At some point in all of our lives people will do bad things to us, intentionally and unintentionally. This may happen many times, in fact. And these can be awful things. They can be crimes. They can harm our family and friends. They can disrupt and destroy our lives. The victim will then have many choices to respond. Among the most powerful and liberating of all responses to injustice, violence, and evil is forgiveness.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong,” said Mahatma Gandhi, a man of peace who also was murdered in 1948 by a fellow Hindu for his efforts to reconcile the violence that divided the Indian Subcontinent between Muslims, Hindus, and other faiths as the British pulled out of their Indian colony. President Abraham Lincoln, one of the world’s most revered leaders, also deeply embraced a philosophy of forgiveness while trying to lead his country out of a system of slavery and through the nation’s most bloody war. During his famous and searing Second Inaugural Address, prior to his assassination on March 4, 1865, he called for the warring sides to embrace forgiveness. When urged to punish the violent slaveholding South, Lincoln responded, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” And, like Gandhi, Lincoln too was killed, by a Southerner who considered him a traitor.
Clearly, forgiveness is not easy, and some of its most ardent practitioners have met with violent ends. “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth,” writes philosopher Hannah Arendt. “The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.” The Christian gospels written in the years after his crucifixion are premised on the very notion of Jesus’ ability to forgive his tormenters. According to the Gospel of Luke, 23:34, the dying Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, another practitioner of peace, killed.
Former South African freedom fighter, prisoner, and president Nelson Mandela chose to embrace forgiveness as a tool of reconciliation to heal his nation after decades of the racist Apartheid laws that relegated non-whites to second-class status and excluded them from all forms of politics, education, and economic opportunity. After his release from Robben Island, he took many actions to heal the wounds the could have erupted in more bitter violence that was seen in neighboring countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). As Barbara Mutch, a white South African noted after Mandela’s death in 2013, “Nelson Mandela sat down with his enemies and forgave them and moved on. And in doing so, he rescued his country, and he rescued each one of us, and gave us hope that there could be a future for our beautiful, fractured land. And for the greater earth that we all share.”
For me, my moment of action came when I was 18. I had finished high school and was working to save as much money as I could for college that hot summer in University City, Mo. I knew that this marked a pivotal transitional point in my life. I wanted to begin my journey was a clean slate, free from the baggage I carried from my earlier years. I wanted to explore a new path and forge a destiny that broke from the past. I knew the most important thing I could do for myself was to let go of what I harbored against someone who caused great pain and hurt to me and my family and to themselves, in ways that I still cannot forget.
The only one who could really control the outcome of this experience was me. I had to own it for what it was. That meant I had to own accepting what had happened, and more importantly, letting it off my back and from my heart and soul. I remember the long drive I made on a hot August day with a stranger to Cleveland. I confronted the person who had done many wrongs. I told that person, with great sincerity I felt inside, that I forgave them for what they had done. I meant it. And then, a day later, I took a long bus ride back to St. Louis. Within two weeks I was in Portland, Ore., starting a new life in college, charting a new path that I would define and that would not be defined by this person or the experiences resulting their actions earlier in my life.
It was one of the most important moments I have ever had. I never forgot what it did for me and the party I forgave. Within three years, that person would be dead, and that chapter in my life would be closed.
According to Howard Zehr, the author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice, “Forgiveness is letting go of the power the offense and the offender have over a person. It means no longer letting that offense and offender dominate. Without this experience of forgiveness, without this closure, the wound festers, the violation takes over our consciousness, our lives. It, and the offender, are in control. Real forgiveness, then, is an act of empowerment and healing.”
Years later I am struck by what I gained during the few days in my life when I was striving to define who I wanted to be, and doing that through intentional deeds with a clear mind and a clear sense of purpose.
Some days still I lose focus. I stray from my path. I am tempted to go to a place that I know Lincoln and Mandela would not want to be. At those moments, I go back in time to that place when I became the kind of person I always wanted to be. Then I find the strength to do the right thing, even when it is perilous, as so many good persons have learned.