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Two new books suggest forgiveness is in the air


They may be mere straws in a still formidable wind, but they may also be harbingers of a gentler generation to come. The recent megaconference on voluntarism challenged our typical dog-eat-dog attitude. An article in Psychology Today admonishes, "Go Ahead, Say You're Sorry." An article in Modern Maturity is titled "The New Compassion." They add up neither to utopia nor heaven, but still. And two books just out confirm psychologist Robert Enright's contention (see main story) that forgiveness is in the air.

The Process of Forgiveness, by Fr. William A. Meninger (Continuum, 153 pages, $12.95 paperback), begins with several stories. A former prisoner explains how, for the first year of his sentence, "I was bitter and angry and hated them all. Then I realized I could no longer allow them to control my life, so I learned to love and forgive them."

Catholics may notice something new in this typical story. Generations of confessors would probably admit that, down here where the rubber meets the road, such motives as the sufferings and death of Jesus, or even the fires of hell, were too remote to scare or soften us into forgiveness. Now, self-interest helps coax us to forgiveness for our own sake if not for others.

Another former prisoner who had been blaming everyone for his misfortunes told Meninger: "The poison and the pain, the hatred and the anger, were hurting me so badly that I had to change from within. I was finally forced to realize that the only way I could escape from my real prison, the one I had built around myself, was to learn forgiveness and love. I did! It was not easy, but I have been free ever since."

Meninger, a Trappist, anchors his book more firmly in the Christian tradition than psychologist Enright. Nevertheless the same ideas keep popping into view. Meninger, too, describes what forgiveness is not: not forgetting; not a form of absolution; not a pretense; and not a sign of weakness but of strength. Then the book goes on to explain what forgiveness is, and follows with several chapters on the stages of forgiveness, ending in "wholeness" where author Ken Keyes is quoted: "The world tends to be your mirror. A peaceful person lives in a peaceful world. An angry person creates an angry world. ... An unfriendly person should not be surprised when he/she meets only people who sooner or later respond in an unfriendly way."

Meninger, a leader of the centering prayer movement, stays at all times within a hoot and a holler of grace and divine goodness. His book is a healthy mixture of the practical and the transcendent.

The Art of Forgiveness, by Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz (WCC Publications, PO Box 348, Route 222 and Sharadin Road, Kutztown PA 19530-0348; 118 pages, $10.90 paperback), is subtitled "Theological Reflections on Healing and Reconciliation." The implied equivalence between forgiveness and reconciliation reflects how terminology in this area can ebb and flow depending on the author.

"How dare I as a German talk about forgiveness?" the author begins. Born in 1940, he grew up with guilt over the Hitler period, became a theologian, has served (the blurb says) in a variety of ecumenical positions in his native Germany and Latin America, and has been active with the World Council of Churches.

Müller-Fahrenholz's treatment of forgiveness is, not surprisingly, grounded in the Bible, in the struggle to climb beyond savagery to justice, then beyond justice to forgiveness and the gracious, loving life that history tells us Jesus preached and practiced. But he is also prepared to confront the thorny issues.

He has very harsh words for Christianity's historical abuse of forgiveness and the "radical misinterpretation" of Christ's words to Peter about the keys of the kingdom and the promise that what Peter bound would be bound in heaven, and so on:

Control of the keys of the kingdom turned the disciples of Jesus, who were meant to be "workers for the joy" of the people into "lords over their faith" (2 Cor. 1:24). As long as people could be persuaded that they needed God's presence to sustain their lives and the sacraments of the church in order not to end up in eternal damnation, the religious institutions could hold on to supreme power. By threatening to bind the sinner on earth and in heaven, the sacrament of penance (into which the gospel of forgiveness had been transformed) became an instrument of religious terror, rendering the priests, bishops and popes absolute masters over the people's consciousness and lives. And, as is well-known, this spiritual power generated tremendous material and political gains.

Müller-Fahrenholz is no professional Catholic-basher but an ecumenist of some standing. He writes with bluntness and conviction, healthy prerequisites for forgiveness. His thoughts leap from the Bible to novelist Toni Morrison to philosopher Hannah Arendt. His emphasis is less on interpersonal forgiveness and more on wider political ramifications, which must in turn be reduced to individual lives because only individuals can forgive.

It's no wonder Jesus used parables. They touch a soft spot in people and are hard to resist. Similarly, among the highlights of these books are the anecdotes. Müller-Fahrenholz tells of a group of old Germans who in their youth fought in Belorussia, in the former Soviet Union, with Hitler's army. After the Chernobyl disaster, to make amends for the war, they went to Belorussia to build a home for orphaned children. They stayed several weeks. They visited the Belorussian war memorial at Chatyn. That night they gathered with their hosts. A local author remembers:

Then one [German] got up and struggled to say a few words. ... He talked of his own history, that he had been in the war, that he had been in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp, and then he stopped, and we all sensed that the moment had come at which one could not simply go on remembering -- something redeeming might happen. And it happened.

The man excused himself. He said that he felt deeply sorry for what he had done as a person, and for what the Germans had done in Russia. And then he tried to say that this must never happen again, but his voice broke. He had to sit down because he wept so hard. Around him there were young people. They were overcome and they too were weeping. Then an old woman got up, went over to that man -- she was a Belorussian woman -- and took him into her arms and kissed him.

The old German was lucky. He was able to speak his guilt and win some sort of redemption. At the end of the day, we don't want to die without our business in order.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997