Cultural Forgiveness And Redemption
January 13, 2009
Therapists and clergy agree that forgiving oneself is often one of the most difficult problems people face. Inner anguish can be the cause of great unhappiness that can last a lifetime.
Why is it that some people can forgive themselves, and others cannot? What is the hold that grips those who cannot seem to move forward, in a healthy way? In fact, why are some people actually afraid to move forward?
Imagine yourself as very young child, say of kindergarten age. Most of us can recall doing something rather selfish and hurtful to another child, probably fueled by desires or impetuousness.
Of course, we feel bad about that inappropriate behavior, but we don’t carry it around as a burden. Why? Simply stated, we are not the same person we were in kindergarten. As we get older, we become more aware of our social responsibilities and appropriate behaviors. Throughout childhood, we continue to behave in ways that are less than perfect. Nevertheless, as we grow and learn, we come to another level of awareness- we become ashamed of our silly behaviors and come to regret them. We forgive ourselves, because we are longer that person.
Therapists confronted with patients that are heavily burdened, attempt to give that patient a different- and clearer view of themselves and the reality they live. Therapists who deal with suicidal patients, for example, attempt to give that patient a reason to live. They want their patients to better understand themselves and the world around them and become a different person, one with a desire to live and contribute. If the patient understands and accept that his or her life is meaningful and that their contributions can make a difference, that ‘elevated’ patient is no longer the same unhappy and desperate person they were.
Clergy have a similar, if not identical view of ‘new personhood.’
When an individual expresses true remorse and a commitment to not ’sin’ again, that person elevates oneself into someone he or she was not. That person has a new understanding of self and a new determination to reach insight and awareness he or she never thought possible. Virtually all clergy believe that one way of giving meaning to those burdened (and that means all of us) is by giving back (see Filling The Psychological Void With Charity, an article published by Rome based Zenit, A Catholic News Agency).
In virtually all religious milieus, there is a imperative to ask forgiveness from those one may have hurt- no matter how painful that process may be. In addition, virtually all religious doctrine imposes a duty for the aggrieved and hurt party to forgive anyone seeking that forgiveness. There is an interesting and very nuanced distinction. The sinner, while encouraged to ask forgiveness, is not mandated to do that. The aggrieved however, must extend that forgiveness. There is a reason for that.
We cannot look into the heart of every individual- that remains the Dominion of God, of course. That said, when we are approached by someone so burdened, asking for forgiveness, we can assume the person asking forgiveness is not the same person that aggrieved and hurt us. We can not refuse one who has caused us no pain. Clearly, we can be angry and hurt at the person that did cause us hurt. Most times, we should be angry at anyone who deliberately hurts us. There does come a time when anger, however, causes more pain and hurt than the original hurt itself. Sometimes, forgiveness serves to elevate the sinned against, more than the sinner. Most often, the road to elevation is uphill, when we assume additional burdens and obligations. In granting forgiveness, we are offered the opportunity to elevate ourselves by unburdening ourselves of our anger. That is how profound forgiveness is.
In any event, it bears repeating that the person asking forgiveness- of others or himself- is often not the same person that committed the sin. The same truths that apply to forgiving another, apply to forgiving oneself. In becoming a new person, someone we were not, we can a new burden or obligation in equal measure to the burden we allow ourselves to shed.
In the same way we would help ease the burden of some innocent carrying a great weight, we must forgive this ‘new person’ so he can shed the weight of the person he was. This is the forgiveness, tempered with mercy, that serves God and elevates man.
The past does not disappear. Certainly, the hurt and pain do not vanish from existence or history. However, those who ask forgiveness and those who grant forgiveness understand that those who caused them pain are no longer a part of their reality. There are new, better and elevated people that have taken their place.
The same truths apply to nations.
The Germany of today is not the Germany that sinned against the world and mankind in World War Two.
Germany took it upon itself to reflect and repent. The nation that was responsible for the Holocaust and the death of almost 50 million souls, is not now the same nation that it was. Free Germans took it upon themselves to self examine what it was that caused them to fall prey to the charisma of evil. After much painful reflection, they willingly accepted responsibility and the consequences of their actions. They assumed the necessary shame and did not try to place the blame for their own misdeeds and failures, elsewhere.
Germany has come a long way. She is still a nation that self examines, but she does not carry the burdens of the past. She remembers, of course, as she should and she is ever vigilant- but she is not the Germany of those dark days. Today’s Germany is a proud bastion of freedom. She is a nation that has grown and elevated herself. She doesn’t hide her well healed scars. The nation that Germany has become has no need to to do that. Her worth is determined by her actions of today, not by how well her scars can be hidden.
In a strange and ironic twist of fate, Israel, like Germany, constantly endures painful self examination. There is much soul searching in a nation that is surrounded by nations that openly declare their hate and intent. That nation, for centuries champions of suffering at the hands of others in Europe and the Middle East, are reluctant to impose the harshness that was imposed upon them. Only those filled with hate and deliberate deceit would say otherwise. The 180 degree view is noted by Saudi liberal, Rim al Salih:
“How happy some of us were at the crime at Virginia [Tech] University. Of course, the happiness was not at the death of 30 people on campus, among whom were three Arabs. The happiness and the delight that accompanied the crime were due to the fact that the killer this time – for a change! – was from Korea – i.e. he was not an Arab or a Muslim. We began to write articles that, while varying in style, could be summed up [in the words]: ‘Terrorism and violence are not an Arab and Muslim specialization.’
“But, without lying to ourselves, can we compare the crime committed by an individual due to madness, mental illness, depression, or even due to the desire to kill and avenge, and the death supported by organizations, fatwas, [TV] stations, websites, funding by the millions, and pledges of allegiance taken in front of the holy Ka’ba?…
“The sanctification of death for death’s sake is a distinctly Islamic-Arabic specialization. Coveting death, suicide, and the killing of innocents as a shortcut to Paradise is not shared by anyone else among Allah’s creation. Is there any non-Arab who cuts the throat of journalists and peace workers – [people] who left their homes to do a true service or to aid our causes – for the crime of being fair-skinned and because of their eye color?…
“Some even go so far as to accuse the news channels of treason if they use the words ‘killing’ or ‘killed’ [instead of 'martyrdom' and 'martyr'], despite the fact that these terms are more accurate. Our vulgarization of the term ‘martyrdom’ (shahada) has made it lose its meaning, and death has lost its value and awe. The martyrdom-seeking (istishhad) of the Arabs has become like a reward for them, instead of a disaster or a calamity…
“The exaggeration in sanctifying death has made many youth prefer taking a shortcut to Paradise, instead of obeying the will of the Creator, who considers whoever kills one soul without justification as though he has killed all humanity, and considers whoever saves one life as though he has saved all humanity. [The Creator] wants [this youth] to strive to work, to live, to use the great energies he granted him in order to make the world flourish, and to leave his human imprint on existence…”
In the same way that the Germans have forgiven themselves for being the perpetrators of one of the great crimes of history, Jews in Israel and elsewhere must learn to forgive themselves for being victims. There is no ‘disproportionate response’ when going after those who openly say they will kill you. That awareness doesn’t come easily. Golda Meir was reported to have said to Anwar Sadat that, “We can forgive you for killing our boys. We cannot forgive you for making us kill yours.” Those few words are once painful and poignant. They are profound words from a spokesperson and leader of the only people to have survived from the time of antiquity and before.
The Arab world and much of the Ummah have yet to learn that if it wishes to endure and to find it’s future greatness, they like Germany, must seek forgiveness- not just from those they have hurt and threatened, but from themselves as well. Seeking forgiveness is a mark of greatness and a precursor to elevation, to becoming a ‘new nation,’ a better nation, one that can be respected and admired.
As long as the Ummah continues to be shaped by dysfunctional leaders and the religious leaders that serve them, they will remain a lesser nation.
The Ummah knows it can and must elevate itself. The Ummah does not need to tolerate ‘Honor Killings’ or FGM, or teaching children to love shahada and death.
The Ummah knows it does not need tolerate the poverty, despair and poor education forced upon them by dysfunctional regimes.
The Ummah knows it does not need to be defined by hate, racism and bigotry and exaggerated anti Semitism.
They know they cannot blame their failures on others, turning a blind eye to those who really abuse them and deprive them of a future.
The Ummah needs to forgive itself as first step to future greatness of a nation, culture and society.
Portions of this post have been previously published.