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Why Forgive? Questions we all ask; stories that help with the answers

What if I don't feel like forgiving?

What good is forgiving
when things aren't going to change?

How is forgiving someone else
really more about myself?

What does forgiveness look like
from the outside?

Is there a film that says something
relevant about forgiveness?

Why forgive when no one
asks to be forgiven?

Isn't forgiveness all about things
that happened in the past?

What good is forgiving when the
damage can never be mended?

If God forgives me for what I do,
can I move on and not look back?

Where can I learn how to forgive?

I know Jesus told us to forgive one
another, but how is that relevant
when groups of people take sides
over controversial issues?

If I can forgive, why must I also forget?


Is there a film that says something relevant about forgiveness?


How Do We Give and Accept Forgiveness?

From Finding Faith at the Movies - Chapter 8
by Barbara Mraz

Smoke Signals
Mirimax Pictures, 1998,
with Adam Beach, Erin Adams, Tantoo Cardinal.
Directed by Chris Eyre; winner of Audience Award and Filmmaker's Trophy at Sundance Film Festival.
Rated PG-13.

To forgive wrongs darker than death or night . . .
To love and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates . . .
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free.

(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound, 570)

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Matthew 6:12

Tips for Using This Movie
The ending of Smoke Signals contains one of the most poetic and insightful statements about the nature of forgiveness ever put on film, and this alone makes the movie worth seeing. However, it has much more to recommend it. It is a story of the complex dynamics that evolve within a family and how even anger, alcoholism, and hurt cannot defeat love. All of this is presented in a context that is new to most non-Native American viewers: daily life on a contemporary Indian reservation. The clips selected give a taste of the sadness, humor, and lyricism of the


film, but most viewers will eventually want to watch the film in its entirety.
Smoke Signals forces viewers to reach deep down into their psyches to explore their own personal experiences of forgiveness. After the last clip—which includes the end of the movie—ask participants to be silent for a moment. Then play the closing monologue a second time. Its impact will be even greater, especially for those who have had troubled relationships with their own fathers. Structure discussion around the two aspects of forgiveness: giving and receiving.

The “Reflection” enlarges the topic of forgiveness from the personal realm of the movie to larger political and social arenas.

To provide a context for the excerpts and to help participants follow the movie line, read this background information to the group.

"It’s a beautiful day on the reservation this morning. It’s a good day to be indigenous!” proclaims the announcer on KREZ radio, “the official voice of the Coer d’Alene people.”

Based on screenwriter Sherman Alexie’s book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, this movie is part drama and part comedy. It is billed as the first feature film written, directed, produced, and acted by Native Americans.

The movie begins on the Fourth of July, 1976, on the Coer d’Alene reservation in Idaho at a party celebrating “white people’s independence.” As the evening grows late, a house fire erupts, killing two tribal members who are the parents of an infant. Baby Thomas is saved because he is thrown out a window (“flying,” as Thomas says later) by a big, gruff man named Arnold Joseph, himself the father of a baby named Victor.

The movie fast-forwards nearly twenty years and we meet Thomas and Victor again as young men. Victor, tall, handsome, serious, is not completely recovered from the fact that his father, Arnold Joseph, deserted the family ten years earlier. Thomas—the baby thrown to safety in the fire—is a bespectacled, suit-wearing, dreamy boy who lives with his eccentric grandmother and prides himself on being a storyteller. Despite their differences, Thomas and Victor are friends.

Victor receives word that his father has died in Arizona and he and Thomas make the long journey by bus and on foot to retrieve Arnold Joseph’s truck and belongings. It is during this trip that Victor learns more about his father—not only about the demons he battled, but also about the deep and abiding love he had for his son.

At the end of the movie when Thomas asks Victor, “So why did your dad leave?” Victor, acknowledging the complexity of human motivation, replies, “He didn’t mean to, Thomas.” And Victor then sets about doing what he has to do to grieve his father’s death and face the question of forgiveness. The film addresses the important questions of why we hurt the ones we love and if we can or should be forgiven.

Smoke Signals begins with fire and flames and ends on a bridge over Spokane Falls, the waters below at once raging and cleansing. The closing monologue, adapted from a longer poem from the book Ghost Radio, is a breathtaking and haunting riff on the complexity of forgiveness.1

But Smoke Signals explores not only forgiveness between family members. It also explores the broader cultural and historical questions: How can a race of native people forgive generations of oppression by the American government? And how can young Indians forgive their parents and grandparents, who let it happen?

Read this selection to the group. Or, you may wish to use this reflection as a springboard to writing a reflection of your own with to share with the group.

For We Know Not What We Do
It’s difficult to contemplate forgiveness when you’re paralyzed with fear.

In the guarded, anxious, and fear-heightened climate in which Americans now live, forgiveness is probably the last thing on our minds. Since September 11, 2001, when the sense of invulnerability Americans had lived with for so long was shattered by attacks on the Twin Towers, our sensibilities have been seared and our sense of national safety shattered. Each time we turn on a news broadcast, we’re reminded again that our world, our country, and our neighborhoods are not safe.

Yet the scriptural mandate to forgive remains. We are exhorted not to pass judgment on our brothers and sisters (Romans 14:5) and to “forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts” (Matthew 18:21). Jesus does not define our brothers and sisters. They are simply other human beings—maybe mistaken in their motives, negligent in their duty, or sinners in the most reprehensible and evil sense—but still God’s children, still accountable to God.

So are we supposed to forgive terrorists? Murderers and rapists? Forgive those who stand in line for the privilege of destroying us and use religion as a weapon to drive planes into buildings? Forgive those who prey on innocent victims who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?

In religious terms, forgiveness is not always simple. Jesus seems to say that forgiveness is, to some degree, dependent on an accompanying change in behavior. Similarly, The Book of Common Prayer says that “true repentance” must precede forgiveness, along with “amendment of life.”2 Forgiveness is not automatic. We don’t dispense it smiling and unthinkingly; we don’t chant the familiar litany: “Oh, that’s okay”—“No problem”—“I’ll get over it.” People who abuse and mistreat children, alcoholics who refuse to confront the havoc their behavior wreaks in their families, those who engage in sexual misconduct that destroys trust and love are not helped by too-easy forgiveness with no accountability for their actions, especially when these destructive actions are repeated and intentional. Forgiving others is not sentimental niceness; it is serious business.

Of course, forgiveness is most difficult when an individual’s actions are reprehensible by any existing moral code. How do we even begin to think in any clear way about people who seem beyond redemption and who have the capacity and the will to hurt us? How do we get by our fear and our wounds and see the child of God that lurks beneath?

The Reverend Cecil Murray has one suggestion. He is pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in a troubled district in downtown Los Angeles. With seven thousand members, it’s an active, socially conscious parish at the heart of its neighborhood. Murray was asked how he could deal with so many people who have failed by society’s standards—either through criminal activity or by failing to achieve material success. He responded, “Because I know why they’re not achieving. At a critical juncture in their life, they went that way and I went another way. Now why did I go that way? Somebody whispered something in my ear, something good, and somebody failed to whisper in his ear or her ear something good.”3

Everyone—our own parents, our neighbors, even fanatical terrorists has a story with twists and turns, lessons learned and rejected, possessions given and taken away, dreams fulfilled and deferred. Each of us can recall moments when powerful words, whispered or shouted, determined the course of our lives.

But it is not only a question of granting forgiveness, but of seeking it as well. What do we ourselves need to ask forgiveness for—from others? From God? In her book In Search of Belief, Joan Chittister says that the quintessential twentieth-century sin among the developed nations of the world is the sin of disregard. It is not thinking about the Third World and the hundreds who die there each day from starvation; it is feigning ignorance of those who work for pennies a day and support our low supermarket prices; it is turning our back on requests for help because we have “compassion fatigue.”

The sin of disregard is pretending not to notice the person in the office next to us who is clearly hurting; it is avoiding the newspaper article about a sweatshop in Korea because we can’t do anything about it anyway; it is refusing to recycle because it’s too much trouble. It’s not so much conscious, premeditated evil, Chittister says, as it is “self-centered disregard for the rest of the human race, for the little people on whose shoulders we all stand, for the evil effects of our lives on the lives of others.”4

Only God sees the intricacies of our hearts; only God understands why we ignore the needy; only God knows what causes people to blow up buildings full of people—or nail an innocent man to a cross. But with his last breath, Jesus utters the mysterious words that encompass it all: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Nor do we.

Film Clips to Use for a One-Hour Class
Set VCR to zero at “Miramax Films.”

1. (11 min.) Credits. 1976: party on the reservation. Baby Thomas is saved by Arnold Joseph. Flash forward to 1998: traffic report for KREZ; Thomas and Victor as teenagers and flashback to them as young boys. Arnold Joseph leaves the family; news of his death arrives; Thomas begs to accompany Victor. End after Victor says to Thomas: “You’re funny.”
VCR - 00:00 to 11:00m, DVD - begin at Scene 2
2. (2 min.) Flashback: to the day Arnold Joseph left. End after Victor’s mother says, “You feel that way, too, huh?”
VCR - 32:21 to 33:20, DVD - begin at Scene 10
3. (3 min.) In Phoenix, Victor talks with his dad’s neighbor, Susie Song. Flashback to the basketball game with the Jesuits. End after, Susie says, “He was a magician, you know.”
VCR - 52:00 to 54:30, DVD - begin at Scene 15
4. (5 min.) Thomas and Victor return to the reservation; Victor scatters his father’s ashes over Spokane Falls; monologue on forgiveness. Continue to the end of the movie.
VCR - 1:16:00 to end, DVD - begin at Scene 20
Total running time: 21 minutes

Film, Faith, and Scripture
Explore with your group the connections between film, faith, and Scripture by examining what the Bible says to us about forgiveness. You may read the scripture passages from your book, or ask participants to look them up in bibles that you provide and read them to the group.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35)
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with this slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Jesus on the Cross (Luke 23:44)
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

Discussion Questions
Invite participants to take a look at what the two texts—the film Smoke Signals and the Bible—teach us about the ways that forgiveness is central to our faith.

1. The last line of the movie asks, “If we forgive our fathers, what is left?” After we forgive someone who has hurt us deeply and repeatedly, what is left? What does the act of forgiveness force us to come to terms with about ourselves? How does forgiveness cleanse and transform us? What is left after Jesus forgives his tormenters?
2. From the excerpts you watched, do you think it would have been difficult for Arnold Joseph to seek—or accept—forgiveness? What things make it difficult for you to accept forgiveness—from another person? From God? How does the act of accepting forgiveness change us?
3. In the story of the unforgiving servant, why do you think the servant who was so generously forgiven refused to forgive the person who was indebted to him?
4. Being specific, explain how you commit “the sin of disregard.” Who are some of the people whose sacrifices make your own lifestyle possible? Is thanking them a realistic option? Are there any ways in which personally or as a society we seek to make amends?
5. In our own lives or in our national life, are there times when forgiveness of others is not an option? Consider, as you ponder this question, the popular mantra: “What would Jesus do?”

Extension Activities
An excellent poem to seek out on the topic of forgiving our fathers is “Late Poem to My Father,” by Sharon Olds, in The Gold Cell: Poems by Sharon Olds (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 1982.

Respond to the following questions individually in writing or as part of a small group, sharing what you wish:
1. The powerful poem that ends the film begins with the question, “How do we forgive our fathers?” Who is someone from your own life that you most need to forgive and have not yet forgiven? What has prevented this?
What are some things you have said or done (or thought) that need forgiveness? Who do you need to ask forgiveness from—and why? What would you say?

1 Dick Lourie, Ghost Radio (Brooklyn, N,Y.: Hanging Loose Press, 1988).
2 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 42.
3 Cecil Murray, interview with Hugh Hewitt, “Searching for God in America,” Community Television of California, 1996.
4 Joan Chittister, In Search of Belief (Ligiori, MO: Ligouri/Triumph Publications, 1999), 185.

Excerpted from Finding Faith at the Movies by Barbara Mraz. Copyright ©2004 Barbara Mraz. Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing.

Find Faith at the Movies Book Cover

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