Forgiving Muammar Gaddafi


Last week, as we were in our time of prayers and celebrations, a question was asked aloud.  It was one of two that were asked from the congregation during service.  Both questions were hard and telling.   One came from a young girl the older from an older gentleman.     This posting deals with the question raised by the older gentleman during the pastoral prayer.

 As we were praying for the people and the events that were occurring in Lybia, he asked the very simple question;

“How do we as Christians forgive Gaddafi?”

Hoping that my sermon would begin to answer some of those questions, I asked folks to stay tuned.

Yet, the question, and my eventual realization that I never fully spoke about forgiveness has put this question in my head all week.       I truthfully have spent the last week thinking on just that;   How do we, and even how can we, as people of faith forgive the likes of Gaddafi, or Stalin and Hitler for that matter?

After some time, I decided I wanted to take this service and speak directly to that.   I turned to several theological textbooks, a couple of commentaries, and even turned to essays from a couple of Rabbis and a Buddist.  For several days, I sucked in all I could on the subject of forgiveness.    This message is what was born from those efforts.

I begin by acknowledging, that it didn’t seem so out of place for me to spend time now talking about forgiveness.   Lent is a period when we are called to not only recognize our shortcomings but move beyond them to something greater.     In the end, that’s forgiveness.     Yet, forgiveness is something that isn’t intuitive, and most of us think its something that is more or less akin to a feel good suggestion.   Forgiveness is hard.

When I think of forgiveness, there are images that immediately come to mind:   Turning the other cheek when slapped, offering my shirt when my jacket is stolen for example.        These are certainly good guidelines when it comes to forgiving my enemies.   I need to do just that.

  • My enemies are the person who is up for the same promotion at work,
  • Or the person that hits my car and drives away,
  • Or even the person who steals my time in their selfishness…

 

They are just like you and me, and equally as precious in God’s eyes as me.   By turning the other cheek, I respect that fact.   I respect that there is a piece of God in them, despite their broken shell.   In offering my coat, I acknowledge that fact.   That’s a one on one forgiveness that often is hard, but the reasons to do so are real, and easy to see.  Sometimes, however, forgiveness is a gargantuan task.

I remember Marietta Jaegger, the founder of the activist group Families for Human Rights, and I see something completely different.    Mary wasn’t always the social activist.   There was a time, when she was a normal everyday person:  Raising kids, doing the carpool thing.     Things changed early one evening on July 25, 1973.   

The family was on a camping trip with another family.    The adults had put the kids to bed, and they were sharing stories over some beer by the campfire.    It was the stereotypical camping trip scene, until the Jaegger’s decided to call it a night.  As they headed back into their tent, they discovered that their 7 year old daughter, Susie was gone.

Their child was kidnapped in the silence of the night.     She was held hostage and repeated and horrifically abused day and night for weeks.    When finally she was murdered, the killer dismembered her, and did unspeakable things to her lifeless body.

And then, to add insult to injury, on the one year anniversary the kidnapper phoned her to taunt her.   Then she did the unthinkable,…  She quietly asked him, “What can I do to help you?”   There was a long silence, and the kidnapper began crying, and said: “I just wish this burden could be lifted from me.”

The kidnapper was captured, and at Marietta’s request, he was offered life imprisonment without parole rather than the death penalty.   The man never made it to prison, having committed suicide in his jail cell.

The most important part of this horrific story, were her words to a reporter after Mary addressed the court.

She said: “My concern is how best to honor Susie’s life. Do I honor her by becoming someone who wants to kill someone, or do I honor her better by saying life is sacred, even the lives of those who do horrible crimes? We don’t have to kill people to protect society from them.   I have forgiven this man, and wish no more blood.”

I think of that little 7 year old, and I think of my own girls, and how crushing it would be to have that treasure ripped from me.

  • How in God’s name could she have forgiven that man?
  • Could I even come close if, God Forbid, I was put into the same situation?
  • How can we forgive something so dark, so evil, so wrong?
  • How in God’s name can we forgive that?

 

Yet there is a hope, down in my very core, which hopes that if ever I was faced with a dark moment like that, that I too could find a way to do the same.

I think I can say that, because I have come to a personal understanding of what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t.

  • Do I think we as Christians can forgive Hitler, Stalin, and Gaddafi? 
  • Do I think we can forgive the nameless people who cause unthinkable hurt to innocents?
  • Do I think that we can forgive the Osama Bin Laden’s of this world?

 

Yes, I do.

First, we need to remember that Forgiveness is not the wishy-washy-ness, the world is all gumdrops and lollipops type of forgiveness, that so many of us seem to think it is.    I am not sure where that view of it came, because its incomplete and its wrong.

Now, I am going to make a statement that many might take objection to, but I ask that you hear me out; 

Being a Christian doesn’t mean you should no longer hate, and as such, neither does the act of forgiveness.

This is something I see as a misconception in and of the church.    We teach, preach, sing and celebrate the truth that God is Love.   At the same time, we believe that if God is love, then there is no place for hate in our lives.   

I believe that as Christians we are called to Love,…  And we are called to Hate.

The opposite of love is not hate, its apathy.   Hate is neutral.    Hate is natural.   But Hate is not rage.   Rage is hate unchecked and uncontrolled.  I believe as Christians there is a rightful place for Hate.

I cannot be the pastor that stands up and says I am a Christian free from hate, nor do I believe we should be.   I am not sure how I can be a good Christian without possessing a certain degree of hate.   I hate that there are innocent people who hurt, who hunger, because of the deeds of evil people and evil systems.   

I am full of hate when terrorists kill innocents, or when the unspeakable crimes occur.    I hate the fact that there is someone out there feeding drugs to the addict,  beating his wife, buying the body of another, preaching intolerance, or destroying a childhood.    I hate these things to the very core.   It is that hate that drives us to make changes, and to work for something different.  Without it, all that is left is empty apathy.  As Christians, I believe we are called to hate the very things that God Hates.     I know that the wide scale door way to door way massacre of the protesters in Libya is an act that God despises, and as such so should we.

 

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to see Evil as anything less than Evil.  

 We can look at the people who commit the crimes, and pray for their souls.  We can mourn the innocence that was lost in their lives too.    We can pray that someday they will mourn their decisions and make amends.    We can celebrate and love the very truth that God’s grace is for them too, and we can hate the evil that spews from them.  

We can be positive that at the core of the most vile of people there once existed, and perhaps still does, the pure and the innocent person, that was broken along the way.     I know that God loves that person, and as such I too will pray that I can love that person too.   Somewhere, in the darkest of men, there existed a five year old boy who giggled, cried, smiled and had the fullest of potential available to them, and they lost it.   

Forgiveness calls us to remember that small boy, at the same time we never diminish the evil of the man.

We don’t excuse their behavior, and say everything is okay.    We don’t forgive and forget.     Evil has a long lasting and very dark fingerprint, and forgetting the hurt and ignoring the changed worlds that result, only serves to dishonor the victim.   In the end, forgiveness is for the victim.  Forgiveness its for the forgiver.

 

Forgiveness doesn’t mean the perpetrator is exempt and their behavior is condoned.      

It is Opposition and Correction that is reserved for the oppressor or the guilty.   Forgiveness doesn’t preclude justice, it exists separate from it.   Just because we forgive, doesn’t mean we forget, or we no longer search for justice.    We should be people who urge, work, and fight for it.   We need to be people who remember that justice is not retribution or vengeance.  Justice is our shared responsibility to insure that one’s humanity when diminished by another is restored.  

We can forgive, and still demand Justice.

 

Lastly, and by far the most important aspect of forgiveness that should never be forgotten, forgiveness is something that we do for ourselves.    It is the act of removing the scar that is growing unchecked at the center of our being.   It is the act of removing the rage and the anger that is sucking the air out of every moment of our lives.    It is about replacing the brokenness that exists at the core of the victim, and in its place finding hope.   

Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves.

This is not always something that is intuitive, and as such I would like to offer the story of Corrie Ten Boom.   Corrie was a young girl, whose story was immortalized in the book and movie The Hiding Place.    Corrie was from a deeply religious, Christian family in Amsterdam.   Growing up faith was the cornerstone of their family, and as such, when a Jewish neighbor was looking for a safe place to hide from Nazis.   The family took her to a secret room off the young Corrie’s bedroom.

It was that room that housed members of the underground and escaping Jews for almost a year.    Their activities were hidden, until a neighbor, another Christian neighbor who was also a Nazi, turned her family into the Gestapo.   They raided the house, but could not find the room where 7 Jews hid silently.   Instead, they arrested the family, and sent them to concentration camps.  Her and her sister were sent to Ravensbruk Concentration Camp outside of Berlin, Germany.   

          While there they became something akin to missionaries and pastors, and told their fellow prisoners about the glory, wonder, and promise of God admist the unspeakable acts around them.    Her younger sister died in the concentration camp, and on her death bed, asked Corrie where was God.   Corrie’s response was simple:    “Here, as there is no pit so deep that God’s love isn’t deeper.”    Corrie survived, along with the Jews that found safe haven in her families home.  

          She is remembered by the Jews as a person of righteousness and a tree has been planted in her honor in Israel.   After the war she traveled to 60 countries spreading the Gospel.   She died at the old age of 91.

          Before she died, Corrie would tell the story of the time immediately after her release.   She was full of anger and rage, and searching for retribution.   She was not able to forget the wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven and she kept rehashing the incident and as a result she couldn’t sleep.

Finally Corrie cried out to God for help.  “His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor,” Corrie wrote, “to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.”   “Up in the church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope.   But you know what. After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging.   First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops.

I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope.   But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.   It takes turning to God again, again, and again.   It takes turning to him in prayer, devotion, worship, and quiet conversation.”

And so it proved to be, Corrie would tell.  There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in her conversations, but the force had gone out of them.   They came less and less often and at the last, allowed for a moment that allowed them to stop altogether.

That moment was when, many years after the war had ended, that she returned to the concentration camp to meet one of the cruelest of her guards.

When she saw the guard, approach, there was a silence between them.   The guard full of shame.   Where once he wore the finest of uniforms, he was now dirty, beaten, broken, and foul smelling.     He stared downwards and tears cleared the grime from his cheek as the fell off his face.            Those gathered waited for a reaction.   They wanted anger.   They wanted hate.

Instead Corrie walked up to the man, forced eye contact, and silently grabbed both his hands.  She later wrote about that moment.

 “For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.   I had forgiven”

 Can we forgive Gadaffi?  Yes, we can.   

We can forgive, and still hate.   We can embrace the hate that leads us to stand up and fight for a different way.

We can forgive and still demand justice.

We can forgive and see what was. 

 We can see the little boy…  at the same time that we know that evil is never forgotten.

And we can forgive, so that we can be the people we are called to be.  

 We can be people who aren’t changed by the evil around us, but change the world.   We can be people who focus on hope rather than hurt.    We can be people who let our hand slip from the bell’s rope, and experience all that God has to offer.   

Let this Lent be the time when we are called to do just that, thanks be to God, amen.

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