October 8, 2006

Forgiveness Again

I've already posted on the extraordinary demonstration of forgiveness by the Amish whose girls were gunned down by a deranged "English," as the Amish call their non-Amish neighbors.

Rod Dreher has a column more extended than his blog post on the subject:
It is not that the Amish are Anabaptist hobbits, living a pure pastoral life uncorrupted by the evils of modernity. So much of the coverage of the massacre has dwelled on the "innocence lost" aspect, but I doubt that the Amish would agree. They have their own sins and tragedies. Nobody who lives in a small town can live under the illusion that it is a haven from evil. To paraphrase gulag survivor Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil does not run along the boundaries of Lancaster County, but through every human heart.

What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies. In his suicide note, Mr. Roberts said one reason he did what he did was out of anger at God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997. Wouldn't any parent wonder why God allowed that to happen? Mr. Roberts held onto his hatred, purifying it under pressure until it exploded in an act of infamy. That's one way to deal with anger.

Another is the Amish way. If Mr. Roberts' rage at God over the death of his baby girl was in some sense understandable, how much more comprehensible would be the rage of those Amish mothers and fathers whose children perished by his hand? Had my child suffered and died that way, I cannot imagine what would have become of me, for all my pretenses of piety. And yet, the Amish do not rage. They do not return evil for evil. In fact, they embody peace and love beyond all human understanding.

In our time, religion makes the front pages usually in the ghastliest ways. In the name of God, the faithful fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up to murder the innocent, burn down rival houses of worship, insult and condemn and cry out to heaven for vengeance. The wicked Rev. Fred Phelps and his crazy brood of fundamentalist vipers even planned to protest at the Amish children's funeral, until Dallas-based radio talker Mike Gallagher, bless him, gave them an hour of his program if they would only let those poor people bury their dead in peace.

But sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish have turned this occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik describes a somewhat different attitude to forgiveness:
In his classic Holocaust text, The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal recounts the following experience. As a concentration camp prisoner, the monotony of his work detail is suddenly broken when he is brought to the bedside of a dying Nazi. The German delineates the gruesome details of his career, describing how he participated in the murder and torture of hundreds of Jews. Exhibiting, or perhaps feigning, regret and remorse, he explains that he sought a Jew—any Jew—to whom to confess, and from whom to beseech forgiveness. Wiesenthal silently contemplates the wretched creature lying before him, and then, unable to comply but unable to condemn, walks out of the room.
Soloveichik goes on to argue that when it comes to certain truly heinous acts, Judaism and Christianity look at forgiveness differently--Christianity advocates it, but in certain cases, the Jew says of the truly wicked, "Yemach shemo" ("May his name be erased.")

Letting go of bitterness is necessary to one's personal mental and moral health. Dwelling on the past in bitterness can poison our own soul and prevent us from living in the present and constructing a future. It can lead to distortion and to acts like that of the man who murdered the little girls. On the other hand, when we forgive too easily and without discernment, can we not end up abandoning any concept of justice or condemnation of evil?

In blogging one is tempted to have a settled opinion about everything. On this issue, I must confess I am uncertain.

UPDATE: Here is an Orthodox Christian discussion of forgiveness. It's especially interesting because it contains an explicit discussion of psychological ideas of the Fathers of the Church.

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