I’m reading a book called The Unburdened Heart, by Mariah Burton Nelson, which is about forgiveness, and which probably applies to almost everyone. It certainly applies to me, and other people I know, but it also applies on a wider scale.
There are several things the books tries to make clear. One is that forgiveness isn’t easy, and if it’s facile it’s not real, and if not real it doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s a process rather than something done automatically.
Another thing is that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning the offense. Some people feel that forgiveness must be conditional: that the person has to be sorry, and be willing to accept appropriate punishment and to make resitution. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but some people find it better to forgive unconditionally.
One example given is that of a young woman, an American who had gone to a good university and was an excellent student, who had gone to South Africa 20 years ago to work at getting people to register to vote. She had written to her parents that young blacks who committed violence shouldn’t be blamed too much because they were doing what had been done to them and their families for generations. Not long after that she was murdered.
Her parents were very involved in the Christian church they attended, and reported that they immediately felt forgiving, that they felt less anger than sadness, and that they hoped the young men involved could eventually return to their communities and live positive lives. Many people couldn’t arrive so quickly at such a position.
Some will remember the movie Dead Man Walking from about 20 years ago, which was loosely based on a true story about a young man who had abducted a woman, raped her, stabbed her boyfriend and left him to die. Some years later the young woman wrote a book about her experience, and the resentments she had from it.
She blamed her abductor, of course; she blamed her mother for not being concerned for where she was that night; she blamed Helen Prejean (and had written the book on which the movie was based), who had offered spiritual guidance to her abductor, but not to her; and she blamed God, for having allowed this to happen. “…she realized that in order to forgive God she needed to experience his forgiveness. So,
over a period of weeks, whenever I remembered something I’d done wrong, or something I hadn’t done right, I simply prayed and asked God’s forgiveness…As I did so, an incredible thing happened. As I came to know and feel God’s forgiveness, it was suddenly easy to forgive myself. If God who is holy and perfect could forgive me, who was I to think I should hold myself to a higher standard? If he didn’t blame me, neither could I! What a new and incredible sense of freedom!”
Researching the background of the man who had abducted her, she found that he’d been arrested 30 times before the age of 21, and when talking to Helen Prejean about him, asked if he’d ever expressed remorse. Prejean said he hadn’t, and that she doubted if he was able to. There may be no clear file into which to put this murderer, but no one gets arrested that many times in a few years without having something drastically wrong. Maybe his problem was hardwired in, but maybe it had to do with some dreadful pain of his own which led him to take revenge any way he could. At another place in the book, Prejean says of her work on death row, that when she tells inmates that she forgives them, their response is that no one ever said anything like that to them before. People who experience extreme and unjust pain, especially when young, are likely to pass that pain along to others. Forgiveness is one of the few ways to begin breaking that chain.
The point here is that not only do we need to forgive others, but ourselves. It seems analogous to the pain amputees experience from phantom limbs. One such amputee felt that his missing arm was contorted into an uncomfortable position. When he used a mirror to make his remaining arm look like his missing one, and moved it into a more comfortable position, his mind was fooled, and the phantom limb stopped hurting. If we’ve convinced ourselves we’re in pain, we can also convince ourselves to let go of that pain–if we want to.
Each person who decides to embark on the process of forgiveness obviously needs to do so for him or herself. But it would also be nice to see forgiveness enter into wider contexts, such as politics. In politics, much of the rhetoric is always about blame and NOT forgiving anyone who has behaved wrongly, further complicated by frequent disagreement as to what is right and wrong.
That’s why the American decision to help rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II was such positive move that gave peace a chance to defeat the lingering resentments. Of course there were resentments, and they were justified, but the USA’s actions recognized that not all Germans and Japanese were evil, and we could encourage them to be our friends.
Not that our country’s conduct was entirely consistent. The war crimes trials made us feel superior because we didn’t acknowledge our own war crimes and those of our allies. But helping our erstwhile enemies rebuild made the postwar world a much more stable place than it might have been.
At the moment, forgiveness is not a prominent part of the political landscape. Our Civil War of 150 years ago is not something that is settled. It still influences politics today, as liberals are unable to forgive conservatives for being bigots, and conservatives are unable to forgive liberals for being self-righteous. Whites are unable to forgive minorities for not being white, and minorities, seeing the inhuman faces of those who persecute them, put on inhuman faces of their own. No one wants to change themselves: they want to change other people. Thus we get inflexible hatred and the inability to see other people’s humanity.
Some have said that seeing things as they are means we also have to see ourselves as WE are, which can be horrifying. Many who do, feel that they can never be forgiven, and do anything they can to forget their faults or pretend they don’t exist. From this attitude comes addictions of all kinds.
Not that this is the only source of addictions, though a major one. Nelson suggests that forgiveness offers us a way to not only forgive others for what they may have done to injure us, but a way to forgive ourselves for being human and imperfect. The resulting freedom may give us the ability and impetus to do much better.
Nelson’s own experience was with a man who was her basketball coach when she was 14 and he was 11 years older, and married. She liked a lot of things about him, so when he began molesting her she ignored her bad feelings about it, and cooperated. Three years later her family moved to another area, and she lost contact with the coach, but the experience stayed with her. Eventually she contacted him again, and confronted him about what he’d done. He was remorseful, and agreed to help her heal (eventually) by admitting what he had done. Initially he still didn’t want her to tell anyone, since he didn’t want to lose his job and family, and initially she agreed, but then decided to mention his name.
He came close to losing job and family, but didn’t, and continued to do what she asked to help her heal, which he found in the long run to be healing for him too.
Not every molester or other offender will be so helpful. Nelson suggests that each person must work out the problem in his or her own way, but that forgiving one’s self for being caught in such a predicament, and to the extent possible, forgiving the perpetrator is more likely to contribute to healing than holding on to rage and hatred (however justified) for the offender and offense. That kind of holding on contracts the consciousness: forgiveness (again, to the extent possible) has at least the possibility of expanding it.
This was an important part of Jesus’s message: “Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.” It’s advice many of us are disinclined to take very often.
For one thing, we usually want to be right. One mother had a teenage son who, beginning in his early teens, was constantly getting into trouble. One night they had a confrontation, which was frightening for her, since he was by then in his late teens, and big. She managed to shove him out the door, and he drove to where he was living. Later that night he called her, told her he had been driving recklessly, running red lights, and telling himself he must be a total asshole to treat his mother that way. She told him, “I’m sorry,” and kept repeating it. She said she suddenly wasn’t concerned about who was at fault, but was sorry that he was in so much pain, and sorry for whatever she had contributed to it. He replied to her, “My world just changed.”
Nelson comments that his world hadn’t entirely changed: they were fighting again the following week, but that the incident had opened the way to apology and forgiveness, which was healing for the whole family.
She also notes that even if a perpetrator doesn’t apologize perfectly, apologizing at all can be powerful. One young woman, an athlete, was running with a group of other athletes when a young man plowed into them, and injured her pretty severely. She eventually recovered, but had a lump on her collarbone visible when she wore an evening dress, and a large scar on her abdomen when wearing a bikini. Eventually she confronted the young man who had injured her, and found that he was sincerely apologetic. He insisted that he had been alone in the car (observers had said there were others with him, and they were laughing) and that he hadn’t laughed. She wasn’t sure she could believe this aspect of his story, suspecting him of trying to protect his friends, but still found his apology liberating. She recognized his humanity, imperfect as it may have been.
How many of us have not offended others, as well as having others offend us? All of us have done things we shouldn’t have. That’s the nature of being human, and the way in which we learn to do better. I think forgiveness is an excellent tool towards liberation, and intend to use it more myself.