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.