For Roman Catholics, gaining forgiveness for one’s sins is fairly easy. One pops into a dark confessional, tells the priest who is sitting behind a screen and is bound by life-long secrecy, what one has done, and forgiveness is granted, usually for a small penance, such as saying several short prayers.
In theory, this recognition in confession that we are all sinners should be the motivation for forgiving others. In one of the great prayers of Christianity, the Our Father, the petitioner asks God “to forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” But learning to forgive others, especially for real injustice and injury, is rarely so simple as getting forgiveness for oneself.
Last week, something that happened at a scheduled hanging in Iran is one of the most incredible stories of forgiveness I have ever heard.
Seven years ago a 17-year-old boy was killed with a kitchen knife in a street fight in Iran. Four days ago, the young man who had killed him was scheduled to be hanged. There was a crowd gathered to witness the public execution, including the mother of the young man about to be hanged, and the parents of the murder victim. The prisoner was brought out blind-folded, and the noose placed around his neck. The mother of the victim then asked for a stool on which she could stand to reach the prisoner. She reached over, slapped him hard, and said “Forgiven!” She and the victim’s father then took the noose from around the neck of the prisoner and he was released.
There are photographs of the mothers of the released prisoner and of the victim embracing.
This story seems to have been in all the international news media. But I’ve not written about it because it has left me speechless. As far back as the Greeks, we have myths teaching us that the poison of unforgiven acts can last for centuries, even for millennium. Today in trouble spots around the world we see this tearing nations apart. I thought I had long understood that the only way to grow beyond injustice and betrayal was to forgive, to let go of the bitterness and anger. And I have seen people learn to let go of the desire for revenge and recompense, to forgive.
But I have never known anyone who has achieved it moments before one might arguably say she was about to achieve what some might have called ” justice” for the murder of her son.
I will not pretend that I’m sure I could do it.
But I do know that if humanity is going to survive, we must learn the lesson from this mother.