Saturday, October 6, 2012

Is forgiveness just a fad? (A Thanksgiving meditation)

for·give

[fer-giv] Show IPA verb, for·gave, for·giv·en, for·giv·ing.
verb (used with object)
1.
to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.
2.
to give up all claim on account of; remit (a debt, obligation, etc.).
3.
to grant pardon to (a person).
4.
to cease to feel resentment against: to forgive one's enemies.
5.
to cancel an indebtedness or liability of: to forgive the interest owed on a loan.
 
"So what happened when you went to prison to visit the man who murdered your children?"
 
(choking back tears) "I chose to forgive him. It was the only way I could let go and go on with my life."
 

 
 
Am I the only one who has trouble with this?
 
Am I the only one who is beginning to see this trend, often displayed on reality TV and investigative crime shows like Dateline and 20-20, as a sort of spiritual fad that lifts the victim to the level of sainthood?
 
How long will it be until this "forgive him and let go" will become a kind of social imperative? I'd say it's right here, folks, and not just in Sunday school any more.
 
Lots of things become trends, fads. Medical diagnoses change and shift, particularly in the realm of psychiatry. I can't help but notice how many people (particularly women) who used to be "borderline" (as in borderline personality disorder) are now "bipolar", as if somehow their disorder morphed in response to a kind of medical fashion.
 
At the root of it all, the problem is this. For the most part, human beings are herd animals. Very few break out of the pack, and those who do are seen as daring innovators, geniuses, or totally nuts. (Note that some of these subversive souls, whether they were aware of it or not, founded religious movements that changed the course of history.) The vast majority of people are deeply conventional. While thinking outside the box is superficially praised, how many have enough guts to carry it out?



 
Lots of jokes, most of them pretty mean, are made about the fact that this "forgive" stuff seems to stem from fundamentalist Christianity which grows very thick in the US south (where, perhaps mysteriously, most of these lurid crimes seem to come from). The essence of these remarks seems to be, well, maybe it's inbreeding, which can surely drive down the IQ points over the generations.
 
But there's more going on than that.
 
As a child I was steeped in Christianity, even though it was  kind of middle-of-the-road and never involved snake-handling (which I would've enjoyed) and plaster saints weeping blood. The Lord's Prayer was dusted off and recited at every opportunity, including before school  every morning (and how did the few Jews and Muslims in the school feel about that? I do remember some Jehovah's Witnesses leaving the room for those few moments, and though they seemed like unreasonable cranks then, now they strike me as courageous).


 
 
It's a pretty antiquated sort of prayer with terms like "hallowed be thy name" and "thy kingdom come", which meant absolutely nothing to me back then because no one ever told me what they meant. I just parroted them back because I was supposed to. I didn't have much choice.
 
Then came the meat of it: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." As a kid, I thought of trespassing as breaking down a fence on public property, something my friends and I had done once or twice and would obviously fry in hell for.
 
It was only later, much later, that I figured out the real meaning of "trespass". Though I had seen new and much more hip translations of the Lord's Prayer that performed elaborate flips and porpoise-leaps to avoid using the original archaic terms, I came to see trespassing as a sort of violation of our natural boundaries. Which, apparently, we were always supposed to forgive without question. What a lovely and appropriate thing, what great conditioning to deeply instill in a child, particularly a girl child!


 
 
Now that I think of it, the adjective considered most desirable in a child, the description that seemed most fitting and appropriate for all of us, particularly girls, was "obedient". I can't help but hitch this horrendous term to the passive concept of "forgiveness" which to me came to mean, "It's all right what you did, I don't object to it," or at very least, "I will never hold you accountable for the damage you did to me."
 
I will let that sink in for a moment.


 
 
Every time I hear this "I chose to forgive him" thing on TV, which is practically every day now, it seems to be connected to some horrific act like a mother losing all her children to an axe-murderer, usually her husband or boy friend. Whenever this woman comes on - and yes, she IS usually from the US south, the Bible Belt of North America - the announcer always says something like, "In an incredible and selfless act of spiritual generosity, Betty has forgiven the murderer for this horrific deed." She will then say something like, "It's the only way I can let go and heal my life."
 
Oh?
 
Whatever this mysterious phenomenon is, I can't buy for a minute that it is going to free someone from traumatic memories and anger (fury?) towards someone who has ripped away the essence of their life. It isn't human. My feeling is that the anger will be pushed down and covered up with Bible verses, and the reward - a huge one in fundamentalist Christian circles - will be the status of sainthood. The victim's selflessness and saintly ability to completely do away with all traces of vengefulness and anger will elevate her in a way that must be mighty comforting.


 
 
But hold on a minute.
 
The popular culture, as it always does, is slowly but surely bending the meaning of forgiveness from the traditional "forgive us our trespasses" thing (and I still don' t know what that means exactly) to something more - well, more hip and modern.
 
Let's revisit the definitions I quoted at the beginning of this post.
 
fer-giv] Show IPA verb, for·gave, for·giv·en, for·giv·ing.



verb (used with object)
1.
to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.
2.
to give up all claim on account of; remit (a debt, obligation, etc.).
3.
to grant pardon to (a person).
4.
to cease to feel resentment against: to forgive one's enemies.
5.
to cancel an indebtedness or liability of: to forgive the interest owed on a loan.
 
This analysis of the concept of forgiveness begins to alarm me when I note the thread that runs through it: not holding the offender accountable. If this were practiced to the letter, of course, the legal system as it exists today would totally disappear.
 
"To cease to feel resentment against" is even more incredible. Bing, bing, bing - I no longer hate this guy! I love him as one of God's children, even though he strayed from the path of righteousness and hacked my children to pieces with an axe.  No more anger, no more dreadful feelings of having one's guts ripped out. It's all fixed. The indebtedness has been forgiven, the emotional loan written off.


 
 
But at the same time, I found this juicy little tidbit in that ultimate authority on the social imperatives of the 21st century, Wikipedia:
 
In most contexts, forgiveness is granted without any expectation of restorative justice, and without any response on the part of the offender (for example, one may forgive a person who is incommunicado or dead). In practical terms, it may be necessary for the offender to offer some form of acknowledgment, an apology, or even just ask for forgiveness, in order for the wronged person to believe himself able to forgive.[1]
 
Oh really?
 
That sounds more like a moral contract to me: admit what you did, you slimeball, and feel goddamn sorry about it, and apologize to me for the damage you did, and maybe THEN I'll consider forgiving you. The  wrongdoer must own up, must confess and truly take responsibility (which is not at all the same as confession: "I had a bad childhood and couldn't help myself" being a common dodge). But hey, I watch Dateline, I keep track of these things, and most of the perpetrators have the dead-calm unsweating demeanour of a shark, their  beady eyes expressing not a trace of human emotion. These are sociopaths who wil never admit they did ANYTHING wrong and who are, alarmingly, "gotten off" by fancy lawyers in too many cases. The lawyers often look just as sharklike and devoid of humanity (i.e. Drew Peterson's defense lawyer who eerily resembles him, his cold predatory eyes sunken into his expressionless face).


 
 
 
Remorseful? These guys? Give me a break. They love the attention. They go on national TV and pretend to cry, choking out "sorry" to the interviewer as if on cue. "I loved my wife! I loved her more than anything in the world!", etc.,  etc., etc.
 
Forgive THAT.
 
Maybe this forgiveness stuff is just a way of removing yourself from the whole mess. But doesn't it involve shutting down a huge amount of very human rage at being horribly violated? How does one do it? Can we see some followup, please - some honest interviews with people five years later? Are they at peace with themselves, do they feel OK about the perpetrator and the crime, do they still forgive and feel compassion for him/her?

I can't buy it, even though, ironically, there's a whole industry springing up about healing your various physical and emotional maladies by forgiving. The implication being that NOT forgiving is really at the root of your sickness (yet another lovely way to blame the victim - as if they needed more blame).


 
 
 
I don't know, historically I could not feel compassion for Adolf Hitler, nor could I feel it for someone who destroyed my life and didn't even feel any remorse. Personally, I think it's dangerous. If your father happens to have certain  Drew Peterson tendencies, won't he take that as license to treat you like his own personal property?

If he is sexually violating you, aren't you indoctrinated to forgive him no matter what? ("Honor thy father and thy mother" just adds another layer of helplessness.)

Won't Daddy find a way to twist your religion around so it suits him? "What's the matter with you, why can't you forgive me, aren't you a good little Christian girl? Get over here."
 
If you have "forgiven" him like you are supposed to, how likely is it that you'll press charges against him? I'd say, nil. The two are mutually exclusive. But what if he finds someone else to abuse, destroys another life (which is almost certainly the case with abusers), and you realize you could have stopped him?

How Christian is that?

 
 
  
I want to say to these people who so readily forgive, be afraid. Be very afraid. You are laying yourself open to more sharks in this shark-infested world. There is blood in the water, and that blood may be yours. Protect yourself! Though this "I forgave him" thing is beginning to seem like yet another media-driven fad, it's less and less meaingful when it becomes a knee-jerk response, the "right" thing to say, or, worse, something you do to get Keith Morrison to praise your selflessness (though I have a feeling he'd see right through it). We live in an ever-more-narcissistic world, and because human beings are (indeed!) herd animals, most of us don't consciously know how much we are being affected by social trends.


 
 
The problem with forgiveness as a spiritual issue - and this is a huge one - is that the Bible doesn't tell you HOW to do it. People who attempt to literally practice Biblical precepts are often very, very uncomfortable with righteous anger, or, for that matter, any sort of anger at all. They prefer Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild to the scary cat who hurled over the moneychangers' tables (in public!) and chased away the sacrificial animals with a whip.


If you can find true forgiveness in your heart (and I might just be up for it if the perpetrator took total responsibility for what they did, fell down on their knees and begged me to), then that's great, and I wish you a happy Thanksgiving. But for God's sake, don't do it because "the Bible tells me so". Don't do it because misguided spiritual leaders or so-called friends say you "should" or "you really will feel better" (especially since so many people don't). If it doesn't come out of your own spiritual core (and if you don't know where that is, you are in big trouble), then it is fake - bogus - the kind of spiritual pretense that made Jesus bloody furious. 




The Bible, powerful as it is for many people, is not "God", nor is it "Jesus". In fact, Jesus knew nothing about it in his lifetime because in its present form it didn't exist.  It's a lens to look through, just a veil or shadow of an echo of great power that humans barely understand. Our tendency is to get hold of it and squeeze, or render it clunky and literal, perhaps because we are so afraid of it. But it's not a lucky rabbit's foot, nor can we manipulate its messages - or other people - by what the renegade prophet Bob Dylan once referred to as "strings of guilt".
 
 
If real forgiveness exists, and I'm not sure too many people are really up for it, it must be a much more dynamic process than the shallow, emotionally-dishonest variety I see in the media. Realistically, it would be a process that could take many years, and probably never be complete.  But why must normal human feelings be considered so frightening that grave emotional debt somehow must be cancelled?


 
 
Why must wronged people, already aching and filled with outrage, be made to feel ashamed of themselves because they "should" forgive, and somehow can't manage it?
 
"I can't move on unless I forgive" is the mantra now, and it makes my hair stand on end. I can't move on unless I convince myself this person isn't to blame for destroying my life. The more I look at it, the more bizarre it all becomes.
 



 
To know all is to forgive all, and to be appalled by most of it.
 


 

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