A year and half after the traffic accident which claimed the life of my mother and three of her friends (known locally as Pie Ladies of their church), the man responsible for the crash goes on trial this week.
The outcome, obviously, is in the hands of the judge who will entertain arguments and weigh evidence. One can only hope for a fair sentence. If you do the crime, you do the time.
The law, however, cannot forgive. Only people forgive.
At least they try. Christians repeatedly intone Jesus’ model prayer asking God to forgiven their trespasses as they (ahem) forgive those who trespass against them. Whether they practice what they pray is another matter.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu who was in London last weekend, chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and wrote the book No Future Without Forgiveness. While the commission had its failures, Tutu still maintains that it spared his country the kind of strife many had expected with the end of white-minority rule.
He says that forgiveness is an act of self-interest because it releases us from the bonds that hold us captive to the forgiven.
The physical as well as emotional benefits of forgiveness are well documented. Still Tutu admits how hard it can be. We like to think of ourselves as forgiving — until we have to forgive. We bury the hatchet but we know precisely where it is buried. People who couldn’t carry a grudge keep beating themselves up over faux pas long ago.
It’s hard to offer forgiveness to someone who doesn’t ask for it. The accused in the case of the Pie Ladies is currently pleading not guilty. The power of forgiveness is frustrated if the offenders wrap themselves in the cloak of defiance.
And we tire of having to forgive. Peter asked Jesus if he had to forgive seven times. Jesus told Peter to put away the calculator because in God’s math, the formula for forgiveness was seventy times seven which approached infinity.
Love, as Paul would later write, does not keep a record of wrongs.
Sometimes we have trouble being forgiven. After our weekly Prayer of Confession, worshippers are assured of Divine pardon. It’s not that we can’t remember something so simple. It’s just that sometimes the weight of guilt feels heavy even for everlasting arms. We need to be assured as often as we confess that though scarlet, our sins can be turned white as snow. That heaven, as the old bumper sticker proclaimed, is not populated by the perfect, just the forgiven.
In the meantime, we struggle with the sins of others, stealing our innocence, killing off our accomplishments or accomplices. We say we can forgive but we can’t forget. Might as well say we can’t forgive.
The path to forgiveness is long and often circuitous. As in the hours spent in a courtroom, we may have to stop and retrace steps in order to move forward free of the corrosion of bitterness and the pain of wounded pride.
As the late Paul Tillich said of forgiveness, it’s remembering in order to forget.
Rev. Bob Ripley, author and syndicated columnist, is the Senior Minister of Metropolitan United Church in London Ontario.