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.


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