24th Sunday – Imaculee Ilibagiza and a Lesson in Forgiveness

Trinity with the Saints, Boticelli

Matthew 18:21-35

“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. In this Sunday’s gospel we come to one of the key pillars, maybe the key pillar of Christian life. Forgiveness and love of enemies sets Christianity apart from every other religion. There is also no other command or action in the gospels which have such a strict condition attached to it. We cannot expect any forgiveness from God unless we forgive those who have wronged us, from the heart. As anyone who has tried to forgive any wrongdoing know, forgiveness is not difficult. It is impossible. It doesn’t matter whether someone slighted you in passing or someone did something truly horrible to you. I’m not equating all offenses, of course. It is to simply say that to forgive an offense, however small, is truly difficult, if not impossible. Given that, for Jesus to demand that his disciples forgive not seven, but seventy-seven times – meaning, all the time – is tantamount to torture. What sense can we make of this impossible instruction? Even more importantly, how can we live this?

I’m reminded in this instance of the story of one Imaculee Ilibagiza, who survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Over a period of three months, about a million people of the minority Tutsi population, along with moderates among the majority Hutu tribe were systematically killed by the ruling party, the Hutus. Imaculee recounts her amazing story of survival, finding God in the middle of this darkness and learning to forgive in her book, “Left to Tell” (a short testimony can be seen here).         

Rwanda was mainly composed of two tribes, the majority Hutus (about 85%) and the Tutsis (15%). The then ruling party, formed of the majority Hutus had been sowing seeds of hatred against the Tutsis for some time. It would suddenly and explode into a horrific rampage of state-sponsored murder, kicked off by the assassination of the Hutu Prime Minister. That fateful day, when the first signs of the impending storm started becoming clear, Imaculee was hurried away by her Father to take shelter with a neighbour. Instinctively, she knew that she would never see her family again. The neighbour was a Protestant pastor and being a Hutu, there was reasonable hope that he would not be checked. The pastor graciously took her in, risking his own life. She was squeezed into a small three by four feet long bathroom, with seven other women. The radio outside which served to cover for any accidental noise announced clearly how things had changed in a matter of few hours. Eighteen Tutsi families had been slaughtered in the first three hours. The political leaders were now calling for all Hutus to take up arms. They were to search homes of ‘moderate’ Hutus as well, who might be hiding people. The call to eliminate Tutsis was complete: “Do not forget the children…the child of a cockroach is a cockroach”.  

Imaculee with her family

From a slit in the bathroom window Imaculee could see a few hundred people descend on the house. Several went throughout the house, searching every nook and cranny, even opening suitcases to check for hidden children. The rest surrounded the house to prevent anyone from escaping. Cowering, feeling herself unable to breathe, she clutched the rosary in her hand for dear life. As impossible as it was, she asked God to show himself as all-powerful and prevent the killers from opening the bathroom door. Then she fainted. About five hours later, the pastor opened the door. He recounted how the mob had come up to the door and miraculously decided not to open it, and simply left. Imaculee’s family had all been killed. She emerged, though, knowing something deep within, which she had accepted only notionally: this God is real and is Almighty.

She would spend the majority of the next three months within that confined space, as the genocide raged on. That prison became a school where she started to know this God as her Father. She read all she could from a Bible borrowed from the pastor. She felt God constantly speak to her, teaching her. She clung to her rosary for dear life. But alongside this new love, her hatred raged for her enemies, crippling her, many times causing her actual physical pain. It was not long before God started asking her to forgive those who had killed her family, not once but seventy-seven times. Imaculee recounts this journey of forgiveness in her book. She realised it was impossible for her to do so, but as she prayed with the willingness to say yes, God began to transform her heart. The terrible anger and pain, the burden she had constantly felt started to lift. Even as she remained confined in that space, she found herself free. This reconciliation would lead her to confront her enemies, the very people who had killed her family and she would find that she had nothing but compassion for them. Her work of personal reconciliation started to blossom into a new springtime of healing for all those around her, the few surviving victims of the massacre who had lost so much in that hellish nightmare. She says how, strangely, from then onwards, every day, every moment became for her a way of living eternity: what if this is my last day on earth? How can I serve this person next to me? How can I love the one who needs me?

A story like Imaculee’s shows us first and foremost that forgiveness is possible. It is possible, not by the best of human efforts, but by the grace of God. Even as one forgives the offender, it is the victim who is released first and foremost, through the power of forgiveness, from prison.

Forgiveness makes no sense in life without the revelation of the God who is Trinity. The atheist philosopher, Nietzsche, was wholly consistent in accusing Christianity of ‘weakness’ in its call to forgive your enemy. Without knowing this God, ‘forgiveness’ remains the only option for the weak who cannot fight back; for anyone else, it is not just weak but foolish. But in the Trinity, each of the persons exist as gift to the other – it is in this same image we were created. It is no coincidence that Imaculee’s ability to forgive followed her discovering that this God she had known by name was truly real – and almighty. It was the same power that was revealed to her in protecting her from her killers that she discovered flowed through her in forgiving love towards them.

The call to forgive constantly, seventy-seven times, when attempted by any means other than by grace would be cruel, inhuman. And isn’t repeated forgiveness simply an invite for someone to offend repeatedly? But to think thus, is to miss the logic of forgiveness. Repeated forgiveness should not get harder and harder; it is not meant to be like someone trying to hold their breath under water for ten seconds, then for twenty, then for thirty, and so on, till you exhaust and explode, as one theologian put it. Forgiveness is like the air that comes rushing in, through a window opened to eternity. This window is opened through faith. It is precisely for this command, in Luke’s gospel, that the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. And Jesus promises that if we have even the tiniest faith, we will do wonders (Lk 17:6). If through this tiniest window we can manage to gaze upon the God who is alive and almighty, this God will give us generously of his Spirit who created the worlds and through whom Jesus forgave his torturers on the Cross.

Imaculee with Pope Benedict XVI

The Spirit wants to cause us to experience life in a new way. In a way where our sustenance and our hope comes from heaven, not from man. We are no longer living thrown about by the forces and powers of the world, be they random events or people who are wicked or more powerful than ourselves. Through all these events, we live, experiencing the constant love of the Father. A window into eternity. We see this in Imaculee’s own recounting. Every moment, now, she lived differently in experiencing this power of forgiveness. What if this was my last day? How would I live? How can I love? This was not some paranoia; it is an experience of living in the present, simultaneously touching eternity, something many saints discovered in their life. This is the experience, the life that God wants to invite us into, in today’s gospel. Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door (of eternity) will be opened to you (Matt 7:7).

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