Chaos and the Naivete of Forgiveness
Given the chaos breaking out across our nation and in the world, the rise of a hateful nationalism, and the brutal attacks on human decency and human lives that have been encouraged by our own president, it seems naive to write about listening and forgiveness. In less than a month there have been two major mass shootings; Christine Blasey Ford continues to receive death threats; our president has named Matthew Whitaker, a critic of the Mueller investigation, as “acting” Attorney General; and as he has always done, he undermines our democracy and foments crises that almost seem designed to divert our attention from important matters such as our broken health care system, voter suppression, entrenched poverty and despair, our inhumane immigration system, and the destruction of habitat and climate change.
With so much injustice to worry about, why would we want to sit with quiet attention as shame-drenched individuals catalogue their hurts? So what if we can help them forgive themselves? With so much work to do, can we really take time to help individuals feel better? If so, can we really be expected to listen to men like Whitaker or our president? Do they deserve forgiveness?
Thousand Oaks and Action, not Prayers
Some people, like myself, are more contemplative than others. We would rather sit quietly and listen than raise our voices and march through the streets. For instance, the Buddhist practice of Tonglen not only fells personally healing, but is a way I respond to suffering. To do Tonglen, you breathe in the anxiety, discomfort, or misery of individuals you love, those you hear about in the news, and even of those you dislike. Then your transform that suffering to peace and joy, and send it back.
When atrocities occur, such as the murder of eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, or the thirteen in Thousand Oaks, California, how might a contemptalive respond. A Buddhist breathe in suffering and breathe out love. Christians and others of faith might pray. The secular among us might send messages of hope and good will. If we are close by, perhaps we will find a way to listen to a bereaved parent’s anguish.
Is this enough?
At the Bordeline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, Telemachus Orfanos, who survived last year’s shooting in Las Vegas, died. According to a Washington Post article by Isaac Stanley-Becker, his mother said, “I don’t want prayers. I don’t want thoughts. I want gun control.” 
When Listening Is Not Enough
Sometimes prayers are not enough. Sometimes being listened to leaves us feeling more empty and alone than we were before. Some days, we are not always ready to forgive.
Unfortunately, our unwillingness to listen and our inability to forgive is part of what causes us to kill one another in the first place. It amazes me how desperately we humans hold onto feuds, how we seethe for centuries, passing intolerance down through generations. If we but listened to one another’s stories, we might find forgiveness comes naturally.
Often, though, we don’t listen. When we do, we can feel hopeless, because those who most need healing may refuse to even admit they have feelings or are vulnerable. Rather than sharing stories from deep in their hearts, they want to rant and blame and shame those they think are responsible for their unhappiness. Not that they will admit to being unhappy. To even suggest they might make mistakes or be out of control leaves them angry and spiteful.
The Ones Who Hate
Who are these people?
We see some of them in Carol Anderson’s book One Person, No Vote. There, Anderson tells the story of Leon Alexander, a black coal miner who tried to register to vote in Alabama at the end of World War II. When he arrived at the registration office, he was ignored by the white clerk, even though other citizens, all white, came and went, having been served to their satisfaction.
Quietly, Alexander waited in line, until finally the registrar asked him what he wanted. Alexander said he wanted to register to vote, so the clerk grudgingly handed him a form to fill out. In those days, voters had to pass a literacy test. The coal miner took his time and filled the paper with words. Yet when he handed the completed application to the clerk, the man didn’t even look at it before crumpling it into a ball and throwing it away.
Yet Alexander did not give up on his dream of voting. He used connections he’d developed through his union to finally get the support of the governor himself. At last he became a registered voter. However, when it became time to vote, he discovered he had never been put on the official list of voters, so was unable cast a ballot. One man after another purposefully disenfranchised him because he was black. 
These men denied Alexander his rights as a citizen. What happens to the soul of an individual who treats another human being so unkindly? How could they live with themselves after doing that? Yet those who obstructed Alexander are not the worst.
Some Threaten, Some Manipulate, and Some Kill
In the middle of the last century, black people who dared even to register to vote were beaten, flogged, harassed, unfairly incarcerated, fined, and even murdered. In 1946, Maceo Snipes was the only black man in Taylor County, Georgia who dared exercise his right to vote in the primary. A few days later, he was gunned down by four white men. Though Snipes died, due perhaps less to his initial wounds as to the fact that he was denied medical care at the hospital where he was taken, the white men who shot him were never prosecuted. 
Then, in 1965, Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law made a big difference, which is probably why some states never stopped challenging its legitimacy. White politicians who felt threatened by minority votes maintained a cunning persistence which paid off in 2013 when the Supreme Court “proceeded to eviscerate that law.”  Since then, those citizens who the conservative, white leaders of our country do not want empowered, have bit by bit, found their rights stripped away.
Forgiveness and Rage
I am grateful, and humbled, to be able to admit that I don’t know what it feels like to be so disenfranchised, though if I were, I am certain the humiliation and indignation would catch in my throat like a bone and clench in my belly like a fist. In her book, Killing Rage, bell hooks writes about the ways black people, in order to survive, have repressed and even annihilated their anger.
Of course, African Americans are not the only ones who do this, nor are they the only ones who therefore end up numbing themselves with addictions, shutting off their hearts, abusing one another, committing suicide, or lashing out at those they claim to love because they dare not express their anger those who deserve it. hooks talks about the “internalization of victimization” that can make her people impotent. 
If we listen to their stories, can we understand their pain? As a white woman, I have not experienced such repeated assaults on my very existence, yet I think I can begin to understand the enormity of rage one would feel over such treatment. I can respect hook’s conclusion that, while black rage can be dangerous when turned inward to destroy the self or outward to harm the community, that rage can give people the energy they need to resist the unspeakable injustices they have experienced.
If we, with some compassionate listening, help heal some of the hurts that gnaw, even allow a bit of a forgiveness to enter a broken heart, might that come too soon? If the energy of rage is still needed, could forgiveness get in the way? Even if it does not, we to suggest forgiveness when we are not the injured ones?
How Do We Understand the Evil Ones?
I think I can feel compassion for, and even some understanding of the pain that black Americans and others feel who have suffered at the hands of those who lust for power or believe in their inviolable self-righteousness, who feel no compunction over limiting democracy and destroying lives if it will secure their wealth and privilege. Understanding these latter individuals, however, I find more challenging.
How can four men coldly take the life of another one simply because he voted? How could a full staff of doctors and nurses watch while that same man bled to death? Was there not one among them who saw and cared about Snipes’ humanity?
Intellectually, I know that in those days some white me, and women felt threatened by black emancipation, and I know some continue to do so today. Obviously, those four men were making an example of Snipes. I doubt they saw him as a person. If you’ve been raised to view black folks as worse than dogs, you might not care if one dies. If you haven’t, however, such an attitude can be hard to understand.
We Have Always Hated the Other
Nonetheless, I know that we humans have been disenfranchising, denying, destroying, and denigrating one another ever since we have been human, and probably even before, when our ancestors were classified as apes.
For instance, there were those Conquistadors who maimed and killed the natives just for the sake of some gold. Roman soldiers cut and slashed at the Jewish resistance, murdering entire families, until blood filled the streets. Jews themselves massacred the Canaanites. Ancient Egyptians used violence to cement their power. Slavery has been part of human society for millennia. Native tribes fought other tribes, men killed other men to gain ownership of women, and entire families took revenge on those they believed had slighted them.
We are not nice to one another, and we never have been.
Trying to Understand
So I try to imagine what it would feels like to be a deeply-entrenched racist. So far, my conversations with white supremacists have been few, and most of them have started to feel ashamed at what they’ve done and who they’ve been. But the ones who continue to speak ill of Mexicans or blacks are quick to label and blame, and when I try to lift up their anger or their anxiety or their sadness, they deny that they have feelings or they justify them. It’s hard to truly listen to someone like that, because they won’t share the truth of their story. Healing is not possible if we refuse to acknowledge the shame that lies within our hearts.
So I’m left trying to imagine what I might do if I were terrified losing my wealth or my public standing or my comfortable life or that scrap of self-esteem that I built on the backs of those I consider inferior to me. Would I attack them, call them names, threaten them with violence, spend my precious time crafting strategies to keep them poor and voiceless.
What is it like to grow up hearing myths of white superiority? Is it like growing up believing the Christian myths? Over the years, I’ve met smart people who literally believe that all the scientific evidence for a Big Bang was planted as part of a world-wide conspiracy. To maintain a tenuous world view that makes us feel important or valued or accepted, we can rationalize just about anything.
If I Understand, Will I Forgive?
So I try to listen; I try to understand. When I think of those who have preyed on me, I do not find it hard to imagine that pain drove them to violence. Because I can imagine the influences that shaped them, the despair that lurked in the un-examined darkness of their psyche, I have never found it hard to forgive them. In some deep way, I listened to them. I heard an inner voice they might not know existed. Maybe I imagined it. But something happened to leave them so dead inside that they could purposefully wound another human being.
On the other hand, those perpetrators are not in my life anymore, so perhaps my forgiveness is easy and has little value. By forgiving the ones who once broke my heart and my body, I freed my spirit from their grasp.
Yet that does not give me the right to forgive those four white men or those apathetic medicos who let Snipes die. It does not even give me the right to forgive the Nazi soldiers who killed my great-grandmother. Nor does it give me the right to forgive our president who, because of a certain distance I have from him and a certain status I enjoy in the world, has not directly harmed me. Yet his harm to others and to our environment touches me deeply. Thus I try to listen to the pain beneath his words. I try to understand the lust for approval that seems to beset him, driving him to a such a depth of madness, he cannot bear even the hint of criticism.
Listening and Forgiveness
I once had a client like that. Her shame was so overwhelming that even a wondering question felt to her like censure, making her deflect and deny. After years of being heard and affirmed, her self-judgment softened enough that she could admit that her heart was wounded. Because of this, she could start to heal.
For how many years must we listen to the one who would king before he will be able to admit his weakness? Will his heart ever heal? What of his cruel and manipulative co-conspirators? Are they as empty, as full of self-doubt and hatred as, it seems, is our president? Or is it true what they say about narcissists and sociopaths, those ones who have no empathy and therefore no guilt, that they actually love themselves too much? Do they really not have some corner of shame in their psyche? If not, what fuels their ugliness? Can we simply dismiss them as evil and seek to obliterate them?
The danger with this tactic is that we can never truly know who is beyond repair and who is not. What evil is unacceptable, and what is understandable? Must we be perfectly good before we can be accepted? That’s absurd, of course, but where do we draw the line? If we steal once, is that okay, but not if we steal twice? What if we’re really hungry, or if were taught to steal by our parents, or we’re too depressed to care what we do? When is our evil forgivable, and when not? Who gets to decide?
Accountability and Forgiveness
In an interview with Maya Angelou, bell hooks talked about forgiveness. She linked compassion with forgiveness, noting that while it’s important to “hold people accountable for wrongdoing,” we must also somehow “remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed.”  She pointed out that we are all products of a certain culture, of a certain family, and a certain life. How can we judge another when we have not experienced what they have? If we understand that everyone is doing the best he can with the experiences he has had, might we be able to forgive even our president?
After all, what’s the goal of living and breathing and holding people accountable? Is it to relieve our anger and fear by fighting back, or is it to mend the world?
In her essay about Yom Kippur, that holiday when Jews repent, forgive and are forgiven, Victoria Safford asks, “What response will make the world more whole?”
Mending the World
The answer is easy. Compassionate listening and forgiveness is what mends. Yes, I am grateful to those who bring abusers to court, who sue the government, who write letters, and who protest. Our rage helps us do that. It is also part of holding perpetrators accountable.
Yet to mend the world, to make it more whole, we must listen even to those we despise. We must seek the tender places in their hearts and honor the emotions that cause them to project onto others what they cannot bear to see in themselves. We must lift up with compassion their inner self so they might, like my client did, heal their inner wounds. Unless we heal ourselves, we cannot heal others. Until individuals find peace and forgiveness, our world will never be free of violence and animosity.
Seeing the Godness in Another
The Rev. Barbara Meyers wrote about listening, “My own theology is seeing God within a person, beyond all, and between. For me, listening engages God between.” 
Only that kind of listening, a deep listening that allows all of us to feel forgiven, will make whole what has been so horribly broken.
Sometimes it feels so terribly naive to even a message of compassion and forgiveness, of kindness and love. Yet love is not passive, nor is it always gentle. In her passionate fierceness, love holds accountable all those who have betrayed her mission for us. Yet unless accountability is paired with compassion, it devolves into aggression.
Our task is to engage the God that lies within and between us. As human beings, we are called to listen with compassion and a deep and humble honesty to those we love and even those we don’t. In this way, we may find forgiveness, for ourselves and others. If we are to mend this broken world, we must first mend our broken hearts. Then we may find that we can hold ourselves and others accountable for even for grievous wrongs in a way that repairs relationship rather than destroying it.
In faith and fondness,
- Stanley-Becker, Isaac, “Thousand Oak Parents: ‘I Don’t Want Prayers. I Don’t Want Thoughts. I Want Gun Control,” Morning Mix, The Washington Post, November 9, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/11/09/thousand-oaks-parents-i-dont-want-prayers-i-dont-want-thoughts-i-want-gun-control/?fbclid=IwAR3x94imergHXBn25QWjGuwXm1MtKUOTrETvVdCUcubUzr8BbGaGykv0MnA&utm_term=.801e73793c68, accessed 11/10/18.
- Anderson, Carol, One Person, No Vote, New York: Bloomsbury, 2018, 6-7.
- Ibid 15.
- Ibid 26.
- hooks, bell, Killing Rage, New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1995, 18.
- McLoed, Melvin, “‘There’s No Place to God But Up’ – bell hooks and Maya Angelou in Conversation,” Lion’s Roar, January 1, 1998, https://www.lionsroar.com/theres-no-place-to-go-but-up/, accessed 11/10/18.
- Meyers, Barbara, personal email, August 26, 2018.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens