When I show up on Sunday mornings, I like to wake things up a bit. I like to send the kids off with some new spiritual tools to rev up the “normal” in their weeks. As a high school Sunday school teacher, I make sure that I am really, really prepared… podcasts, videos, new music, thought- provoking questions. Also, I am equally prepared to toss the prep work and listen to what these kids need to discuss. Last Sunday was one of those times when I threw aside my plans.
The first question went like this, “How do I get peace? You know… after that shooting thing in South Carolina? What was that about?”
I had been researching material for a column on forgiveness anyway, so I had the stripped down answer: “forgiveness = peace.”
“Ahhh.” (pause – heads nodding in agreement) “So what does that mean?” We discussed Nelson Mandela’s decided freedom from all anger, bitterness or resentment, when released from prison. That was forgiveness. We touched on Joseph – thrown by his brothers into a pit and left to die. He then became a respected leader and ultimately saved those same brothers from starvation. That was forgiveness. We talked about Jesus on the cross and his plea, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” That was definitely forgiveness.
These cases of forgiveness contributed not only to the well-being of the forgiver, but also to the welfare of future generations. All of this was profound, especially since it was still pretty early in the morning for a bunch of teenagers. I was pleased with the depth of our conversation and ready to get on with my lesson plans. Oops, not so fast.
Their second question went like this, “Great, but how’d they do it?”
My turn for a pause. I did have an example in thought, since I had been researching forgiveness. So, I shared my own story of sweat-equity-investment in volunteerism, a carefully planned, team project that turned to chaos on presentation day. It was narrowly (but effectively) righted, and when the dust settled, just one person lingered on my grudge list. That grudge grew and got carried around for awhile (ok, a couple of years). Finally, forgiveness was found and the new friendship was well under way.
In my case, realizing forgiveness happened in a moment; it was a revelation of sorts. I perceived that we had both been doing our best, that the other guy was innocent – in fact, so was I. That realization, (which I gratefully attribute to God) gave me a painless opportunity to forgive and it gave me peace. I was aware, too, that if we spent our future careers avoiding one another. Well let’s just say that as allies, the possibility to work on a project together that would bless our fellow humans (at least a small pocket of them) was much better.
So, realizing another’s innocence, is the key to “how they did it.” (At least that’s what I told the class.)
With the question, “how do you do it?” now turned back to the class, we decided to try it – we decided to realize the innocence of the South Carolina shooter. Out loud, we talked through the account in Genesis 1 of man created “in His image and likeness” – pure and innocent. We reasoned through the spiritual nature of God and came to the conclusion that since God is Spirit, we all must be inherently spiritual. Why would He create anything less than Spirit? We talked about God’s infinite goodness – we are His image, so we must also express infinite goodness. In infinity, there isn’t really room for “badness” to be expressed or experienced. We also found a connection with one another at a very foundational level – that we all share one Father – there was a deep sense of unity in Love; even with the shooter in South Carolina.
And that is how we never got to my lesson plan last Sunday.
It’s said that “unforgiveness is sort of like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.” (Marianne Williamson) That lingering sense of injustice, unreleased anger, or unwillingness to let “them” off the hook, can make it difficult to forgive and can lead to chronic stress and a host of health issues.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, is defined by treating an offender as not guilty (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary). By so doing, one finds peace, freedom to progress; even goodness. Forgiveness is clinically linked to relieving stress, boosting the immune system and improving one’s overall health. Psychologists and world thinkers alike, all get back to that same point – to forgive, the offender must ultimately be held innocent in our own hearts and then treated that way.
The interesting thing about forgiveness, is this: It starts with an individual and remains the work of the individual but when it is accomplished, it blesses not only the health and well being of that individual but the community and world in which she lives.
Jonathan Lockwood Huie says, “Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.” My Sunday school class would say, “Forgive others because God created them innocent so they’re worth it, and because all mankind deserves peace.”