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Where There Is Injury Let Me Sow Pardon

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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But we are not all Christians, which seems to be the angle here. Some of us are built in a different way. There are "cultural groups", to be politically correct, who have a totally different outlook. Some of them will indeed reconcile or forgive - but only members of their own cultural group. Those not a part of their cultural grouping receive no such mercy or understanding. When we are all made to live together under one roof, so to speak, those of us with a Christian attitude are at a deep disadvantage. This needs to be addressed by Mr. Nerburn.

The Dakotah young person committing profound insult to the elders by merely walking in front of the fire, who was immediately forgiven by saying "mistake" - that's one thing. It is travesty to try to compare this minor event to someone killing your child.

Also, my own thinking is that we ultimately are individuals and have to handle these things in our own way even if we belong to the same cultural or religious group. If the man whose daughter was slaughtered wanted to sow reconciliation, that is his path. Others have different paths. Sad (or not), but true. Thank you.

what beautiful piece of writing and once again I must give thanks and honour and glory to God for bring me this information at exactly the right moment.

I dont think H & H really read the precis or understood the intent.
This is not about being Christian or any other religion it's about being a person of any religion, any creed, any culture, and forgiving. they need to reread the article very carefully before responding to what the article is defining. And please, being a 'Christian' is not an 'attitude', it's a way of life, just like any other religion and in any religion, forgiveness, is a way of life, a conduct, and to be practised, or worked on, like any other trait, by all, no matter what the circumstances, death or insult, to help the victim and not the perpetrator.

How do you take that first step towards forgiving someone who has spent their entire lives trying to destroy you? How do you forgive that person if it is your mother? your sister? your brother? all of them... All i can think is i can't forgive the horror they have wrought, all that can be done is to forgive yourself for allowing some of it to happen when you were too naive to realize what was happening. But with life comes lessons and if we learn from them we can prevent past tragedies from occurring again or stop them from continuing.

I take the first step toward forgiving by separating the situation into two parts. Unforgiveness wants justice done. Forgiveness wants mercy. The second step is understanding I can not change anyone but myself. So I decide, in the face of seemingly unfulfilled Justice do I want self pity, which is anger directed at me or revenge, which is anger aimed at others through deeds. Anger is there because something is wrong. I can not change another person's attitude or actions. Maybe I have authority to punish wrong doing but usually I do not. Even if someone with authority does punish the evil doer, what next? Do I hold onto anger because of the evil done? Do I hold on to frustration because justice can not correct the wrong and make everything right again? Do I take glee in seeing a fellow human be rewarded evil for evil? Do I like seeing evil done to the one who did evil? How does that make me different from the evil doer? When I see that delighting in seeing evil done to another is in me, do I want to be like that evil person? If I do not, then I choose forgiveness not as a way of letting them "get away with it" (that is not forgiveness) but as a way to set me free from the memory of the evil. I choose mercy for myself. If justice is available I also pursue justice but as a loving act in pursuit of choosing goodness to triumph over evil. Some people will not change unless they feel pain or are kept from perpetrating evil by brute force. So I look at justice that way rather than as a way of delighting in suffering for suffering's sake. But how do I reconcile the fact that some will never change behavior and are free to hurt me again? I look for ways of escape, choosing mercy for myself. Needing to balance mercy with justice, I choose to believe there is a God, I am not God, but I choose to believe the Bible that reports in Romans 12:17-21, "Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good."
Revenge continues evil by doing tit for tat. Forgiveness stops the cycle, at least on my end. It may not stop it on their end. Stopping evil is the task of those whose job is impersonal justice, such as police or military, or government officials, or teachers or social workers etc. That is how I deal with forgiveness issues. It says "IF it is possible" which means maybe it is not possible. Forgiveness is there for me if I choose to be free inside me.

forgiving does not require accepting the harmful act, merely acknowledging the assailant's state of suffering.

When the person who has deeply hurt you thinks that what he / she said was perfectly acceptable and therefore sees no reason to apologize, it's very hard to just let it go, especially when that person is in your life. Expressing remorse and apologizing are essential precursors to forgiveness, as far as I'm concerned.

In the given situation regarding the boy who murdered the man's daughter, it is quite possible that the boy has shown no remorse; very likely that he has not apologized. And the man has not offered forgiveness. It's very likely that he never will. But he could sit at home hating the boy and thinking he's a monster and not understanding why; or he can meet with the boy and get to know him and attempt to see the view from the boy's perspective. It may or may not ever result in forgiveness but he's sowing the seeds by giving the boy an opportunity to come to feel remorse; rather than two people now intimately connected both feeling blind hatred. I believe it's similar in our daily lives. It's sometimes easier to hold onto the hurt feelings and anger than to look at something from another's view and realize there was no harm intended and just forgive. Holding onto hate and bitterness just causes our own lives to be miserable; I always try to forgive first. Sometimes it's not possible. But I find I have a calmer heart if I let the little things; the inconsiderate things go with "mistake".

When someone murders your child, there is either the intent to devastate or the lack of any caring one way or the other. Either one is very hard to accept, understand & live with.

The only way to forgive is to turn it over to a higher power and pray for your heart to accept that it is a world filled with wonderful people, but among them are some whose sanity has failed and if they cross your path God help you. The pain & devastation on many levels destroys a family. Forgiveness is only possible if and when you get to the point you can see beyond your pain and see what pathetic human beings they are and realize they have NO LIFE worth living and have never had the joy and happiness that was yours before they entered your life...they are their own worst victims.

On forgiveness - Yes, turn it over to a higher power. Also ask why has it come into your life? We are not victims, we are powerful beings (but we have forgotten who we are), and co-creators. Every thought and deed creates ripples through the universe - The Law of Magnetic Attraction, and cause and effect - the Law of Karma. Nothing is by chance! In some way, in past lives, we may have been the perpetrator, and so we reap the effect of our past actions. The Universe is full of Laws. Understanding them helps us evolve and grow spiritually, instead of blaming and judging, which only makes matters worse.