The award-winning film, Of Gods and Men, tells the true story of seven French Catholic monks living in war torn Algeria in the 1990s. It is the story of a community of men living peacefully in the Atlas Mountains. Inevitably the civil war and the bloodshed that had gripped the country for many years also surrounded them. Eventually they were kidnapped and were held hostage by Algerian extremists. They disappear and sometime later their heads are discovered.
What made their deaths remarkable is not so much that they, like so many through the 1990s, got caught up in the political strife of Algeria but that they had made the conscious decision to stay present in the village which had become their home and in the full recognition that this decision may well mean their death. Their solidarity with the villagers would not allow them to take the easier option of abandoning the village and returning to the safety of France. Knowing the inevitability of his death at the hands of Algerian extremists, the leader of the community, Dom Christian de Chergé, wrote an extraordinary last will and testament some time before his capture. He sent it to Paris with instructions that it was only to be opened and read after his death. On Pentecost Sunday, 26 May 1996 the letter was opened in Paris and published. It has become one of the most remarkable pieces of spiritual writing of the late 20th century. What makes it particularly special is the forgiveness that Christian extends to his executioner prior to the event. Christian called the letter, “Facing a Goodbye.” It begins,
If it should happen one day – and it could be today that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
The final lines, however, are addressed to the man who will execute him:
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing: Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD-BLESS” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. Amen! Inchallah!
The declaration of forgiveness in the face of his death transforms Christian’s death into a redemptive moment not only for him but for us all. It overpowers the brutality of which he was the victim not with greater force but with a tenderness that pierces through and confuses the logic of domination and conflict. A dehumanising darkness is transformed with a humanising radiance. The destruction of alienation is consumed by the power of communion.
Dom Christian’s disposition towards the one who will behead him is an echo of the life of forgiveness at the very centre of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. It is not by accident that the gospel writers indicate that Jesus’ last action prior to his own death was that of forgiveness. In the face of death, against the most profound symbol of potential isolation, Jesus affirms life: that life which can only be known, not in the threat of alienation, but only in the promise of communion. He forgives. He chooses against what alienates one from another. He acts for what might restore the possibility of communion.
The mystery of forgiveness is central to the Christian perspective. Forgiveness, though, is a challenge. It is a mystery. And it is a journey. It is an appointment that awaits each and every one of us. Each and every one of us carries hurt, some of them very deep. Each hurt presents with the challenge: to forgive or not to forgive. The challenge is unavoidable. The decision, however, is ours to make or otherwise. It is our Christian discipleship that impels us each day to enter the journey of forgiveness. It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else, that the depth of our Christian commitment becomes apparent or otherwise. It is in the challenge of forgiveness that we assert whether we really do believe that we are made for communion with one another or otherwise, that it is in communion with one another that life flows most deeply for us, and by which we are rendered with our deepest sense of humanity. Not to forgive is to act in a way that is contrary to what we most deeply believe about ourselves, affirmed as it is in and through our memory of Jesus.
Importantly, forgiveness is never instant. It is not about forgetfulness. Neither is it about feeling a certain way. I may never feel forgiving towards the one who has hurt me. Yet, I can still forgive. To forgive is, first and foremost, to make the decision to let go of the instinct to strike back, to seek revenge. It is the decision to create a space in which I can see both myself and the one who has hurt me more clearly. It is the decision to be open to those ways by which we can both go forward together from this moment without expecting the past to be otherwise than it is, and to face the future in a way that does not discount the possibility of discovering a bond of relationship again, albeit with realism and with freedom.
The possibility of true justice can only occur when he have stopped the cycle of vengeance. We saw this extraordinarily demonstrated in South Africa many years ago. I think of one of the stories before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
There was a black woman who had to testify in the way that she had been brutally mistreated by a group of white security officers, one of whom, Mr Van de Broek, had just been tried and found implicated in the murders of both the woman’s son and husband some years before. It was indeed Mr Van de Broek, it had been established, who had come to the woman’s home many years back, had taken her son, shot him at point blank range and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied. Seven years later, Van de Broek and his cohorts had returned to take away her husband as well. For many months she heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, Van de Broek came back to fetch the woman herself. How vividly she remembers that evening, going to a place beside the river, where she was shown her husband, bound and beaten but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood. The last words she heard from his lips, as the officer poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame, were, “Father, forgive them.” And now the woman stands in the courtroom and listens to the confession offered by Mr Van de Broek. A member of the commission turns to her and asks, “So, what do you want? How can justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?” “I want three things,” begins the old woman, calmly but confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather the dust and give his remains a decent burial.” She pauses, then continues, “My husband and son were my only family. I want secondly, therefore, for Mr Van de Broek to become my son. I would like him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a time with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I have remaining with me. “And finally,” she says, “I want a third thing. I would like Mr Van de Broek to know that I offer him forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr Van de Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know he is truly forgiven.
Please God, we will never be in the situation in which the victim of racial apartheid found herself, or in that which Dom Christian de Chergé in Algeria found himself. Yet, every day we choose to embark upon the difficult pathway of forgiveness of the one who has hurt us, we share in their same courage. And the possibility of yet further life, not less, dawns in our own hearts for the sake of the world.
 Taken from John McSweeney, Call Me David: Bishop David Cremin, a memoir. (Kingsgrove, NSW: OMP Publications, 2008), 137-139.
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