Last week, while attending the Christian Scholars Conference in Nashville, Tenn., I had the blessed experience of hearing Immaculee Ilibagiza bear witness to the power of grace and love. Many readers will know that she is one of the women who spent 91 days hiding in a small bathroom during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Her powerful book, "Left Behind to Tell," chronicles her experiences and bears witness to the power of forgiveness. Though she lost 50 of her 115 pounds while in hiding, and her family with the exception of one brother, who was away at the time, she is a beautifully radiant woman whose presence commands undivided attention.
It only took me a few minutes to be moved to tears as she talked about the power of forgiveness. What an amazing sight, a young woman, who lost her father, mother, brothers, grandparents, cousins and most of her other relatives, standing in front of a packed auditorium proclaiming "that forgiveness will set you free." She knows because she has forgiven those who killed her family. She struggled to forgive them. Because she knew that holding unforgiveness in her heart would not help her family nor harm their killers. The lack of forgiveness would harm no one but her and she was determined to choose to live without the bondage of unforgiveness.
It is not easy to talk about forgiveness because it is quite possible that what we have to say about it might be put to the test by some unimaginable set of circumstances. While many in our religious communities are quick to make proclamations about forgiveness, they often find it to be too difficult to live out in daily life. Basically, it's impossible to know what it takes to be moved to forgiveness following the anger and sorrow of losing loved ones at the hand of someone who is engaging in senseless violence. In most situations such as this, which call for a deep confrontation with every level of rage and doubt possible, those who have not experienced similar losses generally need to stand in silent solidarity with the suffering person.
Immaculee found that her faith helped her to connect to the power of God and the Spirit which could lead her beyond the rage and hatred that she held for the man who killed her parents. When she met him, she was able to say, "I forgive you." It is clear that there are no short cuts in this process. But there is a possible path if one chooses to seek it. The process can be activated by the desire to move out of the despair and immobilization of bitterness to a place of freedom and action. The energy of unforgiveness is a negative, powerful and controlling system that takes away from the energy that is needed to live in an abundant and peaceful manner.
The transformation of these wounds into forgiveness can only occur in the heart of the wounded person, who seeks to find a path that leads to a new place. There is so much forgiveness that is necessary in today's world. Though most of us have not physically harmed anyone, many have experienced wounding someone psychologically or being wounded. Many times this is not even intentional, but that does not matter because the resulting pain is simply the natural response that follows the wounding.
But we have many fronts in our present day where forgiveness could help to change the ways in which our daily lives are being conducted. On the personal level, forgiveness could strengthen many daily lives by releasing them from the acts of injustice, violence and disregard that have been sent their way. Collectively, we could forgive ourselves for shortcomings and each other for missed opportunities to make the world better. This could help us to find new energy to embark upon better paths than many of the ones that we are engaging at the moment.
Though religious communities teach about forgiveness, but find it quite challenging to bear witness to its power; because life within so many of them is not much different from life outside of them. The idea of an "eye for an eye" is often the response among those who proclaim themselves as people of faith. The words of Gandhi regarding how that philosophy could lead to a blind world continue to be very powerful as all of us witness how much darkness is in the world today.
There are many times when there is nothing to do but to bear witness to the light that one hopes exists, while continuing to seek to find that light with the hope of engaging it. Often there is no way to explain the rage and pain which must be embraced on the way to forgiveness. It is a mystery how the transformation occurs, but it is real for those who have the experience and their witness is profound. As Immaculee demonstrates, there is no way to deny the power of forgiveness when the forgiving one stands up and bears witness to its transforming power.