Seven years in, here’s what I’m thinking

My first experience inside a prison took place seven years ago this month. I had reluctantly accepted an invitation from my neighbor, Bob Blatz, now deceased, to join him in a faith-based reentry program at the nearby federal prison. That first visit to USP Canaan began a transformative process in me.

Over the years my views of what kind of people convicted criminals are have changed. Years ago it was easy to paint with a broad brush and see all criminals as really bad people. The annual refresher security training we receive at the federal prison only reinforces the image of the typical criminal as a manipulative, unrepentant and unredeemable cancer on the collective body of society.

This is undeniably true of some criminals. I have met men I would not want living in my neighborhood. In truth, it might be best if some of them are never released from prison.

But it is not true of all. In my opinion it is not true of the majority of men I have met in any of the three facilities I regularly visit: the federal penitentiary, the federal minimum-security prison camp and two county jails.

As I teach forgiveness and integrity classes in all these locations, I ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Some of the answers involve a short life history. Many of these stories are as profoundly disturbing as the rap sheets that tend to define our stereotypes about criminals.

In a recent forgiveness class at a county jail, I led a group of about six men through a forgiven or unforgiven exercise I included in the workbook I wrote. In a two-column chart, they listed on the left side the names of people who had harmed them that they had since forgiven. On the right side of the chart they listed names of people who wronged them that they had still not forgiven. As we went through the exercise, I asked that they report on just one person who had wronged them.

In turn, I approached each inmate and asked the question, “Forgiven or Unforgiven?” When they answered, I then asked this two-part question: “What happened and why have you forgiven (or not forgiven) the person?”

Over the years of teaching forgiveness, I have come to understand that people forgive or refuse to forgive for reasons that seem reasonable and appropriate as they consider the harm they experienced and the person who did the harm. Hearing the story and the reason forgiveness was granted (or withheld), enables me to ask further questions that shed further light on what is going on inside the men I serve. This is where, increasingly it seems, the stories I hear are profoundly disturbing.

In that class I mentioned above, I came to an inmate whose first answer was, “Unforgiven.” So I asked my follow-up questions, “What happened and why have you not forgiven?” The story went something like this:

“When I was six years old, my mother put me in the car with her and started driving. After we had gone some distance, she stopped the car, opened my door and told me to get out. I got out. She got back in the car and drove off. I didn’t see her again until I was married with a child of my own.”

I was silent for many seconds. Then I asked why he had not forgiven her. He looked at me as if to ask, “And what planet are you from?” He then said, with obvious emotion, “Something like what my mother did to me is not forgivable. By definition, abandoning a six-year old child is unforgivable.”

I nodded, affirmed how unacceptable his mother’s actions were, and thanked him for being truthful. I turned to the next inmate. Same question: “Forgiven or unforgiven?” His answer was intriguing: “It’s both. “ So I asked, “What happened?” His story went something like this:

“My mother gave birth to me when she was sixteen. She was not ready to be a mother and my earliest memories are of her beating the crap out of me. She did this until I was big enough that she couldn’t do it anymore. But I have forgiven her for this.”

I asked why. “Because she was young and not emotionally ready for motherhood. Because of that I have forgiven her for physically abusing me.”

What, I asked, had he not forgiven her for? His face was instantly flushed with pain. He struggled to answer. After a few seconds he continued his story.

“My mother refused to tell me who my father was. I asked her over a period of many years and she refused to tell me. And for this I will not forgive her.”

I asked why not. He went on to say that he was furiously angry with her because he had to find out who his father was from someone else. I waited.

“After I turned 18, I learned that my father is actually my grandfather.” His eyes grew moist. His face was still flushed. The room was still. Every eye was on him.

I ventured to speak. “Are you saying that your grandfather sexually abused his own daughter?”

His answered took me aback. “For all I know it was consensual because my mother is a slut.” The cellblock remained very quiet.

Taking the conversation to a level I knew could be risky, I said something like this: “It makes sense to me that your mother would not want it to be known by anyone what her own father had done to her, and especially that it resulted in a child.” I continued, “Childhood sexual abuse is a horribly traumatic and shaming experience. Your mother’s silence is understandable. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse cannot talk about what happened.”

He listened. I waited for a response. After a few seconds he said, “She should have told me. It was wrong for me to have to learn this from somebody else.” I nodded and decided to move on to others in the group.

Later we watched a video segment about a man who suffered what he considered to be an unforgivable wrong when he was 52 years old and remained bitter about it for the next 30 years. I led the group in a consideration of his story. We focused particularly on the pain and shame he felt, as well as the anger he could not seem to effectively manage.

Every story of unforgiveness I had heard earlier in the session was also a story of pain and anger. So I asked how many in the group had turned to alcohol or drugs in an effort to deal with their emotional pain. Every hand but one went up. I do not know for sure, but experience suggests to me that every man who admitted to turning to alcohol or drugs to deal with his pain was now incarcerated on a charge of drug possession, drug distribution or a DUI.

In his excellent—and profoundly disturbing—book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Canadian physician Gabor Maté writes this:

“The statistics that reveal the typical childhood of the hard-core drug addict have been reported widely but, it seems, not widely enough to have had the impact they ought to on mainstream medical, social, and legal understandings of drug addiction. Studies of drug addicts repeatedly find extraordinarily high percentages of childhood trauma of various sorts, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.” Maté goes on to say, “…the renowned Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, looked at the incidence of ten separate categories of painful circumstances—including family violence, parental divorce, drug or alcohol abuse in the family, death of a parent, and physical or sexual abuse—in thousands of people. The correlation between these figures and substance abuse later in the subjects’ lives was then calculated. For each adverse childhood experience, or ACE, the risk for the early initiation of substance abuse increased two to four times. Subjects with five or more ACEs had seven to ten times greater risk for substance abuse than did those with none.”

Long before I encountered Maté’s book, I had begun to wonder about the connection between the childhood, drugs and criminality of the inmates I got to know in the facilities where I serve. As the connections became clearer, I began to ask myself how the relatively small amount of time I’m allowed to spend with inmates is going to be best spent. I also wondered about what investments our society should be making in its criminal justice budgets to give prison inmates a fighting chance to put their lives back together before they are released.

I’ll speak to these questions in my next post.




Some things are just plain unforgivable. Everyone knows this and it’s hardly debatable. But the primary reason I hear for this truism from those participating in my prison classes might interest you:

“Unforgivable things can’t be forgiven because that would make them ok.”

I hear this often. Recently, twice in the same week, class participants in two different prisons interrupted me with objections to forgiveness based on the premise that forgiveness means that the awful thing or person we propose to forgive must not be so awful after all.

Child sexual abuse is always — and I mean “always” — top of the list of awful things prison inmates consider unforgivable.

So I show a video in which a woman who was sexually molested by her uncle for three years when she was a child says that she has now forgiven her uncle. Comments? Most of them can’t be reproduced here because it would require too many deleted expletives.

So I engage those who object the strongest: “Do you hear her saying that being raped as a 7-year old by her uncle was ok?” Well, no. “Did you not hear her say how traumatizing it was?” Well, yes. “Did you not hear her say that by not forgiving her uncle she was giving him power over her, and that that was unacceptable?” Well, yes.

How is it that forgiving, in the minds of many people, requires them to revise their opinion that the very awful and painful harm that someone did to them isn’t so awful after all? That the act of forgiveness requires them to accept as ok what truly might have been a despicably evil deed?

For some, unforgiveness seems like a reasonable and justifiable defense mechanism — a way of protecting oneself from further harm. Thus, even if forgiveness is an internal decision that isn’t communicated to the person who did the harm, it still is dangerous because it means that I will inevitably open myself to future harm.

For others, forgiving a serious harm is unthinkable because it would require them to address the anger within them they have allowed to go unresolved for such a long time. It is easier to stay focused on the bad thing someone else did than to look within myself and ask what kind of person I have become because of my own anger and bitterness. If we can make what someone else did the issue then we don’t have to face the uneasy question of whether I have now become the issue.

Forgiveness has probably been presented in many settings as a moral or spiritual obligation that one does unconditionally because God requires it. Under those rules, forgiveness can become a decision that is disconnected from the necessary process of finding healing for our pain, resolution of our anger and an end to our resentment. Any act we do because it is a moral or spiritual ‘ought’ that does not also acknowledge and legitimize our pain, anger and resentment is unhealthy and improper. Too many people see forgiveness, however, as just that kind of act. It isn’t.

There is surely a legitimate question about the message we are sending when we forgive someone for a despicable thing they did. Many worry that the message this sends is, one, that the despicable thing is ok or, two, that permission is thereby granted to the person to do that despicable thing again.

As to the first question, forgiveness, by its nature, is reserved for serious wrongdoing. No one forgives a person for something he has done that is benign or good. The decision to forgive necessarily includes a judgment that wrongdoing took place. Forgiveness never requires us to change our mind about that.

On the second question, I suppose it is possible a person who receives forgiveness could take that as permission to repeat the wrongdoing. Holocaust survivors have long argued that the extermination of six million Jews is unforgivable. A reason often cited is that the refusal to forgive is crucial in communicating the collective judgment of humanity that genocide is unacceptable. Forgiving, it is argued, creates just enough ambiguity to embolden a repeat performance or provide incentive for another observer to do the same.

I have serious doubts that this is true. As I see it, forgiveness is far less likely to embolden repeat offenses than the fact that the offender faces no consequences for his action. Forgiveness neither excuses wrongdoing nor removes the possibility of serious or painful consequences. Repeat offenders are not deterred by unforgiveness nor are they granted permission by being forgiven. Repeated wrongdoing, especially when it comes to criminal behavior, is informed by a different calculus that involves a determination that the risk is ultimately worth it. It may be informed, as well, by deep wounds related to trauma. But that is another blog.





“I just don’t get it”

Over two sessions a group of inmates watched the video, “Forgiveness: Stories for Our Time.” A Canadian production, the film features four individuals who experienced horrific losses, shared their stories of pain and the challenge to find a way forward through forgiveness.

The first story is of Lesley Parrott, whose daughter, Allison, was brutally raped and murdered by a serial sex offender in Toronto. Ms. Parrott forgave the man and expressed her desire for him to find healing.

Set in Northern Ireland, the second story follows Alan McBride through the death of his wife, a victim of an IRA terrorist bombing in Belfast. Mr. McBride declines to describe his “letting go” of anger and enmity toward the bomber and the IRA as “forgiveness.” But he does find healing and commits himself to working for reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics.

Julie Nicholson is featured in the third story. An Anglican vicar, Reverend Nicholson loses her daughter to a jihadist terrorist bombing in London. She affirms that forgiving the suicide bomber would be inappropriate. She leaves the church’s ministry and becomes known as the pastor who can’t forgive.

The last story is of Anne Marie Hagan. Her father was killed in his living room and in the presence of his family by an axe-wielding neighbor suffering from an untreated mental illness. She recounts the impact on her life and a lengthy struggle with anger and desire for revenge. But she is later moved to forgive and experiences a profound change in her life.

So we watched these four stories. I gave the class members opportunity to journal their thoughts. One wrote these words:

“I don’t know how the woman could forgive the guy for killing her father… I don’t get the guy who forgave the bomber for killing his wife… I just don’t get it… I just don’t get it… I just don’t get them at all, how they can do it. I don’t think I can do it. Maybe one day. But I don’t think I can do it.”

I consider it unfair to show a video such as this and ask the viewers, “What would you do if you were the person suffering so great a loss?” How can we really know what we would do? So I don’t ask that question.

But I do want viewers to express what these stories cause them to think and feel. Some will say that such stories make them think the painful things they have experienced pale by comparison. Some say such stories are depressing. Some say such stories inspire them to try and be more forgiving.

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to teach and promote forgiveness to men in prison. And then I remember what learning how to forgive meant for my life. And I also remember that putting forgiveness on the table for public discussion in places like prisons just might contribute to…well…forgiveness, which can only but make the world a better place.

“This gets personal real quick”

I began a new series of forgiveness classes this week at two prison facilities — once again with revised material I seem to be endlessly revising. The first session is an introduction to forgiveness. Everyone has an opportunity to propose his own definition of forgiveness and to pose a vexing question about forgiveness. We also consider the first chapter in Helen Whitney’s excellent film, “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.”

My previous revision of the handout printed material posed questions about the content of the video. I wanted to make sure everyone was paying attention. But I rewrote the questions to focus less on the facts of the video and more on the thoughts and feelings the video prompts in those watching it. I describe it as the characters in the video holding up a mirror and asking us to see ourselves in their shoes.

So the questions are designed to be personal. This was not lost on one of the participants who looked my way and whispered, “This gets personal real quick.”

I agreed, while also affirming that everyone’s answers could remain as private as they wished. No one had to share with the rest of the class. But as we went through the questions, some did share. One was raw and deep.

The participant, a military veteran who served several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he had participated in so many awful things that he harbored grave doubts that he could ever be forgiven. He shared that his wife had told him that his current incarceration was punishment for what he’d done in war and that he deserved it. His eyes filled with tears as he revealed his greatest fear — that God would not forgiven him.

I responded out of my heart, saying back to him that I could hear the ache in his voice and see how tortured he was over this. I also assured him that in subsequent sessions we would give serious consideration to his desire to be forgiven. He seemed grateful.

I’m grateful too. It is an honor to be present with men who are willing to consider what place forgiveness can have in their lives.

“No memorable experience of forgiveness”

I recently began the forgiveness project with a new group of inmates. In the first session I asked everyone to share a memorable experience of forgiveness. It could be an experience of forgiving after a long time of holding a grudge. Or it could be an experience of being forgiven by someone you had harmed.

One participant immediately spoke of having forgiven his father, who had been a cruel parent for many years. Another spoke of being forgiven by a member of his family.

The next man to speak said, “I have no memorable experience of forgiveness.” He went on to say that his practice was to consistently end relationships with people who harmed him. “When someone breaks my trust, that’s it,” he said. “I don’t forgive them and I don’t give them another chance to do me wrong.”

“What about being forgiven?” I asked. He replied, “I can’t remember anyone ever forgiving me.”

Several long seconds of silence passed. He looked at the man who had spoken about forgiving his father. “Let me tell you about my father,” he said. He described a man with whom he had never enjoyed a pleasant moment, a man who never displayed affection of any kind, and a man who was absent and uninvolved.

Then he began to tell something that happened when he was nine years old. His mother had asked his father to take him shopping for school. On the list were several items of clothing and a pair of boots. The boots were a coveted brand and he really looked forward to having a pair. But at the store the father refused to buy any of the items except one very inexpensive piece of clothing. “But what about the boots?” he pleaded with his father. “I’m not buying you those boots,” was the angry response. He looked around at all of us in the circle. “I remember this as if it happened yesterday.”

“From that day,” he said, “I wrote my father off because I knew he did not love me.” After a pause, he added, “So I guess you can say that I only have memorable experiences of unforgiveness.”

Before the session began, this brother told me he would be released in nine weeks. So when he had finished, I looked at him and said, “So we’ve got nine weeks to work on this, right?” He smiled and nodded. And then he said, “I’m taking this forgiveness project because I really want to know if it’s possible for me to forgive someone like my father.”

It’s always nice to know what the challenge is. And how much time you’ve got to address it.


Who can forgive the unforgivable?

One of the sessions in the eight-week series on forgiveness — which I teach in a federal prison and county jail — is “The Case Against Forgiveness.” It might seem odd that I would include this topic in a series on forgiveness, the purpose of which is to help men in custody learn how to forgive. But early on in the development of the series I discovered that objections to forgiveness were many and often deeply held. An honest consideration of  forgiveness required an honest and sympathetic look at the unforgivable.

Last week at the county jail, we considered the case against forgiveness. I asked the participants to write a short paragraph about a wrong committed against them that they considered unforgivable. A follow-up question was, “Why do you consider it to be unforgivable?” The next question was broader: “Do you agree that some things are objectively unforgivable? If so, what things are on your list?”

Not every participant is able to describe a wrong he has experienced personally that he considers unforgivable. Others describe such things as sexual unfaithfulness by a partner, abandonment by a parent or a friend who turns them in to the police.

But on the second question, nearly everyone can quickly make a short list of wrongs they consider objectively unforgivable. At the top of the list for nine out of ten participants is child sexual abuse. Rape and murder are close seconds.

So last Wednesday, when the men finished writing, I asked for a few to share what they had written in answer to the first question about their own experience. There was a very long pause. Finally, an older man (I’ll call him Bill) offered his answer. He described being sexually abused as a child. Everyone on the cell block — even those not participating in the class — grew immediately silent.

As he came to the end of his story, another participant (I’ll call him Mark) — who often voiced his objections to forgiving — passionately affirmed his conviction that child sexual abuse can never be forgiven. No sooner had he stated this than Bill turned around, looked at the entire group and said, “But I did forgive him.”

Mark’s face spoke first. It was a look of astonishment. But he quickly retreated to his default setting of unforgiveness and reaffirmed his judgment that no one in his right mind should ever forgive something like that. I decided it was time for me to step in and seize this teachable moment.

I turned to Bill and asked if I he would be willing for me to interview him about his experience in front of the class. He agreed. He had already sufficiently described the abuse so I directed my questions to the impact on his life and how he ultimately ended up forgiving the abuser.

So in answer to a series of questions, Bill described extreme bouts of anger and depression, which he attempted to alleviate with alcohol, drugs, and sex. He spoke of repeated criminal activity and multiple incarcerations. He described numerous failed relationships. Though he was talking just about his own life, I knew that Bill was also describing, at least in part, what other men in the room had also experienced.

Eventually, we came to the question of forgiveness. I asked Bill to tell us how and why he forgave the abuser. He spoke of a sense of desperation borne out of watching himself repeat the same patterns of behavior over and over again. So he ended up in the confessional booth at a Catholic church, telling his story to a priest. It was all a bit too much for that setting, so he and the priest moved to another room for a lengthy conversation, which eventually arrived at the question of forgiveness — God’s and ours.

The priest assured Bill of God’s forgiveness of every wrong and sin he had committed. Then he spoke of Bill’s opportunity to now forgive his abuser. Bill described how he made that decision and how it has literally saved his life. He said something very similar to this: “When I went into the confessional booth that day, I felt I had no options left. It was either deal with all this darkness or die. Staying on the path I was on I knew would lead me next to death.”

I allowed that to sink in for a moment. I looked over at Mark who was shaking his head. I then looked back at Bill and decided to return to the point of the lesson. “So,” I said to Bill, “it sounds like you made a decision to forgive someone for a truly unforgivable wrong he had done to you.” Bill nodded. I looked again at Mark and invited him to respond.

He said something along this line: “I would never forgive someone who did something like that to one of my children. I would handle it with a gun. And I can assure you that no child of mine would ever forgive someone who hurt them in that way.” And he ended with this chilling statement: “Because I have taught my children to deal with things like this the same way I would.” Looking around the room, Mark was smiling.

But no one else was.

I think I know why. Every man in that cell block has experienced similar destructive cycles of anger and depression. Though the causes are different, and the pain may be less, the cycles are much the same — especially the use of alcohol and drugs as a kind of self-medication. Very few men ever resort to Mark’s solution of attempting to solve the problem with a gun. Revenge is a sweet thought, but few people ever act on such fantasies. And for good reason. So most of us try and live with our stress, our ulcers, our alcohol and drug abuse, our broken relationships and our sleepless nights.

Bill knows all about that. Intimately. But he also experienced — out of desperation, to be sure — a way forward. And according to his own analysis, a way forward that saved his life.

Can we truly forgive the unforgivable? At an individual level, yes. But there are other important questions wrapped up in this larger question of forgiving the unforgivable. I’ll save that for another post.


Sweet revenge isn’t so sweet after all

Just one week into a new Forgiveness Project series, revenge emerged as the subject the group of 12 wanted to discuss. Vent would be a better word, for nearly everyone had a tale of betrayal by a trusted associate or colleague. If seething can be felt, it soon was filling the room as many began to mentally revisit the past.

A high number of federal inmates are convicted, or decide to plead, on the testimony of an informant. Often these informants are business associates involved with the defendant in a legal business or an illegal drug trade. Prosecutors often bring enormous pressure on a criminal’s contacts or business partners to testify, usually in exchange for a lighter sentence. Many do.

The anger felt by those who end up in prison because of such “ratting” is usually very deep. Revenge, though it may never be carried out, is not far from the center of an inmate’s thinking. Today, one man said he thought about it every day since he was convicted.

Others agreed that they have often fantasized about how to repay those who turned against them. At least for a while, such thoughts are quite pleasurable. I described why, mentioning the brain studies that show how the so-called pleasure pathways in the brain light up when the subject contemplates paying someone back for the harm s/he has done. It is the same pleasurable effect cocaine brings to the brain. It’s no wonder the idea of “sweet revenge” has taken root in our thinking.

But, not surprisingly, the pleasure does not last. Not for cocaine and not for revenge. We talked about that today. A surprising number of those who spoke acknowledged that revenge was a dead-end street littered with pain and wrecked lives.

One inmate told a gripping story of joining his brother to seek retribution on a man who had insulted their father. They lured him to a parking lot late at night under false pretense, attacked and beat him, warning him never to so much as look at their father again. Afterward, he said, he had no satisfaction, realizing that his actions showed him to be no better than the man who started it all.

He told of another situation when he was serving time in a state prison. A fellow inmate who was involved with him in Bible studies learned that the man who murdered his brother was also serving time in the prison. He grew enraged and began to heat a cup of water to boiling in the microwave in the cellblock, intending to throw it in the face of the murderer before physically assaulting him.

As he took the boiling water from the microwave, his friend asked him if this was the response he had learned when studying the Bible. The question stopped the man cold. Pressing in, the friend reminded him of what they had learned about forgiveness and asked if that wouldn’t be the better response. The man broke down and wept, as did his friend. Later, he approached the murderer and extended his hand in friendship, saying that he had forgiven him. The murderer was so moved by this that he joined the Bible studies.

Everyone today in the circle was also moved. Several began to tell their stories of betrayal, pain, anger and contemplated revenge. I helped guide the conversation, but could add nothing more than background and context as these men – all of whom have been through the forgiveness classes – helped one another resist the urge to seek revenge and embrace the better response of forgiveness.

The road back

At one facility we are in the 10th week of a forgiveness project. We’ve watched  videos of people talking about bad things done to them and describing how they have — or have not — been able to forgive. We’ve read and discussed similar stories. And we have interviewed each other about our bad decisions and how they have sometimes led us into situations where others did us wrong and we were confronted with the question of forgiving.

GH has been a relentless interviewer at such times. He bores in with questions that make you squirm. More than once I needed to remind him that we are more interested in the future — which we can change — than in the past, which we cannot change. Forgiving, I always say, has great potential to write a new narrative for the future of all of us. We learn from our past, hopefully; but we cannot change it.

I had been asking GH to let me interview him in front of the class. He declined at first but later relented. We sat facing each other a week ago and I asked the question with which we always begin such interviews: “G, tell us about being wronged by someone in the past.”

He looked at me and smiled. “I am not going to tell the story you think I am.” I knew that G’s son had been shot and killed by a police officer and, indeed, this is the story I expected him to tell. He continued, “I am going to tell you how I have harmed myself.”

I truly was not expecting this, but I invited G to proceed. In less than a minute, he was deep into the story of his multiple and repeated failures to do the right thing. Once, previously, it had landed him in a county jail. Now, again, he was back in prison. But he was more anguished over all the bad choices that hurt him and people close to him, even if he escaped arrest and prosecution.

His eyes filled with tears and he became very self-conscious. I, and other caring men in the room, offered tender words and wise questions that seemed to help G climb on top of his emotions and gather his thoughts again. At one point he said something like to this: “What worries me  most is the thought that I am, at heart, a criminal and will never be anything else.”

In almost five years of work in prisons, I have never heard anyone say something like that. Many will affirm the injustice of their arrest or prosecution or sentence. Once in a  while someone will say he is looking at imprisonment as the chance to turn his life around. I had never heard anyone worry aloud to me or a group of inmates that he was afraid that he would always do the criminal thing.

Another participant, GF, echoed GH’s worries. He said he wondered if he, too, was somehow doomed to repeat the past. But he affirmed, correctly in my opinion, that the ability to even ask the question was a sign of progress that held hope for the future.

Another participant raised the forgiveness question: “G, have you been able to forgive yourself?”

“Not entirely,” G responded. “This is something I am still working on.” I suggested that the forgiveness question is related to the worry that he will be a career criminal. G agreed.

Toward the end, G made the hopeful statement that he was glad to still have some time left on his sentence to work on things. “I am not ready to go back home,” he said. “But I very much want to be ready when the time comes.” I have two more sessions with him to do my part. But I know that his willingness to take a six-week forgiveness class, followed by a 13-week forgiveness project says hopeful things about his chances of success.

As we were adjourning, G turned to me and said, “You thought you had me when my eyes got watery.”

I replied, “G, you know I’m not here to get anyone. We are all in this together.” He smiled, shook my hand and walked away.


He listened…and acted

The theme was the limits of forgiveness. It is the class where I acknowledge what almost everyone believes — that some things are unforgivable. The example I intended to put forward was Ariel Castro, the man who held three women captive in his home in Cleveland for ten years. It is a horrifying story of depravity, cruelty, and sexual abuse.

Before I could get to the story, however, one participant had his hand up, ready to provide his own example of the unforgivable. Not surprisingly, James began to describe his codefendant. The man had been a friend, but when offered a lighter sentence in exchange for his testimony against James, he took it. Worse still, he even embellished his testimony against James.

James described the impact. “I laid awake at night for 48 months, hating this man for what he had done to me and  my family.” James received a lengthy sentence and his family has suffered in the way all families of prisoners suffer.

James continued. “For a long time it really did not matter that I was actually guilty of what they convicted me of. I blamed this man for putting me in prison because it was easier than admitting that I am the one who made decisions to break the law.”

Up to this point James had said nothing I had not heard numerous time before. In prison “codefendant” is a three-letter word spelled “rat.” Among inmates, codefendants are almost always at the top of a list of the unforgiven. But then James said something that really moved me.

“So after four years of hating and blaming this man — and losing lots of sleep over it — I decided to try what you recommended one night at the Sunday service.” My antenna went up. James continued: “You recommended that before we went to sleep that night we should forgive the people who have hurt us. So when I climbed in my bunk that night I forgave my codefendant.”

The room was very quiet; everyone seemed to be waiting to hear the outcome. James provided it: ” I did not completely succeed that night, but I got a good start, and I have continued to work at it. Remembering what he did now is not the way it used to be. I think about it and I move on. And I am sleeping at night again.”

Before I could say anything, another participant, seated just two chairs away from James, blurted out, “That’s what I need to do! His story is exactly the same as mine.”

I told the class that James had taught the lesson better than I could have. It is one thing, I said, to speak  abstractly about what we consider to be unforgivable; it is something else when we are in bad pain because of something unforgivable that’s actually been done to us. In James’ case, what his codefendant did was, for four years, unforgivable. But after many sleepless nights, he decided to see if it really was unforgivable. And he has discovered that it wasn’t. He has encouraged us all to reconsider.

My point did not stand for long before another participant vowed that he would never forgive his codefendant for ruining his life. And not only would he never forgive, he would have his revenge one day. The rat would pay.

“Brother,” I said, “being so honest about this is a good thing, and it takes  courage to say what you just said in the middle of a class on forgiveness.” I added, “please stay with me for the several classes that remain and let’s see what happens.” He smiled and agreed.

“I never forgive anyone”

I was halfway through the one-hour class on forgiveness at a local county prison when his hand went up and the inmate responded to a point in the lesson with, “I never forgive anyone.” I asked him to say more about that.

His answer was interesting. He stated that holding a grudge against someone was a good way of reminding him not to commit a similar wrong against someone else. “If I forgive,” he said, “I will have no incentive to hold myself to a higher standard. Holding a grudge helps  me not to do the thoughtless, harmful things to someone else that have been done to me.”

I have heard numerous arguments against forgiving, but I must admit I have never heard this one.

We had been talking about a man who had spent much of his life blaming his father for being an alcoholic, for beating his mother, for being a terrible father. Whenever something went wrong in his life, the son blamed the father. He justified his own irresponsibility by blaming his father.

But his perspective dramatically changed when he became a father. He realized that his father had not set out to be a bad father. He imagined that his father experienced the same feelings of love toward him as he felt toward his own son. He worried that if he did not forgive his father, he might somehow be doomed to repeat the same bad fathering toward his son as he had experienced growing up. So standing there beside his son’s crib, he forgave his father.

The inmate in my class had his own explanation of why the son forgave his father. “I think he forgave his father so that when he screwed up later in life he could let himself off the hook and lay the blame back on his father.” The inmate added this: “Holding a grudge is a powerful incentive not to repeat the wrong that has been done to you. Forgiving the person who wronged you is nothing more than a psychological game in which you give yourself an excuse somewhere down the road to be just like the person who hurt you.”

I responded that this was precisely the opposite of what I had experienced. My experience, I said, was that when I judged someone for the wrong he had done to me, refusing to forgive, I invariably sinned against someone else in the same way this other person had sinned against me.

His response was something like this: “You saying that doesn’t make it so.”