A few weeks ago, our movie group gathered to watch the documentary, A Power of Forgiveness. One of the scenes in the documentary that stood out for me was about a psychology professor who specialized in forgiveness, marriage, and family. Dr Everett (“Ev”) Worthington’s experience with forgiveness is not just something he writes about, but something he practices in his daily life. In the documentary, it told the story of
In the late 1990’s, on a New Year’s Eve, someone broke into his mother’s house. An attempted theft turned into a brutal murder when his mother fought back. A suspect was captured who volunteered details no one could have known who was not at the scene. However, because of “some issues with the evidence,” a jury would not indict.
Within six months of her murder, Ev and his two siblings forgave the person who killed their mother. He admits that he had a lot of professional preparation. .He had studied forgiveness scientifically and therapeutically for years before the incident. Ultimately, he felt that they were able to forgive because by doing so they were honoring the values their mother had tried to instill in them.
He tries to teach his students today that forgiveness is not something that comes after justice has been accomplished. Indeed, he never got justice. Nevertheless, he firmly believes that forgiveness and justice can work hand in hand.
My life is filled with memories of the transformative and healing power of forgiveness in people’s lives. Dr. Retina Weems, a womanist theologian, tells the story of a picture she had sitting on her desk for decades. It was a picture of a young black girl. Her name was Elizabeth Eckford and she was one of the first black students to integrate Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas in 1957. She walked with courage and strength through a crowd of white people filled with anger and hateful words. For decades, Dr. Weems wondered about what had happened to Elizabeth, but she also wondered where all those angry white people in the photograph were now? She wanted to know if they hated black people as much in 1997 as they did in 1957. She wondered what they might have felt if they were to see images of themselves filled with prejudice, ignorance, and hatred. In September 1997, she received a news clipping that had recently appeared in an Arkansas newspaper. It was the story of a woman named Hazel Bryan Massery, mother and grandmother, in search of a way to ask forgiveness for the angry, white fifteen-year-old teenage girl she once was. Hazel Bryan was haunted by and held hostage to a picture taken of her forty years earlier with her teeth bared and face twisted with hate. After years of soul searching and months of anguishing over where to begin, Hazel Bryan Massery found and met Elizabeth Eckford. Dr. Weems replaced the photograph of Elizabeth Eckford that had sat on her desk with a new photograph of Helen and Elizabeth standing together in an embrace on the steps of Central High School in September 1997 forty years after first encountering each other over a racial divide.
Forty years later, no longer girls, both are changed women. Wounded but stronger, Elizabeth Eckford, fifty-five, was no longer terrified of white people’s hatred, though no doubt permanently scarred by the memory of that September 4 morning. Hazel Bryan Massery, fifty-five, was no longer fascinated with hate, could no longer recall what she was afraid of, wants to offer history a picture of a changed self, though she does not, and cannot deny that the photo captured a girl she once was long ago. I’m sure Hazel Bryan Massery—and others like her—have asked herself many times over the years, "How could we have been so wrong, so filled with hate, so overcome by evil to have said and done any of the things we did back then?"
Forgiveness changes people’s hearts and lives. Many of us have experienced life wrenching moments in our journeys. Yet once we forgive others, and ourselves we are as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, able to set us both free.