UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Neil Webb

Conundrums

Can forgiveness be forced?

By Christopher Levan


"Say you’re sorry!" In her right hand, my mother is holding the dislocated arm of my sister’s prized doll. Behind her, sobs are coming from my sister’s bedroom. I mumble something about not knowing the doll would come apart when swinging it over the balcony railing. Not good enough; I am marched into the bedroom to face my sister.

She looks up, angry tears still present. I had taken her best toy and ruined it.

“I’m sorry for breaking your doll,” I say, a bit frightened.

She’s silent, and Mom turns to her: “He’s sorry. Now you say you forgive him.” Long pause. “It’s okay,” she replies quietly. “I forgive you.”

Forced forgiveness. It happens in every household. Parents walk their children through the steps of reconciliation and pardon. When we are young, we aren’t sure what’s happening in this dance of forgiveness, miming words we don’t entirely understand.

As adults, we know forgiveness to be one of the most perplexing human emotions. On the one hand, we cannot manufacture forgiveness at will. It is a spiritual miracle that comes to our hearts from another realm. Someone hurts us, and the injury stings for some time; then one morning we wake, and it no longer has the same grip on us.

On the other hand, while we cannot produce forgiveness, we can take some important steps that might ultimately lead to it. First, naming the injustice: “You broke the doll’s arm.” Second, restoring what was taken or broken: “Maybe I can fix it.” And third, honouring the regret of the perpetrator: “He’s sorry.” Finally, we wait for the miracle of forgiveness to arrive.

Stating the steps so logically makes forgiveness sound simple. However, human creatures are rarely that one-dimensional. Often our injuries are dynamic. You hurt me, so I retaliate, and now we’re both needing forgiveness and restitution. Or I hold on to the injury, not wanting resolution, preferring the self-righteousness of being a victim. What if the perpetrator has no idea of the injury he or she has inflicted? To further complicate things, many of us can help others find forgiveness but can’t forgive ourselves.

Even though we can’t force forgiveness, I am stunned by its power. It is one of the most potent emotions, proving the adage that love can triumph over evil. An example: on Jan. 16, 2009, Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor who worked in Israel, came home to discover his house in Gaza had been blasted by an Israeli tank, killing two of his daughters and a niece outright. He held a third daughter in his arms while she died. I cannot think of a more harrowing experience. And yet, that night, he went on national television, declaring, “I shall not hate.” The death of his children, rather than provoking animosity and vengeance, led him to promote new pathways for peace and forgiveness between Palestinians and Israelis.

In my work as a minister, I have taken to concluding many services with the affirmation that we live by forgiveness. We are broken creatures requiring equal measures of justice and love, mercy and reconciliation. The more we practise the words of pardon, the more we prepare ourselves both to receive and offer it.

In John’s Gospel (20:23), the post-Easter Jesus offers his disciples the Holy Spirit and then follows this high point with a reminder about forgiving. Forced or not, forgiveness is a lesson we’re still learning.

Rev. Christopher Levan is a minister at College Street United in Toronto.



Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Columns

(Photo: cuatrok77/Flickr via Creative Commons)

Cormorants aren't the devil

by Douglas Hunter

Ontario's proposed new measures amount to a slaughter of an entire native bird species for no scientifically compelling reason, says this writer

Promotional Image

Editorials

The United Church Observer's editor and publisher, Jocelyn Bell. (Photo: Lindsay Palmer)

The new name of 'The Observer' revealed!

by Jocelyn Bell

"United Church" will no longer be on the cover, but our commitment to sharing denominational news and perspectives remains the same

Promotional Image

Video

Meet beloved church cats Mable and Mouse

by Observer Staff

They're a fixture of Kirk United Church Centre in Edmonton.

Promotional Image

Society

February 2019

Marriage problems: Is the ancient tradition worth saving?

by Pieta Woolley

Bitterness and boredom seem to define many mid-life marriages, but we might not have to settle for apathy ever after

Ethics

February 2019

A Yukon artist and a Tlingit trapper create this stunning jewelry

by Amy van den Berg

The fur jewelry in Whitehorse boutique store V. Ægirsdóttir is creating a new possibility for future partnerships with the region's trappers

Columns

February 2019

Why white people need to stop asking, 'where are you from?'

by Mike Sholars

"...For all intents and purposes, Canada is the only home I really recognize or remember. But none of that matters if I look like I don’t belong, and that single question makes that abundantly clear every single time."

Promotional Image