POST-EASTER RUMINATIONS: To Forgive and to be Forgiven

Dr. Brainerd Prince

It’s been a few days since we remembered Good Friday and celebrated Easter Sunday, and yet their themes continue to challenge and confront us.

I have thought long and hard about this – being humans living in a network of relationships invariably brings us to spaces of conflict and hurt where we rub each other the wrong way. Consciously and often unconsciously, through our words and actions we regularly hurt those around us and equally get hurt by those around us. Of course, humans are capable of intentionally and even diabolically hurting others, but in our everyday life, normally, we also unintentionally hurt those with whom we come in contact. Miscommunications. Misunderstandings. Misinterpretations. These create conflict and destroy relationships.

How do we rectify the caused hurt and restore civility and love between those who have experienced hurt and those who have done the hurting? I submit that we have been given two processes which will help us to cope with and even overcome strife, conflict and hurt. Simply put, these are ‘to forgive and to be forgiven’. In other words, the two processes that can truly set humans free and enable them to put back together that which is broken is through the dual processes of forgiveness. The first process is the act of forgiving and the second is the act of experiencing forgiveness.

The word forgive has two senses: the first sense is from the Old English forgiefan meaning ‘give, grant, allow, or remit which has the sense of giving pardon. It is an act of ‘giving’ from the one who is hurt to the one who did the hurting. But this act of giving does not follow the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’, rather in contrast it is an act of giving release to the one who hurt. The one who caused hurt, whether consciously or unintentionally, also bears a hurt and nurtures within a host of negative feelings. The hurtful act and the accompanying negative feelings diminish the perpetrator’s humanity just as much. Hurting someone hurts the hurter equally along with the one hurt. If only perpetrators knew this deeper truth, they would stop hurting people. A classic example is of a bully who hurts others, thinking that this act of exhibiting overpowering power will empower him. However, in reverse, it diminishes his already diminished humanity, and a bully is never able to live a complete life, ever, as he needs to constantly relive the cycle of bullying. This diminishment of the perpetrator can be lessened and the negative feelings washed away only when he is a recipient of the act of forgiving exercised by the one who got hurt. This reveals the immense power possessed by the victim. It reverses our common-sensical understanding of ‘victimhood’. The victim is not a powerless nobody, but rather has the power to forgive and set the perpetrator free. Yet there is another deeper insight here. In the exercising of the act of giving forgiveness, the victim will also receive relief and healing.

The term forgive also has a second sense, that of ‘giving up’ and this refers to the sense of giving up the desire and power to punish or take revenge. As I said above, being hurt puts the victim in a position of power and the victim can exercise this power to either give release or give punishment to the perpetrator. If we choose the former and give up the latter, then we are on the path of restoration. However, the desire for revenge is real and should not be quickly dismissed. It is a desire to inflict the same pain one experienced on the perpetrator. C.S. Lewis says it best when he writes that there is a ‘universal human feeling that bad men ought to suffer. It is no use turning up our noses at this feeling, as if it were wholly base. On its mildest level it appeals to everyone’s sense of justice…On a sterner level the same idea appears as “retributive punishment”, or “giving a man what he deserves”.’ While Lewis acknowledge the desire and even the logic of retributive justice, he is against ‘vindictive passion’ or the thirst for evil towards the other. For Lewis, such revenge is evil and should be expressively forbidden. He writes, ‘Revenge loses sight of the end in the means…it wants the evil of the bad man to be to him what it is to everyone else. This is proved by the fact that the avenger wants the guilty party not merely to suffer, but to suffer at his hands, and to know it, and to know why.’ To forgive is to give up this desire to take revenge and vengeance. There is another emotion that Lewis has not touched upon which plays an important role in all this. I am referring to anger. When we are wronged and hurt, it produces anger, even righteous anger, within us. I believe it is this anger that provides both the impetus as well as the energy to seek revenge and vengeance. In forgiving and giving up the desire to revenge, one has to give up the anger, including the righteous anger, that has welled within us.

Thus, in giving forgiveness the victim is able to give release as well as give up revenge and the perpetrator in being forgiven experiences forgiveness. Although this sounds good, it is not easily done because the fundamental problem with humans is their refusal to acknowledge guilt and take responsibility for the hurt they cause to others. Even in the Genesis story of the original sin, we see how Adam and Eve kept blaming others for their wrong actions. Adam blames Eve for giving him the apple, and Eve blames the serpent for tempting her with the apple. In contrast, we have the story of David and Bathsheba in which we see that when the prophet Nathan confronts King David of his sin, of both adultery and murder, he replies, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’. Yet again David once again sins by taking a census and counting his troops, against the advice of Joab his army commander. And when David realizes that he has done wrong, this is what the text says with regard to what he did: ‘David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O Lord, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing”.’ In both the cases, we find David taking responsibility for his wrongful acts and while there were consequences for David, God did intervene and spare David. Therefore, taking responsibility and confessing one’s wrong is a prerequisite for experiencing forgiveness. Experiencing forgiveness gives a new start as it washes away the past with all its sad, bad moments. Of course, it does not erase the memory, but the memories no longer hurt and they no longer diminish humanity.

Finally, in giving forgiveness and foregoing revenge, the victim also finds release and restoration. At this point, I must explicitly state that in no way am I condoning the wrong done or taking lightly the wrongs and hurts committed. On the contrary, I am taking them with uttermost seriousness, but with a view to go past them and even overcome them. It is counter-intuitive to ask a victim to forgive and forego revenge. It is almost their legitimate right, and yet, it is only in exercising these twin processes of forgiveness that they are able to set themselves free and continue life. Wrongs and wrongdoings diminish the life and humanity of both the victim and the perpetrator. I am arguing here that one way to regain humanity and pursue life is by exercising and receiving forgiveness. I have often wondered about this word from the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’. Predominantly, this word has been interpreted as depicting the great love and mercy of Jesus towards his perpetrators and that even at death, Jesus was about the business of seeking the welfare of others, including his enemies. Without taking anything away from this interpretation, I would like to add another strand of interpretation. Events such as the event of crucifixion can be called as ‘semantically dense’ events, overflowing with layers of meaning, so much so that all our meaning-making can in no way exhaust the power and significance of the event. While these words of Jesus, from the cross, seeking forgiveness for the perpetrators may well have been for their benefit, one must not forget what Jesus was going through at that moment. It will not be long before one would hear a loud cry from the cross, ‘Eli, Eli, lemasabachthani?’, translated as ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ The violence done to him and the hurts mounted on him had put him in a place of God-forsakenness. This space of God-forsakenness could be translated as a place of deep sorrow, pain and perhaps even anger, righteous anger – all of which were legitimate responses to the deep suffering he was undergoing. Perhaps then, in forgiving his perpetrators, even at this moment of great pain, Jesus was releasing all these emotions that might have engulfed him and by so doing kept his humanity intact even as he gave his perpetrators back their humanity. In other words, this act of forgiving might have done something for him as well, even as it set his perpetrators free. Perhaps there is no greater example set before us than the one we have from the cross. It is possible to forgive, just as Jesus did, even at times when the pain and suffering are intolerable. It is only in forgiving and experiencing forgiveness are we able to restore our humanity and live another day.