Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Forgiveness is the most powerful action ever taken...

Friends. I am struck, again and again how people in the world today, and in our meetings, seem to feel that they need to hold on to hurts and hatreds. Again and again, Friends have justified to me, their bad feelings about others saying they cannot forgive, as they need to be protected from those who hurt them.

Grudges, revenge, turning away is an act of the weak, it builds nothing but walls which hold back growth. On the other hand, forgiveness builds with the potential to build anything. I look at the dysfunction of so much in the world, and at the root is the in ability to forgive the past and work together towards peace and growth. There is no alternative to forgiveness that expresses greater power or potential.

For those afraid to forgive, rather than protecting themselves behind the walls they build, they only further weaken themselves, and help destroy the world around them.


At 9:55 AM, Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Lorcan, your words raise a concern in me that I have long held. Some of what I'm writing about here is probably miles distant from anything you had in mind as you wrote... but, as it is very much a "live" issue with me, I'm going to try to put my concerns into words here. Please do not take exception to any of the ideas I'll put down here that don't pertain to you--this one is personal enough that I'm writing my own experiences. I'm not pretending to address yours... Though, who knows, your path and mine may be more alike than I can know.

In any case, here goes:

I am always wary of talk about forgiveness that is in the third or second person ("He/she" or "they" or "you"). Talking about forgiveness in the abstract is easy--but the messy, specific details of forgiveness in day to day life are _hard_. If we talk about our own struggles, and avoid prescribing to others--let our lives be patterns--we've got a chance of doing some good. Otherwise... well, "forgiveness" is a word that is often used to inflict more harm than good.

What, after all, does forgiveness mean? As someone who spent 20+ years counseling survivors of child abuse, I can testify to the fact that it is most often used in _that_ context to justify avoiding confronting unpleasant (and unchanging) truths in families. Too many times I've heard variations on the story of a childhood abuse victim whose participation in any family event as an adult is contingent upon their willingness to sit at a table next to their perpetrator--who _has_never_acknowledged_ the_abuse_, let alone asked forgiveness--and act as if nothing were wrong. Sometimes the condition of acceptance of a victim by their family is demonstrations of "forgiveness" like sending their own young children to spend unsupervised time with an untreated, unchanged perpetrator!

All too often, our culture acts as though it were the victim, not the perpetrator, who needs to be forgiven, and it is the victim, not the perpetrator, who is pressured into demonstrating remorse.

This is wrong. I don't believe that spiritual healing of the world can possibly come from such violence to reason--from outsiders to the relationship in which the harm was done dictating that the harm be forgotten.

The most sensible thing I ever found in writing on the subject was in an article, published in the early 90s, in a trauma therapy journal. The article, "The Sword of Forgiveness" is now, alas, out of print and I can't find a copy online. But the gist of the article was that we need to stop seeing forgiveness as a unilateral act, "owed" by the person who has been wronged to the person who committed the wrong. Rather, forgiveness is more properly understood as an openness to being in-relationship-with, in a way that does not either deny the past or close eyes to possible future consequences. Forgivness, in other words, isn't so much amnesia to harm done as it is willingness to enter into a new relationship with a perpetrator, and it is a new relationship that takes both present needs of a victim (for safety, for instance) and present changes on the part of a perpetrator (such as having acknowledged fault, and taken steps to prevent repeating that fault) into account.

A willingness by a perpetrator to accept and address the needs of a victim is a prerequisite to _real_ forgiveness. Even God doesn't forgive _before_ there has been repentance: holding human victims to a higher standard than God follows is simply cruel.

Obviously, this kind of forgiveness isn't going to be quick or easy. Nor is it something that even the most open-hearted of victims can accomplish alone. If we view forgiveness as a kind of reentry to relationship, all a victim can do alone is create an openness to starting that process. Nobody can be in a relationship on their own--we all need a partner in order to play.

Furthermore, real, meaningful forgiveness (as opposed to sanitizing and covering over pain with a gloss of sanctiomoniousness or pretend-lovingkindness) is hard for humans. This isn't to say it isn't important! But even very open, loving people can find themselves taking years to reach a place where on inward levels, their hearts are truly open to rediscovering the Other who harmed them. For an outsider to want to judge the pace and hurry it along is only hurtful.

Sharing our own stories of forgiveness, and the difficulty we've had with the process, though, is helpful. I am deeply touched by the level of forgiveness James Naylor found within himself toward the Friends who turned their backs on him initially, when he was imprisoned and tortured for actions that embarassed other Quakers. The sincerity of his reestablished love for Friends is one of the most profound things I know. (In a more modern context, I'm also touched to note that the Amish community devastated by the recent school shootings found it within themselves to invite the widow of the shooter to the funeral! I also deeply hope that this movement toward forgiveness came from the parents of the dead, and not in spite of them...)

But I will candidly share that I am still laboring with my own issues around forgiveness--not for any harms as profound as what the victims I worked with, or the Amish families I've mentioned have had to concern themselves with, either. Nope, mine are garden variety wounds, from a friendship gone bad, minor financial dishonesty, and ordinary human spite. I'm still struggling to find a way to recognize all the truths of that experience: both the reality of betrayal and unkindness, and the other aspects, of beauty and integrity, of the person who hurt me. They're both real. And so are my feelings.

I'm not God. I have no pretensions to a divine level of forgiveness. I do want to emulate the human models of forgiveness I've encountered and, even more importantly, follow the Light I've been given in this area. But it is hard, hard, hard work. I dearly hope I get there--I do--but I will not lie and say I'm already forgiving, for I am not.

And I think I better serve Truth by acknowledging the truth of my struggle than I would by pretending to a peace I haven't accomplished. And I'm certain I serve Truth better with the messy discomfort of my own stumbling steps than I can with pep talks addressed to others on the importance of the tasks.

Yeah, life's too short not to be open to forgive even grievious wrongs. But we're too human to have the grace to accomplish it at our fingertips--or even, perhaps, within reach. More than any other thing, perhaps, forgiveness strikes me as something we don't get to "get" on our own. And while we're waiting---openly, I hope--for Grace to show up, I think we need to be careful about the motes in our brothers' eyes, while we're still, most of us, walking around with beams in our own.


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