In October of 2006, a gunman angry with God entered an Amish one room school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and proceeded to shoot 10 girls, fatally wounding five of them before taking his own life. The community immediately made it a point to show their forgiveness for this man’s acts, even traveling to the gunman’s home to embrace and console his now widowed wife and fatherless children. Twelve years earlier and oceans away, an entire ethnic population, divided and empowered by historically engrained colonial ideals, turned on their friends and neighbors engaging in the most brutal and horrific genocide in the history of the world. In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, approximately 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were systematically slaughtered (Human Rights Watch). In 2004, tens of thousands of prisoners who had confessed to the brutal murders were released and began to be integrated back into society. They confessed their crimes again and were held accountable in Gacaca, small community courts. A major aspect of these Gacaca is the plea for forgiveness from the families (or what is left of the families) of the innocent people they murdered. In an overwhelming amount of cases, the murderers have been forgiven, integrated back into the community and even embraced.
These incredible acts of forgiveness are almost astonishing in their seeming impossibility. How is it that people can ever be willing to offer forgiveness after such atrocities, and what is the point of these offerings of forgiveness? These are perhaps rhetorical questions, with answers that change from time to time and from person to person. However, we must make no mistake; this incredible forgiveness has been granted, and hearts have been healed by it. Tolstoy once said “Let us forgive each other – only then will we live in peace”. It is evident within the peace community that forgiveness is a pivotal part of living a non-violent life, creating and maintaing peace within ourselves and worldwide. An incredible documentary that does an outstanding job outlining the importance of forgiveness in our every day lives is “The Power of Forgiveness” produced by Martin Doblmeier. This compelling film includes interviews with Reverend James Forbes, Thich Nhat Hanh and Alexandra Asseily among others. It details instances across the globe where forgiveness has been especially important, such as within the Amish community, individuals surviving the loss of loved ones in the attacks of 9/11, through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions with Desmond Tutu. The film shows as these communities and individuals wrestle with the prospect of forgiveness, and thereby sent me on my own personal journey to discover what forgiveness means to me, and to the wider international community as well as how we can and must use it on the path to peace.
The film emphasizes that we must first however establish a forgiving relationship with ourselves in order to access the power available through the pain of forgiving others. This, however, is much easier said than done and necessitates an extreme amount of work, both inner and outer. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that the act of forgiveness begins within ourselves. “Forgiveness cannot be possible until compassion is born in the heart.” He goes on to say “if you are filled with anger, what you do and what you say will create more suffering for yourself and the other person”. When we are put in the situation where forgiveness is even an option there is often an incredible amount of pain and suffering weighing down our minds and precluding the process of moving on as a whole person. If not addressed within an individual, even the memory of hurt is likely to be passed onto our children, barring the chance for reconciliation in future generations. We can only teach our children forgiveness by not allowing our hatred and grudges to be passed onto them. This is only possible after we have addressed and dealt with the pain, anger and hurt that has been inflicted upon us.
We all feel pain within our hearts at many points throughout our life. Life innately holds suffering and often times this suffering is created and fed by our own minds. A perfect example is the world’s infatuation with body type and how engrained this image is in our minds. We often see individuals in magazines and billboards with what we’ve come to accept as the “perfect” body. We compare ourselves to this type and find differences that we label flaws (larger hips, smaller chest, wider eyes) and exploit them. We constantly bash these flaws and refuse to allowourselves to forgive our body and thereby embrace it’s shapes. All too often, young girls punish themselves instead of forgiving and embracing, by starving their limbs. Subsequently, in 20 years when this disease of the mind effects their everyday lives as well as those of their children they refuse to forgive themselves for what they’ve done to their body. This endless cycle of hatred and refusal to forgive only breeds harm. It is important to start with forgiveness, but when this is not possible we must interrupt the cycle of hate with forgiveness. People and their bodies are not perfect and when we are able to see that, we can see that forgiveness is the only path. One may strive to be perfect, but they will never reach their goal, and so they must turn to forgiveness to ameliorate the pain they may inflict upon themselves in pursuance of this goal. We must reach deep within ourselves to discover how we are hurting ourselves with fear, pain and anger, then acknowledge how these feelings are effecting our minds, embrace the feelings, forgive ourselves, and move on, changing our actions accordingly.
Once our inner hearts and minds are free from the chains we bar ourselves with, we are free to embark on the journey of freeing ourselves from the chains imposed by the pain others have inflicted upon us. It is important to note that often the forgiving of others can and should be a selfish act. The weight that is carried with pain, fear and anger can be immensely heavy. When one forgives, this crushing weight can finally be lifted and we are rewarded physically as well as physiologically.
Desmond Tutu suggests that we do not think of forgiveness as forgetting. These two concepts are not linked; forgiveness is how you remember and what it is you do with that memory. In forgiving, we are ridding ourselves of negative feelings for people. These negative feelings only breed more suffering and so in ridding ourselves of them we are helping ourselves to feel relieved, lighter and physically and mentally more healthy! Our blood pressure even goes down! Forgiving does not, however, mean we accept whatever has been done. As far as an action is concerned, we may “condemn” that action, but it is important to be able to distinguish between action, and actor. An actor who is condemned and treated poorly in return for the negative thing they’ve done will never change. However, by separating the actor from the action, we can show compassion to the actor, and toward the action we can use our anger constructively to stop further negative action. Only if a person feels compassion toward them will they discontinue hurtful action. We can yell, scream, hate and condemn the action which has been done, but when this anger is transferred to the actor in this manner, the victim is also committing a painful action upon a person and has done nothing to preclude the action, but spread the pain and grief it carries to others. By accepting an apology, we recognize that the action and actor are not the same and are now able to acknowledge the real cause of pain; the action.
There have been some remarkable uses of painful memories that have served to move along the process of healing and forgiveness yet condemn the painful action to national memory. One such use is in the building of the September 11th memorial and museum on the site of the World Trade Centers. These will serve as an area for individuals directly and indirectly impacted by the attacks to reflect on their experiences and the possibility of forgiveness. One similar such structure was dreamed up by Alexandra Asseily (governor and founder of the Centre for Lebanese Studies, Oxford and on the Board of the Guerrand Hermes Peace Foundation, Balamand University and a former member of the Advisory Board of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University). After witnessing painful civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1991 she worked with internationally acclaimed archaeologists, architects and engineers to construct a Garden of Forgiveness in central Beirut among numerous cathedrals and mosques. The garden encourages individuals effected by the devastating civil war to embark on the journey of forgiveness. These efforts are wonderful expressions of compassion and help to facilitate the decline of infectious hate throughout our world, by catalyzing a journey of forgiveness for so many individuals.
The breadth of forgiveness is incredible. It reaches through so many religions, traditions and ways of life that it is almost impossible to ignore its significance. First, the Christian bible and teachings speak heavily of forgiveness. A major part of Christian faith is the belief that the Christian God is a forgiving God. After all, he gave his only son for the forgiveness of the sins of humanity. Forgiveness is also extremely evident in Islam. Allah is known by many names throughout the Quran, most of which have to do with forgiveness. The most common of which possibly is Al-Ghafoor; the most forgiving. It is forgiveness that all Muslims seek, and it is forgiveness they receive and learn through to give, praying five times a day for it. Jews around the world set aside two whole holidays each year for forgiveness. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur among others, are days of atonement and repentance, asking for and granting forgiveness. Hinduism is the third largest world religion and also boasts a breadth of text urging forgiveness. Hindus believe in the concept of Karma; a kind of cosmic reward for positive behavior, or punishment for deviance. Through this thinking, adherents believe that by forgiving others they will personally be rewarded in the future or a future life through karma. In The Mahabharata, a largely philosophical and devotional Indian text heavily laden with Hindu insights and teachings we find the following quote, just one of many referring to the positive outcomes of forgiveness in Hinduism and can be applied to religions around the world.
“Forgiveness subdues (all) in this world; what is there that forgiveness cannot achieve? An unforgiving individual defiles himself with many enormities. Righteousness is the one highest good; and forgiveness is the one supreme peace; knowledge is one supreme contentment; and benevolence, one sole happiness.” (Vidura addressing Dhritarshtra)
No matter what faith we come from, what God(s) we pray to, or what books we read, forgiveness is the ultimate proprietor of peace. We are in a time when peace seems ever more indispensable to the existence of humanity, yet seems to be slipping through our outstretched hands faster than we can clench our fists. In the current time, the act of forgiveness is a beacon of luminous sunlight we must embrace in order to heal our souls and attempt to harmonize our world. Peace must begin within ourselves by tackling the evils of our souls and forgiving ourselves the discrepancies we as humans are apt to commit against ourselves. Once we are able to become whole, the forgiveness we experience within ourselves can then shine out upon others, as out stretched hands to join together with neighbors, friends and foes to spread the hope for peace around the globe.
Pivotal pieces for further learning about forgiveness and the areas written about above:
“The Power of Forgiveness” (2007) Produced and Directed by Martin Doblmeier
“As We Forgive” (2009) Produced and Directed by Laura Waters Hinson
“Amish Grace” (TV 2010) Directed by Gregg Champion
The Fetzer Institute, accessible at: www.fetzer.org
National Unity and Reconciliation Commission of Rwanda, accessible at: www.nurc.gov.rw
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, accessible at:
“Emotional Awareness: A Conversation Between The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman, Ph.D” written by Paul Ekman, New York: Times Books.
–Kellie Brandt-MPT Intern