“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”Colossians 3:13As President Obama stepped into a pulpit to console a family and a nation after a hate-filled man killed nine black worshippers in a Bible Study, he also called the country to account for its racist legacy. The New York Times called the speech, “…one of his presidency’s most impassioned reflections on race” during his eulogy to the slain state senator and minister, Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
To the surprise, if not consternation, of some, various family members of the murdered parishioners proclaimed that they forgave the shooter. Just one day after the massacre at Emanuel, a son of victim Sharonda Coleman-Singleton said he forgave his mother's killer. The following day, family members of the dead joined the first court hearing for the21-year-old killer and told him via video conference that they, too, forgave him — even as some acknowledged also feeling angry and hurt. Alana Simmons, granddaughter of victim, Rev. Daniel Simmons put it his way:"Everyone's plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love. So hate won't win.”
After the killing at Mother Emmanuel, Jamilah Lemieux, a Senior Editor at Ebony wrote,
“Despite my personal hurt over the idea that anyone on this planet should forgive such a vile creature as Roof … I can’t help but wonder what it feels like to have the sort of peace that the black church seems to provide for so many others. Granted, for some the church inspires a lazy, inept sense that “Jesus paid it all’ that they don’t have to use their God-given gifts to do anything measurable to improve the world, and that our Earthly suffering at the hands of racism will be rewarded with milk and honey in the afterlife.” Lemieux’s article points to a nuanced form of public theology around conflict and forgiveness. She points to a world in which Jesus comes to heal the world; not only of our illnesses and individual sins, but also to exorcise the demonic lies that uphold oppressive systems. It’s a theology that says: If Christians want to walk in the steps of the living Christ, then our teaching, our healing, and our spiritual care must challenge the corrupted foundations that people think are keeping them steady.
While the meaning of forgiveness in black church faith is complex, their forgiveness is not about the exoneration of the killer for the deadly injustice he perpetrated. It is about the loving justice of God and the liberation of the families from the killer’s sinful act. Forgiveness opens a way forth to a new relationship with history and a sense of being a people. It opens the way for healing relationship with one another even with God. Forgiveness recognizes that the love of God is more powerful than white racist hatred.
Making the choice to forgive can be a liberating practice. We must remember that forgiveness is possible because we have the ability to make choices. We have the choice to forgive or not to forgive. No one can force us to do either. If we want to forgive someone, no one can stop us no matter how poorly the offender may have acted.
Forgiveness happens in stages. In the beginning, you are filled with self justified anger. At some point in your life, you have been wounded and you are mad at and hurt by the person who wronged you. You blame the offending person for how you are feeling. You are certain that it is another’s actions that cause your distress. You have forgotten that you have choices as to how you can react. You feel so injured that you are convinced it would not be right to forgive the offense. You are angry. You are in pain. But anger and pain don’t have to declare the final word.
The second step towards forgiveness emerges when, after feeling upset with someone for a while, you realize that the hurt and anger do not feel good to you. It may be impacting your emotional balance or your physical health. You may wish to repair the damage done to the relationship. You may begin to see the problem from the other person’s point of view. You may simply decide to let the problem go. In either case, after a while you are no longer done in by your anger. You forgive the person with whom you were angry.
The third stage of forgiveness comes after you have seen the results of forgiveness. You are now ready to work to either repair damaged relationships or let go of seeing the situation as a problem. You decide to forgive because you have had some practice with it and see the benefit in your life. At this stage of forgiveness you are aware that the length of time you experience a situation as a grievance is primarily up to you.
I can tell you exactly how when my thinking about forgiveness changed in my own life. I was reading a quote about hypocrisy by the famous activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin. He wrote, “Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not as anything we are not. Generally, we try to pass ourselves off as something that is special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching. “
Reading that quote changed my perspective. I realized that I’m human and I act to protect the wellbeing of myself and my family. Others are human, and they act to preserve their interests. I don’t need to harbor anger. I can make a different choice. I can forgive. And I hope that people can forgive me. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. If I have done things that anger you, I ask for your forgiveness. If I make decisions that you don’t understand or agree with, please forgive me. And if you can’t do that, at least know that I make decisions that are imperfect. If I say or do something and your feelings are hurt, please forgive me. And if you say or do something and I let me feelings get hurt, I will work to forgive you. Let’s walk in the healing love and unity that can be the trademark of our congregation.
Thankfully, that’s not the end of the journey. There is still one more step to forgiving without punishing.
The fourth stage of forgiveness involves the choice to rarely if ever take offense in the first place. There is an ancient and well-kept secret to happiness that sages have known for centuries. They rarely talk about it, but they use it all the time. This secret is called The Fine Art of Not Being Offended. In order to truly be a master of this art, one must be able to see that every statement, action and reaction of another human being is the sum result of one’s total life experience to date. In other words, the majority of people in our world say what they say and do what they do from their own set of fears, conclusions, defenses and attempts to survive. We all act out of self interest. When we understand that, the world can become more manageable.
Maybe you are now at a point in your life where you don’t want to waste your precious life in the discomfort caused by anger or hurt. You are ready to feel differently. You are able to forgive yourself, forgive others, forgive life, and forgive God.
Maybe you’ve learned that life is filled with incredible beauty and wonder and you are missing these experiences when you’re stuck in the remembrance of old hurts or disappointments.
Perhaps you realize that everyone, including you, operates primarily out of self-interest. In my self-interest, I will be annoyed by someone else’s self-interest. If I can understand this is an ordinary part of life, what is there to be upset about? If I understand that self-interest is my guiding principle, how can I not offer forgiveness to everyone, including myself for behaving that way?
In this sense, forgiveness is an art. It takes practice, discipline, and patience to get to a point where you desire not to get offended in the first place.
As it turns out, there is also some science to forgiveness. Forgiveness may be a choice and a discipline, but it also comes from the involuntary level of impulses. The subconscious is ruled by our most in-grained fears and desires. If we can train our impulses to crave reconciliation and lessen fear, then the world can be changed one thought at a time.
I’m going to keep this very basic, because that’s all I can understand. There is a part of the brain called the Cingulate Gyrus. The Cingulate Gyrus is an evolved feature of the mammalian brain. It functions as a clearing house for the subconscious mind, deciding which primal instincts are appropriate for a given situation. Think of the Cingulate as the belt around your consciousness. It functions in the brain a little like a mediator. It helps restore balance between your thoughts and your feelings, between behaviors and emotions.
What’s this got to do with forgiveness? Research shows that activity increases in the Cingulate during moments of forgiveness. The brain is hardwired for forgiveness. Your brain is able to consider another person’s intentions, another person’s emotional state and the forgivability of another’s actions. If the brain wasn’t so crowded out with competing demands and opposing stories from the past, there would be more forgiveness because our brains would be free to do what they can do so well. We tend to think that forgiveness only benefits the person being forgiven. However, research shows that forgiveness is good for the person forgiving as well. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system.
This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, longer lasting marriages, and stronger social networks.
The science and spirit of forgiveness is summed up like this: You can forgive without punishing others. You can absorb pain and injustice without becoming a bitter person. You can come face to face with pain, your own and others, without becoming hostile. Forgiveness is good for you, and so much better than holding on to resentment. Forgiveness is one of the powerful thoughts that change the world, beginning with your inner world. Stop expecting the world to be perfect. Forgive. Forgive because it’s part of your biological make-up.Forgive because it’s good for others. Forgive because it’s good for you. Forgive because God forgives us.
Say to yourself:
May I be at peace. May I be a lake of forgiveness. May I be truly happy.
Think of someone who has harmed you, or needs your forgiveness:
May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering. May you be free from pain. May you be happy.
Bring all the peoples of the world into your focus:
May the world be at peace. May it be free from suffering. May it be free from pain. May it be happy.
Finally, bring the Earth into your focus:
May she be at peace. May she be free from suffering. May she be free from pain. May she be happy.
• “'The Science and Spirit of Forgiveness " By Ian Lawton. February 24, 2008
• The Art and Science of Forgiveness by Frederic Luskin, Ph.D. Available online at http://www.cancersupportivecare.com/forgive.html