Few of us go through life without having been injured, wounded, sometimes devastated by the actions of individuals or institutions. We’re creatures of memory and carry our injuries with us, which can be quietly nagging or secretly poisonous. Seemingly invisible or forgotten, we have to deal with them, one way or another. I have an unoriginal suggestion. One way is through conscious acts of forgiveness.
Forgiveness can change one’s whole outlook on life, as in the story of Louis Zamperini, an American soldier who returned to Japan and embraced with forgiveness three of the men who tortured him in the Second World War. It was only after this that his nightmares from the war ceased. It was the beginning of something new; he became a teacher, a healer, and a force for good.
William Blake thought Christianity most original in its take on forgiveness. When Peter asked Jesus how often he should be willing to forgive an offense (seven times? he wondered), the disarming reply was ‘seven times seventy!’ (Matt: 18:21). According to Jesus, our readiness to forgive one another should be limitless. According to Jesus, forgiveness is a revolutionary power. For one thing, it dares to transcend nature. “An eye for an eye” is nature; “turn the other cheek” seeks to rise above nature.
So we have William Blake, Jesus and Zamperini who zero in on the value of forgiveness. They gain some earthy support from a 2014 book by Kelly Turner, Radical Remission; the author studied over a thousand case histories of people who beat the odds against cancer, and were healed despite a hopeless medical prognosis. The survivors shared nine main factors.
One was the ability to let go of negative emotions they had been clinging to for a long time, like anger, resentment, and the need to strike back against perceived wrongs. To root out these destructive emotions by forgiveness is no small thing. But it can be managed, and is part of the healing and remission from cancer reported by survivors.
Unfortunately, many are so badly wounded, and have such fixed ideas about what is possible and what is right or wrong, they cannot yield to that dilation of the heart we call forgiveness. Why is it so difficult?
One reason may be the idea of manliness that forbids feeling the emotions that prepare one for the act of forgiveness. A touch of inspiration is perhaps called for in cases of authentic forgiveness. More than a grudging nod is required; one has to tap into deep reserves. Can we reach that far down? Saying it requires meaning it; without some feeling, it won’t work.
For forgiveness, imagination and expectation need to be mobilized. To forgive in this active sense is to possess a lively and optimistic vision of the future. As Blake saw it, it’s a creative act—much more than passive resignation. One forgoes the old for the not-yet-new; a closed for an open universe. Forgiveness is a choice, a gamble, an experiment.
Not easy to pull off. “To err is human; to forgive is divine,” wrote Alexander Pope. I’m moved to ask about America? Is it a particularly forgiving place? America incarcerates more people than any nation on earth, a large percentage of them being non-violent drug ‘offenders’. Jesus said that we should be willing to forgive each other again and again.
And yet in many of these god-fearing United States, three time offenders for petty crimes are imprisoned for life. Since the rise of the incarceration industry, there are lobbies dedicated to keeping the prisons of the nation booming with business. The alliance of profit motive and the American penal system adds to the brutality of incarceration and further scrapes away any lingering veneer of ‘divinity’.
The clear opposite of “I forgive you” is “I bomb you.” And yet, need I say it? America is pre-eminent in the bombing -- surely not the forgiving -- business. The United States has a larger share of the world’s arms market than the rest of the world put together. The USA has created the mightiest war machine in human history. Always ready for endless war, it gives no impression whatsoever of being interested in forgiveness. The state, the military, the banks are not in the forgiving zone. Forgiveness is a homeless wanderer we can only hope will visit us in a time of need. Don’t bank on it, though.