The Path to Forgiveness

(This article is adapted from a sermon delivered to the Davis United Methodist Church, April 20, 2008. Rev. Moore’s complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here.)

Why is it that so many Christians take the Bible literally except for such teachings as “Turn the other cheek. Walk the second mile, love your enemies and forgive seventy times seven?” The Amish may read the Bible literally, but they practice the hard teachings.

Amish children pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning, at evening, before meals, at school and in worship services. All of them learn the Lord’s Prayer in German by the time they are four. Jesus’ teaching “Forgive as you have been forgiven,” is embedded in their hearts and minds and flesh as well as in their heads.

A year and a half ago, more than a half dozen young Amish girls were murdered in their schoolhouse. The killer lived in a nearby town. The Amish community came together to console each other, but also to console the wife of the killer, to express sorrow for her loss as well, and to forgive her husband.

It is always shocking to learn of the murder of children, but why were Christians and others so shocked that the community forgave the murderer? Some were skeptical. They couldn’t believe that the forgiveness was genuine. Others said that the response was denial and unhealthy. The Amish were surprised that outsiders were shocked by their forgiveness. One woman responded to a reporter’s question saying, “You mean that some people actually thought that we got together to plan forgiveness?” Bishop Eli, a welder, said “Refusing to forgive is not an option. It’s just what we non-resistance people do. It was spontaneous and automatic. It was not a new thing.”[1] The Amish do not believe that forgiving trivializes the horror of the act. Forgiveness is neither pardon nor reconciliation. They expect the state to follow its judicial process.

The whole Amish community was wounded by the violent act. It was the Amish Community that immediately forgave the murderer. Members had to work through their own responses. In baptism they vowed to practice forgiveness. They find it more difficult to forgive community members outsiders than outsiders. Letting go of grudges is difficult for them as for us. Even so, they know that their forgiveness of others is tied to God’s forgiveness of them.

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There is a time to forgive. But there are times not to forgive. When peace officers or counselors respond to domestic abuse, first they bind up the wounds of victims. Then they make sure that the woman or child is protected from the abuser. The Bible says, “Children, obey your parents. Wives obey your husbands. Husbands love your wives…” With this authority, many priests and pastors, most of whom have been male, counsel wives to forgive and return to their husbands even if they are bullies. That’s a terrible time for such advice.

In his book The Sunflower,[2] Simon Wiesenthal asks the question, “Who has the right to forgive?” When he was in a concentration camp, he was detailed to work with a crew outside. As the men were marching through the countryside, Wiesenthal was fascinated by a cemetery covered with sunflowers. He felt that there would be no sunflowers on his grave. When they came to a village an officer pulled him out of line and ordered him to go with a nurse. She took him to his old school which was serving as a hospital. Walking through the building brought back painful memories. The nurse took him into the room of a critically injured Nazi soldier and left him. The patient wanted to could talk with a Jew. Wiesenthal was the one. The patient was blind. His arms and legs were in traction and he was not expected to survive. Wiesenthal became more confused as the man talked. This Roman Catholic was confessing, but why to a Jew?

The patient recounted a horrible act in which he had participated. All of the Jews, mothers with infants and children, young and old, were rounded up and crowded into a large yellow house. The commanding officer ordered the house to be set afire. When the Jews started running from the burning building and jumping out windows, the commander ordered the troops to fire. After telling the story, the patient asked Wiesenthal if he would forgive him for his role in the massacre. Wiesenthal listened to the man for several hours, but said nothing. When he returned to the death camp, he told his friends what had happened. The first question asked was, “Did you forgive him?” “No,” said Wiesenthal. The men talked about the pros and cons of his decision. Wiesenthal’s book ends with the responses of prominent religious leaders and others to the question “If you had been in Wiesenthal’s place what would you have done?”

It’s my understanding that in Judaism there are two kinds of sins or wrongs. Sins against God can only be forgiven by God. Sins against persons can only be forgiven by those who have been wronged. Those killed in the yellow house cannot forgive. The Holocaust is unforgivable. The dead cannot forgive.

The practices of Jews, Amish and Twelve Step programs have similarities. Prior to Yom Kippur, Jews are called to seek out those whom they wronged during the year and try to make the relationship right. Twelve Step programs calls for self-examination, acknowledging the truth about oneself and making amends except when doing so would cause more pain. When the Amish gather for communion, the leader asks, “Are you at peace with your sisters and brothers?” If not, they are to refrain from receiving the bread and wine. Jesus said that when you bring your gift to the altar and remember that you had wronged another, you are to leave your gift at the altar, go and make things right. Then return and bring your gift to the altar.

People outside the Catholic Church often belittle the Confession. We were discussing this in our Current Events group at the Jewish Senior Center I attend when someone repeated the cliché, “They go to confession and when they leave the keep on doing what they confessed.” After everyone had left the room, one person said to me, “We do the same thing. After confessing on Yom Kippur we continue doing what we just confessed.” She added, “Don’t ever mention that I said this.”

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I was a member of the Bioethics Committee of the Medical Center when it sponsored a forum on campus on Shoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. When the issue of forgiveness arose, I referred to Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Later the ethicist said that we don’t need forgiveness for something we did in ignorance. They next time the committee met I asked a staff surgeon, “In caring for patients do you ever feel in need of forgiveness.” He answered, “Every day.”

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I want to mention three more people and say a word about the costs of forgiving and not forgiving. Badshah Khan was a colleague of Mahatma Gandhi. He was born in the Pashtun region of Afghanistan. The men of the Pashtun have long been known as fierce fighters. Pashtun is an honor-shame culture. Honor and shame fuel vengeance and retaliation. If a member in another family or clan kills a member of your clan, this act cannot be ignored. The offended member the clan must retaliate by killing a member of the other clan. His honor and the honor of his clan require this. Failure to retaliate brings shame upon the clan.

Badshah Khan was born into this culture. His father was a member of an Elite Army Corps. The son wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. When he heard British officers belittling this Elite Pashtun Guard, he turned his back on the British army. As the years passed, he joined forces with Gandhi who led Indian opposition to the British. Khan led 100,000 Muslims in non-violent resistance to the British. Khan, who repudiated the revenge code, found in the Koran the basis for his non-violence. He spent thirty of his ninety years in British and later Pakistani prisons.

Helen’s son was murdered while hiking high in the Sierras. It was a random killing. Helen and her brother had been extremely close through childhood and early adult years. Their families were together every holiday. Months after the death of her son Helen’s husband committed suicide. From that day forward her brother and his family shunned her. In the years that followed Helen organized five or six self-help groups for parents dealing with losses of children from natural causes or violence. One group was designed for parents struggling with faith issues raised by traumatic losses. Ten years after the death of her son Helen felt that the time had come when she could confront the killer. She traveled to the prison in Atascadero where she talked with the man who murdered her son. She told him that she forgave him. After her visit, the warden told her that it was the first time that the inmate had ever expressed any emotion.

November 18th will be the thirtieth anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy. Every year survivors and their families have gathered at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland for a memorial service. Fourteen or fifteen years following the service a dozen of us gathered at a Berkeley restaurant on the Bay. Patricia Ryan, Congressman Ryan’s daughter, Stephan Jones, son of Jim Jones, Barbara and I and others were seated around the table. At one point Patricia looked across the table at Stephan Jones and said “Your father murdered my father.” Stephan nodded his head and replied, “Yes, my father ordered your father killed.” The conversation continued until the sun was setting over the Golden Gate.

I think that that it was the twentieth anniversary service when Stephan spoke for the first time. Stephan and the basketball team had been in Georgetown, Guyana when men from Jonestown assassinated Congressman Ryan and the mass murder/suicide followed. Stephan’s words were deeply moving. He talked about his struggle dealing with his father’s death. Through the years his relationship with his father had been strained. He said that he had forgiven his father. He knew his father faked healings, manipulated members, used sex as power. “Nevertheless,” he said “I love him.” Stephan threw his father off his back, and for the first time in years he felt at peace.

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Whether we forgive or don’t forgive, there are consequences. If we choose to hold onto anger, hatred, bitterness and vengeance, we pay a high price. Closure is an internal journey. We are not victims of the actions and events beyond our control. It took Helen and Stephan years of work to work through their losses. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your life… Live the questions now, and perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I would modify these words because the journey is not just intellectual. We live with unanswered questions, but we also live with the absence of those we love. The path to forgiveness requires that we live both: the questions; and also the absences.


[1] This information is found in Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher (Hoboken, N.J.: Jossey-Bass, 2007)

[2] The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal (New York: Random House, 1998)