The nature of forgiveness
In one of the final episodes of the television series The World at War, a German woman, speaking some 30 years after the war, described what it was like to be without food, or shelter, at the mercy of an occupying army in 1945. Looking directly at the interviewer, she said that a young woman at that time would do anything, and she emphasised anything, for some small comfort or relief for herself or her family.
Her story came to mind when the abuse and exploitation of women and children by aid workers in Haiti and elsewhere was exposed in recent months.
It is beyond comprehension that anyone could take advantage of people struggling to survive but it has always happened because as Jeremiah put it, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Inevitably there were those who demanded that funding be withheld but that would only compound the injustice by depriving desperate people struggling to survive.
Were the few agency workers who behaved so badly in Haiti and elsewhere good people doing bad things or bad people doing good things?
In Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, the Rev Eli Jenkins prays for the community in what is known as the Sunset poem.
He is very honest about himself and the people he ministers to: “We are not wholly bad or good/who live our lives under Milk Wood,/ and Thou, I know, wilt be the first/to see our best side, not our worst.”
He is addressing a God who, although he knows well the evil side of humanity, recognises that we are not totally bad.
We have to be honest with ourselves and with God: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Being honest with and about ourselves is not as easy as it sounds. The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground acknowledges that as he looks back over his life he recalls things from his past that trouble him:
“Every man has reminiscences he would not tell everyone but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind that he would not reveal even to his friends but only to himself and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. The more decent he is the greater the number of such things in his mind. I have only lately determined to remember some of my early adventures; till now I have always avoided them even with a certain uneasiness. Now when I am not only recalling them but have actually decided to write an account of them I want to try the experiment whether one can ever with oneself be perfectly open and not take fright at the whole truth.”
Many of us will identify with Dostoyevsky’s words because it is true for most people if not all that there are in our pasts things said and done which cause us pain and which we would rather forget.
But forgetting does not deal with the problem and that is where the gospel reading offers words of comfort.
In perhaps his most important post-resurrection appearance, Jesus gives the church her marching orders and among them is this command: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
It is the great privilege of the church to convey the message of God’s forgiveness in a world where people do and will go on doing terrible things.
Billy Graham, who died recently, said: “In these days of guilt complexes perhaps the most glorious word in the English language is forgiveness.”
Gordon Linney, formerley Archdeacon of Dublin, writing in the Irish Times ‘Thinking Anew ‘ column.