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 the Forgiveness 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.
Forgiveness is about giving up—giving up anger and a right to justice. Yet forgiveness also has to be earned. In one segment, Gideon Neuveldt, an African paramilitary who had tortured and murdered a number of black South Africans, underwent a religious conversion. He goes to visit a family of a man he had tortured and killed. He is seeking forgiveness, but the victim's father tells him it is too late. So, forgiveness can be too cheap, too early, without justice. It can also come too late.
If our notions of forgiveness are not merely sentimental, one has to admit the existence of radical evil in our world. As one commentator states about a perpetrator of calculated murder, “I wonder if a life can be long enough to atone for the harm that has been done.” A powerful segment of the documentary recounts the horrific axe mauling, in 1977, of Terri Jentz at Cline Falls State Park, Oregon where, while camping overnight, she and her roommate suffered serious wounds (the roommate was left partially blind from a brain injury).
At first, Jetz tried to forget the incident and not linger on the fact that the perpetrator was not found. This did violence to her, leading to depression and a sense of absolute powerless. Years later she goes back to the nearby town of Redmond, Oregon to seek out the perpetrator. She learns that a statute of limitations precludes his being convicted of the crime. Jetz discovers that many in the town, when they read about the axe mauling, knew that the perpetrator was a 17-year-old cowboy with severe anger management issues. His girlfriend said that she went to the scene of the attack and recognized his tire tread marks.
Yet at first, many in the town lied to Jetz. They refused to acknowledge radical evil could exist in their bucolic midst. Jetz found some satisfaction when the perpetrator was convicted in 1997 for another brutal crime. She even came to forgive the townspeople who covered up for him, recognizing that their powerlessness and complicity mirrored her own earlier reluctance to acknowledge the violence perpetrated on her. Jetz, who has written up her ordeal in a book, Strange Place of Paradise, came to see that forgiveness that came too cheap and early eradicated her own sense of self agency. It also allowed a lie to flourish where truth should have prevailed.
Not forgiving is a choice, as is atonement. Some things we do reverberate forever. Another powerful segment of the documentary recounts the tale of Katherine Power, who engaged in a bank robbery in Brighton, Massachusetts, as part of an anti-Vietnam protest. In the course of the robbery, a young Boston police officer, Walter Schroeder, was murdered, leaving behind a wife and nine children. Years later, Power, who had fled and found a new life in Oregon, running a successful restaurant and raising a son, felt shame because of her monstrous act. She saw that she needed to do the right thing for her son. It was only after a long period of penitence that Power was able to stop excusing her action by linking it to the brutal actions of the generals in Vietnam. She sees that she cannot ask forgiveness until she forgives the generals. Yet the daughter of the slain police officer does not forgive her. As she says in the film: "I can understand why Katherine Power does not want all of her life defined by one senseless act. But, unfortunately, our relation will always be defined by that.”
Another segment recounts a story of a woman who abandoned her husband and two young children to move away to pursue a career in psychology, ultimately earning a Ph.D. She had felt boxed in by her role as wife and mother. Years later she is still not reconciled with her children. She realizes with a startle that she, who now treats mental illness, caused mental illness and near suicidal depression in her abandoned daughter. She says in the film that she does not yet know how to forgive herself and, without that, she cannot ask for forgiveness. Clearly, atonement may be necessary, even if forgiveness is never granted. Paradoxically, refusing to forgive may cause lingering harms to the victim. Letting go allows them a new start on life. But forgiveness is not an excuse. It means facing up to harms done.
In a final segment on political attempts at reconciliation, we face the question of who can forgive. Can I forgive the Nazis, without the consent of their victims? At times to say I forgive might be a lie. A pressing question abides: can there be reconciliation without justice? Are there some crimes so monstrous that we can not really forgive the unforgiveable? Segments show German attempts at asking forgiveness for the Holocaust, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and difficult probes following the genocide in Rwanda.
Clearly, we cannot legislate reconciliation. We need to ask if forgiveness might desecrate the memories of those who were brutally slain. We also have to ask whether we want to live only in the past wrongs, in memories, and not in the present and directed toward a different future.
Seeing this extraordinary film during Holy Week and Easter, when so many people flock to confession, I pondered the many times I have met penitents who can not quite believe they are forgiven, or who find it so hard to let go of hurts and forgive or who can not forgive themselves. (In my experience many penitents confess the same sins over and over). If forgiveness entails true justice, atonement, confronting evil, it nevertheless is a pressing human imperative. The documentary ends with a quotation from Pope John Paul II: “Forgiveness can purify memory. It can sow and bring life even to the killing fields.”
I will watch and re-watch this thoughtful and deep documentary, which raises new questions about a primordial human ache: for new starts, for justice, for truth, for a healing of memories. Having studied theology, I used to think I understood forgiveness. I now realize just how elusive and mysterious it is, fraught with both hope and danger. To forgive may, indeed, be divine. Yet those of us who are not divine cannot, too facilely or cheaply, grant or ask for forgiveness. When it authentically comes, it is always a tremendous grace to the one forgiving and the one forgiven. It is never just a fiat.
"Forgiveness: A Time to Love and A Time to Hate" aired on many PBS stations Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday night. Part of the series can viewed online.