Monday, June 7, 2010

Violence and Forgiveness

Violence and forgiveness.

Violence has been a frequent topic in my recent blogs. Not only the street violence that kills 14-year-old boys for no reason whatsoever, or the violence of war, but the violence that permeates every day life. In case after case we rush to punish and inflict pain instead of looking for and trying to remove the causes of problems. No one asks why there are illegal immigrants. Instead we rush to punish them. When children bully each other in schools, parents do not ask where they went wrong in their parenting. They can't wait to punish school administrators and members of the school board. Instead of looking for the origins of conflicts and removing them, we try to get our way by threatening our opponents.

I have recently encountered several thoughtful people who suggest that we respond to and overcome this everyday violence by practicing forgiveness. Instead of looking for the guilty party and imposing a penalty on them, we should forgive them.

This forgiveness is not just shaking-hands-and-making-up or saying “I forgive you” but is a major effort to rid oneself of anger, of the desire to hurt others. Forgiveness requires working on oneself, attempting to transform oneself from one seething with resentment to a person at peace with himself and his neighbors.
I have no doubt that this is good advice. The effort required to overcome one's anger will make one a better citizen and ease life in a society.

But while I can forgive those who injure me, I cannot forgive those who injure others. I can try to forgive the Nazis for the pain they inflicted on me by killing most of my childhood friends. But I cannot forgive them for the lives of my friends cut short early and horribly. It is not up to me to forgive the injuries done to others.

If my work and my pay are not being threatened by illegal immigrants, I may have nothing to forgive them for. Nevertheless the problem of undocumented workers concerns me as a citizen and I still need to face the choice between imposing punishment on undocumented workers and on their employers, or trying to devise a solution that will end the problem. (I have suggested raising the minimum wage as one attempt to reduce the problem of undocumented immigration.)

Even if someone treats me badly,  forgiving may not be the best response. Take the everyday example of your child acting out, being disobedient and shouting insults at you. Yes, you can just forgive the child. But it would be much better to try to find out what she is trying to tell you, what she needs from you, where, perhaps, you have injured her. Forgiving in the sense of trying to overcome your anger is difficult. But it is often still too easy. It's too easy to try to forgive the disobedient, the angry child and much more difficult to discover the sources of that anger and disobedience and to try to mend the relationship.

Yes, by all means forgive. But you also need to know that forgiveness is just the beginning of trying to repair a broken relationship. I need to be aware of the needs of those who injure me, whose injury is trying to tell me something. Forgiveness is important but is not enough. We need not only rid ourselves of anger but also find solutions to problems that anger may blind us to. We must try to repair injustices that are done to others where we have nothing to forgive. We need to address the injustices done to others which we have no business forgiving.