To Forgive or Not To Forgive…


To Forgive or Not To Forgive…

“You’ve forgiven him of course”, the Chaplain said to me, not as a question but as a statement.

He went on to say that I’m obviously intelligent enough to know that forgiveness is not about him, its about me and relieving myself of the burden of anger as well as other negative emotions. I was somewhat speechless and a little ashamed for the fact that no, I hadn’t forgiven him and, in reality, I hadn’t even considered it.

Some weeks before this conversation with the Chaplain, whom I hold in such high esteem, my mother had received a letter from Billy Joe Brown, the man who senselessly murdered Jennifer Evans and blamed me for his actions. (He would later go on to say he felt that since I “broke the Navy SEAL code” by “telling” on him I deserved to go down along with him.) In this letter he was most concerned about me forgiving him, in fact that seemed to be his sole reason for writing the letter. Despite its intention, however, it only made me more angry. “Who is he to suggest that I NEED to forgive him,” I thought, “especially considering what he has done to my family and as I continue to suffer in prison for his deeds.” Quite frankly, I was pissed! And what about the Evans family? Last I had read, Billy didn’t even know Jennifer’s full name and didn’t seem to be truly remorseful for his horrific crimes, nor how it has affected those who cared so much for her. (I’ve since learned that it is not uncommon for incarcerated offenders not to know the names of the people whom they have victimized, believe it or not.) I was sickened by his letter to my mother and even now I feel my blood boiling just thinking about it.

Since that day in the Chaplain’s office I have been intrigued with, if not plagued by, the concept of forgiveness. A few years prior, I had written a letter intended for the Evans family to express my deepest sorrow, remorse and, yes, to beg for forgiveness – chiefly for not being able to protect their daughter and for waiting so long to reveal to the police what I knew. I don’t believe they actually read this letter nor have I attempted to contact them again, for now I know its the wrong thing to do. My point, however, is that I feel like a bit of a hypocrite by asking for forgiveness on the one hand and refusing it on the other.

Forgiveness is an ingredient of reconciliation and restoration. For the past five years I have been studying and promoting the practices and principles of restorative justice. I have co-created a restorative justice organization (RJBehindtheWire) and a victim oriented offender rehabilitation program (Mending Fences). I introduced these concepts to a good friend of mine and, among many other activities, she now teaches restorative principles, which includes forgiveness, to school children and to incarcerated women. Though forgiveness is not necessarily required for reconciliation it is certainly a major contributing factor. Some would argue that true restoration of relationships (even those involuntarily created by the offense itself) is impossible without forgiveness.

What does it really mean to forgive? Furthermore, why should we consider doing it? For those of us who struggle with the idea, just the thought of forgiving can feel like you are letting the person who hurt you off the hook. I have searched for the best definition of this word, I have contemplated the concept, traced its etymology, and looked for its cultural roots. I was surprised to find that the verb ‘forgive’ comes from the Old English ‘forgiefan’, as I assumed it would have been of Latin derivation. (Instead, they gave us ‘pardon’.) But handed down from pre-Christian Northwestern Europe, could it have meant the same thing as it does today? I know that our early linguistic ancestors took reconciliation, mediation and compensation seriously. There was generally a legislative institution and typically even a judicial, but not an executive, so vengeance and blood feuds were often the result of offenses that were not reconciled. Forgiving, to these earlier people, seemed mostly to refer to either squashing a debt or agreeing not to seek revenge, usually after the offended received compensation which, for lesser offenses, could come in the form of an apology. Although, from my experience, an apology can go a long way towards forgiving, today we are told forgiveness does not depend upon an offender’s apology.

I am more ignorant as to how this concept is conceived in other cultures. Hindu’s ‘Ahimsa’, Nguni Bantu’s ‘Ubunto’, Greek’s ‘Aphesis’, Hebrew’s ‘Nacah’ or ‘Shalom’, Confucianism’s ‘Ren’ or ‘Li’, Maori’s ‘Whakapapa’, Tibetan’s ‘Tendrel’, these I have found, through my limited resources, inch closely to what we call forgiveness, but they are not the same. A restorative form of justice has been found in these and other cultures, which might imply the presence of forgiveness, yet it, like in the pre-Christian Northwestern European worldview, may only suggest an agreement not to seek revenge.

What might compel us to forgive or even to simply not seek vengeance? From what I gather, people forgive for one or more of the following basic reasons:

* To reconcile a relationship. A restored relationship with an individual, which could also resonate through one’s immediate or extended community, may seem more important than “holding a grudge.”
* For health reasons. Numerous studies have shown that not only can forgiving an offender give one a peace of mind, lowering stress, but it has also shown to improve one’s physical health as well.
* As a religious obligation. We find forgiveness at the heart of the teaching of Christ. Now Buddha, Mohammed, and various prophets and gods of other faiths may likewise promote forgiveness, yet from my limited perspective, this virtue is truly central for Christians. It is found in the Lord’s Prayer, which is in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12). Jesus rejected the ‘eye for an eye’, but instructed instead to do good to those who harm you. And, lest we forget, Christians forgive because of how thoroughly they have been forgiven. Indeed, what is Christianity without forgiveness?

I wish to share the following four brief stories, because they so profoundly demonstrate the incredible power of the phenomenon of forgiveness:

When twenty-year-olds Megan Napier and her friend Lisa were driving home early in the morning in 2002 after babysitting, their car was struck by another driven by twenty-two-year-old Eric Smallridge, who had been drinking. Both girls were killed and so many lives were thrown into disarray and deep grief. During the murder trial of Eric, Rene Napier, Megan’s mother, having forgiven him, gave him a hug in the courtroom as they wept together. Both during and after his incarceration, the two of them later went on to speak together to audiences about the absolute misery that can result from drinking and driving, about the need for restorative justice and about the power of forgiveness. Country singer Matthew West was so struck by their story that he wrote and recorded the song “Forgiveness”. Rene and Eric promoted the Mending Fences program that I co-created at a restorative justice conference at the University of Wisconsin Platteville, where they were the keynote speakers. I was fortunate enough to speak to them both and have been deeply inspired by their story.

In 1984, Ronald Cotton was convicted in North Carolina for the rape of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. She had picked him out of a lineup as the attacker. After eleven years of suffering in prison, Ronald was cleared by DNA and set free. Ronald, a black man, was able to forgive Jennifer, a white woman, and since becoming friends they were able to forgive others and heal together.
On a June night in 2015, outside of Cincinnati, 39-year-old Navy veteran Suliman “Sam” Abdul-Mutakallim was shot in the back of the head by one of three juveniles while he was returning from White Castle restaurant with food for himself and his wife. After falling to the ground, 14-year-old Javon Coulter raided Sam’s wallet for his $60 and took the bag of burgers. In a gesture similar to Rene Napier’s, Rukiye, Sam’s mother, asked the judge in the courtroom permission to hug the boys who were responsible for her son’s murder. She later asked the children’s parents permission to visit them in prison and help them, through forgiveness and love, to develop into better people.

On Jan 1, 1996, 76 year old Frances Worthington was sexually violated and brutally murdered in her home in Knoxville, Tennessee. One of her unfortunate sons, Mike, found her and committed suicide five years later. Her other son, Everett Worthington Jr., was left to make sense of it all. Everett became a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and one of the world’s foremost authority on, you guessed it, the concept of forgiveness. He has since written many books, studies and scientific articles on the subject. This saintly scientist was able to forgive his mother’s murderer and also forgive himself for not being able to help his brother.

Many of us may read these stories of forgiveness and say, “I couldn’t do it.” But who among us would say they shouldn’t have? Forgiveness was theirs to give, or to withhold. These victim survivors seem to possess a divine quality that is most admirable. I’m in awe each time I think about their grace in such a wretched and traumatic state. Do not our own wounds pale in comparison? These stories may compel and inspire us to reconsider the people who have done us harm, those whom we have not truly forgiven. Yet, if your struggle is anything like mine, you may not be sure how to even set your feet upon that path.

(Saint?) Everett Worthington Jr. has created a nifty guide for us mere mortals to allow for the full experience of true forgiveness. He uses the acronym REACH to designate the steps: Recall the Hurt, Empathize, Altruistic Gift, Commit, and Hold On (from “Forgiving and Reconciling:

Bridges to Wholeness and Hope”, 2003). Of course he expounds upon these steps and I highly recommend that the reader delve into them in order to get through any forgiveness roadblocks. There are other models as well, such as L. Gregory Jones and Celestin Musekura’s more ecumenical six “dance steps” of forgiveness found in their “Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace (2010). Both of these models are very similar.

All of this talk about forgiving those who hurt us and nothing about those whom we have hurt. It seems that everyone has persevered through more hurt than what they have dished out. If true, who is doing all the hurting? The fact is, we do often harm people by word and by deed, but we may seldom recognize it (see my previous article, A Fundamental Error). You are not Jesus, who bestows forgiveness without needing to ask the same of others; “go and sin no more.” So consider to whom and how you might seek forgiveness also.

This brings me back to my own struggles. Nearly 23 years after the act and, I am sorry to admit, I have not forgiven. I cast my eyes down and my shoulders slump under the weight of it. The basic reasons for forgiveness are absent for me, I find myself wondering if the only reason I don’t currently seek vengeance is because acting otherwise could hinder my future. For the longest time I just chalked it up to being a hyper-masculinized brute. Over a decade ago a fella came into the dining hall to warn me, “Billy Brown is here! He’s in an orange jumpsuit outside of the office building.” I dropped my lunch tray and darted to the spot. My heart raced as I swiftly approached him from behind. A blind fury arose within me and I was going to attack, to enact some revenge, even with two prison guards near him. Six feet from him he turned his head and I realized…it wasn’t him. Not until I came across the following two quotes did I begin to understand my “problem”:

“For many an experience of justice is a necessary precondition for forgiveness to occur.” – Howard Zehr

“Nor is the appropriate moment for forgiveness when one is in the midst of trauma, struggling to get on with ones life. Rather, the real moment for forgiveness comes only when we consider the offender in new ways as a vulnerable person and look at the wrong as an event, not some ongoing trauma.” – Pashaura Singh

Does this explain my position or is this my justification for it? I consider the daily heartache of those who care about me, the anguish they endure and the misery I continue to contend with. I am only human. However, I do believe I will be able to forgive him one day, perhaps when I experience some semblance of justice.

I feel that I must leave the last word to (Saint?) Rene Napier:

“All my life I have prayed for God to help me be forgiving and sometimes forgiveness comes easy and sometimes it is the most difficult thing to do. My experience has taught me that once we forgive those who have hurt us healing begins, it frees us so that we can move forward unencumbered.”