Tuesday, speakers from Muslim, Jewish and Christian traditions shared their faith teachings on the topic of forgiveness and how those teachings have impacted their lives. The panel attracted about 50 people to St. Francis Spirituality Center in Tiffin.
Each person spoke for about 20 minutes, followed by a break and discussion. The program was funded by a grant from the Home Savings Charitable Foundation.
The presenters included: Fatima Al-Hayani, an educator from Toledo, who holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern studies, concentrated on Islamic Law, from the University of Michigan; Michael Hall, a lawyer from Republic, who graduated from the University of Toledo and studied Judaism at the Siegel College of Judaic Studies; and the Rev. Donna Van Trees, pastor of Faith United Methodist Church in Tiffin, who holds a master of divinity from Ashland Theological Seminary.
Donna Van Trees
The Jewish traditions
A member of a Jewish congregation in Toledo and a Hasidic group, Hall said the forgiveness teachings from the Orthodox Jewish faith are multi-layered with different types of forgiveness described. Scholars have discerned 613 commandments that are covered within the traditional 10 Commandments.
Prayer is one of the most important commandments, with women and men having different prayer requirements at specific times of the day. A portion of each prayer service is devoted to seeking forgiveness from God and from anyone the person may have offended, either intentionally or unintentionally. A believer must address God directly if a commandment has been broken.
"If you have committed wrongdoing or sin against a person, you have an obligation to go to that person ... and ask for their forgiveness. Technically, they're duty-bound to give you forgiveness, but sometimes people are hard-headed," Hall said. "You're obligated to go three times ... and if they don't grant forgiveness after the third time, it is on them as a violation."
In addition, Jewish people observe Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, every year in September. This important holy day is a time to reconcile with God and with other human beings. Jews also believe God decides the fate of each person on that day. Yom Kippur falls 10 days after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
"Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur ... we are to examine ourselves, think about what we've done, what mistakes we've made, whom we may have sinned against, pray how we need to make things right ... and hopefully we haven't transgressed so much we can't fix it in 10 days," Hall said.
The prayer service for Yom Kippur is lengthy, listing "everything imaginable" that a person could have done wrong to help the faithful to examine their consciences. Another tradition of Yom Kippur is for Jewish congregations to visit a moving body of water and crumble pieces of bread. The bread represents their sins. Special prayers are recited as the bread is cast into the water for the fish to eat or the currents to carry to the depths of the oceans.
The Christian traditions
Speaking from the Methodist perspective, Van Trees described forgiveness as "an act of grace." Forgiving is not done because someone has earned it or to excuse hurtful deed. She said humans may let a painful experience control their actions, or feel it has robbed them of power.
"When we forgive, it's about letting go of (a need for) power and allowing God to be in control of the situation," she said.
A favorite Christian prayer is "The Lord's Prayer," with its passages about forgiving others as God forgives us. Van Trees also mentioned prayers that Catholics have to seek forgiveness. In spite of those teachings, Christians often struggle with forgiving others and allowing themselves to be forgiven, Van Trees said. They also may have trouble admitting their faults and mistakes and falling short of God's expectations.
"So we walk around feeling guilty when God has already forgiven us. We need to celebrate that gift (of forgiveness) God gives to us," she said. "We don't like to do that sometimes because, when we admit we need to be forgiven, that creates a dependency on God. While I think that's a good thing, our society thinks otherwise."
People need the gift of forgiveness and they need to give it to others, she added. Many verses about the topic appear in the New Testament, but Christians find it difficult to forgive as God has forgiven. Forgiveness may go against our human interests.
"Forgiveness is a choice that we make. ... It's not anything about our emotions. It's a decision of our will to follow God's example of forgiving others and to obey God's command to forgive. In essence, we forgive as an act of faith, an act of obedience to God," Van Trees said.
Sometimes, forgiving takes time. People may believe they have forgiven those who have wronged them, only to find the resentment, anger or sadness resurfacing. Van Trees explained that forgiving is not the same as forgetting, but it does mean making an effort not to dwell on the negative feelings and effects or to "keep score."
"Scripture teaches us that God chooses not to remember our sins," she said.
Christians believe God sent Jesus Christ to sacrifice his life to obtain forgiveness for human beings. The faithful need to emulate Christ and pray for their enemies. Van Trees shared her experiences of ministering to adult women who had been abused or whose children had been abused. One of the group's meditations compared a child with filthy hands to a person who had committed a serious sin. Just as the hands are in dire need of cleansing, so is the sinner in dire need of forgiveness. Van Trees concluded with a quote.
"Forgiveness sees not the enormity of the sin but the enormity of the need to be forgiven."
The Muslim traditions
The word "forgiveness" often is equated with words such as "clemency, compassion, mercy, salvation, understanding, pardon, exoneration and reconciliation." Al-Hayani said Muslims believe forgiveness requires compassion, an attempt to understand the "sinner's" intentions or reasons and a direct action to repent and make amends. The Koran has many passages about the mercy of God and his love for human beings.
"When God created Adam and Eve ... they were both created in the same manner, equal in everything. A lot of people don't think so," Al-Hayani said, as the audience laughed. "Here's the background about the first sin. ... Once they realized their mistake, that they had disobeyed God, they asked God for forgiveness. God forgave both of them, and this is the greatest forgiveness ever in history."
Because the first sin was done unintentionally, God forgave it with a gesture that extended to all generations. Al-Hayani said Muslims believe "no one is born a sinner." To commit a sin, a person must have the mind, the will and the intention to do evil, she said. Muslims are required to pray five times a day. The prayers involve asking forgiveness not only for oneself, but also for the offenses of family members, friends and all believers.
"When I pass a funeral procession, I immediately ask God to forgive that person's sins and enter him or her into paradise, and the people that love him or her, the strength to bear his or her sins," Al Hayani said.
When individuals harm others, they also harm their own souls. Failing to forgive offends God, she said. The prophet Muhammad was commanded by God to teach people about forgiveness. Muslims also believe forgiveness is always possible if a person repents. The Koran says to pray for unbelievers and to help everyone, even those who have wronged us. Mercy is a better choice than punishment or retaliation. At the same time, the Koran advises Muslims to protect themselves from those who have harmed them.
Echoing the comments of Van Trees, Al-Hayani said no sin is so great that God cannot forgive it. Individuals must start by forgiving themselves for past offenses. She suggested that recognizing our own flaws can help us understand the offenses of others.
During the discussion, a participant questioned the purpose of memorials for 9/11 and for various wars. Although intended to honor the dead, she thought they often keep bad memories alive rather than promoting forgiveness. Money spent on stones and flags could be used to help people, instead. Hall pointed out Muslims and Jews had worked together and lived in peace for many years. Present-day citizens may not know that.
A show of patriotism also may be a show of arrogance and intolerance. One person said looking at God as a nurturing parent might remind Americans to be more welcoming to immigrants rather than to make impossible demands on them. Or it might influence the justice system to rehabilitate criminals rather than to dehumanize them with fines, incarceration and even the death penalty.
Another person asked if religious leaders could be doing more to promote social justice. The speakers pointed out the many duties pastors already have. Hall suggested that politicians, who have the power to do more, may be too far removed from the lives of average citizens. They have lost touch with the wishes of ordinary people who want to do the right thing, and they have not been able to agree with each other to make meaningful changes.
Al-Hayani said people enduring economic hardships and a lack of education are more likely to follow corrupt leaders. She also blamed Americans for not staying informed about events and conditions elsewhere in the world. As a Muslim, she said she has lost many jobs because of her background. Muslims often resist activism so as not to cast a shadow on their faith. Americans' perceptions of Muslims already are negative.
People in attendance agreed more gatherings such as this one could help to break down stereotypes among the masses. Differences in beliefs and faith traditions are not necessarily wrong just different. The group concluded that religious faith is not enough ... "believers" also must take action to right the wrongs.