I’m not much of a believer. The notion of belief incorporates a leap of faith: we don’t “believe in” gravity or the beating of our hearts; instead, we know these things through observation. Rather than believing, my interest is in noticing, whether what I notice confounds received beliefs or reinforces them.
Here’s something I noticed a lot last week, as the news media trained its attention on the schoolhouse murder of Amish schoolchildren in Pennsylvania: “Forgiveness is very important to the Amish,” intoned one reporter after another, as if this explained the unambiguous gestures of forgiveness extended to the family of the deranged milkman who murdered their children—offering kindness to the murderer’s widow, setting up a fund to support his family, making up perhaps half the mourners at his funeral.
Why is it so hard to “believe in” this type of forgiveness, despite knowing it is real? Why does it seem positively Martian in its strangeness?
Despite the human proclivity for self-protection, I’ve noticed that the difficulty many of us have wrapping our brains around the hard-core forgiveness of the Amish is less a personal reluctance than an expression of the zeitgeist, the spirit of our cultural moment. Today, most of our social philosophies are deeply skeptical about human choice and autonomy, about the possibility of fixing what has been broken.
Pop psychology and the largest penal system in history tell us that the past reliably reproduces itself, with abused becoming abuser, criminals bound to repeat their crimes—and lo and behold, statistics are marshaled to prove it. When a woman complains to an advice columnist about her husband’s gambling, drunkenness, or abusive behavior, the great likelihood is that the columnist, even as she reflexively recommends counseling, will caution the questioner against getting her hopes up. When a candidate’s early transgression is exposed—a history of drugs in college, an illicit affair, a flirtation with repugnant political positions—we expect that will end his or her political career forever. The other day on a talk show, I heard Nora Ephron, a smart and normally compassionate writer, assert that a person can change perhaps “ten percent” in a lifetime, no more.
If this is what we really believe, why forgive anyone? They’ll just turn around and do it again. Let’s just lock ’em up—and not think too hard about what it means to our culture and our collective moral condition to have the largest prison population on the planet. (In 1980, 139 out of every 100,000 people were locked up in state and federal prisons; in 2004, the number was 486, an increase of 350 percent.)
I hate that we are held hostage to such sloppy, bleak and vengeful thinking. Surely it punishes all of us alike: I imagine the transgressors have seen, heard and read as many assertions as you and I that having once sinned, we remain sinners for life; and I imagine it has the same effect, making attempts at rehabilitation feel futile. To ground our social compact on such dubious certainties—on belief not rooted in knowing—creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, a national compulsion to repeat both crime and punishment.
Yet I’ve noticed again and again that people can change, and more than ten percent. How many times have I patched things up with a friend who learned from the experience not to repeat the offense? Too many to count. How many times have I turned from giving a friend pain toward a way of behaving that lubricated the relationship? Too many to count. Forgiveness between individuals is easiest when both are committed to working things through. You talk about it, almost always unearthing a misunderstanding that dulls the sting. You kiss and make up, vowing to be more conscious in future, and shortly, all is well.
For me, forgiveness of the most challenging kind is generally conditioned on a decision not to take an offense personally. When I’ve been able to get to a place of forgiveness with someone who really hurt me, it’s almost always been by acknowledging that the person’s primary intention was not to do me harm, but to discharge—to act out, to avenge—a personal pain, or to defend against a personal threat, real or imagined. It may take time, but eventually, I can accept that in some sense, he or she was unable to act with more awareness of the impact on another. By then, we may both have moved on or I may see the person changing in ways that make me want to be in contact again. This type of forgiveness is not necessarily a prelude to a renewal of intimacy; without that evidence of change, I want to reserve closeness for people whose growth toward awareness I can trust. Even so, any type of forgiveness clears the space in my mind that had been devoted to hurt and resentment, making it possible to think of that person again without sending my brain into red alert.
But none of those I have forgiven murdered my children.
That’s why I was so touched to hear a friend say something encouraging. When people tell me that certain world conflicts will never be reconciled, she said, I remind them that the French, Germans and English were killing each other just a few generations ago, driven by hatreds that then seemed permanent. On a scale far beyond the mayhem of a single schoolhouse, they murdered each others’ children. And now their countries are barely separated by borders.
It isn’t as if none of the citizens of these nations harbor resentments—I’m sure in their own living rooms and editorial cartoons, the French get in as many sly digs against the Germans as the British against the French, and so on. Neither do I imagine the bereaved Amish parents are without lingering pain, are able to face their children’s murderer without a trace of inner rancor. But so what? We badly need to notice the reality of functional forgiveness, forgiveness in the realm of action, where deeds move energy toward healing, not away from it.
Examples abound. The October issue of Ode magazine features an article by the photographer Lekha Singh on the adaption of an indigenous participatory justice process called Gacaca to create truth and reconciliation between Tutsi and Hutu people in Rwanda. I have written before about the Sulha Peace Project, drawing on ancient traditions to promote healing between Arabs and Jews. Today on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Terry Gross interviewed Judah Pearl, father of murdered journalist Danny Pearl, and Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic Studies at American University, who are together creating interfaith dialogues around the world.
No leap of faith is required to perceive the emergent reality of forgiveness and healing in the realm of action. When we believe what is plain to see, we will be able to make the turn with both feet on the ground.