Original innocence and genuine forgiveness

For me, forgiveness was a gradual process helped by my study of the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy.

I grew up in Northern Ireland, part of a Protestant community that harbored a long-standing negative view of Roman Catholics. So I started life with a distorted view of my Catholic neighbors. 

In 1968 the Northern Ireland “Troubles” started. This was a violent conflict between mostly Protestant unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Catholic nationalists, who wanted our province to become part of the Republic of Ireland. 

Over a period of about thirty years, thousands were killed and tens of thousands injured, with much of the bombing and shooting attributed to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), representing the nationalist viewpoint. Several good friends of mine were killed. In one incident, a neighbor’s husband and two cousins were murdered on their farm by the IRA.

About the time of the commencement of the Troubles, I became acquainted with Christian Science, which teaches that all individuals are the beloved children, or spiritual ideas, of infinite Love, God. No matter how people might identify themselves—such as by religion or race—every individual is truly spiritual, made in the image and likeness of the divine Mind or Spirit that we know as God. 

Inspired by these ideas, in a very divided community, I tried to be evenhanded in hiring employees and in my friendships and other associations with Catholics. But at times, it was difficult to feel any real forgiveness, especially as I stood at a gravesite after a terrorist murder.

Much is owed to the United States diplomacy that helped broker the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland in 1998, including amnesty for convicted terrorists. This agreement has stood for over twenty years with a great reduction in violence. This called for acts of compromise and forgiveness by many people. For me, that sense of forgiveness was a gradual process helped by my study of the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy.

Forgiveness points to true spirituality, by which the material beliefs, opinions, and vicissitudes we associate with any of our fellow men and women are seen as having no substance. It is a recognition of the real, spiritual innocence of our neighbor—his or her true nature as God’s likeness—no matter what might have been perpetrated against us. 

For some years, I served as a Christian Science prison chaplain. There were many tears in the prisons, many folk waking up to the necessity of forgiveness—of themselves and of anyone they believed had wronged them. And I witnessed the peace that came to these folk when they became able to forgive through learning the true nature of God and of us all as God’s children.

Genuine forgiveness is a recognition of the real, spiritual innocence of our neighbor.

Forgiveness is often not easy, but it’s so worthwhile. It frequently involves our need of repentance—a change of thinking. And it is the way of regeneration, redemption. To see the Christly nature of everyone, the way our dear Master taught, is genuine forgiveness. Christ Jesus refused to be impressed by appearances, whether of bodily ills or sins. He knew it was sin that would stifle our efforts for good and bring us down. That is why he could often say, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” 

The Bible tells of the Apostle Stephen doing “great wonders and miracles among the people” in the early days of Christianity (Acts 6:8 ). He preached the gospel of Christ—of loving God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves. 

As a Christian, he preached forgiveness, but he also rebuked those Jews complicit in the slaying of Jesus. This so incensed the clergy and the doctors of Jewish law in Jerusalem that they stoned Stephen to death. As Christ Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 ), so Stephen, as he was stoned, cried out, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60 ). What wonderful, powerful examples of forgiveness. 

So what is it that would keep us from forgiving our fellow man or woman? The Second Commandment says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Exodus 20:4 ). Often, engraved in our thought of someone is an image of that person as comprised of matter—of materiality, sensuality, or corruption. 

Instead, we can pray to see each individual as God sees them—as spiritual, immortal, and innocent, never material, mortal, or ungodlike. We can begin to see that mistakes or regrets (as has been said) are life lessons, not life sentences. 

So we can begin now to let go of any beclouding past, any erroneous tale of a man God never made. As it says in Mary Baker Eddy’s Retrospection and Introspection, “The human history needs to be revised, and the material record expunged” (p. 22 ). By doing so, we can see what has always been true about each of us—that we are wholly and divinely spiritual, pure, and innocent. We can refuse to characterize ourselves or anyone else as sinful or evil.

As I began to realize this, it also pointed to my necessity of not living in the past, of not harboring any hatred or grievances. And gradually, an increasing sense of the real innocence of the man of God’s creating enveloped my consciousness and freed me from lingering unforgiveness. 

Some theologies explain the Bible as attributing “original sin” to everyone, but as I understood more about our true nature as God’s spiritual offspring, I saw that our reality is actually the original and eternal innocence described at the beginning of the Bible—the spiritual uprightness and goodness as God’s image that God creates and maintains in each of us (see Genesis 1:27 ). I saw how understanding this allows anyone to forgive and to be forgiven. Just as we behold a baby and rejoice in its innocence, we can do the same for all humanity through a spiritual sense of our fellow man and woman.

Seeing this real innocence of all enables us to experience genuine forgiveness for ourselves and our neighbor.

This is love. This is healing.

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