Intoductory Essay: A web page about forgiveness
by Dennis Rivers
from the Journal of Cooperative Communication Skills
Issue Ten, Spring 2002
"World events don't wait until we are ready before presenting us with giant challenges. In my view, forgiveness, or the lack of it, has become one of the central crises and giant challenges of our time. Around the world, cultures in collision are locked into escalating spirals of injury and retaliation, armed with ever-more-lethal technology.
Can anything interrupt their (and our) headlong rush toward mutual destruction; can anything make a space for something new to happen? On a more personal level, many individuals who have been abused, either by their families or by the institutions that were supposed to protect them, struggle to free their lives from the burden of overwhelming resentment.
What hope is there for the healing of such lives? And even before September 11, it seems to me that America was heading into a forgiveness crisis. Two million people are incarcerated in the United States. And 1.2 million of them have not hurt anyone but themselves (through drug and alcohol abuse)! The Governor of Washington recently quipped that if incarcerations continue to increase at the current rate, by the year 2050 every person in the state of Washington will either be in prison or work for the prison system! And yet politicians around the country continue to promote their popularity by playing on the public's fear of criminals and passing laws that require even more punishment, no matter how many lives, families and school budgets are wrecked in the process.
It seems clear to me that our sense of justice needs several counterbalancing attitudes to keep from going seriously off the track.
One of them is forgiveness. These kinds of sorrows have sparked a recent worldwide movement toward forgiveness, bringing face to face the families of murder victims and those convicted of murder, torturer victims and those who have tortured, oppressed indigenous peoples and those who have oppressed them, all driven by a pain that justice promises to answer but does not.
And around the world there are small but significant experiments with restorative, rather than punitive, justice. These encounters and activities may be rare now, but they set precedents (and show human possibilities) that could change the world.
This movement toward forgiveness, a fragile development in the context of today's conflicts, needs everyone's help and participation if it is to grow and become a permanent part of life on planet Earth. This is a difficult moment for the forgiveness movement. People around the world are at this very moment being asked to support what could become a permanent state of global war, rooted in the need to punish evildoers. This is, to put it mildly, a serious predicament. One must both plead as a person and demand as a citizen, I believe, that everyone think harder about alternatives.
While I certainly agree that we must try to prevent and restrain people from committing acts of violence, I am wary of President Bush's new role as a theologian, pressing us to join a new campaign against evil around the world. Forgiveness is about starting over, not about getting even. Because the idea of getting even is one of humanity's most enduring illusions, leading, as it does, to an endless round of attack and counter-attack.
My first concern about the current campaign against evil is that ideas of the "evil other" can and do blind people to how they may have contributed to their own difficulties. In the current instance, Mr. Bush himself has already publicly acknowledged that American policy decisions played a central role in Afganistan's collapse into chaos and terrorism. Perspectives as varied as Buddhism, psychotherapy and biology would counsel us here that a large part of our survival power is the power to recognize our own mistakes, so that we can change our behavior and not repeat them. So the question today is not just one of better security at airports. The question is how did the United States' support of militant hate groups in Central Asia in the 1980s sow the seeds of the current tragedy. And where are we sowing similar seeds today.
My second concern about a campaign against evil is that if we imagine our power to be only the power to out-bomb the evil bombers, out-shoot the evil shooters, and out-kidnap the evil kidnappers, then we will condemn ourselves to a national life focused primarily on violence, and we will become more and more like the people we have labeled as evil. Jesus set the example of this when he asked God to forgive those who were killing him. The issue was not the executioner's worthiness of forgiveness. The issue, I believe, was that Jesus refused to join the haters in their hatred.
Thus, in reflecting on all of this, I can't believe that a "campaign against evil" is the best we can do, we humans. And, I understand how difficult it will be to do something really different. It looks to me as though we need some deep visions of new possibilities...
There are many institutions in the world that are promoting the practice of forgiveness, many wonderful books on the topic, and hundreds of essays and papers on the web about forgiveness. (All we need now is millions more people, living it more completely.)"
This cool comment in the footnotes of the Harper's Study Bible makes a nice postlude.
First it lists three New Testament references denoting "love as the governing principle of life".
Romans 13:9 "Love your neighbor as yourself".
Romans 13:10 "Love does no wrong to a neighbor".
And, the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 (to paraphrase) "Treat folks like you want to be treated."
Then it states, "The proper use of these principles in the relationships of men personally, nationally, and internationally would resolve most of our tensions and disputes".
Oh yeah, I think so!