Our Forgiveness Blog
The National Center for Reason and Justice announced recently that they will be appealing the case of Fr. Gordon MacRae, sentenced to prison in 1994 for the crime of sex abuse against Thomas Grover. Mr. Grover’s former step-son has now claimed that his former step-father fabricated the story. Mr. Grover’s former wife labeled him as a “compulsive liar.” A former substance-abuse counselor for him now claims that he made so many allegations against so many supposed perpetrators that the stories were not credible. Mr. Grover has a history of arrest, prior to and after the accusation against Fr. MacRae, including multiple forgeries and burglary. These offenses were not made known to the jury.
It looks like, if Fr. MacRae is exonerated, he will have a large list of people to forgive. Walk a mile in his shoes and then answer the question: Who do I need to forgive? The obvious first choice is the accuser. Then comes anyone who remained silent during the trial (they could have shared impressions of Mr. Grover’s character in 1994). Then there is Fr. MacRae’s lawyer, who apparently did not dig deeply enough into Mr. Grover’s arrest record. The prosecutor played a part in the sentencing, as did the judge and jury. One can only imagine the injustices perpetrated on Fr. MacRae in prison. The list of people to forgive is long and the injustices deep, if he is found innocent. Injustice can lead to further injustice which can lead to anger and more anger. Forgiveness, properly understood and practiced, can cleanse the inner life of its caustic resentments and set the inner house in order. The road for that may be long for this priest, imprisoned for more than 17 years.
In the process of forgiveness that we have outlined in two different books (Forgiveness Is a Choice and The Forgiving Life) there is one part of the process in which we ask the forgiver to “Do no harm” to the one who has been unjust. This idea of “Do no harm” is actually transitional to the even more difficult challenge to love the one who has hurt you. Yet, “Do no harm,” even though an earlier and supposedly easier part of the process, is anything but easy.
To “Do no harm” means three things: 1) Do not do obvious harm to the one who hurt you (being rude, for example); 2) Do not do subtle harm (a sneer, ignoring at a gathering, being neutral to this fellow human being); and 3) Do not do harm to others. In other words, when you are angry with Person X, it is easier than you think to displace that anger onto Persons Y and Z. If others have to ask, “What is wrong with her (him) today?” perhaps that is a cue that you are displacing anger from one incident into your current interactions.
It is at these times that it is good to take stock of your anger and to ask, “Whom do I need to forgive today? Am I ‘doing no harm’ as I practice forgiveness? Am I being vigilant not to harm innocent others because of what I am suffering?” My challenge to you today: Do no harm to anyone throughout this entire day…..and repeat tomorrow…..and the day after that.
A recent news item in the New York Times reported on an American hockey player now playing for a German team. Read the article here. The important aspect of this story is that this hockey player, Evan Kaufmann, is Jewish and he lost grandparents during the Holocaust. He talked of forgiveness. The burning questions are two: 1) Whom does he forgive? 2) For what offense does he forgive? I do not think that he has to forgive Germans now with whom he interacts if they have had nothing to do with the Holocaust and if they are not offending him now. After all, they have committed no injustice. Perhaps he is forgiving the actual Nazis who executed his grandparents.
Does he then forgive on behalf of his grandparents? That decision would seem to be in the hands of the grandparents themselves who are not present on this earth to make such a decision. Does this mean that he cannot forgive the Nazis? I think he can. He can forgive them for all of the pain that they have caused him as he walks the streets of Dusseldorf, recalls the hatred, recalls the loss of growing up without the grandparents. He can forgive the Nazis, even if they are deceased, even if he does not know them personally or even know their names. He can forgive them for the pain he now carries as a result of the atrocity perpetrated on his grandparents.
I was searching the web for news of forgiveness today when I was faced with “Images of forgiveness,” a series of photos which are supposed to represent this topic. The image that caught my attention was from the national (American) magazine, Psychology Today. It is a plaque-like image with the inscription, “Forgiveness is not something we do for other people. We do it for ourselves to get well and move on.” It is stated so emphatically and so confidently….and it is so incorrect.
If forgiveness is not “for other people,” then it is not one of the moral virtues alongside justice and patience and kindness and love. What is it then? It seems as if the plaque-writer has reduced forgiveness to a psychological technique for oneself as a way to heal emotionally. If the other person who hurt us is not in this healing equation, then apparently we are free to dismiss him or her, to ignore him or her, to be indifferent toward him or her. Forgiveness as dismissiveness. I don’t think so. How can we heal when we still see the other as unworthy of our mercy and love? The plaque, with all of its fine-sounding rhetoric, ultimately is a formula for distortion and a lack of healing in either self or other. Beware the fine-looking and confident-sounding platitudes on plaques.
When you start to forgive someone for an injustice against you, what exactly is it you are and are not doing? This is perhaps the most fundamental issue–to define what we mean by forgiveness before practicing it.
Some would say, as Nietzsche did in the late 19th century, that you are engaging in weakness because only the weak forgive; the strong get even. Some would say that you are opening yourself to abuse as you go back into an unhealthy situation, but this confuses forgiveness and reconciliation. Some would say that you are moving on, even if this means that you are dismissing the person who was unfair to you. None of these captures the essence of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is goodness toward those who have been unfair to us, and this goodness can include the cessation of resentment, the offer of mercy and compassion and even love (which may take time to grow and require small steps in that direction). When people argue about forgiveness, most of the time they are arguing about what it means more than anything else. Know before doing.