Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the following story:
Laura Blumenfield is a young American Jew. In 1986 her father, a rabbi, was visiting Jerusalem. While walking in the Old City, he was shot by a Palestinian terrorist. The bullet missed his brain by half an inch. Seriously injured, he survived. His daughter, however, could not forget or forgive.
Years later, by then a journalist, she travelled to Israel, and without disclosing her identity, befriended the family of the gunman and began a correspondence with the terrorist himself, now in jail. Not knowing that he was speaking to the victim’s daughter, the father of the gunman explained why his son shot an American stranger: “He did his duty. Every Palestinian must do it. Then there will be justice.”
Another son added: “My brother never met the man personally. It’s not a personal issue. Nothing personal, so no revenge.”
Laura writes in her diary, “The heat was rising in my face. It was personal. It was personal to me.”
She attended the terrorist’s trial and persuaded the lawyer – still without revealing who she was – to let her give her testimony. On the witness stand she finally disclosed the fact that she was the victim’s daughter and that she had come to know the gunman and his family so that they can put a personal face to the family of the injured man and understand that there is no such thing as an impersonal victim of violence. In the middle of her cross-examination, though she was interrupted by another voice.
Laura writes: ‘A woman stood up at the back of the courtroom. She blurted out in English, in a loud, shaking voice, “I forgive Omar for what he did.”
Forgive?? It was my mother. This was not about forgiveness; didn’t she understand? This was my revenge.
“And if the Blumenfield family can forgive Omar,” my mother continued, “it’s time for the State of Israel to forgive him.”
The two women left the court in tears, but the family of the gunman ran after them and embraced. Later the gunman wrote to Laura, “We have been in a state of war and now we are passing through a new stage of historical reconciliation where there is no place for hate or detestation.”
Rabbi Sacks concludes:
Was there anything achieved in this confrontation? The issues at stake in Israel/Palestine are intractable and have defied every attempt at a solution. Yet there can be little doubt that a solution exists: a division of land into two states, an agreement about access to Jerusalem and holy sites, joint supervision of shared resources such as water, and an international accord about the future of displaced persons. These negotiations would be difficult, but not impossible.
But both sides have long memories. For Israelis: 2000 years of Jewish suffering and the existential need for Jews to have, somewhere on earth, defensible space. For Palestinians: 60+ years of displacement and loss, economic hardship and political impotence, oppression and persecution.
There are two narratives, neither of which makes space for the other. As in so many other conflict zones, an absence of trust leads both parties to courses of action which, rational in themselves, end in consequences disastrous to both. Forgiveness seems absurdly inadequate to substantive conflicts of interest and the sheer momentum of suspicion, distrust and cumulative grievance. Yet in the end peace is made, if at all, by people who acknowledge the personhood of their opponents.
One of the great stories of the Bible is about how King Solomon decided who the real mother was when two women came before him, each claiming that the baby in front of them was her child. The true mother, he understood, was the one who was prepared to give the child away rather than let it be killed. Love is more than possession; it is in part the ability to let go. Forgiveness is the ability to let go, and without it we can kill what we most love. Every act of forgiveness mends something broken in this fractured world. It is a step, however small, in the long hard journey to peace.[i]
Over the last few months the issues of violence, racism, and forgiveness – in respect of United States – have been almost daily in the news. It seems as if a week can’t go by without a white American cop killing a black American citizen. The mix of race, guns, law enforcement, poverty, and injustice are a toxic mix. Time and again people have taken to the streets to vent their disgust. It isn’t just a rogue cop, or an isolated incident. It seems as if the systems of governance in many of these American cities aren’t able to right the attitudes and assumptions surrounding deeply entrenched racism and poverty. But it is hard for Americans to look clearly into the mythic structure of the ‘land of the free, and home of the brave’ and acknowledge that freedom too often comes only with skin colour, money and resources; and the bravery needed to do anything about it is in short supply.
In the midst of this brewing toxicity came on June 17th the slaughter of nine black Americans at a prayer meeting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killer was a young white man who wanted to start a race war. The outrage was huge. Yet when at the bond hearing several family members of the victims told the gunman they forgave him, something other than outrage became evident. That something – a blend of wanting change, wanting things to be different, and knowing that the system of retributive justice hasn’t achieved that – led to a very symbolic and significant event: the taking down of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State House where it had flown for 50 years.
Like many other tourists when I’ve visited the U.S. I’ve felt perplexed about seeing this flag, not relegated to a museum display case, but proudly flown as a symbol of white resistance to black emancipation. I’ve wondered, “If I was a black American how would I feel about it?” Particularly in the South. Particularly in communities where due to poverty and prejudice black emancipation for the majority is still a dream.
Somehow the act of forgiveness by the family members of the victims from Emanuel Church enabled a whole community to think again: to think how it would be if your skin was a colour that meant you were much more likely to be stopped, arrested or shot, or how it would be if your skin was a colour that meant you were much more likely to experience poverty and prejudice. Forgiveness, that ability to let go, seemed to start to mend something in the hearts and minds of those with the most resources and power, the white majority. Yet, like with Blumenfield’s and Omar’s family, we know that one act of reconciliation does not a resolution make. But it’s a start.
Today we participate in what we call ‘Holy Communion’. In both communion with each other, and in union with Jesus and others who have participated in this meal and tried to live out its consequences, we take bread and eat, and take juice or wine and drink. Yet the first communion wasn’t like this. And there is an important reminder in the earliest record we have of this event, 1 Corinthians 11:23, “…that Jesus on the night that he was betrayed took a loaf of bread.” The tradition has Judas the betrayer present and partaking in that first communion. In Luke’s gospel, written some 50+ years later than 1 Corinthians, we hear that not only was Judas’ and Peter’s betrayals foretold but all disciples were disputing who was the greatest among them [22:24]! They all, of course, partook of this first communion.
So, it wasn’t a meal where they were all ‘one’ in attitude, commitment, and vision. It wasn’t a great team building event before the big game. It wasn’t a ‘holy moment’ with God. Rather it was a meal of mixed motives and feelings – jealousy, fear, guilt, confusion... It was a meal where Jesus was holding out to each of them by means of a simple, symbolic act: forgiveness, friendship, and the possibilities of what could be when he was gone. He was offering the means to repair something that he knew was going to tear. Forgiveness and friendship are the primary tools to build and create systems of reconciliation and lasting peace.
[i] Adapted from J. Sacks The Dignity of Difference: How to avoid the clash of civilizations p.188-190.