Rabbi Ponders the Appropriateness of Forgiving the Boston Bomber
In a recent column in the Long Island (New York) Newsday newspaper, Rabbi Marc Gellman reflected on the moral appropriateness of forgiving the Boston bomber. I applaud Rabbi Gellman’s efforts in discussing the topic of forgiveness but want to clarify some of the points made by him and two readers who responded to his query of “Should we forgive the Boston bomber?” Let us examine six points from that article.
1. J, one of the readers who responded to Rabbi Gellman, implies that forgiveness means the same as pardon.
Forgiveness is not the same as pardon, as implied by J. Pardon involves letting one off the hook as well as the justice system; it does not center on interpersonal relations. Forgiveness is an inner personal release and pardon can be thought of as a public behavioral release. An example of pardon would be if the judge suspended or reduced punishment of the Boston bomber. The judge reducing the sentence was not the one personally hurt. We can forgive someone who is dead but we cannot pardon someone who is dead. Forgiving someone who did us wrong does not mean that we tolerate the wrong he did.
2. Readers are asked to share their opinions regarding whether “We should forgive the surviving Boston bomber.”
Not everyone is in the position to forgive the Boston bomber as we can only forgive for the pain and hurt that wounds us personally. As Lewis B. Smedes (1996), the author of The Art of Forgiving, states, “Sometimes our lives are so bounded to the victim, that the injuries they suffer wound us too.” Example – wrong my kids, wrong me. And my hurt qualifies me to forgive you–but only for the pain I experienced. My children alone are qualified to forgive you for what you did to them. Thus, only the individuals personally affected, such as those who experienced an injury or had a loved one who experienced an injury, and/or were not able to finish the marathon because of the bombing have the right to forgive the bombers.
So, one not personally affected can forgive the bombers for the way he or she has been hurt, such as being afraid to go in large crowds because of the bombing, but they cannot forgive on behalf of another person. A response from another reader, R, talks about not forgiving the Boston bomber unless we also forgive other mass murderers. As stated before, we can only forgive for the way we were personally affected. Thus, individuals may be able to consider forgiving the Boston bomber if they were hurt by the Boston bomber, but not Adam Lanza (who killed 20 children and six adult staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., along with his own mother), if they were not personally affected by his actions.
3. The question of forgiveness one month after the bombing is premature.
Forgiveness takes time. If it occurs too quickly, pseudo forgiveness may result. Robert Enright’s (2001) interpersonal Process Model of Forgiveness has 20 units. Although we are often told to forgive right away, forgiveness is not something that occurs overnight and is usually not one’s first instinct after being deeply injured. A hurt individual needs time to deal with his or her injury and negative feelings resulting from the injury. This usually involves feelings of shock, disbelief, anger and even hatred toward the offender. All of these feelings are normal and thus, it is wise to wait awhile after experiencing a deep hurt before considering the idea of forgiveness. J also mentions that God can be helpful when one forgives. This is true but one can also forgive if they are not religious and/or do not attend religious services.
4. As illustrated in this column, forgiveness appears to be equated with excusing the act and anger is not recognized as an important part of the forgiveness process.
R mentions how “forgiving any of these human monsters would devalue the lives of the innocent, decent people they killed and maimed.” Rabbi Gellman goes on to state how “muting our outrage at those who bring carnage to our country may end up weakening our resolve to seek justice because it humanizes the killers.” When we forgive we recognize the deep injustice for what it is and forgiving does not excuse or minimize the situation or experience of deep hurt.
Anger is also a very important part of the forgiveness process. Before one can forgive, he or she has to express his or her anger about being hurt. Holding onto and living with long-term anger can affect one physically and emotionally. Individuals criticize forgiveness because they do not realize the role anger has in the forgiveness process and why one needs to get angry before forgiving.
Thus, one does not mute their outrage when forgiving. They recognize the injury as deep, personal, and unfair and offer forgiveness nevertheless. It is also the case that a bit of anger may remain even after one has forgiven. The anger may not be as intense as before forgiving or as frequent but some may still be there when thinking about the injury and what happened. A decrease in anger is one of the first steps in the forgiveness process. As Lewis B. Smedes states, “When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it” (Famousquotesabout.com).
5. In the Newsday article it is implied that those who commit evil should not be viewed as human beings.
It is true that our need to be forgiven is most likely not on the same scale as the Boston bombers act of evil. However, one of the foundational themes of forgiveness is the idea of “Inherent Equality” meaning that “A person is a person now matter how small.” The idea behind inherent equality is that regardless of what someone does, he or she is still a human being, which is very difficult to accept for offenders of horrific acts of evil, such as the Boston bombings. However, because all people are human beings and part of the human community, all people have worth. As Smedes (1996) states, when we forgive, “We rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt us.” This includes changing our view of the offender if it includes only seeing the offender as a monster. With forgiveness we see the offender as a person who shares our humanity, although to come to this place is one of the hardest parts of forgiveness.
6. Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive and one can forgive even if the offender does not apologize.
As stated in the article, we must seek justice for evil acts. However, this justice can occur alongside personal forgiveness, if the individuals personally hurt by the bombers choose to forgive. Forgiveness is a choice one makes for him- or herself. It cannot and should not be forced upon anyone. An individual should only offer forgiveness as a deliberate, conscious, and meaningful choice. This is true whether or not the person who has committed the wrong repents, asks for the forgiveness and/or even accepts it. Thus, Rabbi Gellman mentions his personal difficulty with forgiving a repentant killer. An apology certainly makes forgiveness easier but it is not necessary to receive one to be able to forgive. Making an apology a requirement before one can personally forgive is like reinjuring the victim as he or she is trapped in an unforgiving state unable to heal and move on until he or she receives something from the injurer. In contrast, an apology would be an important requirement before one chooses to reconcile with an offender.
Thus, can one forgive the Boston bombers? The answer is yes; individuals personally affected by the bombing can forgive as one way to heal. But one needs to personally choose to forgive while realizing that one has a right to anger, that forgiveness takes time, and that justice can occur alongside personal forgiveness. J is correct when he states that forgiveness is not easy. In fact, it is one of the hardest things to do in life as forgiving requires a great deal of effort, hard work, and courage. But the physical and psychological benefits that are associated with forgiving make the effort and hard work well worth it.
Suzanne Freedman, Professor, University of Northern Iowa