of the person that I cannot forgive, then you would not even consider forgiveness as appropriate!’ But Jesus teaches us that we are to forgive regardless of the seriousness of the abuse, regardless of whether the person concerned has asked for forgiveness or even if they don’t want or care about being forgiven. ‘Well that’s outrageous’ you may think…..
Sometimes part of the problem is that we don’t understand what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not: ignoring, forgetting, diminishing, suppressing, pardoning, condoning, excusing, justifying, understanding, the person who has harmed us or giving approval of or denying what they have done. It is not reconciling with them, because reconciliation is a two way process. Forgiveness is a one way street.
As RT Kendall reveals in his amazing book Total Forgiveness,
Forgiveness is releasing them. It is simply letting go of what they have done to us and choosing not to keep a record of it. Forgiveness is choosing to give up bitterness or the desire to punish or make them pay, by gossiping about them or by seeking revenge. It is achieved by being merciful to them, being gracious in our dealings with them when we pray for the person who has hurt us. Even if we can forgive, we should never conceal from the authorities when a criminal office has been committed. We owe that to society. But this is really about our hearts and how we feel about the person concerned.
Forgiveness can be needed in our dealings with colleagues, friends or relations or even other nations, as we come to remember conflicts of the past. Forgiveness can change the world.
Gordon Wilson was wounded and his 20-year-old daughter Marie was one of 11 Protestant civilians killed by an Irish Republican Army bomb on Remembrance Sunday 1987. “I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her,” Mr. Wilson, bruised and bloody after being pulled from the rubble, told the BBC. “But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.”
The BBC would later describe the bombing as a turning point in the Troubles because Gordon Wilson’s response to the attack shook the IRA “to its core”. The Peace Process followed.
‘How could he do that?’ We might ask? Certainly, to be able to forgive so instantaneously Wilson must have spent a lifetime forgiving people for the injuries both trivial and significant that he had endured and spent a lifetime trusting that God would ensure that justice was eventually done.
If we want the world to change, forgiveness needs to be at the centre of our lives and Remembrancetide is a good moment to consider who we can forgive and getting on with doing so. If we do this, we will be able to play our own small part in changing the world.
If you are having challenges forgiving anyone and would like to speak to me about this please do contact me so that we can talk.
Revd. Alex Pease