I was listening to another episode of the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain this morning and it rekindled something that often comes into my mind when tragic events happen and this the act of forgiveness. This podcast was extremely interesting because they were talking with a researcher who was studying forgiveness by collecting data and interviewing people in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of their civil war. It is a unique situation because after they democratically elected a new government people who were on separate sides of a conflict were in the same communities, and even neighbors. You could be living next to somebody who cut off your hand, raped or killed a family member. What happened in that country is truly horrific, and no side was necessarily worse than the other. People were allowed to go back to their lives unpunished by the new government (with perhaps the exception of certain leaders). In the main story that they follow in the podcast the play excerpts of an interview with two men who were friends before the civil war and when one was captured by the rebels he was made to do horrific things. He came across his friend and the rebels wanted him beat his friend, and he would not do it, and so they shot at him injuring him and told them that if he didn’t he would be killed. Fearing for his life he did as they asked, and then asked him to kill his friend’s father. He also ended up doing that in fearing for his life.
I am going to stop there before I going into the aftermath. Right now some of you are judging the friend harshly who killed his friend’s father. Some of you feel extreme anger towards the adult rebels who would ask a youth to do this and some of you are just lost in sorry for the pain and anguish that both of these boys must have felt. You are maybe thinking what you would do in the same situation. You are thinking about it rationally and cooly. Let me say first that whatever decision you are making right now, may not be the decision you would make in the moment. And I think the most important thing that you should think about is that you never want to have to face this situation. Fear, when facing our own depth makes us capable of much more than we think. Sometimes horrific acts.
Now the question you have to ask yourself is how forgiving do you feel right now? And if you can forgive, how much should we expect those who were in that particular situation to forgive? The podcast asks the question, how does one move forward from such atrocities after neighbor has been set against neighbor?
The way Sierra Leone has dealt with this in trying to stitch their society back together is that all over the country they have reconciliation ceremonies in communities where people stand face to face with people who have done harm to them personally or friends or family members. They confront each without physical violence. There is confession and ask for forgiveness. And forgiveness often happens, because those who are willing to take part in the ceremony want to be able to forgive. When following up on those who had taken part in the ceremony and when forgiveness happened they found those people were more productive in their community. They made friends easier, they helped others in their community, more participation in politics and ensuring a positive political future and were more conscious of social justice issues. It all sounds pretty great. Forgiveness is a powerful part of healing and there is no psychological study that I know of that recommends holding on to anger and exacting revenge. Many think it will bring peace, but it does not. But if forgiveness is the better way, why do we have such a hard time doing it? Already there are a number of you who are thinking that you could not forgive in such situations as described earlier.
It turns out that the downside of these people who participate in these reconciliation ceremonies is that while society at large gains, the individual suffers. The act of forgiveness requires a great deal of courage because in that confrontation with a person who caused you harm you must also confront your pain. You must relive the trauma, the memories, and those horrific images. Individuals report greater depression and other symptoms of PTSD. The researcher’s recommendation is that the act of forgiveness needs to be followed by individualized mental health treatment. It makes a lot of sense. In addition to the obvious reminder about the importance of mental health it revealed to me that ultimately to truly overcome pain that we experience requires a confrontation within ourselves. As hard as it may be for two people stand face-to-face in these reconciliation ceremonies, it’s even harder to face the pain with in us. Perhaps this is why people choose not to forgive and seek external solutions so they don’t have to deal with that pain and never find that path to peace. Anger, addiction, or just disciplined suppression are all hallmarks of those who cannot forgive and this generally leads to more pain for others and cycles of conflict and violence continue. I say this without judgment, because no matter how rational my thought process is right now, I cannot know how I would react in the face of extreme fear, and extreme pain. I find it hard to blame others for not being able to forgive, and I don’t blame people for being angry when they experienced trauma and pain.
As I’ve said to others in the past, the most powerful part of the message of Jesus Christ has always been about the power of forgiveness and that if there is something to believe in, it’s redemption. The good news from the story told in the podcast is that those two men are once again friends. I am sure there are times when it is not easy. The one who killed his friend’s father helps the other plant his crops as he was injured during the civil war. There are no quick solutions I am sure for them but both are clearly on a path to peace and healing and a chance for a new generation to not have to face the horrors they faced. And maybe that’s the best reason to be courageous and forgive. Maybe our own wounds will still burst open from time to time and cause us pain, but maybe we can keep that pain out of future generations. Because when we act outwardly on our pain and harm others the suffering it causes as pain ripples outwards into their loved ones makes your wound everybody’s wound. And in I’m not saying it’s all easy but as a people we need to get better about supporting paths that lead to peace. Especially those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have such events happen in our lives. We need to help people confront the pain that tears through their soul and teach them how they can overcome it. Forgiveness has value in the face of hurt and harm in whatever form it comes in. We need to give compassion without judgment and replace despair with hope.