Forgiveness Test

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Is human forgiveness possible?

The story I describe here occurred in Indonesia, in my first year of ministry as a parish pastor. As usual, before and after the service, I approached some of my parishioners to say hello to them, or to hold a small conversation with one or two people. On one occasion I had a chance to talk with Juliana (not her real name).

Juliana was one of my parishioners with whom I faced the problem of forgiveness. She was a sixty-five-year-old woman who had lost three of her family members in a fire.

Juliana was a wife with two daughters and two grandchildren. She owned a clothing kiosk which did good business at 'Senen' market. Her husband and daughters were always there for help. "We work in shifts," she said.

One day a horrific incident happened, the market had caught fire. A huge fire broke out and damaged kiosks, stalls, and buildings everywhere, including Juliana's kiosk. Meanwhile, an unknown group of people crossed the kiosk, plundering and looting as they went. Juliana reported that three of her family members were killed in the incident, namely her husband, her youngest daughter, and her sixteen-month-old grandson.

Juliana's husband and his grandson were asleep when the market was engulfed in flames. They died together upstairs in the kiosk. Juliana said, "Perhaps when my husband awoke and became aware of the incident, it was already too late." Her youngest daughter was killed while fleeing the fire. Juliana suspected someone had beaten her unconscious before the fire consumed her body as she was found dead with her right-hand grabbing hold of her neck.

Juliana herself, her eldest daughter, and her granddaughter were away from work when the incident took place. Therefore, they were all safe. But the fact that she and other family members were safe did not make her glad or feel relieved. Instead, she seemed to be very sad and depressed.

One parishioner who was a close friend of Juliana said to me, "Ever since the incident, even though Juliana still attends the church, she becomes very quiet and cries easily."

In my pastoral visit, however, I found that she was quite open to talk about her concerns and about the incident. What I noticed during the visit was that she told the story repetitively as though she was trying to find out what had happened. She extended her outrage to the perpetrators. Her suspicion was that arsonists had caused the incident and the death of her beloved daughter was not just an accident but a homicide attempted by the looters.

Juliana's experience raises important questions about the possibility of forgiveness. If I were to ask Juliana whether she was concerned about being able to forgive those arsonists and looters, I suppose she would immediately give no reply. Having listened to her story, I could not help but wonder: Had she failed to forgive? When the wounds haven't yet healed, could I expect her to forgive? Is forgiveness an isolated event from a larger healing process? If she immediately forgave those who wronged her, what does forgiveness mean to her? How does a Christian understanding of forgiveness inform what Juliana needed to do in relation to the perpetrators?

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