[Episcopal News Service] Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:21-22
At least 90 percent of Georgia neuropsychologist Ona Graham’s counseling work with individuals and families involves assisting those “who feel resentment and carry grudges and … teaching people how to identify where they’re holding onto anger and hatred” and to seek and extend forgiveness.
“Anger is like a cloak we wrap ourselves in that cuts us off from God. I tell people that being resentful is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. This is not what God wants for you,” said Graham, 62, a parishioner at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Hamilton, Georgia.
Richard Blackburn, executive director of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center in Lombard, Illinois, said rising societal anxiety impacts families and congregations. Minor misunderstandings can accelerate into chronic church conflict and damage congregational and even diocesan life.
“Forgiveness is crucial if we’re going to be able to get beyond conflict and stay focused on mission and the purpose we have as the church,” said Blackburn, in an interview with the Episcopal News Service. He estimated that he spends about 180 days yearly either educating about conflict or mediating disputes with a wide variety of church groups, including Episcopalians.
“Part of the fallout of chronic anxiety … is that people seem increasingly less able to look at [themselves] and to acknowledge their own part when conflict develops,” Blackburn said. “People get stuck in this blaming mode and can’t even see their own part. That is the key to forgiveness – all parties being willing to look at themselves and acknowledge that whenever there’s conflict in relationships we all play a part in it.”
It also helps, he said, to nurture a culture of forgiveness, reconciliation and awareness of God’s ever-present grace given to everyone.
Forgiving self, cultivating transformation
About four decades ago, Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno shot and killed a man, something he still remembers daily.
Before he was ordained a priest and a bishop, he was an undercover police officer in Burbank, California, and had to make a split-second decision to save his partner’s life.
A suspect had opened fire on them, Bruno told ENS recently. “He took one shot and it landed in the pole next to me,” he recalled. “My partner stood up with a flashlight in his hand and shined it on him, which you’re not supposed to do. The man turned and raised his arm to fire, so I shot him.”
The suspect was someone he had come to know during his undercover investigation, Bruno said. “He had invited me into his home. I had bounced his kids on my knees,” he said. “I shot him with a double-barreled shotgun and he died there at the scene. For a long time I woke up every night dreaming about what had happened. It was very painful to relive that every night of my life.”
An investigation and coroner’s inquest cleared Bruno of any wrongdoing but it wasn’t until he sought counsel with an Episcopal priest that he was able to begin a process of forgiveness that ultimately led to transformation.
“He gave me absolution after I’d done the Reconciliation of a Penitent in the prayer book,” Bruno recalled. “I had believed we had to suffer the reasonable consequences of our actions. I was convinced that I had committed a sin against God. At the time, I thought, what is this, that’s going to take these things away? But I went home that night and slept peacefully.”
It led to transformation. “It changed my attitude about what forgiveness was, it comes from the heart and mind as well as the presence of the holy, all in parallel at the same time and I’ve been open to forgiving people ever since.”
Now, “every time I hear about a police-involved shooting, I pray for those people,” Bruno said. “For years, I’ve been a chaplain for the police department here in Los Angeles, and I work with guys who’ve killed people. And what I tell them is, you need to forgive that person so you can forgive yourself, because the sin of anger is just as bad as the taking of a life.
“It tears you away from your center. It doesn’t allow you to be fully human, it doesn’t allow you to be a true follower of God.”
Maryland: A tragedy turned transformational
Frank Kohn says he didn’t have to search for ways to forgive his sister’s murderer, but only to remember how she’d lived her life.
His sister, the Rev. Mary-Marguerite Kohn, co-rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, was fatally shot in a widely publicized May 2012 incident. Also killed were the parish administrator, Brenda Brewington, and the shooter, Douglas Jones, who turned the gun on himself.
“Apparently, he was a frequent visitor to the church’s food pantry and nobody knows what really happened because there aren’t any living witnesses,” Kohn told ENS.
“Obviously I didn’t know this person and there’s certainly anger I had for somebody who would do something like that in my family and affect my life that way, but I’m pretty certain that’s not the way my sister would have dealt with it,” he said. “She would have understood the situation he was in.”
His sister was seven years his senior. She’d dedicated her life to ministry to the marginalized and those affected by trauma, said Kohn, 57, a plant pathologist. When the shooting occurred he immediately left his St. Louis home and headed to Baltimore where “the whole parish and community support enveloped me, and they were wonderful. As a result I have become very good friends with some of her close friends,” he said.
More than a month after the funeral, on another trip to Baltimore, he also met members of Jones’ family in a transformational moment. “They were actually renting a house adjacent to the church property. That may be the reason this guy was hanging around there. So the parish and this family knew each other well,” Kohn said.
“It was immediately apparent how much suffering his family was going though because of what happened,” he said. “They were certainly victims and they had nothing to do with what their brother and brother-in-law did.”
Extending forgiveness was immediate, Kohn said. “I said I didn’t think they had done anything to be forgiven for, but it was obvious it was like a huge weight off their shoulders. I had a chance to express our sympathy and understanding for what they going through as well.”
The Rev. Tom Slawson, St. Peter’s vicar, said the church renovated the space where the shootings happened, enlarging a chapel which since has been dedicated in commemoration of Kohn’s ministry there.
The shootings also sparked “an almost collective repentance” among the previously conflicted congregation.
Maryland Bishop Eugene Sutton said the entire diocesan community has focused on cultivating a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. “The real issue is, the church constantly announces the kingdom has come with a spirit of reconciliation, compassion, forgiveness, justice and peace, and nobody else is saying that. The church is the institution that’s going to get us there,” Sutton said.
Forgiveness in baby steps
Sutton and others say the church is uniquely positioned to help society move toward forgiveness, Sutton said.
“The church is the only place saying that during every Eucharist whoever’s sitting next to you or around you, you wish them God’s blessings and peace … that I’m reconciling with you and I need to do that because God has forgiven me and I can’t go to the table of the Lord and be fed by the Lord if I don’t try to be a good host to those who’ve wronged me.
“We’ve all wronged the Lord and he still bids us welcome,” Sutton said.
The Rev. Jeff Jackson, rector of St. Nicholas in Hamilton, near Atlanta, said the rite of reconciliation is another “wonderful way of teaching forgiveness.
“The Episcopal Church has a wonderful tradition, that God has given priests the gift of being able to listen and to pronounce that forgiveness, that absolution and it allows us to tangibly hear the words that God is speaking to us intangibly all the time, that we are forgiven and loved and that he will make us whole.”
Graham, the neuropsychologist, offers a prescription for learning to forgive:
• Forego seeking vengeance
• Forbear or “stop pressing the replay button”
• Forgive or release the anger
• Forget the pain associated with it “and take the lesson that’s there for you.”
“If you’re angry at someone,” she said, “for the next two weeks ask God to give that person everything you want in your life and I guarantee you that, at the end of two weeks, you will see that person differently.
“You will start to see that person from God’s point of view and then you’ll have freedom of spirit.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent with the Episcopal News Service.