17th March 2013

Reconciliation Through Forgiveness

“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’”
Luke 23:34 (NIV)

My grandparents came to the USA from Karpathos, Russia, sometime early in the last century to escape the Communist Revolution. That was a good move—no one knows for certain how many people lost their lives during that revolution and the reign of Stalin which followed. Families were torn apart, loved ones tortured, murdered or lost forever in the concentration camps. It is not the kind of thing I like to think about. But when I hear the talk of revolution by today’s youthful protestors, I wonder if they know what they are asking for?

Because my grandparents emigrated, I grew up in freedom and relative safety. Others have not been so fortunate. Do you remember Pol Pot and the Cambodian Holocaust? He was a Maoist revolutionary, prime minister and undisputed leader of Cambodia from 1976 to 1979, who imposed radical communism, ruthlessly deporting urban dwellers to the countryside to work in collective farms and forced labour projects. Overwork, malnutrition, poor medical care, and executions resulted in the deaths of approximately 21 per cent of the Cambodian population under his three-year premiership.

Then again, how can we forget the incredible events of 1994 in the small African nation of Rwanda? The poorer Hutu majority armed with knives, bayonets, and machetes, began systematically to kill the wealthier Tutsi minority. They had slaughtered nearly a million of the Tutsis before the bloodshed was stopped. Rwanda’s prisons are still bulging with prisoners awaiting judgment for the genocide. The backlogged court system has sent some of the accused back to their homes and neighbourhoods. The people who had destroyed so many lives and families now live beside the few surviving relatives of the very men, women, and children they killed.

Genocide is a monumental crime, and the effects linger for generations. How do you heal communities and whole nations that have suffered like this? Is there an example to follow which can provide a model for forgiveness and the restoration of peace and harmony? Is there a power strong enough to really establish a new start after such atrocities? The answer is yes! This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when he was being nailed to the cross, and uttered these remarkable words: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Out of his trust in the power of his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit to make all things new (Revelation 21:5), he overcame the evil by absorbing it into himself, allowing God’s judgment to condemn it to death, and opened the way for us to enter into new life in him—reconciled to God and to each other.

Christian writer Miroslav Volf, himself familiar with horrendous violence in Croatia and Serbia, describes forgiveness as the exchange of one form of suffering for another. This is what we see in the life of Jesus. Volf writes in his book Exclusion and Embrace, “More than just the passive suffering of an innocent person, the passion of Christ is the agony of a tortured soul and a wrecked body offered as a prayer for the forgiveness of the torturers.”

Jesus showed us that the way to life lies in taking up his forgiveness and his work of reconciliation, not in executing our revenge and retribution. God is not some distant cosmic sheriff waiting for a moment to exact more suffering upon the world he created. Jesus summed it up in what is perhaps the most famous sentence in the Bible. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). And by the Spirit of Jesus, we are given the privilege to share in his very own on-going ministry of saving reconciliation.

Merciful Father, help us to forgive and be reconciled with others, even as your Son forgave and asked forgiveness for those who tortured him. There are many people who practise evil in this world. May our example help them to understand your mercy and forgiveness and have them mend their ways. In Jesus’ name we pray.

Study by Joseph Tkach

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