I can’t pray the Our Father anymore – at least as I have in the past. Honesty requires that I admit my paralysis. Most of my prayer remains sincere but I now get hung up on “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Integrity demands that I admit deep resistance and objection.
It’s easy in conversation to accept that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves is pretty radical. In every day practice we might be able to transcend our urge to extract “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”. But love my enemies, pray for those who persecute? Offer forgiveness, not just once but seven times seventy? Do not resist an evil doer but offer the other cheek as well to the one who strikes you?
Last weekend we went to see The Railway Man, a searing account of a former prisoner of war who is unable to overcome the emotional trauma of his past. Based on a true story, Eric Lomax was one of thousands forced into slave labor to build the notorious Burma Railway, known as the “Death Railway” because of the thousands who perished during its construction.
“The Railway Man” begins three decades after the war. It’s long shadow of looms over his marriage. Lomax has terrifying nightmares, and his behavior is erratic, at times violent. His wife sees he is shell-shocked and desperately wants to help. But Lomax refuses to discuss what happened in the internment camp. Intending revenge, Lomax instead travels to Asia to confront his tormentor.
How are such victims to forgive? Are they to be forgiven as they forgive those who have trespassed against them? Locally, two men “sucker punched” and kicked in the head of a young dad who now lies in critical condition struggling for his life. What should “forgiveness” look like for this wife and mother?
Perhaps the ultimate test for our generation is clerical sexual abuse. We all know too well that such a victim never does fully recover from such a profound violation of trust. Unspeakable pain lingers. Emotional landmines lie hidden while spawning a veritable tsunami of collateral damage. Relationships are forever poisoned.
Our generation has been collectively victimized, violated, traumatized. One need not have experienced explicit physical exploitation to know the deep pain. What angers us, what hurts most, is not simply the reprehensible behavior of initial perpetrators. We have come face to face with the fact that the Church itself has failed us all. Unconscionable behavior by the hierarchy seems relentless — like [this] out of Seattle yesterday. We are all victims of their abuse.
How do we pray with integrity “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”? One thing I have recognized is my tendency to link my need to be forgiven with my willingness to forgive – quid pro quo, we are forgiven as we are capable of forgiving. I’m doomed if my forgiveness is contingent upon or in proportion to my capacity to forgive.
Where is the hope? And, yes, there is always hope! Whether a prisoner of war like Eric Lomax, an anguished wife and mother in Mankato or a “cradle Catholic” in the pew on Sundays, forgiveness sometimes requires a superhuman act. In reality only God can forgive.
“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” remains as pressing in our day as for the Pharisees grilling Jesus. (Luke 5:21). Despite the normative teaching of Jesus in the Our Father, forgiveness is really only possible through God’s saving action in Christ (Rom 3:25f).
Ultimately, God has reconciled us to Himself and to one another while we were still sinners (Rom 5). That gives me hope despite my paralysis in prayer. That is the sole grounds on which we may have hope for the Church as well.
God save us!
Again, I am indebted to Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, 2013 for prompting much of these reflections; esp., pp 138-142.