Just a little lesson on forgiveness, America

The oldest student in my catechism class raised his hand to object and challenge me as he often did Sunday after Sunday. I couldn’t blame him really.

He and his younger sister had spent four years living as refugees in another country after being chased out of their hometown in Iraq. Four years without school. Four years without their friends. And four years to build up all kinds of resentment.

At 14, he was a few years older than most of the other students. An intelligent young man, he was working to perfect his English and adapt to American culture.  

That Sunday, I was teaching the class what Jesus said about forgiveness: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44).”

Clearly my student had far greater concerns that having the class bully steal his lunch money.

He raised his hand and said with some insistence that this request of Jesus to forgive one’s enemies was impossible. He shared a bit of his struggle forgiving the people who forced his family to abandon all that was dear to them and make their way in an unknown land, adding that he was an outcast at school, struggling to fit in and misunderstood by his peers. Then he sat back, arms folded across his chest, legs straight out in front of him, daring me to prove him wrong.

Of course, I had the standard answers a catechist might give. You know, how God will always give you the grace you need to obey Him. How following Jesus isn’t easy or popular but that it’s the way to heaven.

He wasn’t buying it.

I may have been giving him the “right” answers, but how does living forgiveness really work? What does it look like? And how do we teach someone to forgive the people who have wounded them?

These memories of years gone by are coming back to me now during this time of great conflict in our country. I can’t recall a more bitterly divided nation in my entire life and what breaks my heart is that political disputes have destroyed friendships. Not just acquaintances but real friendships.

How do you maintain cordial relations when two people are bitterly divided over the virus or the election or the future of the country? When you feel as though the other person has betrayed you and your values by taking an opposite point of view? There’s a limit to how much we should have to forgive, isn’t there?

Actually, no.

I’m not making this up. Someone once asked Jesus this same question. “How many times must I forgive my brother? Jesus said: “Not seven times, but 77 times (Matt. 18:22).”

That’s a tall order when a friendship has been battered by disagreements. I’m thinking of a relationship in my own life in which sharp differences once led to real heartache.

I knew I needed to forgive this woman, but I felt as though I’d reached my limit of forgiving. Being The Soulful Catholic after all, I tend to feel things deeply. Then one morning at church, as I sat in the pew, waiting for Father to begin Mass, the grace of God whispered to me: Why not pray and fast for her?   

I noticed the result of heeding the Holy Spirit’s nudge as time went on.

The anger I’d been feeling was replaced with a deeper love for my friend. Peace had taken root in my soul and I felt free. Free of the turbulent feelings, free of the worry, free of the desire to devise a pithy comeback or prove I was right. .

That’s when it hit me that Jesus asks us to forgive our enemies (and our friends) not because He’s a tough taskmaster, but because He loves us and wants us to experience the sweetness of the fruit of forgiveness, the sweetness of a love borne of sacrifice. The cross is bitter to those who reject it, but to those who embrace it, the cross becomes somehow loveable, endurable, and even a source of joy.

Love IS sacrifice and that’s something we’ve mostly forgotten in 2020. Love is the humble way and the way of peace.

Love is what helps us forgive so we can be truly free.

Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you (Jn. 13:34).” We can learn to say, “Let us forgive one another as He has forgiven us.” That is love in action, and yet love, I’ve learned, is really a Person.

Love is He who saves us and He who has us in the palm of His hand, no matter the storms of life and no matter who wins the election. He wants us to forgive from the heart every offense so we can know true freedom — the freedom that comes from God, not politicians.

That’s a lesson I’ll be sharing with my catechism class this week and beyond.