Trigger warnings for this one. I'm going to get heavy.
Today I was involved in an interesting online discussion, with some hip, trendy people who were absolutely aghast at a report that the Cathiolic Church had forgiven an HIV+ priest who had raped multiple children.
You can well imagine how the conversation started. How dare the church forgive anyone on anyone else's behalf. He deserves to be hunted down and have various body parts violently removed. Etc. etc. etc.
I was not welcome for simply asking what was wrong with forgiveness.
And in the ensuing conversation I learned just how many people misunderstand what forgiveness is, why the major world religions teach it, and why it's the right thing to do.
The responses to my question either were
- aghast that I would be an apologist for child rape. That forgiveness is akin to absolving the other person from consequences for their actions, excusing the behavior, and/or demeaning the victim.
- aghast that I would suggest that someone was entitled to clear the conscience of someone at the expense of someone else, e.g. the only proper person who can forgive a crime is the victim.
I never said any of that. Nor did I mean it.
My first response was to deflect the emotional charge of the general hatred in this culture of Christianity
. Naturally there were tons and tons of references to every crime, religious and secular, committed by the Catholic church past and present. I said let's take it from the point of view of a hip, politically correct religion like Buddhism
. From the Dhammapada
“If someone has abused you, beat you, robbed you, abandon your thoughts of anger. Soon you will die. Life is too short to live with hatred.”
That gave some people pause. Well, if Buddha said so.... well, both Buddha and Jesus and many other traditions say the same thing. And not because, as some would teach, that it serves the best interests of the wronged to enforce some kind of commandment to stay your hand against your aggressor - but because letting go is a necessary precursor for healing. A Buddhist story speaks of two prisoners of war who meet again at the site of their mistreatment many years after the war ended. One asks the other - "have you forgiven our captors yet?". The other man answers, "No. Never". The first sadly responds with "Then they still have you in their prison." You cannot move on from a traumatic event until you let go of any hope that the past can be changed, and move on.
I'm not saying this to garner any brownie points, but I volunteer my time in multiple places to support addicts and families of addicts. I read terrible story after awful, heart wrenching tear stained pleas from people who've been hurt over and over again by an addicted spouse or child that that person give them closure by accepting blame and feeling bad. I've also read people gloat that they called a probation officer or otherwise deliberately caused their addicted family member to be incarcerated or have other charges filed becuse "he hurt me, and he needs to feel what I feel." I've given the same lecture here. You will kill yourself waiting for someone who is not compos mentis to be responsible for dropping the burden of your hurt feelings. Only you can do that - whether it's from a sense of satisfaction at revenge, or an organic desire to end the fatigue of carrying that burden - it begins with you.
Does it mean you should act like it never happened? Let the person who wronged you carry on as if nothing was ever amiss? Let them continue in their evil? No.
We only have so much strength and so many heartbeats. In a situation like that, I would much rather we as a society take that energy and channel it into a few things - such as getting rape counselling and HIV medications to those children, deposing the judge that refused to file charges, and quietly taking it up with the Catholic Church that this is not going to be tolerated, and the Pope said as much. Or go even further - fund charities that microloan to women, giving them the chance at their own business, their own autonomy, and break the cycle of dependence on abusers. Fund lawyers who will prosecute these cases of abuse.
But hey, it's easier to let beating an elderly man with HIV to death act as a lightning rod. It won't ever fix anything, but it feeds into that part of us that wants to repay evil with evil.
And that, friends, is like cursing the darkness in a room and painting over the windows with black paint to add to the darkness in the vain hope that a "double negative" effect will occur and cause the room to light up. If you don't want evil in this world, don't add to it. Light a candle. Repay evil with good. Smashing things is easy. Giving in to hate is easy. Doing the right thing is hard.
Of course, one of the condemnations I received was "what if it was your child? You wouldn't be feeling forgiveness then would you?" As if I was fundamentally inclined to do it now. Forgiveness is hard. If you don't really care about the outcome, then you're just intellectually acknowledging a minor slight. We hold on to trauma, both as individuals and collectively.
I'll revisit the idea that only the person wronged can be the one to forgive. If this is true, why isn't it that only the person wronged can be the one to want vengeance? A virtual lynch mob was brewing, one which only allowed for grace with one person, but allowed the entire community to sink into vigilanteism. Does that mean that we are more entitled to vengeance than forgiveness? What does that say about your ideas about human psychology? Never mind that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind at least that bastard is blind too. Right?
Normal, happy, well adjusted people don't wake up one day and ignore a child screaming in pain to inflict themselves on that child. You usually find that people who horribly abuse children were often horribly abused themselves. Doesn't make it right, but you see where I'm getting? Forgiveness tries to separate the wrongfulness of an act with the human potential of the person who committed it, and redeem that person who may or may not be as much a victim.
I had a close friend once. We've grown apart, but she was raped by her grandfather. Repeatedly. At an age where she was raped anally because his penis would not fit into her little girl vagina. Did she report him? No, because despite the evil he visited on her every now and then, he was still her grandfather, her mother's father. She knew, he didn't have to say it - that her telling someone would mean violence towards him, loss of job, loss of their house and home, and so forth. She carried that terrible, dreadful secret for years even after his death - because despite everything she still loved the man for who he was when he wasn't an evil rapist, and didn't want to hurt the rest of the family. There are legions of people who choose not to legally prosecute their rapist because they feel the punishment forthcoming would grate on their conscience, and suffer in silence. When we as a society feel compelled to seek vengeance and decide on behalf of others what reparation looks like, it hogties a lot of people from the closure they deserve.
This also affected her in terms of her sexuality - she was promiscuous, seeking approval in one night stands and then running in horror from anyone she'd had sex with who tried to love her. She became pregnant and dropped out of school and the boy did the right thing and married her, only to withdraw entirely from him because she wasn't able to handle that, cheating on him in affair after affair. He was wronged, he could not forgive, and he left her and her children. He didn't make enough for them to get any reasonable amount of support.
I knew the whole story. Nobody else but she did. It's a train wreck. Something has to happen to halt that downward spiral. And channeling the desire to injure those who wrong others into making that a lesser priority than protecting potential victims and healing actual ones is the only way. To heal as individuals, to heal as a society.
Forgiveness isn't a license to do evil. It isn't ignoring a problem or shielding someone from the effects of their actions.
It's a license to heal. It's a license to move on. It's a license to concentrate on repairing damage. It's a license to let go of suffering.
Of course, some enterprising soul actually Googled the story and fact checked this clickbait article we were discussing. The photo was actually of an activist priest who had done a lot of good in Mexico. This supposed pedophile HIV+ priest never existed. The community in question had worked itself up in a violent lather, a recriminating, backbiting morass of hatred - when a simple fact check would have revealed the whole thing was a clickbait hoax.
Someone suggested the whole argument chain be withdrawn. I suggested it stay. It was illuminating. Even though many people vituperated me and labelled me as part of the problem, it's quite interesting to see the whole self-righteous anger erode in the face of facts. And we don't always have all the facts.