Skyline, Spring - 2004

By Diane Pendola

No Future Without Forgiveness

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Philosopher and theologian Raimon Panikkar has been, and continues to be, one of the major influences in my life. As a young undergraduate student in religious studies at the University of California in Santa Barbara, his spiritual vision of the inter-relating human, cosmic and divine dimensions of reality entered my consciousness like leaven. That leaven is still working in me today, a source of inspiration, of hope and possibility.

In the month of January I crossed the half-century mark of my life. What better way to honor this transition than a trip to Spain, to Catalunya, to the small stone village of Tavertet where Raimon has lived since his retirement from UCSB? There, on the crest of bluffs that drop away hundreds of yards below your feet to green valleys dotted with castles, a modern dam, medieval churches and rural towns, Teresa and I spent a weekend with an old friend, teacher and spiritual master.

For those of you not familiar with Raimon Panikkar, his credentials are impressive. He is the author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles, written in several different languages in which he is fluent. He has PhD’s in chemistry, philosophy and theology. He is cross-cultural in his bones: his mother Spanish-Catholic, his father Indian-Hindu. He is also a Catholic priest who says of his own spiritual journey: “I ‘left’ as a christian, ‘found’ myself a hindu and ‘return’ as a buddhist, without having ceased to be a christian.” He is known worldwide for his work in intra and inter-cultural and religious dialogue. Yet this is not the measure of the man. From my perspective, what makes him truly the spiritual master is his capacity for presence, his joy of life, his total engagement with the moment. And if you happen to be the person blessed enough to be participating in the moment with him, you are the most important person in the world.

Our friends, currently spending a year in Spain in order to be close to Raimon, chauffeured us up the twisting mountain road to his home where we all shared a wonderful meal and evening of conversation. That night I had this dream: There are three of us. We are in an unfamiliar environment. Suddenly, with a flash of insight, we are talking about forgiveness. I say, “forgiveness is tapas, it is a burning up, which in a way is self-sacrifice”. I say “let’s begin a forgiveness group where we gather regularly to talk about forgiveness. At first it might be theoretical but gradually it will move into authentic tapas, into the heart, into metanoia”. I continue, “This is so important. Forgiveness is the key to peace: forgiveness, reconciliation and dialogue”.

Now, I must admit that forgiveness, reconciliation and dialogue as the key to peace comes straight out of Raimon’s book, “Cultural Disarmament: The Way to Peace”. But the Sanskrit word tapas must have lodged in my sub-conscious mind from exposure years ago. In his monumental work “The Vedic Experience”, the Indian Sacred Scriptures that he collected and translated from their original Sanskrit, Panikkar says of tapas: Tapas is the primordial fervor, the original fire, the supreme concentration, the ultimate energy, the creative force that initiates the whole cosmic movement. (VE p. 52) It literally means heat and is also associated with austerity, ascetism and penance. According to Vedic tradition, Tapas amd Kama, Ardor and Love, are two indwelling principles of reality. Tapas and Kama go together. Love is the fervor that imparts power to create and tapas is the energy of love which produces the world. (VE p. 53)

Since returning home, this theme of forgiveness keeps recurring in my heart and mind. Recently I viewed the PBS program FRONTLINE entitled “Vision Iraq”. It was a documentary about America’s decision to enter into war with Iraq. One image particularly stands out. You may remember the event. “Intelligence” sources had located Saddam Hussein in a restaurant in Baghdad. Pilots were instructed to hit two strike sites: the restaurant and a private home nearby. You might also remember that we bombed both sites. Saddam Hussein was not there. The man whose home had been hit had left there shortly before, where he had had lunch with his children, his wife and niece. In interviewing that man, his grief and shock were palpable. He spoke of how he dug his entire family out of the rubble with his bare hands. He spoke of how he buried each of them, also, with his bare hands. And I am left wondering how America thinks we are bringing peace to Iraq? And I am left to search my own heart’s capacity to ever forgive such a deed that would destroy everything that gave my life meaning.

I went to bed thinking of this man and his family. For Christians this is the season of Lent. I fell asleep thinking that I/we could never do enough penance to make amends to this man. This one man, this one family could be the subject of my meditation for the rest of my life. As I was waking the next morning I was saying to myself, partially still dreaming: the washing of the feet is the real beginning of the gospel. This was the washing of Jesus’ feet which is found in Luke 7: 36-50. The whole story is worth reviewing. But for the sake of brevity, we hear Jesus say to the woman of bad repute who washed his feet with her tears, I tell you that her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love. It is the person who is forgiven little who shows little love. And then he says, your faith has saved you; go in peace.

Love and forgiveness: the beginning of the gospel, what Christians call the “good news” of salvation. A more contemporary rendering of salvation (from “salve” meaning “to heal”) might be healing, liberation or wholeness. Forgiveness, then, can be seen as the beginning of the good news of healing, liberation and wholeness. But what does that mean to the Iraqi man who lost his world to American bombs? And what does that mean to me, an American from whose country the bombs come?

Right now in the USA the Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of Christ”, is breaking records at the box office. It depicts that last horrible day in the life of Jesus, ending in his crucifixion. Some people have called this the greatest love story ever told. Why? Because of Jesus’ last words from the cross: Forgive them for they know not what they do. Forgive what? The weakness, fear and betrayal of his friends, the inconstancy and dubiousness of his followers, the narrowness of religious authority, the tyranny of political power, the cruelty of torturers, the apathy of the unconcerned.

Forgiveness and love, love and forgiveness, these are the beginning of healing, liberation and wholeness. I am convinced that the gospel of Jesus is non-violent through and through. The crusades, pogroms, wars to end all wars and now the American quest to spread democracy and free market capitalism to the ends of the earth, may have been and, for some, continue to be in the name of Jesus, but they are not in the Spirit of Jesus.

So where do we go from here, the Iraqi man and the American woman? Who is the one to ask forgiveness? Who is the one to proffer it? Where do we go from here, Americans in shock at the human loss and psychic vulnerability ensuing from attack on our own soil? Where do we go from here, Spaniards murdered, maimed in body and soul by attackers willing to explode trains filled with civilians at rush hour? It would appear we still know not what we do as an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

In 1995 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was appointed chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the new, democratic government of South Africa. A man who had for 30 years been the prisoner of the racist Apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela, was the new President. He and his country were faced with the challenge of addressing the horrors or racism, murder, kidnapping, torture and rape that were for decades a part of the fabric of the country. The South African government confounded the world with its decision to provide a process, through the TRC, where victims could tell their heartrending stories and express their willingness to forgive, and perpetrators in turn could confess their atrocities and ask for forgiveness. This reconciliation process stunned the world in its success and offers a new model for dealing with conflict. It shines a light in our dark times of retributive justice and blind revenge. As Desmond Tutu says, there is no future without forgiveness.

Again, remembering the words of Panikkar: only forgiveness, reconciliation and ongoing dialogue lead to peace and shatter the law of karma. According to my dream forgiveness is tapas, a burning up. Forgiveness shatters karma, burns away sin, unbinds what has been bound, and allows for new possibilities to emerge. In a way it is a form of self-sacrifice, an abdication of my right of revenge for the sake of a higher purpose. In order to forgive I must have strength beyond myself. This strength, for lack of a better word, might be called Love.

A dream, coming on the eve of my reunion with a man I consider holy, resounding with his words, belongs to more than me. I give it to you, now, as leaven. May the bread rise. May we all be fed.

Cultural Disarmament, The Way To Peace, by Raimon Panikkar, Westminister John Knox Press, 1995;
The Vedic Experience, by Raimon Panikkar,University of California Press, 1977;
No Future Without Forgiveness, by Desmond Tutu, Doubleday, 1999

©Diane Pendola, Spring 2004. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author.

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