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Neil Webb


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.

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