Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Forgiveness is the hardest option – but also the surest path towards healing

 Ian Harris                   Otago Daily Times                  March 13, 2015

It’s awesome how far some people will go to forgive. One such is Iafeta Matalasi, whose son was shot dead by two Mongrel Mobsters in a Petone stand-off. Instead of demanding revenge and punishment, he asked a judge to set the killers free so they could begin to live with compassion for others. “I have lost my boy,” he said. “Nothing will bring him back. The only thing that is left for me is forgiveness.”

The mother of American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by Islamic State’s Jihadi John (Mohammed Emwazi) in Syria, said Emwazi was a sad and sick man: “We need to forgive him for not having a clue what he was doing.” Foley’s father added: “If we capture Emwazi and bring him to justice, what does that do? Islamic State is still doing its thing. It’s a very narrow approach.”

There’s a healing power in forgiveness, and it’s especially powerful in those who forgive. Contrast those responses with a sister’s bitterness towards the thugs who bashed to death farmhand Justin McFarlane in North Otago: “I will never, ever, forgive any one of you.” And with Millie Elder-Holmes’ venom towards the man accused of murdering her partner in Auckland: “I wish him all the pain and suffering in the world.” And with the curse of beheaded English aid worker David Haines’ daughter, whose wish for Emwazi is “a bullet between his eyes”. Hurt has turned into hatred. Hatred locks in the hurt and heals no one. 

I suspect, though, that more of us would identify with the impulse towards vengeance and punishment, often confused with justice, and say “Right on! Why should anyone forgive the unforgivable? Doesn’t justice demand judgment?” Yes, of course. But there’s a difference between judgment and judgmentalism. Judgment is something everyone must exercise in all sorts of situations – but when judgment morphs into judgmentalism it can turn sour and become destructive.

Judgmental people see right and wrong in terms of black and white, are quick to condemn, and usually set great store by punishment as a way of making people behave better. They have probably never heard, and certainly not heeded, the German philosopher-poet Goethe’s caution: “Always distrust a person in whom the urge to punish is strong.” In his book On Forgiveness, former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway agrees it is too much to expect communities, still less victims and their families, to forgive horrendous acts of cruelty. But he invites them to distinguish between reprehensible acts and those who commit them.

It is this distinction, he says, that makes it possible to forgive the people who carried them out, “because we know that personal action is the fruit of character and that character is largely predetermined by factors that are not in our control”. Recourse to violence is a tragic example – and that applies to nation states as much as to individuals.

Violence appeals to the perpetrators because it gets results, at least in the short term. There is power, dominance, a winner – but also a ticking time-bomb, because the losers will one day seek redress. Just look at the mess the victors of World War 1 bequeathed to succeeding generations through a triumphalist peace treaty. And the shambles produced by the invasion of Iraq, which lit a jumping-jack of violent religious, ethnic, tribal and political causes.

That suggests there’s a crossover between community attitudes to violent criminals in Godzone and the Government’s decision to commit troops to wage war by proxy (by training Iraqi soldiers) in response to IS brutality. Both appear to be a product of judgmentalism, rather than mature judgment.

On the domestic front, judgmentalism demands justice by way of cracking down hard, longer sentences, more prisons. Judgment is more considered. It seeks justice through understanding what it is in the upbringing, social influences and mental make-up of offenders that shapes their outlook and actions, and then works to change these for the better.

On IS, a goodies-v-baddies judgmentalism would answer violence with greater violence. The moral outrage is genuine. But New Zealanders can justify the decision to enter the fray only by keeping ourselves ignorant of the underlying causes, and then failing to use our seat on the UN Security Council to push for avenues of reconciliation. That would be one obvious alternative to the “very narrow approach” which Foley’s father, who had every reason to cry vengeance, deplored.

Reconciliation is hard work, forgiveness even harder – but they open the way to healing. Violence never will.


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