Years ago, I had an encounter with a Holocaust survivor that I will never forget. His name was Howard and the two of us worked together in the Men’s Department at what was then called The May Company, located on Wilshire and Fairfax in Los Angeles. Howard was a delightful Jewish man in his 60’s. He spoke with a thick German accent and was as funny as one could be. Having not spent any time to get to know him, I knew nothing about Howard’s background, but I so wanted to witness to him.
The year was 1972. I had just become a follower of Christ and I knew very little about Christianity and Christ himself, for that matter. In fact, at the time, I didn’t even believe in Christ’s divinity—Yes, you can be a Christian without believing in the Trinity, but that’s a different story for another time. In the 70’s, Christians were big on “End-Times” issues. Christ’s second-coming was right around the corner, yet we were taught things were going to get a lot worse before his return. All one had to do was look at the signs of the time and get ready for the end of the world.
Now, back to Howard.
Howard had just rung a transaction when I “dropped the hammer.”
“Howard, you need Christ in your life because He is coming back soon and things are going to get very bad,” I told him very assuredly.
Slowly, Howard closed the cash register while rolling up his left shirtsleeve. He turned around, looked me straight in the eyes, and with anger in his voice, he pointed to a number tattooed on his wrist and said, “You mean it’s going to get worse than this?” He then walked away in silence to assist a customer.
Today I am glad he walked away from me when he did since I was about to talk to him about forgiveness. Here I was, a foolish young Christian man who knew nothing about who Howard was and what horror and injustice this gentle old man had experienced, yet was ready to “teach” a Holocaust survivor a thing or two about forgiveness.
Why is it that so many of us Christians are quick to demand forgiveness from others? For example, right after the Columbine High School shootings, many Christians were literally demanding forgiveness for the animals who brought so much pain and agony upon all those families. The majority of these Christians weren’t remotely involved with the tragedy or even lived in Colorado. Shouldn’t we, at least, give these survivors a bit of time for grieving and venting in anger– a process so necessary for emotional healing–before demanding forgiveness of them?
In the late 90s, I personally had a very hard time with the concept of those Western Christians who walked the path of the Medieval Crusades, asking forgiveness of all the Arab nations on behalf of what was done to them in the name of Christianity. Being a Muslim background believer, I constantly had to ask forgiveness of myself, but, unfortunately, my Muslim side, being honor bound, kept refusing to accept my Christian side’s apology. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.
After I was fired from my Middle East mission coordinator position, I was deeply hurt and angry and needed to vent. Those who are close to me know that it’s through venting and discussing my frustration that I get the poison of bitterness out of my system. However, there were those who were uneasy about the way I was dealing with my pain.
“Brother, you should forgive because the Bible says so!” they would tell me.
And my response to them was always the following:
“Please don’t pull scriptures on me. I know what the Bible says about forgiveness. As a pastor, I taught from those very verses for 25 years. I know I should forgive, but first you must give me time to heal. I can’t fake it. While dying inside, I can’t say the right Christian clichés to keep you happy. I need to vent, and if what I say doesn’t jive with your Christian standards, then stay away from me until I can live up to those standards.”
Today, after two years of being away from that oppressive system I worked under for six years, I’m not as angry. I believe the healing process is taking place and God is working in my life, which brings me to another misconception some Christians have:
“We still feel an edge and anger in your writings. Forgiveness means you forget and let go,” some might say to me. To which I say, “Bull-dung!”
Please consider my favorite Prophet of the Old Testament, Jeremiah, talking to his beloved people, the Jews of Israel:
How can you say, 'I am not defiled; I have not run after the Baals'? See how you behaved in the valley; consider what you have done. You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving—in her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her. Jeremiah 2:23-24
Here, Jeremiah calls his own people, the very chosen of God, the men and women he would give his life for, a bunch of horny, whorish defiled camels and jackasses because they are following a broken system that is opposed to God’s way. Is there anger, bitterness and resentment in Jeremiah’s voice? Of course there is. I wonder how many of my Christian friends would have accused the YHVH’s prophet of lacking forgiveness. Instead, they are quick to point out that the Jews deserved it.
How about Jesus himself?
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Matthew 23:27-28
Can you sense the anger Jesus is showing toward the Pharisees? I am sure Jesus was not patting these guys on their backs while insulting them. In my Iranian culture, to say, “woe”— vaay in Farsi — to someone is pretty much the equivalent of saying, “You deserve to go to hell”. And that’s exactly what Jesus is saying to those whom, for generations through their teachings and instructions, had kept the Jewish heritage and laws intact.
For all the years I have been a follower of Christ, I have never heard any Christian accusing Jesus of harboring resentment or having an unforgiving attitude toward the Pharisees. In fact, my experience has been totally the opposite. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a pastor preach with glee and an admiration for the way Jesus confronted the religious people of his day, I’d be the one bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac instead of the government. Yet, when I or other believers dare to question some of the Christian leaders of our time, we are accused of not showing Christ-like forgiveness.
Do you ever stop to think that by doing so, we, like Jesus, are seeking justice and truth and our attitudes toward these men have nothing to do with a lack of forgiveness on our side? Is it possible that after 25 years of being a pastor and six years of working within a Christian corporation, I have seen way too much crap to keep my mouth shut? It amazes me how these same Christians demand accountability from any government official — especially if that individual is not a Republican — yet when it comes to keeping their own Christian leaders to the same standards, they refuse to do so less they be accused of lacking forgiveness.
I feel regret for all the years I saw injustice and hypocrisy within the Church and didn’t say anything. I didn’t do it because I was afraid or was trying to whitewash the actions of certain individuals. I simply believed that it was I who was wrong. After all, I am but a converted Iranian pastor from a Muslim background. “Who am I to question the sincerity of my American mentors?” were my thoughts for years.
But today I realize how wrong I was. There is a time and place when we have to demand accountability at the cost of being accused of harboring resentment or unforgiveness in our hearts.