Forgive and not Forget
The corners of his mouth turn upward into a slight smile as he gazes down upon the lifeless body of Stephen, a disciple of the so called Christ. With morose satisfaction, Saul steps over stone after bloody stone used to murder this man by a mob rallied in rage, on his way to drag other messianic sympathizers out from their homes and commit them to prison. Eventually departing Jerusalem on assignment to snuff out more adherents to this spreading movement, Saul is confronted with a blinding light as the voice of Jesus asks why Saul is persecuting him. Dumbfounded and without sight, Saul’s companions guide him to Damascus where he spends three days in darkness, alone in the corner of a dusty room.
Enter Ananias — a man tasked by God to go and tend to the one responsible for the terrorizing of his spiritual siblings. In reading this passage from the book of Acts, I invite us to reflect on what helps Saul see again.
What helps Saul see again?
- The faith of Saul and the faith of Ananias, who lays his hands upon his enemy
- No one is beyond redemption
- Ananias’s act of reconciliation and reminder of Saul’s belonging
- Everyone has something to offer this world
Standing before the sweeping backdrop of the Himalayan mountains, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama embrace one another in tender affection. For the next week, these two spiritual titans embark on a journey of laughter, tears, a little mischief, and a whole lot of poignant conversation centered on humanity’s search for joy. Taking place in the home of the Dalai Lama in Darmasala, India, the dialogues that follow cover everything from life and death to spirituality and science, morality and justice to storytelling and cheeky asides — all tinted by the infectious dynamic of the long-standing relationship between these two global leaders from vastly different contexts. Though great care went into the preparation of this visit, for Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, they merely sit down with one another and talk as old friends.
In the company of cameras and tape recorders, the two venture into the human condition, their conversations eventually published in a book entitled, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. It is an apt title, not only due to the content of the conversations themselves but also due to the seemingly unquenchable joy that emanates from them both as individuals and from their spiritual kinship. It is a miracle, though, that such wellsprings of joy dwell within each of them at all considering the depth of sorrow and suffering that both have witnessed and endured over the course of their lifetimes.
For decades, the Dalai Lama has been forced to take refuge in Darmasala, living in exile from his home country of Tibet due to foreign occupation and the oppressive regime of the People’s Liberation Army — the strong arm of the Chinese Communist Party and chief military force of the People’s Republic of China. In South Africa, Desmond Tutu suffered the long years of systematic injustice at the hand of apartheid, outspoken in his opposition to the terror of racism’s tyranny in the fight for equality. In their own ways, both leaders have witnessed and experienced firsthand the horrors of human rights abuses, surviving amidst the violence and persecution of their people and tending to the weight of collective grief and anger. But despite seemingly just causes for vengeance, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama have devoted their lives to the practice of compassion and the preaching of forgiveness.
In a chapter of The Book of Joy dedicated to a conversation regarding this very topic, the Archbishop tells an unspeakably tragic story about a South African mother who witnessed her son’s dead body dragged through the street on live television by a group of apartheid sympathizers. At a summit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed in 1996 as a means of fostering healing and restoration while investigating the human rights violations in the wake of apartheid, Desmond Tutu recounts the encounter between this mother and her son’s murderer, who had come to beg forgiveness.
Upon seeing him for the first time, the grieving mother threw her shoe at the man responsible for her son’s death and the desecration of his lifeless body. However, after the commission adjourned for a brief break, the mother, along with a group of other mothers whose children were cruelly taken from them, stood before the council as their spokesperson addressed the man directly, saying, “My child, we forgive you.” Upon being asked why she granted forgiveness, the woman said, “What is it going to help us if he were to go to prison? It won’t bring back our children.” This chapter in the book is entitled, “Forgiveness: Freeing Ourselves from the Past.” And at its core, I am convinced that is what forgiveness truly is: freedom, just as much for the one forgiving as the one being forgiven.
When charged with tending to the murderer Saul, Ananias is resistant at first — laying all the crimes against his Christian kin that Saul has committed before God. But God is persistent in the valuation of Saul as someone with something to offer the world despite his past transgressions, and Ananias is convinced to go. Upon arrival, Ananias lays his hands upon Saul and addresses him as “brother,” and Saul can see once more in the light of his reconciliation. As the mother of a murdered son addressed the one responsible as “my child,” Ananias addresses Saul in terms of kinship — reminding Saul of his belovedness and belonging, freeing him from the darkness by first freeing himself from his own hate. How else could he have called Saul “brother”? — an address that is just as much about accountability as it is about amnesty.
I want to suggest that forgiveness is perhaps the highest form of accountability — for it is not about forgetting what was done but, rather, about holding one another accountable to the standard of belovedness. That does not mean minimizing the harm that has been done nor excusing the responsibility of restoration and the effort that accompanies it. It simply means not letting hate bind our own heart’s freedom to love and be loved. But part of forgiveness is allowing ourselves to feel the pain of our own anger and grief, not as a justification of returning the violence done upon us but, rather, as a means of confronting the felt sense that our own belovedness or the belovedness of another has been betrayed. We must tend to our own betrayed belovedness before we can hold someone else accountable to theirs — reminding ourselves of our divine reflectivity and that we need not be defined by the hate we hold onto and put onto others. But forgiveness cannot be forced, for feeling is an exercise in patience.
When called to go to Saul, Ananias is not shy with his skepticism and outrage — speaking up against the unspeakable atrocities for which Saul is responsible. Ananias feels, confronts his own anger, and makes it known to the Divine. But after God replies to Ananias’s resistance to go, the text simply says that Ananias went and entered the house where Saul dwelled in darkness. It does not give much detail as to what happened on Ananias’s journey there through the streets of Damascus. But I marvel at the depth of freedom and connection to his own belovedness that Ananias must have felt in his heart, along with the pain, in order to be able to step through the door and call his enemy brother. When we think of important figures of the early church, we tend to think of Saul, otherwise known as Paul in Gentile contexts. But where would Paul be if not for the miracle of Ananias reminding him that in spite of all the suffering he has caused, he, too, is worthy of belonging. I do not think that could have happened if Ananias had not felt what he needed to feel on the road to reminding himself of his own belonging and the call of all creation to be reflections of the love of God to one another.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or excusing the past; it means living a little more free from it — releasing ourselves from the vice grip of what was before so we might no longer live in its shadow, and when we are ready, granting others the opportunity to do the same.
As we wait expectantly on the revelation of divine reconciliation to make itself known underneath the swaddling cloth in a backwater feeding trough, may we be patient enough to let the power of love set us free so that we, too, might once again see ourselves and see one another in the light of our own belovedness.