My mind was still reeling from having just returned from seeing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church where three innocent little black girls had died when their church was bombed on September 15, 1963, the National Civil Rights Museum filled with artifacts, photos and stories, and across the street in Ingram City Park, Ronald Scott McDowell’s steel statues of vicious attacking dogs, powerful water hoses and billy clubs misused by policemen, all had been used to prevent blacks from registering to vote before in Alabama. What was even more troubling to me were local senior black residents sitting on some of the park benches explaining what it was like when this occurred to them in their city. Even as a Christian of long standing, I did not understand how there was not a hint of anger or animosity within or among them. They had completely forgiven their oppressors.
Upon our returning to our home at Jenner’s Pond in Pennsylvania, my wife and I attended the West Grove United Methodist Church on Sunday morning where coincidentally the Lead Pastor, Monica Guepet delivered a sermon entitled, Forgiving and Remembering. She began by explained where the phrase, forgive and forget, had originated and stated that words forgive and forget are not found together in meaning in the Bible. I had already known this, but what I had not known or understood is what she made clear next; that it was not only alright, but helpful and necessary for humans to remember their story and name their hurts whether they had occurred intentionally or unintentionally. She credited Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu in their book, The Book of Forgiving published in 2014 for helping her and other readers to understand and practice forgiving, noting that we all have the choice for revenge or forgiveness. After apartheid was resolved in South America in 1993 the Tutu’s sought to find a way for blacks to not rise in revenge. From Archbishop position in the Episcopal Church they lead citizens to forgive and build relationships with their former oppressors. Nelson Mandela who had been in prison for 27 simply because he was black and spoke up for equality years before becoming president provided a leading example, too!
Guepet said that forgiveness is not easy, it may seem almost impossible, but with God’s help and the help of others, it is possible. It worked in South Africa in other families, societies and nations, too! In fact it was already working in Birmingham, Alabama where I had just experienced it.
Following are helpful descriptions of what What Forgiveness Is Not from the Tutu’s book that were printed in Pastor Monica Guepet’s bulletin that morning. Forgiveness is not easy – It requires hard work and a consistent willingness. Forgiveness is not weakness – It requires courage and strength. Forgiveness does not subvert justice – It creates space for justice to be enacted with a purity of purpose that does not include revenge. Forgiveness is not forgetting – It requires a fearless remembering of hurt. Forgiveness is not quick – It can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.
Later I bought a copy of Tutu’s book to see the Revenge and Forgiveness Cycles for myself which was especially helpful to me in realizing how the black residents of South Africa and Birmingham choose not revenge but forgiveness.
Personally, I have never experienced the cruelty of racial injustices and of course do not know how I would react if it occurred to me, but I believe I would rely on the lesson indelibly imprinted on my mind and heart by Guepet’s Forgiving and Remembering sermon after returning from touring and trying to understand how Birmingham, Alabama blacks unpretentiously, quietly, wholeheartedly and unquestionably displayed forgiveness. The crowning touch for me came when Guepet reiterated the third step in the Forgiveness Cycle by Recognizing our Shared Humanity.
No one. not me or you or anyone else, even Jesus Christ has a corner on forgiveness. It’s a gift provided within and hopefully among us before we were even born. We may choose to use this gift to our own health and welfare as well as for those around us. In the Church we seek in every way to practice forgiveness in the holy name of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to my black brothers and sisters as well as Monica Guepet, who helped me understand, accept and practice Forgiving and Remembering. With God and the help of others I pray that I’ll choose and practice forgiveness to bring honor and glory to the Creator God in the holy name of Jesus Christ.