Several weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking with my good friend James O’Dea. As co-director of the Social Healing Project and former director of the Washington, D. C. office of Amnesty International, James has spent many years smoothing the way for warring sides to reconcile and forgive.
For 10 years he has co-hosted “compassion and social healing” dialogues with Dr. Judith Thompson, in which members of very divided social and political groups — Republican and loyalist Northern Irish, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Israelis and Palestinians — meet in an attempt to heal from their shared experience.
I thought forgiveness an appropriate meditation for all of us, in the wake of the very fraught and polarized American mid-term election.
In the social-healing dialogues, O’Dea and Thompson move the emphasis away from who is right and who is wrong, and toward who is wounded and how to heal. And in most cases, they discover that both victim and perpetrator are wounded.
Haunted by legacy
In her work Thompson highlights the work of a German theologian called Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, so I was compelled to read his extraordinary book The Art of Forgiveness.
Born in 1940, Müller-Fahrenholz was too young to have any memory of the Third Reich or Hitler.
Nevertheless, like so many second-generation Germans, he grew up haunted by Germany’s terrible legacy and felt deep shame at being a German: ‘How could a nation that was so respected a part of European civilization succumb to genocidal madness and seemingly unrestrained violence?’ he wrote.
And, more to the point, how could his generation make up for the unspeakable pain their parents had wrought on the Jews and many other cultures?
Müller-Fahrenholz considered emigrating, and then realized that if he and his countrymen were to seek forgiveness it must be not in spite of Auschwitz but because of Auschwitz.
Müller-Fahrenholz began to consider forgiveness from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator. As a theologian, he has examined forgiveness through the lens of both Christianity and philosophy.
Müller-Fahrenholz considers wrong-doing as a situation of mutual bondage. Any such act — including the most minor of transgressions — establishes a distorted relationship between two people. The perpetrator has stolen power and the victim has had impotence thrust upon him.
For the victim, hurt is an ‘impairment of the core of our personhood,’ says Müller-Fahrenholz.
Forgiveness can never replace justice, but it goes beyond it. In our punishment culture, he believes, 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 put it, 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.
The power of deep truth
O’Dea believes the most powerful of healers is the dismantling or denuding of both perpetrator and victim to an acknowledgment of the deep truth of an experience.
Full disclosure is, as Müller-Fahrenholz says, an act of disarmament — a willingness to finally confront the truth about oneself. It shines light on the unspeakable aspects of a wrongdoing. And this, in itself, paves the way for atonement.
To illustrate, Müller-Fahrenholz tells the story of a group of old Germans, who’d fought in Belorussia as part of Hitler’s army during the Second World War. They’d decided to return to the country in 1994 – fifty years later — in an attempt to make amends for what they’d done as young men.
It was after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, so they built a home for children affected by the disaster. Toward the end of their stay, they visited a war memorial at Chatyn. That evening, full of the memories the visit had brought up, the Germans wanted to share the experience with their Belorussian hosts.
After a round of very personal toasts, one of the Germans, still clearly overcome by his visit to Chatyn, stood up in an attempt to talk about his own history as a young soldier. He began describing that he’d been in a Russian prison-of-war camp, but then abruptly stopped.
He excused himself for a moment and then suddenly broke down. He said how deeply sorry he was for what he personally had done and also apologized for what his country had done to the Russians.
He tried to say that it must never happen again, but his voice broke, and he had to sit down because he was crying so hard. Even the young people in the room were weeping.
After a few moments, an old Belorussian woman, roughly his age, got up, crossed the room and kissed him.
At the moment of a genuine act of full disclosure and confession, the full hurt is acknowledged and dignity of both persons is restored. For the old woman, the spark of forgiveness was the sudden realization that the pain of others — even the pain of the perpetrator — is also your pain.
This level of truth and disclosure interrupts the cascade of denial, and, most importantly, it re-establishes the balance in the relationship —far more than does simply saying ‘sorry’ or attempting to make amends.
Such is the power of disclosure or genuine confession that it overcomes the ‘distortions’ in a relationship between human beings, so that both sides are changed by the encounter.
The story of the German soldier and the Belorussian woman, says Müller-Fahrenholz, shows that the forgiveness ‘releases a corrective and restoring power’. It corrects the distortion in the relationship and the dignity of both parties, so that they are equals again.
Untying the knot
According to Judith Thompson, forgiveness in Greek literally means ‘untying a knot’, so both perpetrator and victim are free from hurt or shame – the legacy of the past - to carry on with their lives. There is also a releasing of new options for the future. Both parties are forever changed by the encounter.
Seen in this sense, 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’.
When the humanity of both parties shines through during forgiveness, a plan of restitution usually simply presents itself.
Perhaps the Democrats and Republicans of America will meditate on the possibility of forgiveness. When we create a political ‘Other’ of that magnitude, we are simply at war with ourselves.