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Fr Michael Lapsley SSM has kindly allowed Leadership to publish his speech on forgiveness

I cannot help wondering about your own views on forgiveness and how has your lived experience changed what you believe?

When I spoke to you on Thursday evening, I mentioned that during this conference I would be having two encounters with people in Myanmar.

The whole country is suffering under a very heartless military occupation with immense suffering. On top of that, many thousands have lost their homes in the cyclone during the last week.

The first meeting I had with our friends in Myanmar was with a group of Christians. First, they shared some of their pain, including losing all their possessions when they had to flee for their lives.

Then they asked me three questions:

  1. How can we forgive?
  2. Should we participate in the fighting?
  3. When the conflict comes to an end how should we treat the perpetrators?

Existential questions from people on the front line.

Let me share with you some thoughts about forgiveness. Hopefully you will excuse me when you hear me talking out both sides of my mouth on the subject of forgiveness.

Often people, especially in faith communities, speak as if forgiveness is something glib and cheap and easy, but in my experience, most human beings find it costly, painful, and difficult. Sometimes I work with clergy of different churches. I ask them if they find forgiveness easy in their own lives. No they reply. So then I ask them if or when they preach they tell their people that. “Oh no, we never tell them that.”

When people are hurting, well intentioned people, especially religious people, tell them that they should forgive. Unintentionally we use forgiveness as a weapon against hurting people. When we are hurting, often what we need is a hug not a sermon. We need our pain to be heard and acknowledged.

Let me speak out the other side of my mouth. I have met people all over the world for whom forgiveness is the key to their healing. The inability to forgive imprisons some people. Hatred and bitterness becomes all consuming.

Interestingly, the Greek word for forgivenes in the New Testament, ‘aphiemi’, also means ‘untying a knot’. When there is unforgiveness we are prisoners of one another.

All the great faith traditions have something to say about forgiveness.

When I tell my story, I often say that I am not full of hatred and I dont want revenge. Often someone will respond by asserting that I am a wonderful example of forgiveness. Strangely, I had not mentioned the word forgiveness.

As I stand here today, in relation to my bombing in April 1990, I have not forgiven anyone, because no one has come forward and accepted responsibiliy. Personally, I do not know what it means to forgive an abstraction. If you do that’s fine, but I don’t.

However, in my mind I imagine an encounter with someone who was responsible for the bombing. Of course the reality may be very different from my imagination.

Someone knocks on my door and says, “I am the one who sent you the letter bomb please will you forgive me?” What do I say? “Yes”, “No” or “Not yet”?

I might ask, “Excuse me, sir, do you still make letter bombs?”

“No, I work not far from you at the local hospital, will you forgive me?”

“Yes, I forgive you and personally I would prefer that you spend the rest of your life working at that hospital rather than be locked up in prison because I believe much more in the justice of restoration than the justice of punishment.”

So often when we say justice we mean punishment if not revenge, but there is another kind of justice, the justice of transformation, the justice of restoring relationships.

Ok, so then I would suggest that we have tea together… “So, sir, I have forgiven you, but I still have no hands, I still only have one eye, my ear drums are still damaged. I will always need someone to assist me for the rest of my life. Of course you will help pay for that person, not as a condition of forgiveness, but as part of reparation and restitution in the ways that are possible.”

That is one scenario. More recently I have been confronted with the possibility that the key person involved in my bombing may be still working today as a gun runner. I am not sure what my response would be to such an encounter with that person.

At the end of April it was the 33rd anniversary of my bombing. The anniversary provided a moment of reflection.

As the years have passed I have found gratitude—a very helpful pair of spectacles with which to view life.

So another part of me would like to meet the one who made the bomb and to thank him. Because of his actions I have gained a worldwide ministry and the opportunity to contribute to the healing of the human family.

I have lost hands for which I will always grieve. But that has also given me the ability to connect with other people’s wounds who are less visible than mine but no less real.

In our work, we have been having a conversation for a long time about what we call “bicycle theology”. I wonder if you have bicycle theology in your country?

I have noticed already that in Osnabrück there are almost more bicycles than people.

So bicycle theology is when I steal your bike. Some time later, I come back and confess that I have stolen your bike. I ask for your forgiveness. You forgive me. I keep the bike.

Often we reduce forgiveness to saying sorry, but we don’t return the bike.

We have a global network of healing of memories. We had a meeting of the network two weeks ago.

One of the participants was from Namibia. I think you are all aware of the German genocide against the Herero and Nama people in 1904 during which between 24 000 to 100 000 Hereros were killed; 10 000 Namaqua were killed.

My colleague, Lizette, spoke about a forthcoming workshop in which there would be a couple of people from the German speaking community.

Lizette said this was a breakthrough because of the feelings within the Herero and Nama towards German people. This speaks to healing the wounds of history, intergenerational trauma, and how do we return the bike.

Of course it also relates to how we find life giving ways of responding to guilt and shame in relation to what previous generations did in our name and on our behalf.

Many years ago, I met Abigail in the US. She belonged to an organisation called, ‘Relatives of Murder Victims Against the Death Penalty’. The man who killed her daughter was on death row. Some time after the death of her daughter Abigail decided that she had forgiven the perpetrator.

Then one day Abigail read in the newspaper that the perpetrator was to be executed. Her instant response was, “I want to be there to watch.”

Perhaps the earlier decision was in her mind rather than her heart.

It turned out the newspaper article was not true.

Subsequently, the perpetrator wrote and asked if Abigail would be willing to meet him. The family were divided as to whether or not she should meet him. She decided to go and meet with him.

After the face to face encounters with the man who killed her daughter, Abigail forgave him. This journey had taken 13 years.

Someone asked Abigail how she would feel if eventually the perpetrator was executed.

Abigail responded, “I would have lost a dear friend.”

I have found that many people find it within themselves to forgive terrible crimes committed by anonymous individuals or those who act as part of evil systems. But often the same people are unable to forgive family members and those with whom they have intimate relationships. I guess that is in part because we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in those spaces.

Forgiveness is spoken about and encouraged in many holy texts particularly in the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, and Christanity.

However, may I suggest that forgiveness is important for all human beings regardless of whether or not people are religious. Would any marriage last for more than five minutes without forgiveness?

In his book, ‘No Future Without Forgiveness’, Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of Beth Savage, who was injured when APLA operatives attacked members and guests at the King William’s Town Golf Club.

“Beth Savage told us she thought her father died of a broken heart. She said that even at the time of the hearing in 1996 she could not go through a security checkpoint at any airport. All sorts of alarms and lights would flash because she still had shrapnel in her body. What she said of her experience which had left her in this condition was quite staggering and unbelievable.

“All in all what I must say is through the trauma of it all I honestly feel richer. I think it has been a really enriching experience for me and a growing curve and an ability to relate to other people who may be going through trauma…”

When asked about how she felt about amnesty for the perpetrator she said: “It’s not important for me but I have said this to many people, ‘What I would really really like is… I would like to meet the man who threw that grenade in an attitude of forgiveness and hope that he could forgive me too for whatever reason. But I would very much like to meet him.’”

So here was a white woman who was the victim of a black guerilla fighter recognising that she needed forgiveness from him because of how she had lived her life in apartheid South Africa.

My final story is about Amy Biel. Amy was a visiting student from the United States studying in South Africa towards the end of apartheid. She was killed by a group of angry young black people on the way home from a political meeting.

Her parents, Linda and Peter, came to South Africa. They supported amnesty for the young men who had killed her. In honour of their daughter, they set up a foundation in South Africa and employed one of the young men who killed their daughter.

On one occasion, I was on a radio program with Linda. Linda said that in terms of her own faith journey there was never any other way forward but that of forgiveness. A woman phoned up beside herself with with anger. She screamed, “How dare you forgive”. Linda’s choice to forgive confronted the caller with her own inability to forgive.

So dear family, forgiveness is often a long, difficult, and messy journey.

Before people are able to begin that journey they need their pain to be heard. Many need the spirit of the divine to even want to forgive. It is also easier for the direct survivor than for the relative of the victim to forgive.

We have to figure out how to return the bike.

I like to think of forgiveness as an act of healthy selfishness… what I need to do that I may be free… an act of self liberation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was correct: “There is no future without forgiveness.”

May God bless us all.

I thank you.

Fr Michael Lapsley SSM is the President of the Healing of Memories Global Network.

By Editor