The urgency of forgiveness

By Lauren R. Stanley

RENK, Sudan – We gathered in church this week to talk about forgiveness, a good topic to tackle on the last Sunday of Lent.

Far too often, when we talk about forgiveness, that’s all we do: talk. It’s usually nothing more an intellectual exercise for us, because heaven forefend that we should seek forgiveness for the wrongs we have done, heaven forefend that we should forgive those who have wronged us.

But in Sudan, a land that has been at war for most of the past five decades, forgiveness is a much more immediate issue. This is a place where religious, tribal, ethnic, language and gender differences have resulted in the deaths of millions of people. This is a place where land has been taken, families have been split, livelihoods have been destroyed.

Talking about forgiveness here is all the more poignant because everywhere you turn, there are reminders of the wars, reminders of the deaths, reminders of the devastation that has sundered this land.

On this past Sunday, our preacher at the Cathedral of St. Matthew was The Very Rev. Martha Deng Nhial, possibly one of the first African women to become a cathedral dean in the Anglican Communion.

Using texts from Luke on forgiveness and Matthew on temptation (“lectionary” frequently is a loosely followed word here), Mother Martha got right to the point:

We have to forgive, she said, because Jesus said so. If we don’t forgive those who have wronged us, she stressed, why should God bother to forgive us?

And then she brought in the devil.

The devil, she said, doesn’t want us to forgive. So the devil instead comes into our lives and tells us that we don’t have to forgive, because the other person isn’t forgiving us.

“The devil is not far from us,” she said. “He will be with you, eat with you, sit with you all the time. And because the devil is right there in our lives, we don’t forgive.”

Forgiveness – with all its attendant difficulties – is a very personal, absolutely urgent issue here. Every single Sudanese sitting in the Cathedral on Sunday has lost family members in one or more of the wars that have plagued this land. A culture of hatred has grown up over the last several generations, hatred between North and South, East and West, between the tribes, between the different religions. It almost seems ingrained some days.

Asking people to forgive those who have killed their families and friends, or who have denied them jobs or education, or who have striven to keep them from simply enjoying a life of peace and prosperity is hard, very hard.

Forgiveness in this place is not some intellectual exercise; it’s reality. It’s a daily need. Mother Martha wasn’t discussing some esoteric theological point; she was directly telling the people in her care to work at something some of them don’t want to even consider.

But in this place, a place of war and death and destruction, forgiveness is the only thing that will save this land. True forgiveness – the kind that hurts, the kind that stretches you beyond anything you’ve ever conceived – is the only thing that will heal this land.

So on the last Sunday of Lent, preparing ourselves to go into Holy Week – where forgiveness was modeled for us in the most memorable way possible – talking about forgiveness was real, poignant and necessary.

If the people take to heart that which Mother Martha preached, there is a chance that one day, Sudan will be healed. But only if the people start by forgiving.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church serving in the Diocese of Renk, Sudan. She is a lecturer at the Renk Theological College, teaching Theology, Liturgy and English, and serves as chaplain for the students.

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