Forgiving does not mean forgetting

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Forgiveness is possible.

In 1985 Fr Larry Jenco, a Servite priest, was kidnapped and taken hostage by terrorists in Beirut. In his book, Bound to Forgive, he tells his story of captivity for a year-and-half, most of the time shackled and blind-folded.

Towards the end of his ordeal, one of his guards, named Sayeed, who had at times brutalised him, asked his forgiveness. Even though he was still blindfolded, unable to see the man who had been his enemy, but had been won over by love, Fr Jenco forgave unconditionally.

He said, “I could not forgive him on the condition that he change his behaviour to conform to my wishes or values. I had no control over his response. I understood I was to say yes.”

He admitted to Sayeed that there were times he hated him, and was filled with anger and revenge for what had been done to him. But he told Sayeed, “Jesus said on the mountain top that we are not to hate, but to love.” He asked forgiveness of Sayeed and, in his presence, also asked forgiveness of God.

After his release Fr Jenco reflected on his forgiveness:

“Some people advise me to forgive and forget. They do not realise that this is almost impossible. Jesus, the wounded healer, asks us to forgive, but he does not ask us to forget. That would be amnesia. He does demand we heal our memories.

“I don’t believe that forgetting is one of the signs of forgiveness. I forgive, but I remember. I do not forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache, the terrible injustice. But I do not remember it to inflict guilt or some future retribution. Having forgiven, I am liberated. I need no longer be determined by the past. I move into the future free to imagine new possibilities.”

Forgiveness does not mean to forget. In fact in the case of great atrocities we need to remember in order to honour those who have been victims.

Can a nation forget that terrorists have bombed their cities? Can we forget the horrendous loss of life caused by wars? Can a mother forget that her child has been murdered?

Can anyone who has been physically or sexually abused forget that it happened? Can those of the Australian “stolen generation” forget the grave injustice done to them?

Yet in each case forgiveness is possible.

Fr Ken Barker MGL is the author of His Name is Mercy.