Published on Thursday, December 20, 2001 by Common Dreams
Forgiveness: The Harsh and Dreadful Precursor to Justice
by Mike Miles
"You have heard it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a
tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil, but whoever
slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him also the other...You have
heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your
enemy.' But I say to you love your enemies, and pray for those who
It may well be that in the human experience, more difficult words have never been uttered. The practicality of these instructions seem to defy all logic -- how could one ever imagine circumstances that would call for such a response? Perhaps in an ideal, or better yet, in a perfect world, one could give consideration to these seemingly impossible teachings. But then in a perfect world how could evil ever gain a foothold, or disputes that would create enemies even exist?
No, in these words rest the wisdom of ages present, the remedy for the human condition, the power to undo Hiroshima. In these words we learn forgiveness -- not surrender, certainly not capitulation, but, as Dostoyevski put it, the harsh and even dreadful reality which becomes the heart of love in action.
I have had the privilege to stand in the presence of forgiveness in situations of incalcuable loss and have been awed by its transforming power. I have walked beside Amber, Ryan, and Barry Amundson, wife and brothers of Craig Scott Amundson who was killed at his post in the Pentagon on that dreadful September morning. I have shared stories and laughter with David Potorti whose brother Jim died in the World Trade Center. They, along with other families of victims of 9/11, have become a moral compass to the nation as they issue a clarion call for justice without revenge, peace without war, an end to perpetual cycles of violence.
I have stood with families in hospital wards in Baghdad watching their children suffer and die for lack of simple medicines and clean water -- their plea to us being that no other families experience the horrors, the sorrows, they have known. I have been witness to farmers in Iraq whose son and brother was killed by an American cluster bomb while watching his family's sheep on yet another clear, blue morning. They gave our humbled delegation the only photograph they had of young Omran so we could continue to tell his story to anyone willing to listen--a story of innocence lost in the collision of empire and ideology.
I have read the report by Robert Fisk, reporter and Middle East expert, as he was being beaten to death by a crowd of Afghani refugees -- how he understood why they felt the need to lash out at anyone from the West and the shame he experienced as he escaped to safety.
This depth of understanding, of compassion, of forgiveness, is not unique to these exceptional individuals and families. It is a thread that runs through us all as children of a common Creator. Some have experienced it on a personal level with friends and family. Others have seen how it can transform social structures and even nations.
It is a power that is neither sentimental nor without cost -- witness the assassinations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero; the murders of countless human rights workers -- Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jafar Siddaq Hamzah; the imprisonment's of Aung San Su Kyi, Philip Berrigan, Angie Zelter, Mubarak Awad.
Forgiveness has been the lifeblood of the movement to free South Africa from apartheid. Love of enemies fueled those who led the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos from the Philippines, the liberation of East Timor, and the dissolution of communist block countries in the late eighties. In East Germany hundreds of thousands gathered regularly at the church of St. Nicholas in Leipzig to reflect on the Sermon on the Mount. Holding their candles, surrounded by the STASI (East German Secret Police) people demanded democracy and free elections. After the government of Erich Honecker had fallen, Horst Sindermann, a member of the Central Committee of the GDR remarked, "We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayer."
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there was a time when evil had so multiplied that God unleashed the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, a flood that destroyed virtually everyone in the world. When that didn't work and evil reestablished itself, God chose forgiveness as the cornerstone for saving us from ourselves. Even Jesus forgave his murderers in the midst of his execution The strength, the wisdom, the purity, of forgiveness as the precursor to justice seems to have eluded us for over two thousand years now.
As Christians approach the celebration of the birth of the One whose counsel often sticks in our throats, we would do well to consider the words of G. K. Chesterton: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried." We believe, help us in our unbelief. Lord have mercy.
Mike Miles lives at Anathoth Community Farm, a center for the study of Nonviolence and Sustainability in northern Wisconsin. He has traveled to Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness and recently accompanied the Walk for Healing and Peace with the National Mobile Peace Center--formerly known as the Remembering Omran Bus Tour.