Why Forgiveness Is At The Core Of Peace And Spiritual Growth

“Forgiveness is the ultimate spiritual practice.”
Pope John Paul II shakes hands with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca on December 27, 1983. Ali Agca shot and wounded the pope on May 13, 1981 in St. Peter's Square in Rome.
Pope John Paul II shakes hands with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca on December 27, 1983. Ali Agca shot and wounded the pope on May 13, 1981 in St. Peter's Square in Rome.
AFP via Getty Images

Sharon Salzberg, a renowned Buddhist teacher, was once approached by a participant at one of her meditation workshops who revealed to her that he had survived a terrorist attack. The man told her that he felt “overwhelmed” by the forgiveness meditation she led the class in, and said, "I don't know if it is possible to learn to forgive. I do know that it is possible, and in fact essential, to learn to stop hating."

Salzberg shared the anecdote to demonstrate a critical element of forgiveness. “We should not be sentimental about forgiveness: It is often a difficult, knotty spiritual practice,” she told The Huffington Post. “We may recognize, like that meditator, that taking a position of hatred is destroying us, and that if we are to truly live, out of compassion for ourselves we work to be free of hatred.”

The International Day of Peace, which falls on Sept. 21 every year, serves as a reminder that only through unity and compassion can we right the wrongs engineered by war and violence. To do this, we must learn to forgive -- and that can be the greatest challenge of all.

“Forgiveness is the ultimate spiritual practice,” said Rev. Adriene Thorne, executive minister of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. “All other spiritual offerings depend on it.”

In the Christian tradition, Jesus offers the foundational example of forgiveness. A biblical parable from Matthew 18 illustrates: “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’”

“It is this same ridiculous forgiveness we receive from God that we are required to extend to our neighbor,” Thorne said.

That’s easier said than done. “Forgiving others can be very hard depending on the nature of hurt caused,” said Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, a lecturer and Hindu chaplain at Columbia University. He pointed out that Hindu scriptures contain many stories in which people who have been persecuted forgive their aggressors. “In one story, a five-year-old child, Prahlad, forgives his incredibly abusive father,” Dasa said. “In another story, a mother forgives the murderer of her five children.”

These are chilling tales that call into question the feasibility of forgiveness. The difficulty of the practice is compounded by a pervading “eye for an eye” rhetoric that dominates American culture, Dasa added.

Thorne echoed that sentiment. “Our ability or inability to extend forgiveness damages us and the folks we are connected to,” she argued. “This is so profoundly apparent in the political arena where lack of forgiveness damages tribes, countries and successive generations.”

Even the language of forgiveness can be damaging if there is an imbalance in the way it’s distributed noted Omid Safi, director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University. “After the Charleston shooting, there was a huge positive coverage of the African-American community’s forgiveness of the shooter Dylann Roof. Yet I don’t recall us speaking of forgiveness after 9/11, or after the terrorist attacks by the Tsarnaev brothers,” Safi said.

Forgiveness, in all its difficulty and discomfort, lays bare the depth of hurt, injustice and intolerance that otherwise goes unchecked in society. Rabbi Susan Talve, the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, has been part of the protest dialogue in Ferguson since last summer's unrest. Her involvement in racial justice work is something that continually reminds her of her own privilege as a white woman. To manage that guilt, Talve said she seeks not to forgive, but rather to be forgiven.

“Tuesday night, the beginning of Yom Kippur, is all about forgiveness and the possibility of redemption,” Talve told HuffPost. “When I ask for forgiveness this year, it will be for all the times I saw injustice and did not act to change it.” She hopes this awareness will allow her to recognize opportunities “to be part of the solution."

Talve’s comments bring up an important point that Thorne and others also noted. The task of forgiveness goes two ways, and we may need others’ forgiveness as much as we need to forgive others.

On both sides of the spectrum compassion is key, according to Shinnyo-en Buddhist minister Rev. Qalvy Grainzvolt. “Compassion allows for a moment's pause to step back, see things more objectively, and then cultivate a response rather than surrender to a reaction,” he said.

Grainzvolt suggested we put ourselves in another person’s shoes and recognize that they, too, may be suffering. That act can make it infinitely easier to “let go and forgive,” Grainzvolt said.

As Dasa cautioned, the world depends on all of us doing that work: “Humanity will never be able to cohabitate peacefully and happily unless we become determined to develop forgiveness.”

Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar argument in his famous 1957 Christmas sermon, "Loving Your Enemies," which was reproduced in his book, A Gift of Love.

"He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love," King said. The work of forgiving, he said, begins within. “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us," King argued. "When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Forgiveness allows us to open a new chapter -- not only in our lives but in society at large. In the face of hurt and wrongdoing, King said, we all have a choice to make.

"Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence," he said. "For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way."

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and "Forgive for Peace," in conjunction with the UN's International Day of Peace (Sept. 21, annually). The International Day of Peace is devoted to strengthening the ideals for peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. Forgiveness is the first step on the path toward Peace and therefore the Forgive for Peace Campaign was established. It also marks an annual day of non-violence and calls for a laying down of arms to bring about a 24-hour cease fire on September 21st. To learn more about Forgive for Peace, visit here.

Also on HuffPost:

Most Powerful Anti-War Quotes From Faith Leaders

Give Peace A Chance

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