Conversation on Forgiveness: Vivian Jenkins Nelsen

March 12, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Vivian Jenkins Nelsen

Matthew 18:21-35

Hart-Andersen: I’m pleased to welcome to the pulpit with me today Vivian Jenkins Nelsen. Vivian is an elder at Westminster and a long-time educator, a Senior Fellow at Augsburg College, and an advocate for racial justice in our community. I’m especially grateful to Vivian for joining me on short notice, as last minute family health concerns prevented the Rev. Dr. Alika Galloway from being with us today.

Thank you, Vivian, for being part of this Lenten dialogue series on the meaning and power and challenge of forgiveness.

In today’s gospel reading Peter comes to Jesus with an innocuous-sounding inquiry. “Lord,” Peter says to Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”

We can be sure this is not a hypothetical question. He’s not thinking in the abstract here. Something has happened. Peter has been hurt. Someone has belittled or betrayed or bedeviled him – repeatedly, from the sounds of it. They won’t stop. And he’s mad about it. But he’s trying to restrain himself, trying to impress Jesus with the wideness of his mercy. He says he’s willing to forgive up to seven times!

How often must he forgive? Peter asks. Jesus replies that the need to forgive does not come with an expiration date. Seventy-seven times, he answers, meaning there’s no limit to forgiveness.

Peter shows in this exchange with Jesus a basic human tendency that all of us recognize. When someone hurts us our natural reflex is to strike back. We’ve all been there. Somebody does something to offend us or injure us, and we want to get back at them. Or maybe something happens to someone we love and we want to “get back” on their behalf. We harbor resentment. Eventually we may find it in our heart to forgive them, but if they keep doing it, do we have to keep forgiving?

Vivian, you told me of a situation in your own life where you were on the receiving end of some unpleasant business for many years. Peter’s dilemma – How many times do I have to forgive? – you said to me, sounds familiar.

Jenkins Nelsen: When I became the first African -American woman to become an Executive at the offices of the Lutheran Church, I began getting racial hate mail. It wasn’t bad enough that I was singled out, but the young people I worked with, our youth, began getting the letters at their churches. What would happen is that the Pastor would get the mail for the kids, hand out the mail to the kids, and they all thought since it was coming from Minneapolis, from out our offices, that this was good mail. They would open up the email, the hate stuff would spill out, and then a congregation imploded. This happened all over the United States.

So as you can imagine, the congregations were very afraid to send their kids, especially the kids of color, to national events, which is one of the things that I did. So that meant that I had to provide unobtrusive security measures for the kids so that they wouldn’t be frightened and they would be safe. I wasn’t going to have one of them hurt on my watch. You have to understand that the mail was anonymous and it referred to all sorts of hate groups and it came from all over the United States.

We had no idea where it was coming from. But it followed me from job to job, after I left the church and went to the U. It followed me house to house. My bosses got the mail, my secretaries got the mail, people were terrified who worked around me. The letters appeared on the dashboard of my car, in a parking lot downtown. Things changed when I began to realize I was being stalked. I spent five days under guard with one of my staff in a Washington D.C. hotel.

When the threats seemed greatest at this time, my mother sent me Romans 5. “Therefore we are justified by faith , we have peace with our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have attained access to this grace on which we stand. And we rejoice in the hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings. Knowing that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”

Not long after that the papers found out who this was. It was a very wealthy man who was an executive at West Publishing. So when the story broke, I called our youth and I said, “What should we do? What should I do?” They said, “Make him accountable.”

We were even more stunned when we found out he was Lutheran and an alumnus of our college. We had no idea at the time that a single individual could do that much destruction. He wrote more hate mail than any known person. He made Ripley’s Believe It or Not. According to the evidence, I was his chief victim. I first tried a Service of Reconciliation, but my go-between, who was the college President, found him unrepentant and unwilling. So after that, I sought help in the legal system, to little avail – even though his so-called education efforts were described by a judge as “domestic terrorism.”

Hart-Andersen: This went on from 1975 to 2010, for 35 years. How did you deal with Jesus’ injunction to forgive a repeated injury, something or someone that simply wouldn’t stop? How did you forgive in that situation?

Jenkins Nelsen: Yes, I had to forgive, for my own spiritual upbringing and my own spiritual health and emotional health. I had to. I had to let go of it

Hart-Andersen: What Vivian is describing here is a personal experience of a broader, society-wide issue. It’s a helpful, although painful, illustration of how deeper cultural issues – in this case, racism – are manifest in our personal lives.

We do tend to personalize the matter of forgiveness, but forgiveness extends to entire communities, as well. Last weekend, Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, Presbyterian mission co-workers in South Sudan visiting Westminster, showed a filmed interview of a student with whom they work in that troubled nation.  He’s part of the program called RECONCILE, started by the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and supported by Westminster, to teach reconciliation and peace-building.

As a boy, the student had watched when troops killed his father and brother. “I wanted revenge,” he said, and he became a child soldier. For years he harbored resentment and hatred and anger and dealt with it through more violence. But he was never satisfied; he could never break free of the desire for revenge in his heart.

Now, years later, with the training of the RECONCILE program, he has learned that getting revenge will not solve anything. He eventually let go of the need for it, he said. He set aside the anger and bitterness and he forgave. It freed his heart. Now he is a teacher in the RECONCILE program. To have peace in South Sudan will require more such experiences.

It reminds me of the situation in South Africa, under the system of apartheid.  Their willingness to tell the truth and seek reconciliation moved that land through a largely peaceful transition. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the South African struggle against apartheid, “There is no future without forgiveness.”

Reconciliation happens when the one who forgives is released from anger and resentment and the one who is forgiven accepts responsibility for the wrongdoing and repents of it.

That’s true in South Sudan and South Africa, but I also think of our own history. Our country condoned the enslavement of millions of people from Africa and their descendants for more than 200 years. Have we ever fully acknowledged that evil, and owned what America did to generations of people, to families, to mothers and their children, to men and women? Have we ever wondered about the connection between slavery and today’s mass incarceration of African-Americans, especially men? Have we ever wondered about the connection between slavery and the educational disparities among our children today? How we ever wondered about the connection between slavery and the generational poverty in many of our communities today?

Many of our forebears, and I speak as a white American, participated directly in that very system, or we ourselves benefit today from privileges resulting from that same system.

Is America’s still smoldering racism the result of our never having fully and formally asked for forgiveness? Has the sin of slavery, the original sin of America, so scarred our national character that we cannot even talk about moving toward reconciliation between white and black Americans?

Peter asks, “How often must I forgive?”

Vivian, how does Peter’s dilemma, struggling with forgiving an injustice done to him over and over again, figure in the African-American experience in America, with regard to the legacy of slavery?

Jenkins Nelsen:  One of the things that we know from research is that it takes more than 200 years for the effects of slavery to go out of a society. And so we know that the economic losses to African Americans to slavery are huge. That is why this issue keeps coming back. As a teen, I was furious about this. I knew why black people lived in poverty; all you had to do was look around in Selma and you could see that. Nobody had to explain that to you. I knew why my school was segregated. I knew why we had tattered books with missing pages and no covers. For a person who loves reading that is hard. I knew why my school was segregated.  And when we moved north I was thrilled by clean new books and a library.

Health disparities are long-lasting, they go generational. That still marks our experience. There are diseases that have followed us because of the stress of this way of life. My brother suffers today from the kind of dental work that a southern white dentist did. They didn’t fill your teeth, they just pulled them. I know that anger can make you physically ill.  That’s the place where my younger brother and I were. He was a Black Panther. I was right on the cusp of that.

I was in college and I was blessed to meet Dr. King. I was about 17 and my mom called up and said, “Dr. King is here to meet with your dad and they have to plan Selma and so come because you may never see him again.”

That was the way we lived our lives, under that kind of threat. I went and here in the room at the airport was this little cadre from this civil rights group that my dad lead and their wives. There were about six people and me. Dr. King greeted everybody and they were talking about porta-potties and food and that and he finally got over to me before they got down to the real business before his flight. They also wouldn’t protect him, so that was why we were meeting in this room.

I told him how proud I was of him that he was the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize and that I was very proud of this accomplishment. Dad’s students had invited him to Selma in the first place. I remember that this place was kind of dim and every time I went to Omaha I would walk past it at the airport.  I was chatting along so nobody else could hear us, because, after all, I was the kid. I told him, although he meant well, this march was foolish, and that he was for sure going to get people killed, and that it would be his fault.

Hart-Andersen: You told this to Dr. Martin Luther King?

Jenkins Nelsen:  Yes, yes, yes. Oh. it gets worse. I said that most white people didn’t get it and we had better be ready to protect ourselves with guns and shoot them if they tried to hurt us. I went on to tell him why he was wrong and why our revolution was the way to go and he was very kind and listened to me rant and rave. When I paused for breath, he took both of my hands in his and quietly told me of the rage he felt as a student. And he convinced me that we had made progress and we would continue to if we kept the faith and if we believed we could and kept working at it. He convinced me. My mom, at that time, was looking me and pointing to her watch. But he kept on talking because he wanted to change the life of one kid toward violence. They didn’t get their work done, but his ministry to me changed my life.

That question about forgiveness? As I look back on this we’ve been required, as a people, as a formerly enslaved people, to forgive white people every day.

Hart-Andersen: Peter’s question in the gospel is a good one: How often must I forgive, especially if the injustice keeps coming…life after life? Behind the question is the assumption that at some point, we are released from the obligation to forgive – or, conversely, freed of the obligation to seek forgiveness.

Jesus rejects that view. There is no future without forgiveness, no matter how long it takes to get there.

Vivian, you told me a story about a conversation you had with your mother. She was born in 1910, and about twenty years ago you asked her if she knew anyone who had been enslaved. She replied, “Our relatives.”

Then your mother described her grandparents’ and their parents’ and grandparents’ enslavement in South Carolina.

Vivian, I don’t know if I am qualified and I am certainly not authorized to apologize to you and to other descendants of enslaved Africans, nor do I know if my doing so would have any meaning or impact because of the enormity of the sin of our nation, but I do ask for forgiveness for that terrible sin in which America engaged for so long. I ask for forgiveness for the generational damage it did, and for the lingering racism, and for the continuing racial privilege that some of us have because of it.

Jenkins Nelsen: As you can tell, this is emotional.

I accept your apology for the way it has been given: with sincerity, and clarity, and honesty.

On Friday, Tim sprung this on me. Nobody ever asked me to forgive them for their privilege for what had happened to us, and what continues to happen to us. So I called my brother, my older brother, he is seven years older than me, and I said, “Ike, this is what is going on in church. Has anybody every asked you for forgiveness for this?” And he said, “No. No one ever has.”

A professor friend of our family and I were talking last night and I said, “Louis, has anybody ever asked you?” And he said, “No.”

So…what I know about this is I can forgive for me and what happened to my family. I can’t forgive on behalf of other people. So, as for our household, this was forgiven a long time ago, because they were faithful people. And especially my dad, whose civil rights work was rooted in love and forgiveness. I said to my brother, “Well you know Dad…” and he said, “Dad would forgive anybody.” As a pastor he was my faith role model and teacher and he walked his talk as you do yours. And I appreciate that. And I’m grateful for white abolitionists who gave their lives and their liberty to resist the sin of slavery.

And I think an apology from our government is long, long overdue. It was the government’s policy to enslave us. And it would go a long way to heal the wounds of African-Americans, especially our young people, and it could help relieve the guilt of white people, and we could move on together to building new and honest relationships. We could begin a new conversation, a mature dialogue on race that moves us to action. And we could actually begin to dismantle the losses, the walls, the resentment, the fear between us. But only if it moves us to justice and it changes policies and practices that create those disparities – both spiritual and physical, this being the most segregated hour in America.

Hart-Andersen:  Following the first service this morning, a white gentleman whom I did not recognize came up to me and said he was from South Carolina. He told me his people had been slaveholders in that state. He thanked me for doing what his family needed to do. I suggested he tell that to Vivian, and he did. They embraced. It was a moment of the start of healing and reconciliation. That’s where we begin, with honesty and courage. We tell our stories. Only then will we be able to find our way to the racial reconciliation our nation needs so badly.

I pray God will give us the grace and wisdom to do the hard work that lies before us as a nation. To seek forgiveness, as many as seventy-seven times, until we get it right, that we might finally reconcile ourselves to God, and to one another, and step into a new future together.

May it be so.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Latest Sermons