Our editor Drew Christiansen, S.J., alerted me to the documentary "Forgiveness," a beautiful two-part series that aired on PBS over the last two Sundays (but which will also be repeated: check local listings). So I asked John Coleman, Jesuit sociologist, to review what he is calling a "rich and poignant documentary" of "stunning genius." At the end of his piece he writes, "I will watch and re-watch this thoughtful and deep documentary, which raises new questions about a primordial human ache." So don't miss it. (A part of the doc is available online for viewing here.) Here's Fr. Coleman's review:
When I mentioned to a Belgian Jesuit theologian visiting me during Holy Week that I intended to write a review of the PBS series, “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate,” he issued a stern warning: “Don’t be like so many religious voices who urge reconciliation at the drop of a hat, often enough before they have even acknowledged any real and painful conflict!”
Forgiveness lies at the heart of almost all of the world religions and is central to Christianity, with its vivid remembrance of Jesus’ haunting cry from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Yet the seminal idea and practice of forgiveness has taken on a new and expanded importance in psychology and therapeutic programs. I found online a list of 26 such secular programs to understand and inculcate forgiveness, among them theForgiveness Project at Stanford University, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. New research findings, for example, show that cancer patients are more likely to recover if they engage in forgiveness.
But this new penchant for a secular form of forgiveness carries some serious dangers as well as promise. There is no secular (or, perhaps, even religious) consensus on what forgiveness means, what its roots are, and when it can become a kind of cheap grace, too readily and facilely asked for and dispensed. The PBS documentary, produced by Helen Whitney for WETA in Washington, examines a TV reality show,” Forgive or Forget,” crassly displaying to a gawking public, under pressure of the cameras, what more properly belongs to the realm of intimate relations.
The stunning genius of this rich and poignant documentary is its careful probing, through narratives, of the limits, possibilities and reality of forgiveness. One segment recounts the horrific 2006 murder of ten young girls at an Amish school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania by a man, Charles Roberts, angry at God and deranged. The Amish offered almost instant forgiveness, embraced his wife, raised funds for her and her fatherless children. Admirable as such unconditional forgiveness seems, there is evidence that it may have foreclosed a necessary trajectory of grieving, which allows for anger along the sequence of learning to forgive and letting go.