The loss of our brother Johann Christoph Arnold has deeply affected all of us on the Breaking the Cycle team. Together with recently departed NYPD detective Steven McDonald, Christoph started this program for high school students, which focuses on nonviolent conflict resolution and forgiveness, in response to the Columbine High School massacre eighteen years ago. Christoph’s faith, love, and ability to listen nourished hope and purpose in those he connected with, however broken the lives he encountered. Through hundreds of assemblies and countless one-on-one interactions with young people, he helped some of the most desperate teens overcome fear and forgive grievances. As Christoph always said, “It is never too late to turn our lives around. With forgiveness everyone is a winner and nobody is a loser.”
Johann Christoph Arnold and Steven McDonald during a Breaking the Cycle Assembly
Breaking the Cycle will go forward with the inspiration of these two great peacemakers, Johann Christoph Arnold and Steven McDonald, before us. The following quotes from Christoph’s book Why Forgive? give an idea of his insight into every human’s struggle to find peace.
What does forgiving really mean? Clearly it has little to do with human fairness, which demands an eye for an eye, or with excusing, which means brushing something aside. Life is never fair, and it is full of things that can never be excused. When we forgive someone for a mistake or a deliberate hurt, we still recognize it as such, but instead of lashing out or biting back, we attempt to see beyond it, so as to restore our relationship with the person responsible for it. Our forgiveness may not take away our pain – it may not even be acknowledged or accepted – yet the act of offering it will keep us from being sucked into the downward spiral of resentment.
Bitterness is more than a negative outlook on life. It is a power – and a destructive and self-destructive one at that. Like a cancerous cell, a dangerous mold, or a spore, it thrives in the dark recesses of the heart and feeds on every new thought of spite or hatred that comes our way. And like an ulcer aggravated by worry or a heart condition made worse by stress, it can be physically as well as emotionally debilitating. In fact, if not addressed and taken care of, bitterness can lead to death.
Most of us will probably never be faced with forgiving a murderer or rapist. But all of us are faced daily with the need to forgive a partner, child, friend or colleague – perhaps dozens of times in a single day. Perhaps the hardest thing about practicing forgiveness in daily life is that it requires us to confront the reality of our feelings toward those we know best. It is difficult enough to forgive a stranger we might never see again, but it is much harder to forgive a person we love and trust. Our family, our friends, the people we feel closest to at work – they not only know our strengths, but also our weaknesses, our frailties, and our quirks.
At some level, every one of us longs for forgiveness. Yet when all is said and done, we cannot acquire it. Sometimes the person we have wronged is unable or unwilling to forgive us. Sometimes we are unable or unwilling to forgive ourselves. Even the best psychoanalysis, the most earnest confession of guilt, may not be enough to assure us of lasting relief or healing.
But the power of forgiveness still exists, and it can work wonders even when we are sure that we have neither earned nor deserved it. It comes to us as a gift, often when we feel least worthy of receiving it. Finally, like any gift, it can be accepted or rejected. What we do with it is up to us.
Forgiving is a deeply personal matter. Ultimately, each of us must find healing within, on our own terms, and in our own time. On another level, however, forgiving is much more. Even if its power connects people one by one, the resulting “ripple effect” can be felt on a much broader scale. In fact, forgiveness can be a powerful social force, transforming whole groups of people.
Dorothy Day, an old acquaintance of mine who worked for decades among New York City’s poor, said that in trying to change the world the biggest obstacle is never other people or institutions, but our own sense of discouragement and futility. “We can change the world, to a certain extent,” she admonished in a newspaper column. “We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening ripples will reach around the world.” I am sure that there are more stories of love and forgiveness in the world than there are stories of hatred and revenge. How long will you wait to let yours be heard? When are you going to throw your pebble in the pond and start making ripples?
Ian Winter, a pastor, helps direct Breaking The Cycle. He lives at the Maple Ridge BruderhofComments
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