Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Forgiveness: Really Hard and Really Important

Recently I attended a series of seminars by a master teacher, one of the best I have ever seen. He was fond of saying about the subject at hand: "This should feel hard, and it should feel really important."

There is an aspect of the shootings in Charleston last week that feels very hard and also very important: the question of forgiveness. This is much bigger than one incident - indeed, I think it's one of the most fundamental questions there is.

What follows here are partly reactions to what others have written, but mostly musings of my own. Some of this will wander into theological territory, and some of it will bridge from the societal to the personal. It's also likely to be long. I'm not an expert in any of this stuff, so I can't stand on title or degree or authority. Take it for whatever you find it's worth.

Cases like the Charleston shootings tend to get reported in context of other similar events in the past. The most common recent case I've seen cited is the Newtown shootings, although other racially/religiously-inspired shootings (the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, for example) have also been referenced. These past cases serve as a means of identifying and defining what's happened - they form the boundaries of the present.

One mass shooting I almost never hear referenced is the Nickel Mines case. In October 2006 a man entered a small Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He allowed adults and boys to leave, but took a group of ten girls aged 6 through 13 hostage. A short time later, he shot all ten girls, killing five, and then turned the gun on himself.

The case was briefly a national story, in part because of the exotic nature of the victims (most Americans know nothing about the Amish, who keep largely to themselves) and in part because of what followed. After the initial frenzy had died down, the story came to focus on the response of the Amish community to the killings.

Within hours, members of the Amish community approached the gunman's family offering forgiveness and comfort. Those who had been victims reached out to the family of the perpetrator; many attended his funeral, and the gunman's widow was one of very few "English" invited to attend one of the funerals for the slain girls. The community responded with forgiveness and compassion far beyond simple words. A colleague of mine at the time, Donald Kraybill, and two other co-authors wrote a book, Amish Grace, which was later made into a movie. It is a powerful story almost wholly outside the mainstream American experience, which prizes vengeance far more than forgiveness.

Despite its power, the Nickel Mines story has largely vanished from public discussion. This is perhaps not surprising - the Amish exist largely outside American society and our categories. They are white, but we don't think of them as privileged whites. They eschew technology, yet aren't poor. They practice a radical form of both nonviolence and separation that largely keeps them outside our society. We don't know where they fit, and so they disappear (which, I suspect, suits them just fine).

Now we're faced with another shooting of innocents, in a religious context, by a white man. To early appearances Dylann Roof seems to have clearer motives than the Nickel Mines shooter did, which helps us put this event in the context of race and history which we already know. Some of the same questions are already being raised, about mental health and access to guns. But despite both similarities and differences in their particulars, both cases - indeed, ALL such cases - face us with the question: how do we respond? How are we to think about, and react to, the person who commits these crimes?

How we respond to the killer is important both for us and for the future. In the long run, responses of vengeance and anger shape us into vengeful and angry people bent on returning violence with violence. It is no coincidence that most major world religions have within their doctrines powerful injunctions regarding forgiveness, because the alternative is terrible: unending spirals of violence that spill blood for generations. We've seen modern examples from Jerusalem to Sarajevo to Chicago and Los Angeles. We know where that road leads. We forget sometimes that in the gospels, "An eye for an eye" is the start of a cautionary parable, not a prescription.

So in the long run, forgiveness and reconciliation are the only answers if we really want what we say we want: peace and justice for all. We know this is really important. We also know that it's really, really hard.

Stacey Patton in the Washington Post has beat me to the punch in bringing up the question of forgiveness towards Mr. Roof. Hers is a different take - she is frustrated at the speed with which blacks victimized by white violence are willing to forgive, at least in words. She points out that white America was not asked, and would not consider, forgiving al-Qaeda or ISIS - although the wars of vengeance launched by our responses there may not be the examples she's looking for. But she also writes this:
If we really believe that black lives matter, we won’t devalue our reality and cheapen our forgiveness by giving it away so quickly and easily. Black people should learn to embrace our full range of human emotions, vocalize our rage, demand to be heard, and expect accountability. White America needs to earn our forgiveness, as we practice legitimate self-preservation. [emphasis added]
Patton wants more anger from the black community as an expression of power - a means to force the white majority to come to terms with racism and take action to actually end it. Hers is a calculus of force, even if the force she envisions is rhetorical and political rather than lethal. It's interesting, in complicated ways, that the civil rights movement of the 1960s had this same debate, embodied in the twin figures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The latter seemed a bit more like what Ms. Patton is calling for, though the former is credited (rightly or wrongly) with having been more effective in bringing about change.

But can forgiveness be earned? This strikes me as a very slippery slope indeed. How much does the perpetrator of the offense need to do before forgiveness is owed? Is forgiveness a market transaction? We teach our children this script - one child offends and then says they're sorry, the other says "that's OK" or similar words of reconciliation. Then we watch them (and we watch ourselves) twist this script to our own ends. "I said I'm sorry!" "Yes, but you didn't mean it!" Asking others to earn forgiveness is really just a means of exerting power the other way, and can quickly turn into a form of punishment.

So demanding accountability and acceptable action prior to forgiveness isn't just putting the cart before the horse - it's connecting two things that really should not be connected at all. At the heart of Christian theology is exactly this kind of radical separation: the forgiveness of God does not come because of our actions, but in spite of them. We are not forgiven because we go to a priest or a pastor and say confession - otherwise God is nothing more than a magic Forgiveness Box waiting for us to push the button. God's grace precedes our action and does not depend on it.

This question, of course, goes far behind our response to terrible events like the Charleston shootings. We are faced with this question nearly every day, every time someone does something to harm us. Do we wait for the offender to apologize? Do we even allow them to apologize, or do we accept the apology at all? When we are hurt and wounded, this is really, really hard, even when the harm is social or relational rather than physical.

Yet even at this level, we perpetuate the damage when we don't seek and extend forgiveness. Relationships remain broken or fragile. Grudges can be held, hidden and waiting to surface later in another conflict. Potential is lost, work doesn't get done, and we miss out on the benefits of human connection at work, in the home, or in our communities.

This is not to say that reconciliation comes through a magic panacea. It's hard work on both sides. There's no push-button formula, where you say magic words ("I'm sorry") and I say magic words ("I forgive you") and we're done. Forgiveness, like everything else in human relationships, takes time and effort from both parties. I have failed to hold up my end of that bargain at times in my life, and I've been in relationships where I wanted to do the work but the other side didn't. Both end up hurting.

And all of that is in the easy cases, the ones where the offending party can recognize the offense and wants to do something about it. How much harder can this be, then, in cases like Charleston where the perpetrator of violence may not recognize his actions as wrong or harmful? What if there is no remorse, no apology forthcoming?

This is where it becomes clear that we need to separate reconciliation from forgiveness. The former is what restores relationships, not to their former state but to a functioning condition again. Reconciliation makes it possible for people to work together again, despite the harms of the past. Forgiveness is a necessary but not sufficient part of that process.

Forgiveness, by itself, is important not so much for the offender who is forgiven as it is for the victim who does the forgiving. If I am harmed by someone, whether that person repents or not I have only two choices: to forgive or not to forgive. By withholding forgiveness I am retaining the anger and the pain by choice. I think this is what Ms. Patton wants - she wants her community to hold onto that pain and channel it into power. In the short run, this can be a potentially effective tactic. In the long run, retained anger poisons the soul.

So by forgiving, I may or may not be helping the person who hurt me. But I am absolutely helping myself. This, I think, may be the motive behind the expressions of forgiveness seen in the last few days towards Dylann Roof. And though I understand (and to some degree share) Ms. Patton's frustration at the lack of change around issues of race and racism, I cannot share her need to tell those victims how to cope with their own grief or demand that they do so in ways to advance my agenda. Pain is personal first.

In this case, the harm radiates out in waves. There are the shooting victims (those that survived) and their immediate families. The members of Emanuel AME church. The members of the surrounding black community, and the broader citizens of Charleston. There are blacks, whites, and communities across South Carolina, and across the South in general. And there are Americans across the country, many of whom felt the pain of this shooting if only distantly.

People in each of those layers will have to decide for themselves how to respond in ways that suit their own needs and serve the needs of the larger community. There is strong consensus on much: the need to heal the racial wounds of our society, the need to prevent as many of these terrible acts as we can, the need to forge a better and more peaceful community. How we do these things is the subject of much debate. That they need to be done isn't.

So we're left with the original question: do we forgive Dylann Roof? Actually, I think this is more an individual question than a collective one. It's something we each have to face. For those of us at a comfortable distance from the shooting, it may seem like a trivial choice. But in reality, it's a choice we face nearly every day of our lives. We are constantly hurting, and being hurt, taking apart our relationships and communities and putting them back together. Forgiveness is an important part of the putting back together process. And like anything else, if we want to become good at it we have to practice.

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