Wednesday, March 01, 2006


I have been mulling over forgiveness for a good while now.

I'm not very good at it.

I mean, I'm really not.

Nancy recently found an article on Christian and Jewish experience of forgiveness to be a reaffirming of her Christianity, here:

And, in the process of researching further, I found this article:

I have never in any way identified as a Jew, but the jewish viewpoint resonated with me here. The idea that repentance is important. That forgiveness isn't somehow "owed" to anyone who asks for it.

(edit 3/2/06 This is perhaps the part I was focusing on: "However, almost all agree that repentance requires five elements: recognition of one's sins as sins (hakarát ha-chét'), remorse (charatá), desisting from sin (azivát ha-chét'), restitution where possible (peira'ón), and confession (vidúi). ")

I have purchased a copy of the Sunflower recently, but haven't read beyond the introduction (aside - don't buy it at, even though I linked there, it's great for looking up books, but see quakerbooks, or my sidebar to order it - see my last post!)

It's about a person in a concentration camp being asked to forgive a dying nazi officer (and then, I assume, go back to life in the camp), and they couldn't. It's essays by various people about what they would have done. What I find shocking is that apparently some people seriously take issue with the fact that he couldnt' forgive. I mean, are people SERIOUS???????

I can say pretty confidently that I wouldn't. I can say less confidently that that doesnt' worry me too much. I can't believe that hasn't been through something that horrific can honestly say that they would, but maybe I am too laacking in faith in others.

I can see that in a saintly world, that might be the ideal. That if I was a fully evolved being of light I could forgive people as they drove stakes through my hands on a trumped up charge (reference, anyone?)

But I don't know, maybe I'm spiritually dense, but I'm much more interested in working on the folks who are driving the stakes than whether or not the persecuted can forgive.

I was talking to a f/Friend about forgiving our ex girlfriends (!) this week. I have one who treated me pretty badly and then was offended that I "wouldn't" (I would say "couldn't" - it doesn't feel like a decision exactly, but more like a state of grace, that I wasnt' in) forgive her.

I was reminded by a woman I know (though I haven't seen her in years) who I often do think of as a "fully evolved being of the light" (to use consistent terminology). She was telling me once about her feelings about her ex husband, father of her children. I dont' remember the specifics, but he had been very bad for her, and still wasn't very present to her kids.

She talked with great joy about how much God loves this man. How she doesn't think he will go to hell, how God will embrace him and forgive him..... and I remarked on how impressed I was by her forgiveness and she said something like "oh, no! I hate the bastard!"

And ever since, I guess that's been the sort of forgiveness I can aim for.

I believe that we are all children of God. Loved in a way by God (/Life / Spirit / Love) in a way that none of us in our limited human forms can fully fathom.

I can take great joy in that Love - for me, for George Bush, for Hitler, for my ex girlfriend :)

(though I say that I still hope there is a "hell" that consists of true empathy and understanding - how could true knowing not be hell for Hitler? - but like the scouring out of a wound that will heal, not eternal torture)

and at the same time, I can let myself off the hook for not being able to conjure that love for people who have hurt me to the core, and especially not for those who are still hurting me!




earthfreak said...

Well, I'm sad that no one has commented here, as this is an issue on which I could really use input, advice, what have you....

So, I will comment on it myself.

Whenever I glance back over my page, my eye catches on the last line of this - about letting myself off the hook. With all the recent discussion of the likelihood of a spiritual call being difficult or uncomfortable, and how we should really hold ourselves to deal with our discomfort, it strikes me as odd and out of place.

And yet, I still mean it. Perhaps not quite so bluntly, or starkly.

I do think that forgiveness is best. And I do even practice a certain style of forgiveness that doesnt' wish people ill for having hurt me (or done other wrong in my eyes) without somehow agreeing that it was okay or "not a big deal"

I struggled with this a lot recently when a dear friend of mine was being sort of generally disrespectful of me - making fun of my hair, my clothes, my way of saying things, and various other minor "infringements" on how I'd like to be treated. I called her on it, and she apologized, and I had the hardest time restraining myself from saying "that's okay" (I also knew that I couldn't say it)

I think that's my problem. We don't even have a quick, easy phrase in our language that says "that was not okay, and it shouldnt' happen again, but I still love you, and I forgive you for being fallible."

I have a friend who was raised quaker who felt unvalued as a child because when someone picked on her her parents said "forgive them" without ever saying (at least that she remembers) "you didn't deserve that!" It's a fine line to draw.

I think it's about honoring that of God in ourselves. Everyone deserves love (God's love, for sure) and yet if they behave consistently in a hateful way, and any one of us doesn't have the energy or spiritual resolve to continue engaging with them in a loving way, we can forgive ourselves for that as well.


Paul L said...

OK. Here's a comment.But not much advice, alas

I think a big part of the problem conceptually is with the word "forgive." As a lawyer, I recognize it as a legal term: you forgive a debt, wipe it clean.

But I don't think that's what most of us really want. What we want is reconciliation, a right relationship with someone with whom we are not not right.

That doesn't require wiping the slate clean, saying "it's OK", which is more forgetting than forgiving. It means something deeper and implies a looking forward to the future.

How this works with someone who you don't expect or want to be part of your future -- former partners being the best example -- I'm not sure. Maybe it's tying up loose ends? Maybe the relationship you're reconciling is that of your present with your past self?

James Riemermann said...

I've just borrowed a copy of "The Sunflower," have not read it yet. Here is my current take on the dilemma; perhaps it will be different after reading it.

The first thing that strikes me is, the soldier asking for absolution is not taking moral responsibility, but inflicting one more heartless, cowardly and self-centered offense against one more Jew. If absolution is possible for the soldier, it will not be through asking forgiveness in a moment of desperation, but taking on the full weight and horror of his crimes--taking up the cross, if you will. Forgiveness might be given, but the soldier's role is not to ask for it--only to face those he has offended and bare his throat in repentant sorrow. Were he to survive, the least part of his repentance would be the humble and quiet acceptance of society's punishment--even if that punishment itself is criminal.

The next thing that occurs to me is, none of us can extend forgiveness for offenses against others, but only offenses against ourselves. To read this story and think, "He should have forgiven the soldier" is to completely miss the point. One must take the dilemma of the Jew of the story into one's own heart and try to live with it, without artificially resolving it and patting oneself on the back for following Christ. Talk is cheap. One does not "resolve" the slaughter of one's family, one's people, though one may somehow learn to live with it.

In learning to live with such horrific knowlege and memories, forgiveness may offer a balm--somehow, eventually, possibly. It will not come easily, out of thin air, at the request of a dying Nazi seeking a more comfortable death. It might offer a passage away from anger and bitterness, and toward a better world.

How might one who has suffered so terribly move toward forgiveness? I think of the phrase "There but for the grace of God, go I." This is relevant not only when we consider the poor and wretched, but when we consider mass murderers. Those who do such evil need to be held responsible, but in fact they are victims as much as perpetrators of evil. Whether they were born with the seed of such evil within them, or corrupted and brought to evil through the events of their lives, or (perhaps most likely) a combination of birth and events: there but for the grace of God go I. Grace of God, or roll of the dice; in either case I am grateful that I have mostly escaped such depravity. This offers some foundation for forgiveness.
"And the crow is not God, and the wind
is not God and nothing is God
that would not break us
for transgressions we made in ignorance."
--Denis Johnson

"Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."
--Jesus of Nazareth