Forgiveness is a loaded concept for me. As a kid in parochial school, I knew the drill on forgiveness: Turn the other cheek. Offer a kiss for a blow. Jesus forgave His tormentors from the cross with His dying breath--- a scene that still managed to elicit tears from a few students in our annual bored Easter viewing of "The Greatest Story Ever Told": "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do." Forgiveness blurred into the background along with the other admonitions we received to be honest, honor our parents, and stop tormenting the nuns who taught us. It was a vague, soft-focus concept, like peace. Like praying for peace, it was a sentiment that made you look nice, without having to worry about how to actually execute it.
As a kid in a family stretched to the breaking point by an alcoholic father who sexually, physically, and emotionally abused me, I also was urged to understand and forgive. Although much more situation-specific, the exhortations were no more instructive than those I received at school. I was told to "understand" my father when he was sullen or cruel, because he had an illness. The other, darker issues of incest and family violence remained unacknowledged and were never addressed. No one ever told me how, or why, I should forgive him. While I was never able to understand the concept, much less the value, of forgiveness, I did come to recognize the rationale that lies behind the majority of such exhortations: "Don't be angry. It makes us uncomfortable, and our peace of mind is more important than what hurts you. Just pretend it never happened and it will come true." Forgiveness, as I understood it, involved passivity and denial. It involved embracing and accepting the role of victim. "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do."
But there's the rub, isn't it? It's hard to witness atrocities without feeling that the perpetrators know exactly what they're doing. Whether it involves threatening a sobbing child with violence if she tells anyone what's been done to her, or abducting someone's friendly, trusting pet cat and hurling him off an overpass into oncoming traffic (as Charles David Bauman did in Arkansas), or hijacking a plane full of terrified passengers who suddenly, unimaginably, realize that they are going to die, and using the plane as a living bomb--- there is deliberation involved, and planning. In the face of that--confronted with the realization that some people can be faced with anguished incomprehension and raw terror in the faces of their victims, and proceed--it is impossible for me, at least, to believe that they do not know what they do.
The conflict this represents was brought home for me two days after the bombings, as I waited in the checkout line at a natural foods store. The woman in front of me, dewy-eyed and wrapped in pashmina, was earnestly discussing the terrorist attacks with the clerk: "I don't even watch the news. I just don't want to know. It's all so awful, and now we're planning to bomb them. It's not the way. We need to understand what is going on. There's just not enough love in the world."
I reacted inwardly with fury. I reacted outwardly by snapping, "Yeah, it's easy to say love's the answer, but a hell of a lot harder to do." Inwardly, I silently added: Easy for you to say. How can you have a legitimate perspective when by your own admission you don't even have any information? Why is it that every sap I've ever met who stands there with that condescending expression and preaches forgiveness deliberately ignores the horrible things they want me to just accept? I walked out of the store high on righteous anger, but with an annoying little note of doubt plucking at my conscience.
What was I really saying?
Was Jesus just an idealistic fool? For that matter, were the Buddha, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi? What about Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose suffering in the Holocaust prompted him to become a vegetarian? The message they not merely preached, but lived, was forgiveness. No one could accuse them of closing their eyes to suffering, or never having to survive cruelty at the hands of those they forgave. If I was baptized in Jesus' name, revere King and Gandhi as heroes and the Buddha as one of the faces of God, read Singer with a warm feeling of fellowship for someone who also found comfort and kinship among animals, am I a hypocrite to reject the very heart of their teachings when tested? If I abandon their company, whose am I choosing?
Nothing ever is simple. The people who seek the simplest, most black-and-white, absolute answers often also are the most dangerous. The Arab terrorist who believes that his murder of American civilians is an act of holy war, the American jingoist who chants that we should turn the entire Middle East into a parking lot to prove the might and right of the USA--they're closer to each other than is comfortable to admit. They're all part of a cycle of pain, rage, and retribution. I too am part of that cycle. I've chosen not to have children, partly because I can't promise myself that I wouldn't sometimes lash from the midst of my own old anguish. Buried pain and its fraternal twin, rage, corrode like acid leaking from an old battery; brush up against it and you'll get scalded.
It's easy to preach forgiveness, without appreciating the enormity of what you're asking people to forgive. It's harder to do when actually faced with cruelty and suffering. It's easy to chastise from a safe distance while simultaneously turning away. Forgiveness is not simple. I admittedly have very little experience with it. But from my own perspective as a member of another "fringe" group who are often accused of being extremist and vengeful, I can only say that it must be an organic event, arrived at after a highly individual and intensely personal journey.
I'd like to be able to say that I've experienced an epiphany of sorts. But I can't. I can't say that from now on, I won't react to people who mouth platitudes about forgiveness with anything from intense irritation to fury. I still can't draw the line between perpetrator and crime; I can't hate the sin but love the sinner. The lessons you learn by rote never sink in like the ones delivered wrapped in pain and fear. I can't read about people who willfully commit atrocities and not wish them agony at least equal to the suffering they inflicted. I can't say that I can forgive my father, or even that I should want to.
I don't think forgiveness is as simple as making the decision to forgive, even if you acknowledge to yourself that you must work at it. I don't think you can make yourself forgive any more than you can force yourself to love. What I do think we can work on, and make a decision to consciously practice, is compassion, arising from an attempt to understand the other's perspective. I think we can make and hold fast to a conscious decision not to give in to the lightning-flash response of revenge. I think we can choose to transcend tragedy by not letting hate and vengeance control us as they do the perpetrators. Not as satisfyingly all-encompassing as the concept of forgiveness, perhaps, and certainly less comfortable, because it involves examination of self as well as other, but it lays the groundwork; as a matter of fact, it is the work. It is the only work that matters. It takes wit, resolve, patience, and most of all, the willingness to persist in the face of apparent hopelessness. And maybe forgiveness waits--in its own time, in a place of its own choosing--somewhere down that road.
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