The voice was that of a strong young man in his early thirties, with an accent I couldn’t place, but the face was that of the Crypt Keeper. He had neither hair nor eyebrows. Eyes and mouth were pulled from their customary positions by leathery, inflexible bands of scar tissue. This scar tissue was ancient, almost as old as the young man himself. Indeed, on every place where the young man’s body was visible scar tissue wound across in great cords and cables.
The young man was telling his story. He was the son of a Nazarene pastor who lived with his family in a village south of Juba in the south of the Sudan. As happened frequently in that part of the world, raiders from the North set upon the village. These men butchered his parents, his brother and his sister before his eyes then, almost as an afterthought, threw him into a fire to perish. He was maybe six years old.
He was pulled from the fire by a woman from his village and washed off in a nearby stream. He credited this with saving his life. Along with other survivors of the raid, this woman made her way to a UN refugee camp across the Sudanese border in Uganda, where she deposited him in a camp hospital. Somehow, his plight caught the attention of someone who had resources and the authority to use them, and he was flown to a hospital in Dubai, then to Europe, and finally to the United States, where he had been adopted by a couple in Minnesota.
The young man continued his story. He spoke about growing up with dreams of revenge, of rising to a place of political power that would allow him to authorize the use of nuclear weapons on the men who had murdered his family. He would not only lay them waste, but their whole tribe, and their tribal lands. He tried to reconcile his need with vengeance with the gospel of forgiveness that his foster family preached to them from their Lutheran faith. Surely a just God wouldn’t look on in disapproval as he sought redress for this most horrible of crimes, would He?
Then the young man said something that I will never forget as long as I draw breath. I have already forgotten his name, and the day I heard his testimony in my wife’s church, but I will not forget what he said. “The Muslim raiders, they burnt me on the outside, but I was burning myself on the inside. They scarred my face, but I was scarring my heart. I was doing their work for them.”
At that point, the young man said, Jesus came to him and told him that he must forgive those who had tossed him into the fire so many years ago. Apparently, the Lord had revealed to him the state of the hearts of the raiders who came to his village, and he said that in that burst of understanding he was able to pity them, and pray for them. He was seeking now to return to the Sudan, seek out the men who had killed his family, or their families, and forgive them openly.
I thought he had a very poor plan. If these men decided to finish the job they had obviously left undone twenty-five years ago, what would possibly restrain them, and how could he forgive them then? Nevertheless, I couldn’t help admiring the young man for wanting to commit such a radical act of forgiveness. If what he said was true, and I have no reason to doubt him, the Lord had raised this young man to an enviable level of communion with Himself in His own suffering, but not one I was anxious to share. If the Lord had prayed for His tormentors “Forgive them Father, because they don’t know what they are doing”, then this young man took it to another level, “Father, forgive them although because they know exactly what they are doing, yet they do it gladly”.
I believe that it is a sign of the mediocrity of my spirit that I am not consciously aware of the need to forgive anybody, yet somehow I am seething with a very low level of anger almost constantly. I was gobsmacked by the young man’s confession of his desire to go nuclear on his enemies, because that had been a perennial component of my daydreams as well. I could even have advised him as to how to go about it. Depending on something I have never been able to pin down, I have been at various times in my Walter Mitty-like reveries a fervent commissar in pursuit of kulaks, a Dominican sniffing out Cathars, a Covenanter sergeant cleansing with holy fire every foul root of idolatry and prelature. I’m certain you have read pastor Martin Niemöller’s eloquent poem:
First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.
Maybe I am off-base here, and attempting to force the good pastor to address something he never intended to address, but what do you do about the multitudes of people whose most fervent desire is to be one of them, one of clean-up squad who come for everybody else? Did you ever feel that desire, pastor Niemöller? If you did, how did you get rid of it? Is there ever anyone who wants to speak for them? How did you place a desire like that under the heel of Christ? Who did you have to forgive? How did you manage to identify them? Do you stop listening to Fox News and switch on NPR, or vice versa? Was it as easy as that?
Sometimes I think it is an easier thing to forgive a harm done to myself than a harm done to someone I love. My wife often quarrels with women in her church. She seems to be a very polarizing figure, especially for women. Many women (and men) in her church love her, but others cannot abide her presence. To be honest, I don’t much care for the women who don’t like my wife either, and not entirely because they don’t like my wife. I can tell almost from the beginning that if my wife is serving on a ministry or is attending a Bible study with a particular someone that it is not going to end well.
So she quarrels with these women, and at times she is deeply hurt. Rumors are spread about her that are just plain wrong, and often even people I respect and admire fall into them. My wife struggles to forgive these women, and then attempts to move on. I wonder what I am supposed to do. I can always hide in my Greek church (which my wife doesn’t attend because, as you guessed, she has quarreled with some women there and she isn’t that interested in Orthodoxy anyway), but I want to attend my wife’s church with her. It is usually profitable and it makes her very happy. Invariably, I catch some woman or another giving my wife the stink-eye. It grinds me up, and then Hulk wants to smash.
What am I supposed to do? By the outdated code I cling to and live by, I should speak to the woman’s husband and set up a time for the four of us to speak, but my wife shushes me, telling me it won’t do any good. Ordinarily, if you tell people you forgive them when they are convinced that they are in the right and that you should be asking their forgiveness, it does more harm than good. So I bluster along resenting and being resented, adding another layer of redirection to the carapace of my soul, as the sands of my life run through towards that final terrible reckoning.