Father Michael Lapsley SSM Director of the Institute of Healing Memories
Sunday, 5th November 2006
I would like to thank Canon Nicholas Sagovsky and his colleagues for the invitation to preach here today.
My only point of nervousness was when I noticed how pleased he was to realise that I would be preaching in this great Abbey on Guy Fawkes Day, just a few metres from where the Gunpowder plot was discovered.
As many of you would know better than me, a popular British rhyme is often quoted on Guy Fawkes Night, in memory of the Gunpowder Plot:
Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot ;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
The rhyme is made even more contemporary in the movie V is for Vendetta which I saw recently on a plane
I have to say that as a child in New Zealand Guy Fawkes Day, was a very exciting day in the calendar with all of us saving our pocket money to procure fireworks. A few mishaps leading to small burns on our fingers never dampened our enthusiasm. I knew that Guy Fawkes had tried to blow up parliament but no one ever told me why. I never knew of its religious dimension.
Many years later I was visiting the United States shortly after one of those horrible school shootings. Despite the carnage, there was a chorus of insistence that it was a fundamental human right for citizens to have access to automatic weapons. At the same time, I was told that in California fireworks are illegal as they are a danger to health.
In a few days time it will be remembrance day once more. The nation will recall all those who died in war. We should also think of all those, on all sides of present and past conflicts who carry scars, visible and invisible - those who wake up screaming. .
Today I would like to speak to you about 3 themes remembering, forgiving And how what happens in a country affects us as individuals.
I am sure all of us know the popular expression: the time has come to forgive and forget.
As I travel around the world, listening to the pain of the human family, hurting people often tell me how much they would like to forget what has happened but they cannot. Like Nebuchadnezzar many people who have had horrible experiences, also have troubling dreams which cause them to lose sleep. Not least, all those affected by the London bombings.
Can we forget what happened. As Christians are we supposed to forget. Christians, Moslems, and Jews, we, the children of Abraham belong to the three great remembering religions. In the Hebrew
scriptures, whenever the Jewish people were misbehaving, the prophets would say: Remember when you were slaves in Egypt. Remember the God who walked with you, who talked with you.
The reason you are morally lost, the reason you cannot remember where you are going, is because you have forgotten where you are coming from.
In the New Testament Jesus says Take eat this is my body, this is my blood - do this in memory of me. .And so we have done so for more than two thousand years. Equally our Islamic sisters and brothers have their yearly round of commemorations.
We are committed to remembering not to forgetting. What kind of memory is it that the Bible wishes us to have. It is redemptive memory - the memory of good that comes out of evil - of life that comes out of death. From slavery to freedom in the promised land. And the Jesus story - the suffering, betrayal, crucifixion, death and resurrection to new life.
There is another kind of memory - destructive memory. Many conflicts are kept going from generation to generation by destructive memory. Grandparents teach their grandchildren to hate because of the poison which is connected to the memory.
What I am saying is true of individuals communities and of nations. In South Africa a conversation with an Afrikaaner does not have to continue for very long before there is reference to the concentration camps invented by the British during the South African war of 1899 to 1902.
The question is how do we move from destructive memory to redemptive or to life giving memory.
In my experience the key often lies in the role of acknowledgment - so often, in families, communities and nations there is knowledge but no acknowledgment. Once the wrong that has happened has been acknowledged the healing journey can begin.
When horrible things happen to people often there are one of two journeys that people travel. One is when victims go on to become victimisers.
One of South Africa's great leaders, Chief Albert Lutuli once said, "Those who think of themselves as victims, eventually become the victimisers of others." People give themselves permission to do terrible things to others, because of what was done to them. In conflicts, often both sides assert that they are the real victims.
Sometimes other people want to use the suffering of some as the pretext for violence which is exponentially greater.
In the US, when 911 happened the whole world embraced the people of the US. But then the option was taken for revenge. None of us can forget the largest demonstrations in the history of London before the war in Iraq began - saying "Not in our name"
There is a wonderful organisation in New York called 911 families for peaceful tomorrows- all of whom lost relatives on 911 and who are seeking to find life giving and peaceful responses to war and terror. They did not wish other mothers to cry because of what happened to their loved ones. Together with others of us directly affected by war and terror across the globe we have created a new international network It includes Britons like Jo Berry who have travelled a journey of reconciliation with Pat Magee who was responsible for the killing of her father in the Brighton bombing.
When something bad is done to us by others, we are victims. If we physically survive, we are survivors. Often people stop there and remain prisoners of moments in history. Many never make the next step: to move from being victims to survivors, to become victors - not in a militaristic sense - but in the Jesus sense - the victim of Good Friday who becomes the victor on Easter day
We all know in our own personal lives the power of acknowledgment - when the one who has hurt is able to say unequivocally: I am sorry, I was wrong. Will you forgive me?
Not easy to say in intimate space - not easy either for political or religious leaders - not easy to allow ourselves to be vulnerable or to take responsibilty for the wrong that has been done. There are many parts of the world where apology remains a sharp issue both within countries and between countries - whether we are talking about slavery, between China and Japan, towards indigenous people in Australia to name but a few.
I have a dream that I will live to see the day when a British leader will say to the Irish people:we are sorry for our part in all the hurt that you have experienced.
I also have a dream that the day will come when the leaders of the worlds great religions will make an apology to same gender loving persons for so much pain for so long.
I hope I live long enough to hear the leaders of the US and the UK to say "I am sorry, we were wrong" to the Iraqi people.
Here on Guy Fawkes Day, as an anglican, I would like to say to my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, that I am sorry about the centuries of oppression and discrimination which they experienced
in this land.
Many of you may recall the story of the Revd Julie Nicholson whose daughter Jennifer died in the suicide bombings in London last year. She hit the headlines when she gave up the right to preside at the Eucharist because of how she felt about the person who killed her daughter.
In my experience, most human beings find forgiveness, costly, painful and difficult. We Christians ,perhaps especially those of us who preach, often speak as if forgiveness is glib, cheap and easy.
During South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation commission, a white woman called Beth Savage came to tell her story. She had been badly injured in an attack by young black guerillas. She said she would like to meet those who were responsible for the attack so she could ask their forgiveness for anything she had done in her life which lead them to feel and act the way they did.
Do you know about bicycle theology. It is when I come and steal your bicycle. A few months later I come back and ask for forgiveness for stealing the bike. I am forgiven, but I keep the bike. Sometimes, we reduce forgiveness to saying sorry and we dont return the bicycle.
Sometimes however the bicycle cannot be returned.
I was a victim of state terrorism.
In April 1990, I received a letter bomb from the government of FW De Klerk hidden inside the pages of two religious magazines. Although God did not step in and tell me not to open in the midst of great pain, I felt God's presence with me. As I stand here today, I dont know who made the bomb, who posted it and who gave the orders. I am not full of hatred and I do not want revenge. But, I have not forgiven anybody, because so far there is noone to forgive.
Perhaps when I return to Cape Town, the door bell will ring and a man will tell me: I sent you the letter bomb, please will you forgive me. Now forgiveness is on the table. Perhaps, I would ask him if he still makes letter bombs. No, I work at a local hospital he replies. Yes, I forgive you, and I would prefer you spend the next fifty years working in that hospital rather than be locked up.
I prefer much more the justice of restoration than the justice of punishment.. I might point out to my new friend, that whilst I had forgiven him, I sill have no hands, injured ear drums and one eye.
I will always need someone to assist me for the rest of my life. Of course you will help to pay for that person...not as a condition of forgiveness but as a form of restitution and reparation in the ways that are possible.
Dear sisters and brothers, ask yourselves, do you have bicycles which need to be returned? Do you carry poison in your heart because you have not yet shared what happened to you, perhaps many years ago. I pray that we may all find safe and sacred places to share our life journeys- letting go of that which is destructive and taking from the past that which is life giving.
Let us pray that God will give us all, step by step, the power and strength to travel journeys of forgiveness and healing until the time comes when "every tear will be wiped away". I hope in a small, tiny way that I am a sign to you, that stronger than the forces of evil and hatred and death are the forces of gentleness, kindness, of justice, of life of God. Amen .