Is Forgiveness Cheesy?

I doubt that many readers of this blog would have celebrated last Sunday as "Cheese Sunday" or "Cheese-fare Sunday." For all you West Wing viewers, it has nothing to do with the "Big Block of Cheese Day." For all those who don't know what I am talking about ignore that last sentence. But were you members of the Orthodox Tradition then, last week being the Sunday before Lent, Cheese Sunday is what you would have celebrated, since it was the last Sunday you could have enjoyed cheese before Easter... I think that would stretch me as much as giving up technology.

During the liturgy they traditionally read the instructions in Matthew’s Gospel concerning fasting, in Matthew 6: 16-8. But they also read the two verses immediately before that, the verses after Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer which say:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Matthew 6:14-15 (ANIV)

Because these verses precede the verses on fasting they take seriously the issue of forgiveness as part of their preparation for their own forty day fast, and so the last Sunday before Lent is not only known as “Cheese Sunday” but also "Forgiveness Sunday."

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the publication of the Report by the Consultative Group on Dealing with the Past here in Northern Ireland, the Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland published a book of two essays entitled "Divided Past: Shared Future." I contributed the first of those, looking at the role that forgiveness has to play in dealing with the past.

In the weeks since then I have had a number of very flattering comments (including one by an anonymous American student who came up to me in St. George's Market... thus deeply embarassing my son Owain who was with me)... but also a few comments writing off the whole concept of forgiveness as "whitewashing evil" or little more than selling "motherhood and apple pie" or another means of putting the cost of reconciliation on the shoulders of victims. I would humbly suggest that a second reading (or actually a first) would put paid to those accusations.

Forgiveness is not easy. Even with the little that I have had to forgive others in my life, it has never been easy. To forgive some of the atrocities of the past 40 years in this province must be nigh on impossible.

Two years ago Roberto Malasi was convicted of the second of two horrifc murders in the course of a fortnight in September 2005: one the shooting of Zainab Kalokoh whilst cradling a baby at a christening; the second the stabbing of Ruth Okechukwu, a student nurse, supoosedly for disrespecting him in a phone call to a friend. In a radio interview after the conviction, her father, Ben, a pastor, paid tribute to his daughter, but then said:
"As a man of God, I feel sorry for him and I forgive him because he has no sense of belonging."
Ben Okechukwu

But his wife Pauline said she cannot forgive her daughter's killer, saying
"He has not only taken Ruth's life, he has taken my life as well."
Pauline Okechukwu

Do ministers find it easier to forgive than mere mortals? Of course not. The year before the Okechukwu interview, another minister, this time a Bristol vicar called Julie Nicholson announced that she intended to step down from her role as a local parish minister because she found it impossible to forgive those who were responsible for her daughter Jennifer’s death in the London bombings of July 7th 2005.
Forgiveness is not something glib and easy, and it is no easier for a minister than anyone else. How would I respond if something so horrendous happened to either of my boys? Would I respond like Ben or like Pauline Okechukwu… Would my inability to forgive restrict my ability to minister to others as with Julie Nicholson… Or, like Gordon Wilson in the wake of Enniskillen, would I find a whole new sphere of ministry open up to me because I was able to publicly forgive those who harmed those nearest to me…
Yet Gordon Wilson was not without his critics… How dare he forgive his daughter Marie’s death! Only God can forgive sins, and then only when a sinner has repented… And those terrorists were unrepentant sinners… I am told that his wife Joan had difficulties with his very public pronouncement of forgiveness.
Nothing raises the hackles of people more than the issue of forgiveness… And that is because we ALL have difficulties with it… Because we ALL both need forgiveness and need to forgive…
The real work of forgiveness is not in the public eye, or in a statement made to a reporter who has stuck a microphone in front of you when you are feeling at your most raw. It is in the day to day interaction of ordinary people… hurting one another and being hurt; and choosing what to do with that hurt… It is not something to deal with one Sunday in the year… It is a day and daily thing… That is why in the Lord’s prayer it comes after asking God to give us daily bread… we ask him to forgive as we forgive…

But whilst it is something that we need to do on a daily basis, I believe that, given our particular history, we could very usefully adopt the concept of Forgiveness Sunday, into the Irish liturgical year. Maybe that might be a unique contribution that we as churches could make to dealing with the past.

I don't often drop in adverts for upcoming events in this blog, but given the subject I will make an exception. On Wednesday 4th March from noon- 1.00pm the Irish School of Ecumenics (683 Antrim Road, Belfast, BT15 4EG) are running a seminar by Dr. David Toombs entitled "The Christian Offer of Forgiveness." I am informed that all are welcome, but places are limited, so if you plan to go please reply as early as possible to Caroline Clarke at the ISE (Belfast). Tel (028) 9077 0087 or email

But in the meantime here are a few diverse quotes on the subject of forgiveness. I trust you won't find them too cheesy:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we
confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:8-9

To err is human; to forgive, infrequent.
Franklin P. Adams

Forgiveness is almost a selfish act because of its immense benefits to the one who forgives.
Lawana Blackwell

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Mohandas K. Gandhi

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
Oscar Wilde

Forgiveness is the key which unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.
Corrie Ten Boom

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Paul of Tarsus. Ephesians 4:32

"Father, forgive them...."
Jesus. Luke 23:34


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