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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Forgiving the Unforgivable: Betrayal, Sept. 11, and a Navy Shipyard

As fate would have it, I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness in the past few months. I finally reached a point where I was ready to write about it, and it was already the subject for this week's post. Then I remembered it was the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Then tragedy struck yesterday as a shooter went on a rampage in the Washington Navy Shipyard.

I've had to think about forgiveness after quite a rift with a friend in the last year. "Personal betrayal" would not be too harsh a label to put on it. At the time, I was so upset and hurt that I quickly wrote the person off as somehow other - not a rational, normal person like me.

But after a bit of time you wonder about the Christian message of forgiveness. You begin to think that the Seventy times Seven principle doesn't exclude you and your own relationships after all, however unfathomable your situation must have been to Christ at the time he made that ridiculous rule. (Insert sarcastic font here.)

A very natural response is anger. It's so easy. It's easy to feel angry at those who thoughtlessly hurt us or hurt others or at the leaders who refuse to do the hard work of compromise and change so that these tragic events don't continue to happen again and again and again.

And trust me, I have more experience with anger than most. My first experience writing for an audience was authoring letters to the editor and later editorials for my college newspaper. I quickly developed a reputation as the guy who was always going off on something (always for an egocentric worthy cause, of course). This became apparent after my friends starting inquiring what I would write about next by asking me, "So what are you upset about this week?" Play that game long enough and you'll learn - one way or another - that anger is very seldom productive, let alone healthy.

Being the victim is quite nice for your ego. It lets you feel wronged, superior, and untouchable all at the same time. And like me, you may have been genuinely abused by something. But as soon as you realize you sort of like being justified in your anger and your hurt, the game is up; you see your own flawed nature is taking it too far.

The attacks of September 11th certainly warranted a response. But where did we turn? We waged a war in Iraq that did not meet any of the criteria for a Just War by Catholic theological standards. Yet how many Catholics opposed it? How many Christians? It didn't even meet the standards of rational thinking since Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But we were angry and forgiveness is not the way of a successful political establishment. And if our country weakly forgave our enemies, how could our national pride ever live with that? Anger needs an object. Forgiveness seems to need nothing.

Now we have a fresh tragedy: a gunman shot dozens of people at a naval shipyard. It's unforgivable. Isn't it? What does forgiveness mean?

"Forgiveness" as Not-Caring is Impossible

I've come to think that forgiveness as I was taught forgiveness to be is impossible. If we think of forgiveness as a "forgetting" or "getting over" or "sweeping aside" of something, then who among us can really do that? "Forgive and forget" as the saying goes. But who can forget? Logically, you can't. We humans don't have the capacity to select and delete our memories short of repression. And how do we stop caring?

If there's a way to somehow sweep under the rug what once deeply hurt you, I'm not sure I know it. And that's not forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness must be an expanding of your view to see holistically, to see things and people as they really are, 
to see them as God sees them.

Do you think the victims' families of the shooting yesterday see that young man as Aaron Alexis or as "the shooter"? Does Alexis' family see him as the shooter or as the person they knew and loved? Now, we have stories of the good this man did and also the ways in which he was so troubled. We learn that he was both "sweet" and "angry." He sought out healthy practices like meditation and yet suffered from PTSD and violent outbursts. One acquaintance described, "He’s a 13-year-old stuck in a 34-year-old body." The picture of "the shooter" of our 'enemy' starts to become more recognizable and more human. He shares something with us, and that's a very hard thing to admit. But it's the only way to forgiveness. We have to find acknowledge our shared commonality, even if it's only in relation to the Imago Dei

If you can expand your view from seeing merely this one event at the shipyard to the totality of who this person was, then I think forgiveness is possible. It doesn't make this event any less tragic. It certainly can never excuse what Alexis did. But it also doesn't demonize him as a no-good, evil, unforgivable man. If he is created in God's image like the rest of us, then God doesn't see him through such labels. And though it's tempting, neither should we.

This was the conclusion I finally had to reach for myself concerning my own friend. That person isn't a terrible person (quite the contrary). They don't deserve terrible things or to be written off as something "other", someone less worthy of love or consideration or care. It's not an excuse but it's a way to forgive. Seeing all of this person, their good qualities as well as their shortcomings, gives you a way to understand and to naturally let go. And maybe that's the beauty of it: it's natural and almost effortless. It's a right way of seeing that once you've done it, doesn't demand much work at all, and certainly never an attempt to forget or excuse.

Without condoning or condemning, a holistic view of the depth of any person can help us see them realistically and find a way to forgiveness, a way of letting go. It's the way out, and the way to "love your enemies." And I think we could all use that kind of escape.

Related Posts:
The Real and True Enemy
How Should Christians Respond to Pain?
Two Brothers: On Violence, America, and One Month after Boston

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