Agony and Ecstasy
(Ecc.27:30-28.7; Rom.14:7-9; Mt.18:21-35)
One of the biggest barriers to our peace and happiness is the guilt we sometimes suffer for our past sins.
In 1972, during the Vietnam War, John Plummer was a US Army commander. In June that year, he ordered the bombing of Trang Bang village, 25 km west of Saigon. To him, this was just another raid on faceless enemies, and he’d been assured twice that no civilians were there.
The strike went as planned, as bombers dropped napalm and explosives on that village. ‘I was pleased that everything worked,’ Plummer said.
But the next morning he was horrified. On the front page of his newspaper was a photo of nine-year-old Kim Phuc running naked from her village, screaming from the pain of napalm burns.[i] ‘It knocked me to my knees,’ Plummer said.
That image haunted him for years; he could not get it out of his head. He was so wracked with guilt that it gave him endless nightmares. He could not even talk about it.
He started drinking, he left his faith and had two failed marriages. Years later he had another conversion experience, but he still couldn’t forgive himself.
Meanwhile, Kim Phuc had 17 operations on her wounds. The burning napalm had fused her chin to her chest and what was left of her left arm was stuck to her rib cage. The surgery was successful, but she was horribly scarred. She moved to Canada and in 1982 became a Christian. She also took every opportunity to speak about her experience and the need for forgiveness.
In 1992, Plummer heard that ‘the girl in the picture’ was going to speak in Washington DC. He knew he had to go; he knew he’d never find peace without speaking to her.
Standing in the crowd, he heard Kim say that she still suffered terribly from the burns, but she was not bitter. She also said, ‘Behind that picture of me, thousands and thousands of people… died. They lost parts of their bodies. Their whole lives were destroyed, and nobody took their picture.’
Then she said that if she ever met the pilot of that plane, she would say she forgives him. They cannot change the past, she said, but she hoped they could both work together to build the future.
Hearing this, Plummer scribbled a note, saying ‘Kim, I am that man,’ and someone took it to her.
Then they met. ‘Kim saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow,’ Plummer later said. ‘I fell into her arms sobbing. All I could say was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.’
She also cried, saying, ‘It’s all right, I forgive you.’
They talked and prayed together for hours that day, and became friends.[ii]
Plummer said it was vital for him to meet Kim face to face, to tell her how he had agonised over her injuries. He also said that without this confession, he doubts he would ever have been able to let it go. But he did let it go. He finally forgave himself.
‘I was floating, I was free. I was finally at peace,’ he said.
In meeting Kim, John Plummer discovered the merciful eyes of Jesus. [iii]
In our first reading today, the wise man Ben Sirach says you should forgive your neighbour when he hurts you; and when you pray your own sins will be forgiven.
He asks, can someone who is angry towards someone else expect healing from the Lord? If you show no mercy towards others, how can you expect pardon for your own sins? So, remember the commandments, he says, and don’t be angry with your neighbour.
And in today’s Gospel, Jesus says we should always forgive others, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. In other words, always. We are obliged to forgive anyone who has offended us, and we must seek forgiveness from anyone we might have offended.
Why? It’s because God is love, and we too must be loving if we want his divine life and power working within us. We must be forgiving if we want to let go of the past and live in happiness and peace.
John Plummer became a Methodist pastor, and dedicated his life to preaching about regret, forgiveness and hope. ‘I still remember that photo,’ he said, ‘but the screams have stopped. It’s all quiet now.’
It’s not always easy to forgive or to say sorry, but we know how important it is.
If you need help, turn to Jesus. He is always there for us.
[i] That picture won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.
[ii] Anne Gearan, Embrace Silences Decades of Nightmares for Ex-Pilot, Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1997.
[iii] Ken Barker, His Name is Mercy, Modotti Press, Ballan Vic. 2010:111-113.