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Special Report

Speakers explore ‘gift of forgiveness’

Worcester, Mass.

On Sept. 14 and 15, the same weekend that President Bush told America “vengeance will take a long time,” Holy Cross College of Worcester, Mass., hosted a conference on forgiveness. The conference was scheduled more than a year ago as the centerpiece of a semester-long exploration of the subject. But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, forgiveness suddenly became more than an academic question at Holy Cross.

After Sept. 11, people were “intensely interested in the whole complicated questions of forgiveness that involves justice, not forgetting,” said David O’Brien, director of the Jesuit college’s Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture, which sponsored the conference. “What kind of waiting, abiding with a terrible thing like this [must transpire] before you can even begin to think about how you can take responsible action?”

O’Brien, a professor of history at Holy Cross, said he considered canceling the conference, primarily because some speakers were having transportation problems. (One third of the presenters were unable to attend.) But the center’s steering committee opted to host the event anyway.

Guest lecturer Donald W. Shriver, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York, said it is “premature” to talk about forgiving the terrorist act of Sept. 11. Shriver said he is not ready “to use the language of forgiveness” until the wrong has been confronted, acknowledged and “maybe partly punished.”

Repentance and forgiveness are interdependent, Shriver said, and he is “not on the side of those who say we must forgive because it will make us feel better. Forgiveness is the launching of a new relationship, and if the other party is not interested, I say, forgiveness stalls at the starting gate.”

Nonetheless, Shriver believes forgiveness is a viable policy option for nation states, and he cites the United States’ decision to resume relationship with Germany in the aftermath of World War II as a good example of the repentance-then-forgiveness formula. Resumption of that relationship, he notes, was contingent on Germany publicly renouncing the Nazis.

Shriver believes that as the United States responds to the Sept. 11 attacks, it should keep in mind the possibility of forgiveness in the future. “Among the things we should be thinking about even now is how do we oppose certain evils in such a way that we can think of an eventual repentance and forgiveness between the antagonists. An analogous question is how do you fight a war in such a way that you do not make it more difficult to have a peace?”

Although she did not directly address the terrorists’ attacks in her lecture at the conference, Elise Boulding, professor emeritus of Dartmouth College, said the capacity to forgive is inherent in American society. Alongside the bellicose America, “there is another America with a long history of peacemaking and forgiveness and reconciliation.”

In contrast to “Fortress America,” “Reconciling America” has promoted tolerance and the “caring community.” The abolitionist movement, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the restorative justice movement are just some of the numerous examples of “Reconciling America” at work, Boulding said.

Peaceableness “exists in the United States and therefore a peaceful, nonviolent, forgiving American society is possible,” she said.

Boulding noted that America has no truth commission to deal with its own wrongs, like slavery, the forceful acquisition of Indian land, and the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and more recently Kosovo and Iraq. “Seeking forgiveness is one of our country’s major tasks” -- a task that can prepare the way for a new U.S role “in the family of nations,” she said.

“From a theological and Christian perspective,” said Holy Cross president Jesuit Fr. Michael McFarland, our ability to forgive is made possible by God’s generosity. McFarland, homilist for the opening liturgy of the conference, said, “If we are really honest, we have to admit that we carry in our hearts some little bit of the evil that drives mass murderers. None can stand before God and say we are innocent or worthy of God’s love and friendship.”

Nor are any of us God, he added. Although human beings have to make “practical judgments” about “who gets punished or rewarded,” only “God can decide whom to save or whom to condemn,” he said. And God, McFarland emphasized, wants to save people -- a truth that “is at the heart of forgiveness.”

McFarland spoke about the Peace Memorial in the city of Hiroshima, Japan, “a broken twisted structure of the one building left standing when the atomic bomb hit, leading to the eventual deaths of 200,000 people, most of them civilians. That building,” he said, “could easily have become a symbol of resentment, hatred and the need to strike back.” But instead it symbolizes a transformation of attitudes, “a commitment to everything possible to ensure that such an event never happens again.”

“It is not that evil and suffering are not real,” said McFarland, “but they need not define us or control us, for the gift of forgiveness that Christ offers on the cross is even more powerful.”

McFarland’s words were especially pertinent for the Holy Cross campus. On Sept. 14, the day he delivered his homily, five alumni were reported dead or missing and four students had relatives -- an uncle, a father, two cousins -- who were still unaccounted for.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001