I will never forget the first time I saw a photograph of Earth taken from a space camera and heard a commentary from one of the early astronauts: “The first thing you notice is that there are no lines dividing one nation from another” (as on our drawn maps). He continued, “You know, it looks so beautiful, you just want to put your arms around it!”
The astronaut was reawakening the vision, the dream that God held up to us at the beginning of Creation. It was man and woman living in loving harmony with each other, with the animal kingdom, with the natural environment and with the Creator (Genesis 2:18-25). When the dream was shattered by the forces of greed, lust and violence, God sent his Son (Galatians 4:4); Jesus the Savior came to restore the harmony, to reunite us, “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52).
More than any other person, perhaps Saint Francis of Assisi caught that vision and gave it new life. He once summed up the mission of the community he founded. “Brothers,” he said, “we have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.” The prayer attributed to him begins with the words, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
Francis was only echoing the passionate desire of Jesus his Lord—“Blessed are the peacemakers; they shall be called children of God.” What if we took this dream seriously? What if we made it our central project for the new millennium? What if we sought inspiration from the great peacemakers of the 20th century: Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and the woman known as “Peace Pilgrim”? Going beyond the way of nonviolence, could we devote ourselves, commit ourselves to the way of healing and reconciling?
What would it look like behaviorally? Not all of us want to march or demonstrate for peace. Few of us have the skill or eloquence to go on radio or TV talk shows to speak about healing relationships. Yet I am convinced that all of us have the capacity to develop some simple, ordinary ways of carrying a spirit of unity, peace and reconciliation into all our relationships.
The Power of Speech
Let’s begin with our words. I don’t think most of us are aware of the impact that what we say can be used to build up or tear down. The Letter of James is so insightful about the power of human speech. The author compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship: a small member, but able to give direction to a much larger body. Sadly, the human tongue often loses control. James laments the fact that it is easier to tame wild animals than to tame the tongue. He notes that, with our tongues, we bless God, yet at the same time curse our fellow human beings, who are made in the image of God. “This need not be so,” he says (James 3:4-10).
Watch practically any prime-time TV show or talk show. Note the endless put-downs, insults, snide and sarcastic remarks, name-calling and hostile outbursts that are exchanged between characters and individuals.
Sarcasm and cynicism are the premier forms of humor. When they become relentless and pervasive, they dull our sensitivity. Unconsciously, we start to imitate what we see because the humor seems so clever and sophisticated.
“It’s all in good fun,” we think. But the objects of our clever speech are not paid TV stars. They are people with feelings. They may be sensitive about their appearance, their lack of skills, their poor self-image. They are hurt. And we have contributed to the erosion of human dignity that is so characteristic of our age. If words spoken in fun have the power to hurt, how much more do words spoken in anger or intended to inflict pain? These are especially destructive when spoken to spouses, parents, children and friends.
What if we resolved in the new millennium to use our power of speech to build up, encourage, affirm, bless rather than tear down, put down, belittle? St. Paul exhorted the Christians of his time not to indulge in evil talk, but “only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
What words do people need to hear? “I really love you. I like the way you handled that situation. I was proud of you tonight. I’ll stand by you. I’ll pray for you. I’m really glad you’re part of our family. Do you need to talk? You look stressed out—can I help? Thank you for taking care of that.” You get the idea. Such simple words, but what power they have.
I’m not suggesting that we never speak the “hard” words. “To speak the truth in love” can also be healing. Sometimes we may need to tell others how their behavior annoys or embarrasses us. Otherwise, our love will be dishonest and sentimental. We want to speak in a caring, gentle manner, so others can receive our words as helpful rather than hurtful. That will require prayer on our part.
When We Are the Injured
Another attitude we need to develop if we wish to focus on healing and reconciliation in this new millennium has to do with injuries inflicted on us by others—or by life. Every one of us carries wounds or scars from the ways life has of hurting us. How will we deal with these?
Some people go through life with a burden of low-grade resentment. They never seem to be able to let go of old slights, hurts, rejections and misunderstandings. When people replay them over and over, like picking at scabs, they remain embedded in grudges and negative feelings.
This is not to deny that the wounds were not real or their feelings justified. Indeed, some people have suffered incredible injuries at the hands of others whom they trusted. Such betrayals can never be condoned. Is there any way out of the negative recycling? The answer comes from the gospel and psychological studies. The way to healing is through forgiveness.
Indeed, some of the best-known names in modern medicine—Dean Ornish, Carl Simonton, Bernie Siegel—are convinced that forgiveness is essential for physical as well as emotional health. Dr. Joan Borysenko, a cancer-cell biologist at Harvard University, believes that forgiveness is the mind’s most powerful healing tool. Once again, Jesus is shown to be the divine physician when he asks us to forgive one another as God has forgiven us.
The act of forgiving injuries can sometimes be the fruit of a rather long process. We may need to get in touch with the pain, recall the hurtful incident(s), let feelings of sadness and anger come into awareness with all their force. But instead of holding on to the negative feelings, we choose to let them go. We come to realize that our anger and resentment are self-defeating. They are not affecting the offender. They are only blocking us from investing our energies in creative, loving, enjoyable experiences.
Above all, since forgiveness is ultimately a grace, we will need to pray for it. And because forgiveness is something that God desires, it is a grace that God will always grant.
I remember reading a woman’s account of how devastated she was after her husband left her for a younger woman. She said, “I prayed aloud one sleepless night: ‘Father, forgive me. I want to trust and believe and have faith like a child, but right now I don’t. Please help me to find life after a failed marriage. And help me really mean what I am about to say: I want to wish my ex and his new wife all the best that life has to offer. You know I don’t mean this now—but I want to.’”
I love that example, because it shows that forgiveness is a choice, an act of decision that goes beyond feelings. Even wanting to forgive, praying for it, is already a movement toward freedom. The emotions will catch up eventually.
Is it necessary to tell the other people that we forgive them? Sometimes this may be very healing, but at other times it may be unwise or even impossible. The main thing is that we have forgiven in our own heart. Even if the other persons are dead, we can express our forgiveness to them in spirit. The important point is that we become free to move on with our own lives.
When We Inflict the Injury
The other need for reconciliation will arise when we are the ones who have inflicted injury on others. This calls us to the simple but deeply human act of apology. Few moments are more beautiful than when one human being says to another, in all humility and sincerity, “I’m sorry. I should not have said/done that. Please forgive me.”
Those moments seem all too rare in our present-day passion to blame the other for whatever has gone wrong and in our litigation-happy society, when any admission of wrongdoing can become grounds for a lawsuit.
All the more reason for Christians to offer the world an alternative way to heal and restore broken relationships!
Breaking the Barriers
What about the divisions between racial and religious groups? In his letter on the third millennium, Pope John Paul laments the painful wounding of Christian unity over the centuries. Such wounds, he says, “openly contradict the will of Christ and are a cause of scandal to the world.” He asks Christians to repent and ask Christ’s forgiveness for whatever ways we have contributed to those divisions. Surely we are called to extend that same attitude to our treatment of people of other races.
It is tempting to shift responsibility for healing such divisions to those who have special expertise or are in positions of authority. It seems too complicated and overwhelming for us. But complexity and difficulty do not excuse us from our own individual efforts.
If we reflect on our personal experience, won’t we discover that our own racial and religious prejudices were reduced most often through meeting, talking and interacting with people different from ourselves? African-Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, Protestants and Jews were no longer labels or categories. They were flesh-and-blood people with needs, strivings, hopes, worries, successes and failures very much like our own.
Perhaps we could take a cue from the Christian men’s movement known as “Promise Keepers.” One of their vision statements reads: “A Promise Keeper is committed to reach beyond racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.” Concretely, it asks members to be willing to meet with at least one person of a different race or denomination each month. The underlying assumption is, if a person takes the time and effort to meet, talk with and listen to someone not of his or her kind, the person will be encountered at the core of his/her humanity. And that experience will do more to heal someone of prejudices than any sermon on Christian unity.
We certainly need the theologians and behavioral scientists to work out “macro” forms of reconciliation. Each of us, however, is called to work at the “micro” tasks—one day at a time, one person at a time. I believe St. Paul had in mind the entire Christian community when he wrote that God has “given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18).
As we continue our lives in the new millennium, can we sense our world longing for a nonviolent, healing and reconciling approach to human relationships? Can we know ourselves as agents and instruments of peace in our time? If so, we will be conscious of the power of our words. We will use them to bless rather than curse, heal rather than hurt, forgive rather than nurse a grudge.
With each person we meet, we will look beyond the surface, beyond the external qualities that seem to divide us—to the core of each person, the sacred center where God resides. With Francis of Assisi, “We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen apart, and to bring home those who have lost their way.”