Forgive and Remember
preached* for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 15, 2013
“The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.” -Thomas Szasz
Forgiveness is our topic this September. As you can probably tell from the quote on the order of service, or the title of my sermon, I don’t think “forgive and forget” is a very useful model. I guess I agree with Thomas Szaz that it’s not stupid to forgive and forget, but it is rather naïve.
“Forgive and let go” works better for me. I think about a child spilling milk at the table.
It’s best to forgive and let go. Clean it up and move on. Don’t cry over the spilt milk, as they say, because you can’t unspill it.
But don’t forget. Next time you might not want to have your very important papers next to your daughter’s table setting while she eats. Or you might consider that a sippy cup with a lid is more developmentally appropriate than the cup with no top she drank from last time. I use such a mundane example because I think it’s easier to grasp when the issue isn’t as emotionally charged as say, a rape, or public ridicule, or mass shooting. But it is the extreme case that we struggle with….
How do you forgive the murderer of your child, for example?
The Rev. Cathy Harrington spoke to us last December about just that. Her daughter had been raped and murdered, and years later Cathy testified against the death penalty for her murderer. Forgiveness doesn’t mean all is forgotten, all is well. Her daughter will not be coming back. Life is permanently and irrevocably altered in those families. But work on forgiveness can transform your anger into productive, creative action.
Restorative justice is a way of working forgiveness. I noticed that the Third Sunday film this month is taking place next Sunday (the 22nd) which is actually the fourth Sunday of the month. The film is Burning Bridges and the topic is Restorative Justice, with Nancy Schertzing who has worked with restorative justice in schools, including MSU. Restorative justice may not be the same as, but is in the close theological territory of, forgiveness. It is important work, and may to some of you, seem more relevant than plain old forgiveness.
Doesn’t matter to me what you call it. It matters to me that we try to learn to practice it. That we transform our righteous indignation into positive action. Justice matters. We should be angry when unjust things happen, but we shouldn’t carry around that anger like a burden on our backs, just a little proud of that load of suffering, comparing loads and losses like the people of Grudgeville – in the story we told last week in worship. [If you weren’t here it was about a village of people who carried their grudges on their backs and had forgotten how to get rid of them.]
We told that same story four years ago when we first studied forgiveness together. But I caught something in the story this time around that I hadn’t noticed last time: That was the pride that people can carry in their grudges. Do you remember the line in the story when I said that tourists used to come visit Grudgeville to see all their grudges? They were proud of them!
Have you ever known someone who loved a good grudge? There’s a particular elder in my family, now dead, who loved her grudges. She would love to tell her stories about how someone had wronged her, and how she had paid them back – usually with her sharp tongue. This time through the story of Grudgeville, I thought of her… and then, of course, I was reminded of the times that I was proud of my grudge – times when I knew I was right and that the other was wrong. I would tell the story over and over again, because it made me feel good – because I was right and they were wrong! And my indignation at the error of another felt righteous and justified.
Here’s a perfect example – I love to tell the story of getting a D in a required class in high school called “responsible parenting.” I don’t remember the teacher and I won’t tell you the name of the high school, but it was in Utah. The class started with a jeweler coming in to teach us how to pick out a diamond for an engagement ring! Then, it skipped over any discussion of sex, pregnancy and childbirth, and went on to discuss parenting issues.
I was also taking a class at the local community college, and every time the high school had an assembly, the schedule would get messed up. I would have to choose between attending Responsible Parenting at the high school, or attend my college class. To my high school teacher’s disbelief, I chose to attend the college class…. hence, the D.
It’s a story I love to tell, and I suspect you can hear my pride in that grudge. It’s the pride of a young woman who has already taken a sexuality course at her UU church and has every intention to wait to become a mother until a much later date of her choosing. A woman who imagines herself going to college and completing her education before starting a family.
So anyway, I was struck by that in the story of Grudgeville this time…. had an insight into how it is hard to forgive if we can become attached to our grudges. I’ve been rather attached to my story of my D in Responsible Parenting. [Whenever my son was mad at me, I could tell him it was my fault – that I got a D in responsible parenting.] But we know that memory is subject to lots of influences, and the truth is, it may not have happened as I remember; the class may not been as irrelevant as I remembered it to be. I might not have been as virtuous or intelligent as I liked to think of myself.
Lest you think forgiveness is a personal matter; just between individuals, and not significant beyond the players… I want you to consider the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Most of you in this room know about his murder in 1955 because it was significant beyond the individuals involved – the white married woman he spoke to in the grocery store, her husband and his half-brother who tortured and murdered him, Emmett’s mother in Chicago who insisted on an open casket so the world could see what was done to him. The acquittal of his murderers. This event impacted the country and was a precursor or catalyst, depending on your point of view, to the civil rights movement. Our country is still working on forgiveness around issues of racism and hate and violence. If this is an issue that matters to you, look for activities of the Committee on "The New Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration.”
I thought of Emmett Till because of the news this week from India. I couldn’t actually find the name of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was gang raped and tossed from a moving bus…. which is interesting because her parents went public and named her, agreed to be photographed, and hoped to raise awareness – and yet the media in India continues to refer to her only as Brave Heart.
Brave Heart’s attackers were sentenced to death on Friday. The judge said that the crime “shocked the collective conscience of India.” Just as the death of Emmett Till shocked the collective conscience of the United States. Reports of rape in India are up from last year, a result no doubt of the fact that women who may have felt shame and fear before and not reported sexual assaults – feel empowered to do so now.
I worry, however, that the people of India may feel that justice was done by convicting the rapists to death… and want to put the issue behind them. In fact, we know from the Civil Rights movement in America, that it is not over, after the response to one crime, one acquittal or conviction – the demand for justice must be ongoing for years and decades…. I think the struggle against sexual violence in India and in this world has just begun.
Forgiveness is not just a personal matter, between individuals who have hurt one another. Forgiveness is an ongoing process that matters. It matters at the smallest level, and globally.
Doesn’t matter to me that you call it forgiveness, healing, restoration or restorative justice. It matters to me that we try to learn to practice it. That we transform our righteous indignation into positive action. Justice matters. We should be angry when unjust things happen, but we shouldn’t carry around that anger like a burden on our backs. We need to learn to use that energy to build something constructive and creative and positive, to bring about civil rights for all: persons who are gay, female, black, disabled – for any and all identities we might claim.
Just before I began preaching this morning, the choir sang What Wondrous Love Is This, and asked what is this wondrous love that takes away the pain of my soul. As I reflect on forgiveness, I keep returning to the power of love. I think it requires love to enter into the risky territory of forgiveness. Forgiveness is about relationship, relationship with another, relationship with oneself, and we only have so much control in any relationship There’s an element of mystery when we open ourselves up to another, another’s pain, another’s joy – when we open ourselves up so that others may witness our pain, our joy – it gets personal. And yet, by getting personal, we open ourselves up to the experience of change, the transforming, wondrous love that can take away the pain of our soul.
Maya Angelou said, “I think love is that condition in the human spirit so profound that it allows us to forgive and it may be the energy which keeps the stars in the firmament, I’m not sure.” I love that sentence.
Forgiveness is about giving up resentment and giving up the power to punish another for an injustice. Forgiveness is about healing and restoration and love. May we forgive ourselves and each other.
You are loved and may you know that always.
* Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written. I have not edited this sermon to written form.