Amid all the near daily revelations about sexual predators, charges of racism deep political divisions that exists among political parties in America and Britain, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of forgiveness.
Not in the sense of ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ style forgiveness, but as an act of deep truth-telling to heal deep differences and transgressions and establish a reconciliation.
As co-director of the Social Healing Project my dear friend James O’Dea, former director of the Washington, D. C. office of Amnesty International, has spent many years smoothing the way for warring sides to reconcile and forgive.
For ten years he and Dr. Judith Thompson co-hosted “compassion and social healing” dialogues, in which members of highly divided social and political groups — Republican and loyalist Northern Irish, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Israelis and Palestinians — met in an attempt to heal shared wounds.
In the dialogues, O’Dea and Thompson moved the emphasis away from who is right and who is wrong, and toward who is wounded and how to heal. The aim was to help each party to recognize the other’s pain or shame and, in so doing, to liberate each other from hurt and guilt.
Their method draws upon the work of theologian Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz and his book The Art of Forgiveness. Born in 1940, Müller-Fahrenholz was too young to have any memory of the Third Reich or Hitler, but like so many post-war Germans, he grew up haunted by Germany’s terrible legacy and so began to consider forgiveness from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator.
Forgiveness can never replace justice, he realized, but it can move us beyond it. In our present culture, which largely deals with transgression by punishment and imprisonment, both victim and perpetrator remain in bondage. The victim’s dignity and personhood (or goods) are not restored, and the perpetrator never fully truly comes to grips with what he has done.
An act of forgiveness, on the other hand, as philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, is a “constant mutual release.” Both victim and perpetrator learn to recognize each other’s pain or shame, and mutually liberate each other from hurt and guilt.
For the perpetrator, full disclosure is, as Müller-Fahrenholz writes, is an act of disarmament — a willingness to finally confront the truth about oneself. It shines light on the unspeakable aspects of a wrongdoing, which paves the way for atonement. The humanity of the other laid bare seems to spark responsibility in the listener and creates a catharsis and a way of moving forward.
O’Dea discovered the power of deep truthfulness to bridge the greatest of breaches during a social-healing meeting that included Mary Rothchild, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, and Gottfried Leich, who had been a member of the Hitler Youth Movement during the Third Reich in Germany.
Leich had been intensely fearful of revealing his history and facing his involvement in the Nazi movement, particularly in front of someone who was a Jew and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. He had dreaded this encounter more than any in his life.
Early in the dialogue, Rothchild turned to Leich and said, “There are many people in my extended family who were killed in the Holocaust. What was your role in it?”
Leich admitted that he had beaten up people and set buildings alight on Kristallnacht, the Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazi storm troopers smashed thousands of Jewish homes, shops and synagogues. “But I was only 16,” he added.
Rothchild wasn’t satisfied. “So, if you had been 10 years older, would you have taken my relatives to the gas chamber?”
Leich took a very long time to answer and looked down at the floor. “I just don’t know,” he said finally.
Rothchild was utterly transformed by his answer. She had not expected such stark honesty from a person who represented the very archetype of otherness to her. With Leich’s admission, they both entered a completely new territory of truth: yes, he was saying, I could have been a mass murderer.
Leich became overwhelmed with self-loathing. He broke down and cried. “I am a grandfather and my grandchildren are the grandchildren of the Nazis. I am in the abyss, the dungeon of history. I always will be connected with this.”
His complete candor had released something inside of Rothchild, an emotional compensation she didn’t know she had been seeking. She stood up, walked over to him and took his hand. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she whispered to him, “I will fear no evil for thou are with me.”
The heart connects again
Thompson and O’Dea both felt the space between Rothchild and Leich suffused with what felt like a divinely animated presence. For Leich, the experience was a revelation.
Surrendering his fear and facing his past truthfully had created a miracle; Rothchild, he said, had thrown a “bridge across the abyss” and invited him to meet her on it.
Such is the power of deep disclosure or genuine confession that both sides are forever changed by the encounter. When the humanity of both parties shines through during forgiveness, a plan of restitution and new options for the future often simply present themselves.
This moment of connecting to the other’s pain is the transcendent aspect of any relationship, writes Müller-Fahrenholz, offering “a spark of courage to open up, that moment of daring and trusting which causes the heart to jump over the fence.” Ultimately it is this sudden merging that overcomes “the dividing walls” between us.
Seen through this perspective, a disagreement or wrongdoing is an interrupted connection, and forgiveness and restitution a re-establishment of the connection. Transgression is, as Müller-Fahrenholz puts it, a “sin against the whole” and deep truth an end to the “war of the world with itself.”