e-mail us

Inside NCR

There could be a lot more forgiving

Here’s a prediction. There is going to be a lot of talk of forgiveness in the next year or two. And the talk might lead to God knows what.

In the first place, the time is right. A time of endings and beginnings. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, we have been telling one another for centuries. And ahead of us is one of the all-time sunsets: end of year, of century, of millennium.

There will be pressure to forgive, not just from religious conviction but from our human nature -- we don’t want to go away mad at the end of the day or week; we’ll feel better if we can throw animosity out the window. But, beyond the self-interest, add the benevolence special occasions instill in us. A millennial leap reminds us how temporary we all are, we in the same boat ultimately, so instead of demonizing those who wronged us we are, at such times, inclined to give other poor devils the benefit of the doubt.

It helps greatly when people tell us, as experts do, that forgiving others is also doing ourselves a favor. It’s even good for our health.

And it also helps that there’s plenty to forgive. President Clinton had plenty to ask forgiveness for, but he also has plenty to forgive -- though, as citizens saw on television, he doesn’t yet seem enthusiastic about it.

Jubilee 2000 is about forgiving of a different kind. The poor world is taking advantage of this momentous occasion to ask the rich world to forgive all or at least some of the immense debts that weigh down the already oppressed. Everyone from the pope to your neighbor -- with the possible exception of some rich banking persons -- is behind this crusade.

And there could be great reciprocity here. If the moguls presently strangling the billions of very poor people were to write that debt off with a flourish, they would then be entitled to ask the poor from everywhere on earth to forgive, in one vast act of friendship and fellowship, all the wrongs and injustices of the past, wiping all the slates clean, maybe leading to new ways of living together so that all this would never happen again.

Another aspect of forgiveness comes in the wake of the uphill journeys toward peace in many nations. South Africa is a poignant example. Another reminder is a new book by Nobel Laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, The Vision of Peace: Faith and Hope in Northern Ireland, edited by Jesuit Fr. John Dear (Orbis, 123 pages, $14). It tells the story of the Peace People, begun by Catholic Corrigan and Protestant neighbor Betty Williams in the 1970s, and of their struggle that has taken so many years to pay off. There are chapters about the search for peace and justice throughout the world.

One chapter, “The Politics of Mercy and Forgiveness,” focuses on a Protestant gunman who tortured and killed many people, spent some years in jail, where he repented. When he got out, he spent his time doing good -- until he was shot dead on a Belfast street.

“Could not the politics of mercy and forgiveness be extended to all political prisoners?” Corrigan Maguire asks. She repeats the common and reasonable objection that this would be unfair to the victims. She places herself firmly on the side of the victims, then goes on, “but I must say that in all my years as a peace activist, I have been inspired by the spirit of forgiveness shown by so many who have suffered the loss of loved ones through our political violence. Most often, the loudest voices against prisoner releases are those who have not suffered.”

Another book, called Jubilee Journal, by Mary Cabrini Durkin and Sheila Durkin Dierks (Woven Word Press, 811 Mapleton Ave., Boulder CO 80304), is subtitled A Workbook of Forgiving for the Millennium. It is true to the title of workbook, with many blank pages interspersed with helpful text.

Deep forgiveness, the authors write, “is the hard work of facing the old hurts which have rooted themselves in our personalities. It is the work of revisiting troubles, ones which we said are over and disposed of, but which we know lie like small (or large) rocks in the pit of our psyches, waiting for the moment to stone us again. They are even sometimes old friends whom we turn to when we want a reason to justify our anger in a new situation.”

Very few people say forgiveness is easy, but equally few question how good people feel when they forgive. The authors of Jubilee Journal continue: “The time will come when, as a fine gift of all your labor, the words of forgiveness will find their place. Such phrases as ‘I forgive you,’ ‘I release you from retribution for your deeds,’ are very powerful. They are the words of your power. A tremendously powerful image is that you are anointed as a peacemaker. You have the power to bring peace into your world. That is enormous power. No longer the victim, you have reclaimed your agency. You are able to control your life (and sometimes the life of the offender). When you know this, when you exercise this, you are liberated, and you have made jubilee.”

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999