Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Look Behind You

I'm always humbled when I look at history and see God's capacity to unconditionally forgive and redeem such a flawed creation as humanity. I don't have to look very hard, either, to see how God takes our worst and draws goodness from it: the roots of my own faith, which go back to medieval Scotland, stem in part from a bloody feud in which my family participated.

My maternal ancestors, Clan Ross, come from the Tarbat peninsula in northeastern Scotland. Unlike much of that area, the soil is very rich and as a consequence, lots of fighting has happened over who owns that real estate.

Our fifteenth-century neighbors -- Clan MacKay -- did not have good land, so they extorted other clans to survive. Oftentimes MacKay clansmen rowed across the firth to burn the Ross' wheat harvest. That is, until the night my family caught them in the act. After that the story gets a little dark.

The trouble began when the MacKays got cornered in a church. Everyone was Roman Catholic in medieval Scotland, and churches were strictly off limits to violence. The MacKays were safe, even if they were trespassing.

What to do? Let the MacKays free and they could return. But harming them would be the height of sacrilege, violating the community's most sacred space. No one would respect Clan Ross if it violated the church's sanctuary.

Clan Ross, however, had suffered too many years of extortion to worry about the long-term consequences. Time for talking was over. The Rosses barred the church door and torched the roof with all the MacKays inside. The Ross chief stood nearby with a poleaxe to cut down anyone running out.

The heat from the fire was so intense that it scorched the sandstone walls a bright orange. Stripped of all politics, this was a place of worship turned into a furnace by its own parishioners, with neighbors massacred in the flames.

God's forgiveness was needed for all involved, but the human consequences were unavoidable. Clan MacKay responded by invading again, this time with a powerful army. They brutally defeated Clan Ross and destroyed its leadership. The Rosses never recovered their previous power and wealth. Communal reconciliation never happened, and like so many other acts of violence, the bitter feud was largely forgotten over subsequent generations.

Every person on the planet is connected to a historical event similar to what happened on the Tarbat peninsula. Violence is a regrettable tendency of human nature, and we all have to reconcile ourselves to that harsh reality. We must then work to avoid it.

The goodness I draw from the event comes from my own perspective: the feud's consequences sparked the Protestant Reformation in Ross-shire, which reframed my family's understanding of God and faith. I could not have become a Catholic had I not first been a Presbyterian. Both traditions are important to me. Both emphasize forgiveness.

And even in light of that terrible history, I believe that we all can receive forgiveness because it comes first from God, without exception. God sets the example for all to follow, which I find as empowering as I do challenging. Remembering daily to forgive increases the size of my compassion not just for humanity, but for my own self as well.

Read how one community is encouraging communal reconciliation and healing from violence here.  

Read more on the history of this battle here.