Sunday, January 25, 2015

Forgiveness: Hard but not Impossible

Joseph Fadelle

Louis Zamperini

(Third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 25, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jonah 3: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2015]

Forgiveness is hard.

Anyone who tells you otherwise has obviously never been deeply hurt--and I don't know too many people in that category.  Most people have been deeply hurt many times in their lives.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie, “Unbroken.”  It’s about the late Louis Zamperini, who was a distance runner on the United States Olympic team of 1936.  But that’s not the aspect of his life that the film focuses on.  Zamperini also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Second World War as a bombardier.  Well on May 27, 1943, his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, where he spent the next 47 days on a life raft desperately trying to stay alive.  He was finally rescued.  Unfortunately it was by the Japanese, who promptly sent him to a prison camp until the end of the war in 1945.  There he was beaten and tortured mercilessly, especially by one particular guard, nicknamed “the Bird,” who eventually made it onto General Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

The film focuses on Zamperini’s experience on the ocean for 47 days, and then in the prison camp—and it ends with him being freed and coming home at the end of the war.

It’s a good movie—as far as it goes.   But it definitely doesn’t go far enough.  Just before the credits roll at the end of the film a brief epilogue is posted, and in that epilogue it says that Louis Zamperini forgave those who had treated him so horribly during the war, and that he followed through on the promise he made to God when he was floating on that raft in the Pacific: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”

But the viewer is left wondering: How exactly did he do that?  Not only, ‘How did he serve God?’ but also, ‘How did he deal with his anger and with the other negative emotions he must have experienced after all those months in captivity?’  These people treated him like an animal!  It couldn’t have been easy for Louis to forgive them.  It had to be an incredible struggle.

The film unfortunately doesn’t address any of that—and that’s sad. 

A much clearer picture of the struggle to forgive comes through in a book I mentioned in a homily I gave a couple of weeks ago—“The Price to Pay”—which tells the inspiring story of Joseph Fadelle, a man who converted from Islam to Catholicism in Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

During the Saddam years it was against the law in Iraq for a Muslim to become a Christian.  In fact, it was not only against the law; it was also a crime punishable by death!  And so Joseph was forced to give up his inheritance (which was pretty extensive), as well as his family and his homeland in order to become a Catholic.

Oh yes, and did I mention that his brothers and uncle shot him and had him beaten and tortured when they found out that he intended to convert?

Eventually Joseph, along with his wife and two children, escaped from Iraq and found their way into Jordan.  From there they went to France, where they now live.

Which is where the book ends—but not before Joseph makes a very honest admission.  He admits that at the time he wrote the book he still had a lot of work to do in the area of forgiveness.

Listen to what he said:

“It will take time, a lot of time, for me to forgive my family for all that they made me suffer: prison, torture, lack of money. … my family is indeed the cause of all my troubles.  And that is the hardest thing for me to accept.

"I fight every day, though, against that bitterness, knowing very well that it is not Christian.  Of all the battles that I have fought until now, this will certainly be the most difficult.  I have asked friends and priests whom I have met to pray for me, that I may truly find the will to forgive.”

One biblical figure who would find it extremely easy to understand the plights of Joseph Fedelle and Louis Zamperini is the man we heard about in today’s first reading: the prophet Jonah.  In that reading we have a very brief excerpt from his story.  Your assignment for the week, by the way, is to open your Bible sometime during the next 7 days and read the rest of the story, the rest of the Book of Jonah.  Read it from beginning to end.

“But, Fr. Ray, I don’t have time to do that.”

Oh yes, you do!  The Book of Jonah is one of the shortest books in the entire Bible!  It’s less than 3 pages long in most versions of Sacred Scripture—and that includes the introduction!

So don’t tell me you don’t have time.

The verses we heard this morning occur in the middle of the book.  Here the Lord commands Jonah to go to the city Nineveh and preach a message of repentance.  And Jonah goes—which he did NOT do at the beginning of the book when God called him the first time!  In fact, after the initial call he received, Jonah got on the very first ship that he could find that was headed in the OPPOSITE DIRECTION, away from Nineveh!

Why, you ask?

Because Jonah hated the Ninevites, that’s why!  Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, which, at the time, was Israel’s arch-enemy.  Jonah knew the Lord was not only just; he knew the Lord was also forgiving and merciful.  And he had a sneaking suspicion that if he went to the Ninevites and told them to repent—and they actually did repent—then God would not allow their city to be destroyed.

But Jonah wanted the place destroyed!  He wanted to see the city of Nineveh go up in flames!  He wanted to see it “fry” like Sodom and Gomorrah had many years earlier!

So he ran away (actually, he sailed away—on a ship that was headed west toward Tarshish).

God said, “Not so fast, Jonah!” and he threw the ship into a terrible storm.  Jonah was tossed overboard in the middle of it and swallowed by a gigantic fish (which is sometimes referred to as a whale).

After spending 3 days and 3 nights inside this whale’s belly, God commanded the creature to spew Jonah up onto the shore—which is where today’s first reading picks up the story.

The Lord said, “Ok Jonah, let’s try this one more time.  Go to the people of Nineveh and tell them that unless they repent within 40 days their entire city will be destroyed.”

Now, to his credit, Jonah did learn his lesson.  He learned that it was probably not a good idea to defy God a second time!  So, as we heard a few moments ago, he went to Nineveh—albeit begrudgingly—and he delivered the message the Lord told him to deliver.

And, almost immediately, the whole place repented—which, of course, was precisely what Jonah did NOT want to happen!

At that point, Jonah had a choice to make: forgive and find peace, or persist in unforgiveness and be miserable.  He, unfortunately, chose the latter.

He whined; he pouted; he sulked; he told God that he had a “right” to be angry (I’m not sure where that right came from, but Jonah insisted that he had it).

It got so bad that he eventually prayed for death!  He said, “I can’t deal with this anymore, Lord, so please take my life.”

That’s what unforgiveness can do to a person.

Hopefully Jonah eventually had a change of heart and made the effort to forgive—as difficult as that would have been for him to do.

Yes, forgiveness—real forgiveness—is hard.

It’s hard, BUT IT’S NOT IMPOSSIBLE!—as people like Louis Zamperini have demonstrated to the world.

If you need some help in this regard, you might want to check out the “Forgiveness Steps” insert that I’ve put in the bulletin this week.

Some of you have seen these before.

These are 5 simple steps you can use when you pray (or at any other time) that can help you let go of anger and bitterness and all those negative emotions and attitudes that can destroy us from the inside out.

Use those steps.  I do all the time.  They are very helpful.

I’ll close my homily with something Louis Zamperini wrote in one of his books.  It seems fitting that I should give him the last word today.  He said, “I think the hardest thing in life is to forgive.  Hate is self-destructive.  If you hate somebody, you're not hurting the person you hate, you're hurting yourself.  It's a healing, actually, it's a real healing … forgiveness.”

Very, very wise words—spoken by a man who definitely knew what he was talking about.

And if you don’t believe me, go and see that movie, “Unbroken.”