In recent months, the words “forgiveness” and “diplomacy” have been used interchangeably with the words “appeasement” and “idiocy.” For many reasons, the least of which is accuracy and the greatest of which is our spiritual survival, this is a grave mistake.
I concede that “diplomacy” and “idiocy” can easily be mistaken for one another and that over the years many diplomats have in fact been idiots. No one who has carefully studied world history or observed local events would dispute this. Occasionally, there have been some exceptions, for whom we are all very grateful and probably because of whom we are all still alive and the U.S. is still a functioning republic.
However where my observations may be of some service is in understanding and clarifying the erroneous notion that forgiveness should ever be equated with appeasement or confused with unearned trust. They are not only unequal, they are opposites. This is important on many levels, not just politically. How we forgive as well as when and why we ought to offer forgiveness is fundamentally important psychologically and interpersonally as well as theologically.
I have had a private practice as a clinical social worker for over twenty years. I have met a great many people with an extraordinary diversity of personality styles, problems, and pathologies and they have taught me a great deal. One of the things I’ve learned from them is the importance of forgiveness in any recovery, whether that’s from addiction, anxiety, depression, abuse or the ordinary misery of life.
Now, forgiveness is fair game in therapy or in faith-based counseling, but mention the word “forgiveness” in the political and social arena and the reaction is nearly instantaneous: “Are you crazy?!” Indeed, when I shared my thoughts with one dear friend, Lucy, who is also a brilliant theologian, her primary concern about this piece was well-taken: “I’m not sure you can transfer forgiveness, which is a personal act between persons, to nations. Jesus, after all, did not come with a political program. A treaty, e.g., is not about forgiveness.”
My answer to her is simple and two-fold: One, it is not only possible to transfer personal acts to national ones, it is inevitable. Nations—and therefore policies, programs, and politics—are collections of individuals, their thoughts, beliefs, and cultural biases. We behave as nations more or less as we do as individuals. This is not comprehensively or absolutely true, but it is generally the way things go. Politics may not always be the direct will of the people, but collect enough people with enough will and politics—thus policies—can and do get changed. We’ve seen it many times in our own lives. Individuals matter. In fact, because of our current technological skill, now more than ever how one individual responds to a threat, what he thinks, feels, and believes as he interprets that threat can affect millions if not billions of people in an instant. So while forgiveness may begin with one person, it certainly does not end there.
Two, forgiveness and appeasement must both be very clearly defined. Forgiveness is the letting go of hatred, resentment, and pointless, pervasive and paralyzing fear. It does not mean that we must be foolishly fearless or naïve. It does not mean that we stop protecting ourselves or deny what is truly dangerous around us. It does not mean that we ignore the obvious or trust what is intrinsically untrustworthy. It does not mean we relinquish our God-given capacities for discrimination and good judgment. When evil comes knocking we should lock the door. Forgiveness is not banal and is never another word for “niceness.”
Appeasement, on the other hand, often parades as benevolence but is actually cowardice, a derivative of a particular form of fear that is so consuming, so pervasive and pathological it is flatly denied. When we appease, we essentially give up rational fear even though we may truly need it. We think that by being “nice” or by giving the bully what he wants, that he will stop being a bully. Appeasement doesn’t prevent bad behavior. It perpetuates and encourages it. That is foolishness.
Discernment and The Bad Guys
Many people believe that forgiveness is easier to understand when it pertains to one bad guy who is truly contrite. But when it comes to thoroughly corrupt states or systems of government whose platforms are wholly different than ours (no freedom of speech, no freedom of conscience or religion, wholesale abuse of women and children, etc…) they find it harder to let go of their judgments about those systems. Again, I believe the answer is simple, though not necessarily easy.
Forgiveness does not imply a lack of discernment or judgment. Quite the contrary. It requires a greater discernment. We are facing some serious enemies right now and it is wholly naïve to believe otherwise. Iran, Myanmar, the Taliban, Isis, Hamas, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea….These are the names whose mere mention conjure in the American psyche horrors not unlike those we duck-and-cover babies were raised with: annihilation by nuclear holocaust, cultural desolation, spiritual cannibalism. The serious question is not whether the bad guys are bad guys. We know that North Korea is being run by a plutonium-wielding madman. We know that Sudan and Rwanda and Uganda are corrupt and cruel by any standard—international or national, that its leaders have been complicit in one of the worst genocides in recorded history. We know that Iran is posturing for a show-down for the pure pleasure of its insane potentate. We know who the dangerous ones are and for the most part we know where they are.
The question—which is as spiritually serious as it is politically potent—is what do we do about it? How are we supposed to respond emotionally, mentally, physically? Do we behave as Mr. Chamberlain did in the years before World War II, slowly carving up sections of Europe like beef kibble for a rabid dog? Do we pretend, like the State Department did in the 1930’s, that Hitler didn’t really “mean it,” that he was just mouthing off because somehow, somewhere we must have so terribly upset him? Do we turn away as we did when China rolled over Tibet, destroying hundreds of temples and nearly eradicating a peaceful and benevolent way of life thousands of years old?
Or, do we, as the spin jockeys have urged, react impulsively to our fear and loathing and take the risk of becoming prematurely proactive? The media—as always aiming the spears of Viral Fear directly at our adrenal glands—spins every event into as scandalous and potentially destructive a scenario as possible. It’s hard to even watch a cooking show without a fight-or-flight response anymore. Do we lob nukes at Damascus today? Just in case? Do we take up arms right now and stamp across our borders to seek out the war before it sneaks up on us?
Or is there some middle ground? Can true forgiveness be the key to both seeing things more clearly and protecting ourselves better?
There are two parts to this dilemma. The first is the nature of forgiveness, which is often misunderstood. And the second is the potential of self-protection without being driven to a conflagrational red-line by hate and fear. I will try to at least open the discussion on both topics. I do not expect to answer either fully in this brief commentary.
Forgiving Is Not Excusing or Denial
It is my personal belief that there are things right-mindedness and spiritual maturity call us to do and NOT to do. And I want to state up front that a great deal of my thinking on these matters has been influenced CS Lewis, who gave us quite a bit to digest on the issue of forgiveness:
“I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often…asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking Him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us will be exactly as it was before.’ But excusing says, ‘I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive… if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses…”
Real forgiveness between two persons, as he so rightly points out, does not mean pretending the hurt has not occurred and does not require that we look away from the wrong doing. Forgiveness—even God’s forgiveness, which is infinite—starts with a steady gaze at the sin itself. To forgive entails an acknowledgment of the wrongdoing and then, when there is contrition and repentance, a reconciliation. As Lewis reminds us again and again, true forgiveness demands that we look at the deed squarely, “seeing it in all its horror,” after which we are able to extend compassion and be reconciled with the person but not with the deed. The deed and all its underpinnings must be shed for good. It is this understanding of forgiveness that makes it possible to fight an enemy without hating him.
Forgiveness is not Codependence
Many people who come into my office live with rather troubled people, some of them truly awful. Some of them are being abused, some are stuck in situations with alcoholic parents that are frighteningly chaotic, others in marriages with addicts or thieves who are stripping them of every reasonable creature comfort. I know one woman whose addicted husband stole all her clothing to sell on the street so he could buy a night’s worth of methamphetamine. By the time she was able to take her daughter and herself to a battered women’s shelter, she had all their worldly goods contained in one paper shopping bag.
Traumatized people (individuals, not collectives or organizations)—immigrants from Cambodia, North Korea, parts of Africa, victims of abuse—can’t help but bristle at the mention of the word forgiveness. And I understand why they do. I also know that they will never recover without it. My task is to help them see that forgiveness does not mean they need to allow the behavior to continue or accept the next empty promise any more than acceptance means approval. In their lexicon, the term “forgiveness” implies that they have to pretend they were never abused or tortured or victimized. To forgive in their minds, means a tacit cooperation in the codependency and abuse. When I say the word “acceptance”, their hearts hear “denial” and their minds see a continuation of all that is wrong and truly morally and emotionally “unacceptable”.
In politics we face the same problem. When we are spiritually called upon to deal with the maliciousness of the Hutus in Rwanda, we are not being asked to excuse it or to negotiate from a position of stupidity (which brings us back to modern diplomacy and the remnants of deluded Utopians) or naiveté. It does not mean we accept the vapid promises or political shoe-stomping of a sociopath because we have been told to be merciful. It does not mean we expect goodness and honor from a politician or an organization that has shown nothing but deceit and cruelty. When Ahmadinejad states that his purpose is to decimate first Israel, then Christians, and finally all Western Civilization, there is no reason to assume that he does not mean what he is saying. Nowhere have we been called upon to be stupid or behave in a suicidal manner.
It is imperative for there to be some contrition and an effort to change the negative behavior in order for forgiveness to be wholeheartedly given and for reconciliation (person-to-person or nation-to-nation) to take place. Father Russell Radoicich, an Orthodox Priest in Butte, Montana, clarifies the it this way, “Consider the difference between ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Please forgive me.’ One is a proclamation and the other is a supplication. One involves ‘I’, one involves ‘the other.’ One is prideful and arrogant, almost a rant, the other is humble, contrite.” There is no doubt that he is right and that we must be savvy enough and clear-minded enough to know the difference so that we are not manipulated into putting ourselves in harm’s way.
However, while a full reconciliation may depend on repentance, our forgiveness does not. In fact, we can forgive a person who is quite ill and committed to a path of destruction using words we have heard before, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Putting ourselves in harm’s way is another matter and this is where most of the political debate lies.
Lucy explains, “In both cases, but especially in the political realm, we are called to vigilance and to protect ourselves and those entrusted to our care.” God has clearly asked us to have children’s hearts, but not to behave like babies. Those hearts are to be held in grown-up hands and directed by grown-up minds.
Here’s an example C.S. Lewis gives in his essay, The Cardinal Virtues.
“The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not.”
One may forgive the thief but put locks on the door. One may forgive one’s enemy but be prepared to do battle in the event of an attack. One may set firm limits with one’s child and still provide unconditional love. It is not only possible to transfer this thinking process from the personal to the political. It is absolutely necessary. Or we are in fact putting ourselves at far greater risk.
A Case in Point
Forgiveness is so hard for some people it seems impossible. I had one client whose life revolved around her pain and all the love she was unable to get from the important men in her life. One of them, naturally, was her father, for whom she nurtured the most gruesome resentment. She hated him and she said so in nearly every session. All her troubles were because of him, she believed. And to some degree that was true because her hatred tied her to him and his inadequacies as a parent harder and tighter than the original insults she suffered.
We talked about forgiveness more than a few times and she said once, “It’s like sand in my mouth. I can’t swallow it.” I tried to help her see that forgiveness was not for the forgiven in this case so much as it was for the forgiver, that it would set her free to find the love and acceptance she’d always wanted. But she was resolute. Unfortunately, that has kept her terribly unhappy and fearful. Her hatred was so great that she could no longer see what was blatantly true. With her vision distorted that way, her responses to life were equally distorted. As a result, not only did she not find the love and acceptance she longed for, but fell into relationships that validated her worst thoughts about herself. This is how it works in the personal realm. I do not believe it is any different in the global one.
Finally Fighting the Enemy
We are asked to love our enemies. We don’t hear much about this in the media. But it is what we are asked to do. Yet, if we look at Biblical history, it is filled to the brim with some of the bloodiest battles in history. How is that possible? How can we be commanded to forgive, to love, and to show mercy while being simultaneously called upon to protect oneself and one’s family, to be intolerant of evil when it manifests before us—even to the point of killing?
This is the crux of the matter not only personally but politically, because if we can understand this, we can see deceptions where they exist and sidestep the inevitable disappointments of political appeasement. Because the truth is, evil can never be appeased. Appeasement only postpones. The price we pay is not mitigated, it is multiplied.
I see a couple of steps to answering this, the first one being that while one belief system may in fact be better than another (e.g., honoring women as opposed to brutalizing them) ultimately we are no different than the enemies we are fighting. We are ALL fallen. Accepting our humanity and our fallen nature puts the conflict and the inevitable combat in an entirely different context. We cannot forgive if we don’t accept that we are ALL fallen. No one gets out of this sinless or alive. Forgiving is not only hard to do, but impossible when we think of forgiveness as Pardon or Forgetting or Failing to correct. When we remember that we all need forgiveness, even if we believe we are fighting rightly, it is far easier to forgive those with whom we are engaged in battle. We must remember that we do not have the answers to the mysteries of the universe and truly must trust to faith “for now we see through a glass darkly.”
The other point that Lewis makes, and I shall close with this, is that while we may kill to protect ourselves, we may not enjoy it. We may not hate nor may we enjoy hating. We may pick up swords and fight evil but we may not fight it by becoming evil ourselves. He covers this in his essay, Forgiveness: “In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed.” First things first. We must deal with the enemy in us before we can deal rightly with the enemy facing us.
The frenzy that the media creates, the rabid response it perpetuates by pitting left against right unnecessarily (even in areas where the differences are fabricated for the sake of ratings), the self-righteousness, the creation of fearfulness where none should exist and the denial of danger where it truly does exist, the lack of forethought, the knee-jerk hatreds and quick-spinning revelry that accompanies war and preparations for war—these are the things of which we must be terribly careful. For they ultimately are the very things that prevent us from properly defending not only our lives but our souls.