A sermon presented by Doug Muder on 31 January 1999

Thought to Ponder

Justice didn’t heal me. Forgiveness did. — Debbie Morris

Opening Words

Every morning is new
Every morning, the world begins again.
Every morning, life could be different.
Let us celebrate the opportunity that this morning brings.

Hymn #38: Morning Has Broken

Responsive Reading #637: A Litany of Atonement


So many of our days are filled by reaction. We react to the alarm clock in the morning, and just keep reacting for the rest of the day. Our true self, our creative self, the self that could make something new and original happen — it always seems to be about a minute behind. So let us take a minute of silence, and give it a chance to catch up.


From Pre-empting the Holocaust by Lawrence L. Langer

This book, which you may have seen excerpted in a recent issue of Atlantic, argues against various attempts to find redeeming value and meaning in the suffering of the Holocaust, and in particular against picturing the Nazis as just extreme examples of the same kind of evil that we find inside ourselves. After telling some particularly grisly stories of Nazi cruelty, which I have decided to leave to your imagination, Langer writes:

I ask myself, what can we do with such information? … Where shall we record it in the scroll of human discourse? How can we enroll such atrocities in the human community and identify them as tendencies toward evil inherent in all humankind?

Well, we can’t: we require a scroll of inhuman discourse to contain them, and we need a definition of the inhuman community to coexist with its more sociable partner.

From Forgiving the Dead Man Walking by Debbie Morris

Debbie Morris was just 16 when she was kidnapped, raped, and terrorized for several days by Robert Willie, the murderer who was played by Sean Penn in the movie Dead Man Walking. This fall she came out with the book Forgiving the Dead Man Walking, which describes how the long-term effects of that crime played out through the next 16 years of her life.

So many people ask me, “How can you forgive someone like Robert Willie?” They’re incredulous at the very thought. But very recently I came across a wonderful book by Lewis Smedes titled Forgive and Forget, which has helped crystallize my thoughts and express in more articulate words some of what my experience has taught me.

He has a section called “Forgiving Monsters” that seemed particularly relevant to my experience. Or to any of Robert Willie’s victims. Or to anyone whose life has been impacted by some horrible wrong. Smedes writes, “If we say monsters are beyond forgiving, we give them a power they should never have. Monsters who are too evil to be forgiven get a stranglehold on their victims; they can sentence their victims to a lifetime of unhealed pain. If they are unforgivable monsters, they are given power to keep their evil alive in the hearts of those who suffered most.”

I couldn’t begin to articulate it at the time, but I understood that truth even before Robert Willie was executed. I knew I had to forgive him — not for his sake, but for mine. Until I did, there was no escaping the hold his evil had on my life.

From The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama

That reminds me of one senior chant master who is staying at Namgyal Monastery. He was in Chinese prisons as a political prisoner and in labor camps for twenty years. Once I asked him what was the most difficult situation he faced when he was in prison. Surprisingly, he said that he felt the greatest danger was of losing compassion for the Chinese!


Where this sermon comes from

This sermon has its roots in a mistake that I made about a year ago when I was preparing for the Religious Questions discussion group that John Gibbons and I led last spring. The course centered on 12 questions that are too big to have definite answers, but too much a part of everyday life to be ignored. The discussions explored the answers that are implicit in the way we lead our lives.

It was tricky, writing those questions. Some of them came easily, like “Can people be trusted?” It’s obviously too big a question to have a simple answer, and yet we do answer it every time we pull into traffic. Another one “Is the world getting better or worse?” sits in the background of all our plans for the future.

I wanted a question that would explore our attitudes towards our own mistakes. When we make a mistake, or imagine the possibility of making a mistake, do we expect the world to shrug it off, or do we imagine that there will be a black mark next to our names for all eternity? John had explored this issue in a sermon earlier in the year, talking about our “permanent record”.

The group never had the discussion I imagined, because in writing this question about mistakes, I made a mistake: I used the word forgiving in the question. I asked “Is the world a forgiving place?” Now, I meant forgiving in the same sense that we say “Clay is a forgiving medium.” If you make a mistake in clay, you just fix it, and there’s no problem. Diamond, by contrast, is not a forgiving medium; if you cut the diamond wrong it shatters. I wanted to ask whether life in general is more like clay or more like diamond.

But the word forgiving derailed the discussion for the entire evening. We had something like 15 people in the room that night, and while we all had very strong feelings about forgiveness, none of us (it turned out) meant the same thing by it.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that when a group takes off on its own, and has a discussion totally different from the one I planned — probably that is a discussion that needed to happen. And that’s why I’m up here today: to get us talking about forgiveness.


Before I get too deep into this, I want to address a question that I know will come up in talkback if I don’t deal with it now: If we couldn’t agree on the meaning of a word, why didn’t we just use a dictionary? Unitarians don’t usually believe in the revealed truth of books like the Bible or the Koran, but some of us have amazing faith in the dictionary.

The dictionary would only have swept the problem under the rug. In that room we had 15 important human concepts fighting over the word forgiveness. If one of them is declared right, the other 14 don’t go away, they just become nameless. The problem isn’t to find out what forgiveness really means. The problem is to deal with and make sense of the cluster of concepts swarming around the word forgiveness.

Components of forgiveness

Everybody’s notion of forgiveness begins with the same situation: One person has caused another person to suffer. That suffering creates a separation between them that makes it impossible to go on with their previous relationship. Whatever you used to be to each other — friends, relatives, parishioners, fellow citizens — you can’t do that any more, because it hurts too much. In the first reading Lawrence Langer feels compelled to deny that the worst of the Nazis were even human beings, because what they did was so horrible. In order to record their deeds, he says “we require a scroll of inhuman discourse.” he says. That’s how extreme the sense of separation can be.

At the other extreme, the sense of separation need not develop at all. In the story of the Tibetan monk, he preserved his sense of compassion for the Chinese, in spite of 20 years in their labor camps.

One notion of forgiveness, I think, doesn’t deserve the name. In this false form of forgiveness, we accept the other person by denying our own pain. We lie to ourselves and say that it really wasn’t that bad. Saying that doesn’t heal anything inside us, and in fact makes it harder to heal. Those of you who felt resistance during the responsive reading may have been resisting this false kind of forgiveness.

How the word forgiveness is used

Forgiveness, in all of its genuine forms, is a means of healing. The story of that healing might or might not contain any of the following components: The sufferer may be angry and might want revenge. The blamed person might feel guilty. There might be a confession, restitution, a promise never to do it again, or some kind of punishment. Eventually there could be a reconciliation. After the reconciliation, the two parties might agree to forget, or to pretend to forget, that this ever happened.

The different notions of forgiveness disagree about which of these components are necessary, or even desirable. One issue in President Clinton’s impeachment trial, for example, is whether he has confessed adequately. In arguing against the motion to dismiss the case, House manager Charles Canady said: “Some have asked of us, ‘Where is the compassion and where is the spirit of forgiveness?’ Let me say that I, for one, believe in forgiveness. Without forgiveness, what hope would there be for any of us? But forgiveness requires repentance; it requires contrition.”

Several books on the market recommend forgiving your parents for things that they did when you were a child. This forgiveness is supposed to happen even if your parents don’t confess, or don’t even realize what they did. They don’t have to make restitution. They may even be dead, so a reconciliation isn’t possible. But something important is happening nonetheless, and people call it forgiveness.

Debbie Morris’ forgiveness of Robert Willie is similar: Only on the morning of his execution did she realize that she needed to forgive him, and she was not able to forgive him until years after his death. The only reconciliation she imagines is in Heaven. If you don’t believe in a literal Heaven, it’s easy to trivialize this kind of forgiveness. But reading her book, I was struck by the level of healing that must have occurred for her even to imagine her kidnapper and rapist in Heaven. She writes: “If Robert Willie is there, it’ll be the same way I get there — only through God’s generosity and grace.”

Many other popular uses of the word forgiveness make no sense if we assume that all the components have to be present. In the Spiritual Bestsellers discussion group we read Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He mentions people who are angry at God because of some personal loss. Healing, in this case, involves learning to forgive God and be reconciled to Him. Similarly, non-theist authors talk about people who are angry at the World, and must learn to forgive the World. God or the World or whatever you want to call it, is not going to confess or ask for your forgiveness or offer restitution.

The responsive reading — and many, many self-help books — talk about forgiving yourself. How does that make sense?

As a final example, I want to tell a story from my own life. My best friend from high school, Steve, has never been reliable about keeping appointments. We’d make plans to do things when I was home from college, and he’d be hours late, or he wouldn’t show up at all. There was nothing personal about this; he did it to everybody. I’d try to punish him by getting angry, but it never made any difference. Finally one day I realized that if Steve’s mother and all his girl friends over the years hadn’t been able to change him, I probably wouldn’t be able to change him either. I needed to decide whether or not I wanted him in my life the way he is.

It turned out I did want him in my life. And so I made a decision, which I never told him about. I took for granted that he was unreliable, and whenever we made plans together, I made plans for what I would do if he didn’t show up. If we were supposed to meet somewhere, I’d make sure it was a good place to sit, and I’d bring a book to read, or something else to keep me occupied. I’d decide ahead of time how long I was willing to wait, and have something in mind to do after I was done waiting.

That was about 20 years ago. We’re still friends, and he still can’t be counted on to keep an appointment. And looking back, I’m convinced I did the right thing. It’s been good having him in my life.

Now consider what that story says about forgiveness. There was no confession, no restitution. I jumped straight to reconciliation, and didn’t even tell him about it. And in this case forgiving means not forgetting. The solution only works as long as I remember Steve’s faults and allow for them. Or think about this: Steve is forgiven for things he hasn’t even done yet. Looking at it another way, I forgave him for being the way he is.

Forgiveness as justice

I need three different notions of forgiveness to account for all these examples. They’re related, and each one is a little more complicated than the last one. The first one, which I’ll call forgiveness as justice is simply the recognition that guilt is not infinite. Reconciliation is possible.

Contrast this notion with the Christian concept of Hell. Hell embodies the idea that guilt is infinite. No restitution is possible, and no amount of punishment will ever be enough. There can be no reconciliation.

Forgiveness-as-justice is the willingness to put a fair price on reconciliation. “You hurt me,” it says, “but I’m willing to restore our relationship if you are willing to pay the price.” Sometimes, when there has been hurt on both sides, that price requires a certain amount of negotiation. But both parties are looking for the same thing: a chance to restart their relationship on a fair basis.

Forgiveness as bankruptcy

If that were the only kind of forgiveness, reconciliation would be rare, because sometimes the price will not be paid. Sometimes it can’t be paid. What could the Nazis have done to make up for the Holocaust? What could the Chinese do to make up for that Tibetan monk’s 20 years in labor camps? What could Robert Willie have done? There isn’t anything.

We’re in danger at this point of letting our imaginations run off into stories of great horrors that seem far away from us. I don’t want to lose touch with our lives. Maybe you have never been kidnapped or raped or wrongly imprisoned. Probably you’ve never murdered anyone.

And yet, I think that all of us, if we are honest, can look back at things we have done or suffered that can’t be fixed or paid for. At one time, life could have gone a certain way. And now, no matter what anyone does, it never will. Any fair price we might put on forgiveness could never be paid.

The Islamic mystic Rumi said this: “A pearl goes up for auction, but no one has enough. So the pearl buys itself.” The second kind of forgiveness is like the pearl that buys itself. I call it forgiveness as bankruptcy.

When a person has economic debts he can’t pay, we declare him bankrupt, forgive the debts, and let him start a new economic life. Every civilized country does this. Why does it work? And what can we learn from it?

First, we need to realize that bankruptcy, while it is merciful, is also a selfish act on the part of the economic system. A potentially productive person is being kept out of production by an unpayable debt. By forgiving the debt the economic system gains a productive citizen and loses nothing, because the debt was not going to be paid anyway.

How do we apply this idea? Imagine, for example, that you and I have been friends for years, and during those years, I made your life better. But then we had an auto accident, which was my fault, and you were injured in some permanent way. Maybe you even lost someone close to you in that accident. I can never make that up to you. You are within your rights to condemn our relationship to Hell. But if you do, you still have your losses and your injuries, but now you have lost a friend as well. I could be a productive part of your life again, if you would just let me. Declare me bankrupt. Start me over.

The downside of forgiveness-as-bankruptcy is that by staying connected to people who have caused us pain, we could just be giving them a license to hurt us again and again and again. To use this kind of forgiveness effectively, we need to believe that the future will be different from the past. Either our luck will be better, or the other person has learned something, or we have learned something. In the example of my friend Steve, the future was going to be less painful not because Steve was going to be different, but because I had learned how to deal with him.

Messianic forgiveness

We still haven’t explained how it is possible to forgive people we will never see again, or to forgive the World, or God, or ourselves. How can any of those notions make sense?

Let’s go back and examine that sense of separation, the one that forgiveness is supposed to heal. What am I separated from really?

Have you ever noticed how the people who are most important to you seem to be with you even when they aren’t? You know what they would say if they were here. You know how they will react when you tell them what has happened. You know that they’ll understand something if you explain it this way, but not if you explain it that way. How do you know these things?

I believe that when I am getting to know a person, I am taking a part of myself and molding it like a piece of clay to resemble them. Those parts of myself stay with me even when the people they are based on have gone.

When in pain and anger I separate myself from you, when I say that you are not my friend, not my relative, not a member of my church, that you are not even a human being — what happens to the part of myself that I have molded to resemble you?

I think it goes to Hell. I believe that somewhere in my head is a place of rejection, a place of separation, a place of eternal punishment — a Hell. My own personal Hell.

If you do something to hurt me, do you wind up in the Hell in my head? Of course not. You’re out there; I don’t have that kind of power over you. But the part of me that I’ve shaped to resemble you — I have a lot of power over that. I can rage at it. I can argue with it. I can humiliate it. I can torture it in oh-so-many ways. And who am I hurting? Not you. You’re out there.

If you also have a Hell in your head, I would advise you to take a census of it. You may find entire political parties there, entire countries, entire races. Some people have God in Hell. Some people have the whole world. Some people have condemned themselves to Hell.

And so we come to the third kind of forgiveness: Messianic forgiveness, opening the doors of your own personal Hell and letting everybody out. Let them out: the Nazis, the Robert Willies, everybody. Because they’re all you. Hell is a place where you punish parts of yourself, because they resemble someone else. And you can just stop doing it.

I’m still working on that one. I’ve managed to shrink my Hell a little bit, and I’ve begun to have a vision of what it would mean to empty Hell completely and shut it down. I’d like to end by sharing that vision with you.

Shutting down my personal Hell would mean that a certain kind of fear, terror, and anxiety would vanish from my life. It would mean living with the knowledge that whatever happens between us, we remain connected; whatever mistakes I make, I cannot reject myself; and whatever the World chooses to do, it remains my World.

Hymn #7: The Leaf Unfurling (tune from #103)

Closing Words

The Buddha said, “Hatred can never cease by hatred. Hatred can only cease by love.”

Read more sermons by Doug Muder