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With forgiveness comes freedom

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What do Louis Zemperini, Tom Moe and Immaculée Ilibagiza have in common? First, let me identify these people.

Louis Zemperini was a 1936 Olympian, who joined the Army Air Forces in WWII and served as a B-24 bombardier in the western Pacific. In what would turn out to be his last mission, his plane developed mechanical problems over water, forcing the crew to ditch. Zemperini was one of only three survivors and spent 47 days in a life raft before he was picked by the Japanese and suffered two years of torture in a POW camp. His story is told in the book “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.  The movie opens Christmas Day.

Tom Moe flew F-4s in the Vietnam War. Shot down in 1968, he was imprisoned for five years in North Vietnam where he was regarded as a war criminal and subjected to one all-encompassing rule: “Criminals will strictly follow all regulations or will be severely punished.”

Not providing military information when interrogated was a violation of the rule and resulted in torture. That meant sitting on a stool for 24 hours a day for 10 days straight. Sometimes Moe would be tied to the stool, with his wrists strapped to his ankles. Sometime he was not tied, but forbidden to move. If he moved, other than to use a waste bucket in the corner, he would be beaten with fists and gun butts until the guards tired.

Immaculée Ilibagiza grew up in Rwanda.  In 1994, her family was murdered in a campaign of genocide that lasted three months. CNN puts the death toll at 800,000 Rwandans.  She survived the slaughter by hiding for 91 days with seven other women in the bathroom of a local pastor’s house while machete-wielding Hutu tribesmen killed Tutsi tribesmen.

What do Zamperini, Moe and Ilibagiza have in common?  The ability to forgive their enemies.

Zamperini was tortured routinely by one Japanese officer in particular, nicknamed the Bird by the POWs.  Some years after the war and after recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (before the term was created), Zamperini travelled to Japan. He wanted to talk with the Bird and tell him the past was the past and that Zamperini bore him no bitterness. The Bird would not meet with him.

Hate was not an issue for Zamperini, just as it wasn’t for Moe. Here is Moe’s reflection about hate: “I had to cope with one of the most corrosive elements of the human spirit—hate. Hate is a terrible distraction, a horribly destructive human enterprise. Hate invades the consciousness when the mind’s reasoning power fades. Hate is a way we assign blame for our plight when our faith weakens and our resolve becomes clouded. Pain intensifies hate, making us want to strike out at something.”

I heard Ilibagiza speak a few years back at a Columbus Gathering (now known as Relā, a wonderful organization) prayer breakfast. The first words out of her mouth were about the importance of forgiveness. It was stunning to hear this woman, who lost her family to senseless killing, speak of forgiveness.  Such grace is befitting to a woman whose first name, Immaculée, means immaculate. Surely she has an immaculate heart.

Rwanda has embarked on a program of national reconciliation. With the assistance of World Vision, genocide survivors meet with the former perpetrators of genocide in workshops, where the two groups express their anger and remorse. Eventually, workshops become clubs where the two groups work together to build houses and grow crops. Literally, those who lost their family members stand side-by-side with those who did the killing—talking, sharing a meal, praying and working. It’s a remarkable story, almost too hard to believe, and it shows that each side needs the other in order to move on.

We don’t talk much about forgiveness all that much. Sure, we hear about it in church, but these are powerful stories from everyday people.  The stories are powerful because they represent forgiveness in action and not just the discussion of a virtue in the abstract.

Buy it’s not just the wrongdoers who benefited from these acts of forgiveness. If you were to ask Zamperini (who died last July), Moe and Ilibagiza, they would all tell you how freeing the act of forgiveness was for them.

May we all forgive those who trespass against us. Best wishes for a joyous Christmas.

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Jack D’Aurora writes for considerthisbyjd.com

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