After He was nailed to the cross, Jesus asked for forgiveness for his executioners. Some 2,000 years later His message of forgiveness is every bit as important now as it was then.
“It’s the hardest thing to give away,
And the last thing on your mind today,
it always goes to those who don’t deserve.
It’s the opposite of how you feel,
When the pain they caused is just too real,
it takes everything you have just to say the word:
~ From the song “Forgiveness” by Matthew West ~
Can you recall a time in your life when someone betrayed your trust? Has a close friend ever gossiped about you, revealing something embarrassing, and in the heat of the moment of confrontation cruel words were spoken between the two of you? Did your spouse walk out on you and immediately start dating someone else? Or have you ever put your time, money, and talent into a project, only to have your efforts ignored or even rejected?
How to Respond
Incidents such as these make us feel hurt and broken. We probably feel a combination of anger, sadness, distrust, and self-pity and want to lash out in response. But what should we do in moments like these? How should we react when trouble comes our way? What do we do when vicious words can’t be taken back, when lies have been revealed, and our eyes are opened to the truth? Should we break down and cry? Maybe we should write an angry e-mail? Or perhaps we should quit working for the company? What about seeking revenge?
In Ephesians 4:26, St. Paul writes: “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity.” And Jesus Himself instructs us: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.” (Mark 11:25).
It seems, in our fallen condition, that holding grudges has become almost second nature. But, clearly, forgiveness plays an important role in the lives of Christ’s followers. This why Reconciliation is such an important sacrament for Catholics. It gives us a chance to repair our relationship with God when sin has strained or broken that bond.
But are there times, or situations, that are truly inexcusable? When our ability to forgive is stretched to the limit? Like when ISIS terrorists are murdering hundreds of innocent people? Or, in our own country, when doctors and nurses perform abortions day in and day out? How about when a peaceful protest festers into an out-of-control riot? Are we truly supposed to forgive the terrorists, the abortionists or the rioters? Sure, Christ has called us to forgive these misguided individuals, but should we… really?
The Nickle Mines Tragedy
On the morning of October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into a one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community of Nickle Mines, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and pulled out a gun. He ordered the boys to get things from his truck and bring them into the classroom: lumber, a shotgun, a rifle, a stun-gun, nails, wire, chains, rope, and tools. Once the items were brought in he barricaded himself and his hostages inside. Then he ordered the girls to line up against the chalkboard and began shooting them. He finally committed suicide, but not before five children had been executed, and another five critically wounded.
In the wake of the tragedy, news personnel swarmed into this quiet corner of Pennsylvania like sharks in a feeding frenzy. One news channel after another tried to find and interview Amish people who would express anger, hatred, and wrath towards Roberts and what he had done. In short, they wanted to show to the world that the Amish are hypocritical; that they really aren’t as peace-minded and forgiving as we think they are.
Truth be told, I don’t have a whole lot of respect for the news media. Too many times when a catastrophe like this happens, reporters don’t stick to reporting the news. Many times, it seems, they really want some kind of sensational follow-up that will keep the story going and allow them to become social commentators instead of news reporters.
A Heroic Response
However, the Amish remained resolute. They told the reporters that they would pray for the souls of the dearly departed, including Roberts’ soul. In addition, they even visited Roberts’ family and offered up monetary donations for them.
When the Amish community persisted in expressing this sentiment of reconciliation and forgiveness, many of the news people pulled up stakes and wandered off. There just wasn’t going to be the retaliation or outcry they were looking for. To this day, over ten years later, I still recall the quiet, heroic Amish response to an angry world that seemed to want some kind of revenge.
A Personal Hurt
While I’ve never been part of a tragedy such as what Nickle Mines experienced, I have had my share of moments that caused anger or hurt. Not too long ago, I was asked provide the music for the Christ Life program being presented at the parish where I was one of the worship musicians. Over the course of two months leading up to the program I spent many hours selecting and practicing the 20 songs that I would be playing during the seven week program. But three weeks into the program the leaders of the program informed me that “some” of the attendees didn’t care for some of the songs I was playing. As such, they had decided that my services as a musician for the remainder of the program would not be required.
Their decision came as a shock. I’d received numerous compliments from many program attendees on my song selection and on my playing during the first three sessions, and told them as much. But they informed me their decision was final. I spent a restless night deciding what I should do. By the next morning I had made up my mind. I told the core team leaders that I couldn’t in good conscience stay on as a worship musician but even so I would fulfill my commitment as a group facilitator till the end of the program.
During the final sessions of the program they played You Tube music videos. What was especially irritating is that many of the You Tube songs that were played were the very same songs that I had planned on playing!
Moving On Through Forgiveness
I did my best to swallow my wounded pride as a result of this incident. As a musician I am well aware that not everyone has the same taste in music and I try to take this into account when I select the music that I will be playing. But the reality is that in a large gathering of people aged from 15 to 75, no one is going to like every song. That the leaders could not recognize this bothered me, as did the way they handled the entire situation. To say there were no hard feelings on my part over how this was all handled would be a lie.
I managed to accept what happened, however, and move on. I chose to forgive, rather than stew in bitterness and anger. Was it easy? Not by a longshot. But I know that what happened was only a bump in the road on my journey through life. And I’d rather focus on what’s at the end of the road – the eternal.