(This blog is taken from a recent talk given in Chapel to the girls by Mr Marc Thomas, Head of RS). The theme of my Chapel presentation this morning is forgiveness. It is not a light-hearted theme for us to consider.
I know that forgiveness is not easy – and I find it personally very challenging – Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.’ It was only last week that we were remembering the fallen of the First World War. Some of those who fought and suffered in World Wars say that they can never forgive those who inflicted such pain and suffering.
Given the terrible events that occurred in Paris this month and in the weeks following, the question on the lips of many Frenchmen and women, is – can such terrorist atrocities be forgiven? Amidst all the emotional upset, distress and anger there has been much talk of revenge, retribution and retaliation. Those who perpetrated those terrible events did so out of hatred for their victims, and they have in turn inspired hatred for them and their cause.
Antoine Leiris is a Frenchman who lost his wife in the massacre at the Bataclan Theatre. He wrote an open letter in the media to the terrorists who had cruelly taken away his wife from him – the mother of their 17 month-old son. He wrote these words: ‘On Friday night you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you won’t have my hatred. So no, I don’t give you the gift of hating you. You are asking for it but responding to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are.’
These are powerful words. They echo the words of Oscar Wilde, who said: ‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.’
How can Antoine Leiris respond like this? They are astounding words, inspiring words. But they are not expressing a unique response to tragedy.
It was 2nd October, 2006. It was a typical autumn day. Birds could be heard in the distance and little else, except maybe the clip-clop of a horse’s hoofs and the rattling of a buggy heading down a back country road. It’s normally quiet and peaceful in the rolling Amish farmlands of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA.
The Amish people of the Pennsylvania plains trace their heritage back hundreds of years, and yet, despite all the time that has passed and the many changes that have taken place in society, they still live and work much as their forefathers did. Their families and their farms are their top priorities, second only to God.
The Amish are very devout in their Christian faith. They believe worldliness can keep them from being close to God, and can introduce influences that could be destructive to their communities and to their way of life. They don’t permit electricity or telephones in their homes. By restricting access to television, radio and the internet, the Amish are better able to keep the modern world from intruding into their home life. But that peaceful scene was shattered when the sound of gunfire was heard from inside an Amish school. When local police broke into the one-room Amish schoolhouse they found that ten Amish girls aged 6-13 had been shot by local milk deliveryman Charles Roberts, who had then committed suicide.
Sadly such horrendous tragedies happen from time to time but what made this particular shooting hit the headlines across the world in the weeks that followed, was the Amish community’s amazing response to the death of ten of their children.
In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with lawyers at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family. The afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts.
That same day Amish neighbours visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral. Since that day the Amish community has given financial assistance to the killer’s widow and her three young children. They truly did forgive.
But how is such astounding forgiveness possible? I don’t expect that anyone in this chapel has as much to forgive as Antoine Leiris or that Amish community but we all need to forgive and to receive forgiveness. In our school community we are hurt and upset by the words and actions of others. We hurt and upset each another by our own words and actions. So we’re faced with a choice. Shall we respond to hatred with hatred? Shall we seek revenge and retaliation? Shall we harbour bitterness and anger in our hearts? Or shall we seek God’s help to be kind and loving and to forgive one another?
We all know the words of the Lord’s Prayer which Jesus taught – it includes these challenging phrases that we say to God: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, or sins, as we forgive those who trespass – sin – against us.’
The Amish say that they can and must forgive the pain and hurt caused by Charles Roberts in 2006 because they know that they themselves have been forgiven by God.
I close with the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 1984 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s following the end of the violently racist apartheid regime and the liberating of Nelson Mandela: ‘When I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the one who has hurt you. You can move on, and you may even help the perpetrator to become a better person too. Without forgiveness there is no future.’