Transformed by Forgiveness (audio and text)

https://uuasheville.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/191006-Transformed-by-Forgiveness.mp3

READING

To Forgive by Desmond Tutu
To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.

However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator.

If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.

You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.

But the process of forgiveness also requires acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offence. I don’t like to talk about my own personal experience of forgiveness, although some of the things people have tried to do to my family are close to what I’d consider unforgivable. I don’t talk about these things because I have witnessed so many incredible people who, despite experiencing atrocity and tragedy, have come to a point in their lives where they are able to forgive

Sermon

Last Wednesday I watched a video of 18 year-old Brandt Jean offering his forgiveness to the woman who killed his brother a year ago. Amber Guyger, a white Dallas police officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing Brandt’s 26 year old brother, Botham Jean, after Guyger apparently mistook his apartment for her own. Botham was in his apartment watching TV and eating ice cream when he was shot. Brandt’s statement included his saying, “If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.”[1]

Is there a possibility of restorative or transformative justice beyond the punitive for Amber Guyger? We know that she will serve prison time and will have the rest of her forever-changed life to contemplate her actions that resulted in the taking of an indisputably innocent life.  After his statement, Brandt asked the judge for permission to give Amber Guyger a hug. It was granted and he did.

Brandt’s words and the image of his embrace of his brother’s murderer – this unconditional act of forgiveness that elicited both praise and outrage from the bipolar twitterverse.

There was praise for a young man responding to personal tragedy with compassion based on his Christian values. There was outrage, anger and frustration with what some perceived as a continuation of a history of black people forgiving white people when the same grace is not extended to them. And, there was dismay with a 10 year prison sentence for the taking an innocent life. I found myself feeling outrage because of our well documented propensity – historical and current – of disproportionately incarcerating black men and youth and disproportionately suspending or expelling black youth from our public schools. But my outrage at the seemingly light sentence was tempered by the impossibility of knowing the motivation and in-the-moment emotional and cognitive state of the woman pulling the trigger. How can that be judged? And how can it be adjudicated?

This morning I invite us to reflect on the complexity of forgiveness. What was your response to this story? As I listened to Brandt’s statement I recognized he made a choice: he chose to forgive. His forgiveness did not condone his brother’s murder. His statements implied that he was not seeking revenge. He responded to this tragedy, a year later, with compassion, grounded in his Christian faith and going as far as saying to Guyger that there was a possibility of redemption; that if she were truly repentant God would forgive her.

We have seen this theologically grounded response before. In 2016 during the trial of a white supremacist who massacred 9 people in their church during a bible study gathering, some of the survivors and family members who spoke forgave him. Because this was explicitly a racially motivated killing, there was concern that forgiveness interfered with accountability for the horrific consequences of white supremacy culture.

In these two tragic incidents, religious doctrines provide the foundation that allows family members to forgive; they can begin the process of healing that cannot occur if resentment or the desire for revenge is allowed to consume them as they seek to regain their lives and adapt their daily existence to the new reality of loss.

I may not share the theological concept of divine judgement that motivated the families of the slain, but I must admit to a most sincere admiration for their gestures and the courage to act on their beliefs.

In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we do not have specific religious language around redemption and grace. We take inspiration from various sources and personal spiritual practices as we grapple with the reality of evil and its manifestations. We reject the notion of original sin while recognizing that we all have a capacity for good and evil. And when evil and misfortune strike, we step up, offering each other comfort and support. For UUs, our covenant to affirm our principles includes respect for all beings. That covenant binds us and holds us accountable to each other. So do the many covenants we create as participants in congregational life.  When we miss the mark, we recommit to our covenant and begin again in love. Even when we or others fail, we don’t give up. We work to repair relationship. We work to re-enter that sacred space of covenant, of fellowship, of commitment to love and to doing the larger work that can only be accomplished in community.

And yet, when others transgress feelings of anger, bitterness, and hatred are inevitable. They are part of being human. Holding on to them can be self-destructive, weighing down our spirits and closing us off to the possibility of moving into a future with a transformed narrative: a victim becoming a survivor.
We can’t change the past, erase transgression, but we can choose our response. Do we hold on to resentment, anger and grudges? As Desmond Tutu reminded us remaining in a state of anger and resentment locks a person in a state of victimhood making [the person] almost dependent on the perpetrator. He said “if you can find it in you to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator.” This changes how you tell your story. I think it allows for a transformation from victim to survivor.

And it’s not an easy path. There are many questions to consider: What if the person won’t apologize or express remorse? Does forgiveness require reconciliation with the offender? What if the transgression is deemed unforgivable? Each person will answer these questions for their particular situation maybe with support from a therapist, a spiritual leader, a close friend. Brandt was able to forgive his brother’s killer. We do not know what his process was for reaching that decision a year later. I wonder over time how it will impact his family, his community and Guyger? UU minister Forrest Church explained it this way many years ago:

“This is how forgiveness works well. When we forgive her we don’t change her, but ourselves. We liberate ourselves from all obligation to continue bitterness. This doesn’t reverse the past. It doesn’t remove from the record whatever crime was perpetrated against us. But it changes the present and the future.”[2]

Forgiveness can change the present by allowing us to be liberated from carrying the story of the perpetrator. It might even allow us to be curious and shift from asking “why me”? to asking “why them”? Why would someone do that? I think that is the empathy Charlie was talking about in his opening words. Reaching that level of empathy takes time. Each person decides their readiness and capacity for forgiveness. I close with a prayer written by Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter who is also a Christian minister:

Prayer Before Prayer

I want to be willing to forgive

But I dare not ask for the will to forgive

in case you give it to me and I am not yet ready.

I am not yet ready for my heart to soften.

I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again.

Not yet ready to see that there is humanity in my tormentor’s eyes.

Or that the one who hurt me also cried.

I am not yet ready for the journey.

I am not yet interested in the path.

I am at the prayer before the prayer of forgiveness.

Grant me the will to want to forgive.

Grant it to me not yet, but soon.

Acknowledging the complexity of forgiveness, and recognizing the importance of forgiving ourselves as well as each other, I invite you to partake in the “Litany of Atonement” inserted in the Order of Service. We will sing the first verse of hymn 218. Then, you are invited to repeat the litany “I forgive myself. I forgive you. We begin again in love.  When we finish, we will sing the second verse of Hymn 218.

[1] https://www.newsweek.com/botham-jean-brother-bryant-offers-forgiveness-hug-amber-guyger-dallas-1462868

[2] Life Lines by Forrest Church, p 98