“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.


A rather disturbing class session

In the Forgiveness Project I use video material to help stimulate discussion. I try to insure that these discussions are not abstract. Rather, I want the video material to help all of us reflect on our own questions and issues surrounding forgiveness.

To this end I recently showed the chapter, “The Language of Anger,” from the video “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate,” a film by Helen Whitney. (By the way, this entire video is just excellent, addressing so many of the relevant questions many people have about forgiveness).

The chapter I showed was about a brutal assault that took place in the late 1970s near Redmond, Oregon against Terri Jentz and her roommate, who were journeying across the country by bicycle. In the video, Terri Jentz describes the ordeal, the trauma she experienced, her anger and, ultimately, her effort to find some closure by returning to Redmond and trying to find the man who assaulted her. He had never been caught or prosecuted even though several members of the community felt sure they knew that he was guilty of the crime.

Terri Jentz’s story raises many important questions about the place of anger, evil, forgiveness that is granted too easily or quickly, and injustice. For the most part, the discussion following the video was constructive.

Toward the end, however, the conversation took an unexpected turn when one participant began to import into the discussion his doubts that Terri Jentz had told the truth about what happened to her. He admitted he had no basis other than his own speculations for doubting her story. But he suggested that she had known the perpetrator, meeting him in a bar and “rubbing up against him,” only to probably spurn his advances when he assumed she wanted to get intimate. Within a couple of minutes, the inmate had made Terri Jentz the cause of the man’s anger and violent action, which he implied were understandable, if not justified.

To be truthful, I sat there stunned. But it wasn’t over just yet. I looked around the table at nine other inmates, a few of whom were nodding in agreement. As I opened my mouth to respond with whatever came to my mind (and I had no idea what that was going to be) the recall announcement came over the public address system and the class abruptly ended. All I could say as they left the room was, “We shall continue this discussion next time.”

So now I have a week to ponder how someone can think  the victim deserved what she got and that her own story about a years-long journey wrestling with questions about anger, evil, forgiveness and justice is nothing more than an effort to shift responsibility onto someone else.

Stanton Samenow, in his seminal work, “Inside the Criminal Mind,” offers the thesis that irrational thinking is largely the basis of criminal activity. He dismisses, virtually out of hand, the popular idea that criminals are the products of environmental factors such as poverty, broken homes or lack of opportunity. Samenow’s extensive work with men in prison gives him confidence to assert that criminals can be reformed, but it takes a fairly radical change in the way they think. Samenow’s method is confrontation — criminals must be confronted with their irrational thinking and be helped to recognize it as the cause of their criminality and imprisonment.

Next week, I will dig a bit deeper with the class participant whose interpretation of the video so shocked me. Look for a follow-up blog post on it.


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.

Are Christians not allowed to take any credit?

I received a circular email today from a church planter who has written several helpful books on house church. He used to be a high school teacher; now I think he writes for a living. His name is Frank Viola.

In the email he sent out today, Frank listed three failures in 2014. He had failed to work out three times a week, failed to lose inches off his waist, and failed to read four books by now.

Next, Frank listed “My Successes So Far.” He prefaced the list with this: “(I attribute all success to the Lord. So these are really “praise reports.”)”

I immediately lost interest in Frank’s successes as I tripped over the much larger question that was now begging for my attention: So let me get this straight. If Frank is right, then he must take full responsibility for his failures and no credit whatsoever for his successes?

Frank Viola is by no means the first Christian brother or sister I have heard say this sort of thing. Within the last year, I can safely say I have heard something quite similar from half-a-dozen of my Christian friends. Some of them will blurt out with great happiness a description of some wonderful thing they accomplished, but then very quickly catch themselves to say that of course they give the Lord full credit for it, taking none for themselves.

“Why not?” I feel compelled to ask.

I get it when it comes to failures; I’m quite happy to take credit for mine, all the multiple truckloads of them. But would God not want me to take any credit for success? Is there something in the mind or will of God that insists that I give him all credit for every good thing I accomplish while taking all the blame for my failures?

Doesn’t the parable of the talents suggest that even God commends us when we have done right (without first requiring us to give Him credit for it)? “His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25.21).

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem giving God credit for the amazing grace that God has poured out on me and plenty of other people too. I can take no credit for saving myself, no credit for being forgiven of all my sins, and no credit for the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. But if God chooses to so manifest His grace in me, do I not have to agree to be so used? Do I not, as Paul put it in Romans 12, have to offer my body as a living sacrifice?

I don’t know. Maybe I am reacting against what I see as a false humility in those who must so quickly give God all the credit for the good while taking all the credit for the bad. I rather like what Job said to his wife: “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” That’s a tough statement and I think it says something about a relationship with God that has a few wrinkles and twists in it. As I think mine does, at least at times.

This is probably just something I have to work through. Some might say that my strong reaction to the professed humility of others suggests that I have a real problem with pride. Maybe so. But until God lets me see it I will continue to be as irritated by this as by a fingernail dragged across a chalkboard.

Portraits of reconciliation

Some of my friends enjoy bashing the liberal press. And it sometimes deserves bashing. But I enjoy reading the  liberal news outlets more than the  conservatives ones. Perhaps it is because of such things as “Portraits of Reconciliation,” which will appear in the print edition of tomorrow’s New York Times.

“Portraits of Reconciliation” is a photo essay about men and women in southern Rwanda who have chosen to forgive and seek reconciliation following the  genocide that enveloped the nation 20 years ago. In the piece, eight photographs, accompanied by the words of the perpetrator and the victim, tell horrifying stories of “man’s inhumanity to man” as well as the astonishing stories of forgiveness and reconciliation.

View the photos and read the stories here.


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.


Former federal inmate returns to prison

In 1987 Michael Santos was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison for a crack cocaine conviction. He earned his release after 26 years of good behavior, while also earning undergraduate and graduate degrees. He now returns to prisons to speak to inmates about his story and how their story can change. What does it take? In Santos’ own words, it takes a “100 percent commitment to rejecting the criminal lifestyle…100 percent commitment to preparing for success upon release.”

You can watch the story here.

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.”