The force of forgiveness

The 19th-century American preacher and social reformer, Henry Ward Beecher, suggested that everyone should keep ‘a cemetery in which to bury the faults of friends’: an expressive way of advising forbearance in relationships.

Now, what about those who are not our ‘friends’? Should we extend the hand of forgiveness to people who hurt and harm us? “Love your enemies,” preached Jesus Christ. Endorsing the Lord’s injunction, St. Paul exhorted members of the early Church not to “repay evil for evil” but to “overcome evil with good”.

While Christ’s commands to “turn the other cheek” and return blessings for curses are difficult dictates, remarkable individuals through the ages have displayed the commendable capacity to reciprocate hate with love. Mahatma Gandhi said: “To befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion.” His meekness was not weakness. The spiritual strength of that frail, elderly man triumphed over the British empire.

Mahatma Gandhi profoundly influenced Martin Luther King Jr, who spearheaded the American civil rights movement. “As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi,” wrote King, “I came to see that the Christian doctrine of love, operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence, is one of the most potent weapons available to an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”

An extraordinary example of a prominent personality reaching out in reconciliation was in the news, nearly 36 years ago. In May, 1981, as a large crowd greeted Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, several shots were fired. The Pope had been hit by a gunman. From his hospital bed, the wounded victim announced that he had ‘sincerely forgiven’ his ‘brother,’ whom he later visited in prison. Eventually, at the Pope’s request, the convict was pardoned by the President of Italy and deported to his country.

In April, 2005, the man who had tried to kill the Pope was among the millions who mourned the passing of that great leader. He returned to Rome in 2014, after Pope John Paul II had been declared a saint, and laid white roses on his grave. The Pope had graciously shown forgiveness, and his magnanimity was not forgotten.

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