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Where There Is Injury Let Me Sow Pardon
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Oct 23, 2013
Many thanks to Kent Nerburn and HarperCollins for allowing us to share this chapter from Make Me An Instrument of Your Peace with our readers. - Ben Kim
By Kent Nerburn
I once spoke with a man who had done hard time at a maximum security penitentiary. I asked him what had been the single most significant lesson he had learned from being inside. He looked at me with sad eyes and said, "You would not believe what lives inside the human heart. There really is such a thing as evil."
I have never quite gotten over the chill that his words sent through me. And as much as I would like to believe otherwise, the occurrences that take place in the world on a daily basis make his assertion almost impossible to deny.
What, then, are we to make of Francis's command to give pardon where there is injury?
Are we to believe that we are to forgive all manner of crimes and transgressions, no matter how monstrous?
Are we called to achieve some elevated state of spiritual enlightenment wherein we accept the evils of the world as somehow reflecting some higher divine purpose?
Or is this command of Francis's merely the blithe platitude of a man who lived unencumbered on the earth and never had to face such questions as what to do if a madman breaks into your home and murders your family?
These are questions that beset the earnest seeker who would try to walk Francis's path through a world of dark realities. And they admit of no easy answers. But I once had an experience that gave me insight into what some of those answers might be.
I was present in a courtroom where a young man was on trial for murdering a girl he had seen walking down the street. He had not known her personally. She had wronged him in no fashion whatsoever. Here crime was simply being young and alive and in the wrong place at the wrong time. He and a friend had dragged her into the woods, placed a gun behind her ear, and blown off the back of her head.
The prosecuting attorney described in grim detail the specifics of the murder and held up a bloody paper bag that contained the clothes of the young victim. The horror was almost too much to bear. Most in the courtroom averted their eyes. But through it all the father of the murdered girl sat impassively, watching the trial, watching the boy.
After the trial was over, and the boy was found guilty, the father announced that he was going to visit that boy in jail and get to know him.
People were appalled. Why would anyone who had suffered what this man was suffering undertake such a task?
But the father was adamant. "That boy and I are forever bound" he said. "We need to know each other. I do not know if I can forgive him. But perhaps if I know him I will not hate him. This is about healing and reconciliation."
In that moment, the insight of Francis became clear to me. When he tells us to sow pardon, he is telling us to seek healing and reconciliation, not approval or even acceptance. There was no way that the father of the murdered girl was ever going to give approval to the boy for what he had done. It is not even clear that he could ever find it in his heart to accept the unthinkable event that occurred, though clearly he was trying to do so. But he could seek to reconcile two men whose lives were forever linked through the person of a young woman and to bring forth some measure of understanding and, hopefully, creative growth in the aftermath of a horrible event.
This is a hard issue. Most of us would not have the power to make such an effort. I know that I do not have that greatness of spirit. But I also know, in my heart of hearts, that the grieving father was making the correct choice. He was trying to move the world forward from a point of horror and to turn a circumstance so dark that few can imagine it into a moment of healing and growth.
The key is in the word injury. Francis did not say, "where there is wrongdoing, let me give pardon," or "where there have been crimes, let me offer pardon." He said, "where there is injury, let me sow pardon." And injury implies the possibility of healing.
Healing rises above the question of right and wrong, even good and evil. It had to do with restoring a life to health.
If we are able to look upon pardon not just as forgiveness, but as doing what is necessary to restore health to the body or spirit, Francis's injunction suddenly seems less impossible and disconnected from our lives. In fact, it seems like the wisest of counsel.
The father of the murdered girl cannot change what has occurred. He may forever wonder why such an event had to take place and wrestle with a dark angel in his heart until the day he dies. But he cannot change the fact that the event happened.
What Francis is telling us is that when such incomprehensible events occur, our goal should be to promote healing in any manner of which we are capable. It is the only way that we can free ourselves from a frozen scream in time and fulfill our responsibilities as co-creators of meaning in this universe.
Once again, we must remember that Francis calls us only to "sow." "Sowing" does not imply that something is fully grown, only that the seeds of possibility have been planted. Even if the father of the murdered girl cannot find the slightest possibility of forgiveness in his heart, be seeking reconciliation and healing on some level, he is sowing the seeds of the possibility of pardon and forgiveness at some future time.
Perhaps this will happen. Perhaps it will not. It is not up to him to say whether the seeds he plants will fall on fertile ground. That is where faith in the goodness and mercy of God come in. But even if he spends the remainder of his days gnashing his teeth, rendering his garments, and shaking his fists at the heavens, he is leaning in the direction of hope. He is saying that even though he doesn't understand, and can't understand, he is trying to heal. And in the intention lives the seed of a possible resolution.
There is a famous passage in the book of Exodus where Moses and Aaron ask the pharaoh to let their people leave Egypt. Over and over the pharaoh refuses. And each time, we are told, the pharaoh's heart was hardened.
This same hardening of the heart occurs in each of us when we do not lean in the direction of healing. With each passing day, and each refusal to seek reconciliation, we become more callous and closed to the possibility of reconciliation. And the wound caused by the injury becomes more and more a part of our being.
If we seek healing, it is true that the wound may still become an awful scar. But at least life goes forward. When an injury is not allowed to heal, the wounded person dies.
This is what happens to us when we refuse to sow healing and reconciliation. Our hearts and spirits die. Perhaps this is what we want. Perhaps this is our monument and testament to what we have lost. But it is not the course that Francis would have us take. He would have us sow the seeds of pardon, no matter how difficult that sowing might be.
Luckily, most of us, in our daily lives, are not confronted with such mortal injuries as the father who lost his daughter. The Injuries we create, and the injuries we experience, are usually but small slights and affronts. The labors required to begin the process of healing are not great. It is a constant measure of our humanity to rise above these injuries and to forgive those who cause them even as we forgive ourselves when we cause injury to others.
I often think of the way Dakotah Indians responded to a small wrong. When for example, a young person walked between an elder and a fire—an act of profound impoliteness in their culture—the young person said, simply, "Mistake." It was an honest acknowledgment of an error of judgment, devoid of any self-recrimination or self-diminution. All present nodded in assent, and life went on.
How healthy such an attitude seems. We all commit mistakes in judgment, and we all need forgiveness. If we had the option of making a simple acknowledgment of our mistake and then going on with our affairs, how much clearer and gentler life would be. And how much healthier would our own hearts be if we looked upon the injuries caused us by others as simply the mistakes of human beings who, like us, are struggling to get by in a complex and mysterious world.
Our lives brush clumsily against the lives of others. A wrong word, a rash action—these are as much a part of our lives as the caring gesture and the loving touch. We are all guilty of them; we all receive them. There is no surprise when they come, issuing forth either from us against others or from others against us. The only surprise is that we never cease to make such errors and that we have such difficulty forgiving them when they are committed against us by others.
It is our daily task in life to find a way to forgive these errors, in ourselves and in others, without ignoring or diminishing the wrong that has been done. And if the crime is so great that we cannot find it in our hearts to offer forgiveness, at least we can make the first steps toward healing. Perhaps, with time and the grace of God, forgiveness, too, will result.
What Francis is calling us to do is to live a life that stands for healing, however we are able to offer it. Yes, we may confront evil in this world. Yes, we may experience wrongs that defy our capacity for forgiveness. But if, like the distraught father of the murdered girl, we take the first tentative steps toward healing, we are sowing the seeds of pardon. And where the seed of pardon is planted, the flower of true forgiveness may someday bloom.
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