This has been an awful week. When I first thought about writing this post, nudged gently by Erin McCole Cupp, it was to be a response to the shamefully inadequate sentence handed down to Brock Turner, convicted of three felonies after raping an unconscious woman. It was not to be a rant, however; there have been plenty of those on social media. Nor was it to be another “flaming-shaming.” Facebook and the Twitter-verse have that angle covered, too.
Then the terrible shooting at the Pulse, a popular gay bar in Orlando, happened. Social media has exploded again—and already blaming and anger have erupted all over the internet, along with hate messages, some of which seem to assume that there is an “us” and a “them,” and that “us” and “them” are enemies. Mortal enemies.
Sadly, that brings me to the point of this blog. If you’ve read my books, you know the main theme that runs through them is forgiveness. Or in purely secular terms, Restorative Justice. Bear with me here, please.
I have to interject at this point that all of what I say from here on out is deeply personal. It comes from forty years of experience in grappling with the concept of forgiveness in the face of a grievous wrong done to me. I went through all the stages: denial (nothing happened, or if it did, it won’t affect my life); anger (I want him to suffer the way I am!); mourning what I lost; depression; and finally, the dawning realization that all the rage churning around inside was hurting no one except me. Certainly not the person who wronged me.
From my Judeo-Christian, Catholic perspective, forgiveness is required of me. From the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. From Matthew 5: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Doesn’t mean it’s easy; it’s not. But it’s vital if I hope to curb the rot of hatred growing in my soul, my heart, my spirit, because once I allow hatred and anger to take root, it will grow.
Back to my journey. I began by praying a rote, wooden, insincere prayer: Please, God, give him what he needs. It took a lot of time—years—but my heart began to soften. Eventually, I began to pray with sincerity. With sincerity, you ask? Yes. Because the God I follow is love. Pours out love to all, to the most unlovable, most undeserving, most marginalized. Because my God expects me to do my best in following that lead. To love. To reconcile.
Restorative Justice takes a similar tack, though not from a religious perspective. You know how you read about a tragedy, or watch an interview of a victim’s family member, and how so often a person’s response is, “I hope he (the perpetrator) burns in hell”? That’s our knee jerk, very human response—but left unchallenged, it becomes a cancer that eats away at our peace.
It’s only when we refuse to subscribe to “us” versus “them,” when we look hard enough to find our commonalities, our shared humanity, that we are able to combat that cancer. I’ve read and heard true stories of people, through the commission of a horrific crime, have become tied to each other.
Unholy bonds. Unbreakable and inescapable—unless and until the cycle of hatred and retribution is broken.
We give lots of lip service to compassion and tolerance. Events like these are where we must meet unspeakable atrocity with mercy. But remember, mercy is not wimpy. Mercy does not simply roll over and say, “Oh, that’s okay. I forgive. And forget. Hey, that was easy!” Nope. Mercy doesn’t make excuses, mercy looks deeper. Mercy looks at the heart. And if the heart is not ready for mercy, not ready for remorse or repentance, then mercy cannot find its home there.
Never underestimate the capacity for the human heart to change.
Could I love the man who harmed me? No, not at first. Not for a long time. Years. Not until I finally began to see him through God’s prism, through God’s eyes. Not until I recognized the truth that God wept for me when the wrong was done, and He wept for the perpetrator, too, because in conceiving and executing the wrong, the man was harming himself as much as he harmed me.
In the end, we must all realize that dignity has been lost. The damage to the dignity of the victims is easy for us to see. The damage to the dignity of the perpetrator is much more difficult, and it’s hardest when the event hits close to home both personally and in the context of time. It’s that dignity that must be restored in some way or another, whether through forgiveness, like Jesus on the cross (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”), or through Restorative Justice, where healing comes when dignity is restored to all involved. And yes, that works best when there is accountability and contrition on the perpetrator’s part.
But what if the perpetrator is dead? Like the terrible shooting in Orlando? Or unrepentant, as in the case of Brock Turner (following the lead of his father)? Forgiveness isn’t dependent upon the perpetrator’s ability or willingness to admit culpability. Otherwise, the Hatfields and McCoys would be right: there’s no hope for healing and growth; we might as well devote our lives (and deaths) to retribution for wrongs long ago forgotten.
That’s where the great mystery of forgiveness comes in. To steal from AA: Let go and let God. To amend the saying for a secular approach: Let go of grudges; they may be justified, but they only drag us down. Letting go is truly the only path to peace, no matter one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. (This in no way negates accountability and consequences on the part of the perpetrator.)
Today, we are all raw. It feels too much, too hard to look toward love when we hurt this much. But perhaps in our small attempts to find healing for ourselves and for others, we may find grace and a bit of mercy, and we may find ourselves restored just a tiny bit. Enough to make it through our next breath, then the next hour, on through tonight, and then into tomorrow. And with enough tomorrows and enough grace and enough mercy, we might come to embrace the truth that we are all more alike than different, that we all have the capacity to loose great evil upon the world, and that we all desperately need the restoration that comes from recognizing our shared humanity.
As we leave this horrific day, let me pray for you. If you feel so inclined, pray for me. Together, let us encounter, if not the divine in each other, then at least our shared humanity.