Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The F Word

One of the readings assigned for this past Sunday, April 17, was the story of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60). His last words, as translated in the New Revised Standard Version, were "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Hopefully, this line reminds us somewhat of words Jesus spoke from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." ( Lk 23:34)

This might give us the impression that forgiveness is easy. The victim just says the magic words, and it's done. The perpetrator of the injury gets off scott free, with no cost.

According to Father Michael Lapsley , director of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town, South Africa, forgiveness is not so easy. In fact, forgiveness is so hard and challenging, it may seem a dirty word. For, when we feel attacked, the natural response is to strike back. The natural response is to trade blow for blow, at the least — an "eye for an eye", as the saying goes. Sometimes, and more primitively, the impulse is to return double the injury you have received.

Many see forgiveness as a sign of weakness. That certainly seems to be the dominant view. Most saw it as appropriate to condemn Timothy McVeigh to death for his role in the April 19 bombing in downtown Oklahoma City. Many saw US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq in response to September 11th as being appropriate. People had to be taught a lesson. Others who might consider similar acts must be warned through these dramatic object lessons.

So, it must be acknowledged that choosing forgiveness is not the immediate human response. To choose forgiveness involves going against one's natural impulses.

Fr. Lapsley believes true forgiveness involves at least three steps: acknowledgement, reverence, and reconciliation. The victim must acknowledge and reverence their wound. The victim must claim his or her emotions — even the "negative" emotions, like anger.

Ideally, the perpetrator will be the one to seek reconciliation. Ideally, the perpetrator will express sorrow for the hurtful act, and seek ways to make restitution, in order to rejoin the human family. Of course, this ideal is rarely achieved. Often, it is the victim who must forge the path of reconciliation — whether the perpetrator seeks forgiveness or not.

Fr. Lapsley admits that he has confronted a challenge in this process, for he was a victim of state-sponsored terrorism in South Africa. Fr. Lapsley was an outspoken critic of apartheid. One day, a few years before the end of that regime, he received a letter bomb hidden between the pages of two religious magazines. He lost both his hands, one eye, and his eardrums were shattered. He does not know the name of the person who created the bomb. He does not know who wrote his name on the envelope. He does not know who authorized the letter bomb. Therefore, he cannot forgive any individual.

However, he can imagine a meeting with the bomber. He can imagine the person coming to his door and asking for forgiveness. Fr. Lapsley imagines his first question would be, "Please, do you plan to continue sending letter bombs?" The answer to that question would have to be "No" in order for forgiveness and reconciliation to begin.

Fr. Lapsley imagines asking the bomber what his current occupation is. "Suppose this person says his current work is in a hospital," he says, "In that case, I would say 'I'd rather you continue working in a hospital for the next fifty years, rather than spend that time in prison. However, I also hope you will agree to pay for my assistant, the aide I must have because of the loss of my hands and part of my sight.'" This last request would not be a condition of forgiveness, but would be a means for the bomber to work toward reconciliation.

Father Lapsley spoke as part of a panel discussion titled "Exploring Justice Without Revenge" at 2:30 Sunday afternoon. Other speakers had also experienced terrorist acts: three, the Oklahoma City bombing; one, the attack on the twin towers on September 11; and one was the father of the first civilian beheaded in Iraq. Each told his or her own story of confronting evil and choosing forgiveness rather than revenge.

The first to speak after Father Lapsley was Susan Urbach, who worked on the second floor of the Journal Record Building. Her office was close to the blast, and she was severely wounded. The other thirteen people in her office were killed. Ms. Urbach read selections from a journal she kept following the bombing.

Her journal entries primarily had to do with her perception of the justice system. It was very pragmatic; in her view, the justice system exists to determine guilt, then to mete out punishment. The existing system has little to do with restitution or reconciliation; it is more focused on revenge. One phrase that stood out in this regard was "Even Lady Justice has her limits."

"Lady Justice's broad sword wounds both perpetrator and victin", she read. Of course, the victim is wounded initially, but is then wounded again in the course of a trial which rehearses the events which caused the wound. And, since the system favors retribution over restitution and reconciliation, the victim is often left empty once the sentence has been declared.

Susan recognized, as Fr Lapsley did, that hate is a killer disease. Again, the victim has a choice to hate the perpetrator, but is sure to find that hate is a poison eats away at the one who hates more than the one who is hated.

The other option is mercy. Mercy heals both giver and receiver. Mercy enables the process of true reconciliation.
The next to speak was Michael Berg. His son, Nick, was the first civilian to be beheaded in Iraq. Mr. Berg perceives that the challenge is to be the first to stop blaming, and trying to get even. "It's easy to see 'the Other' as totally Evil, and ourselves as totally Good. But the reality is that the line between good and evil crosses the heart of every human being."

Mr. Berg believes that forgiveness does not mean the lack of anger. He says the victim must be allowed to express his or her anger. The victim has a right to expect the perpetrator to express sorrow for the act. The victim has a right to expect an attempt be made for reconciliation.

Michael acted on his own advice, and expressed anger toward those who had beheaded his son. He also expressed anger with President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, for invading Iraq, and for implicitly approving the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Girab. He believes the beheading of his son was in retribution for that mistreatment.

I especially appreciated this image: "Sometimes forgiveness is like quitting smoking — sometimes the evil draws you back, and you have to quit again." Like many of the other speakers, Mr. Berg asserted that forgiveness is an on-going process. One does not so much arrive as continue growing.

Hate stiffles growth. Forgiveness and mercy engender growth. As such, forgiveness is a choice of enlightened self-interest.
Colleen Kelly's sister worked in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of one of the Twin Towers. Her sister was actually a singer and actress who loved performing and loved New York. Like many other aspiring actors, she had to earn a living, and had begun working at this restaurant just a few days before September 11th.

When Colleen watched the towers fall, she did not realize that she was watching her sister die. She received the call that evening, and was the one who had to call her parents.

It's just been a little over three years since the death of Ms Kelly's sister. She is at the beginning of her walk down the forgiveness path. She is a member of Peacful Tomorrows, "an organization founded by family members of those killed on September 11th who have united to turn our grief into action for peace."

Colleen admits she still has a great deal of anger. She is especially angry that violence is being committed in her name (as an American citizen) in response to the 9/11 attacks.

She also told the story of how survivors of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki blasts contacted Peaceful Tomorrows with a request to accompany the family members to Ground Zero. This was an awe-inspiring request, for these Japanese families had been the victims of a profound act of violence committed by Americans. And yet, they reached to console the children of the people who had bombed them.

This story demonstrated how healing could come through reaching out to others who have suffered similar wounds.
There were two other speakers, Frank Silovsky and Bud Welch. I have related Mr. Silovky's story in this entry. In brief, his wife was a survivor of the blast, but committed three years after. I have related Bud Welch's story here. You may also read Bud's story in his own words in this excellent Beliefnet article.

We must chose forgiveness over retribution. Not because Jesus said to "turn the other cheek", but because it is the only path which may lead to true healing. Once the criminal is jailed, or the murderer is murdered, the victim remains with no tools to heal her wounds.

Retribution seems powerful. Wars and bombs and death chambers are decisive actions. They have a definite beginning and end, as a rule. But this power is illusory, for there is always the likelihood that someone else will seek retribution in return.

As Gandi said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the world hungry and blind."

But forgiveness offers true tools for healing. Forgiveness offers the victim the means to clean poisonous hate from her system. Forgiveness offers victim and perpetrator the means to rejoin the human family.

To read other stories of people who have chosen the courageous path of forgiveness, check out The Forgiveness Project.

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