Alan Simpson sees the acid running in our culture’s veins: “No one forgives anyone for anything anymore. People get angry just for disagreeing with them.” He tossed in AA wisdom during a Newsweek interview in April: “If you can’t forgive a person, it’s like letting them live in your head rent-free.”
The Republican from Wyoming wasn’t squeamish during his Senate tenure from 1979 to 1997. He was sarcastic. He loved the fray. Weston Kosova comments: “He was known for having one of the sharpest minds – and tongues – in the US Capitol. Simpson became an expert in manipulating the Senate’s arcane parliamentary rules to frustrate the plans of Democratic colleagues.” But he also served in a different milieu. Simpson and his colleagues knew when to “let go,” a phrase illuminating a key nuance behind one of the original words for forgiveness. Their wrangling – couched in gentlemanly language such as “my good friend …” or, “the esteemed gentleman from …” – ended at 6 p.m., when erstwhile adversaries knocked back a few with those across the aisle. They could be friends – and they could govern.
Simpson refuses to blame our legislators: “Congress is a microcosm of America. You have guys jumping out of the stands at baseball games kicking the crap out of players. You have hockey players bashing each other. You have city-council and school-board meetings that are just chaos … It isn’t all in Washington, I’ll tell you that.”
The Sinister Side of Being Human
Let’s confess our darker natures: Our internal Mr. Hyde grins when Congressmen holler “liar” and “baby-killer;” we like Keith Olbermann’s “worst person in the world” selections; we hope President Obama is a foreign citizen and a secret Muslim; we wish George W. Bush sent in the troops merely for the oil, despite the facts (he advocated disengagement from nation-building before 9-11). Rush Limbaugh recently scandalized the nation when he named the crazy aunt in our attic: Most of us actually want our opponents to fail – and that was true of Democrats in the Bush era as it is of Republicans vis-à-vis Obama. We know nothing of loyal opposition and reasonable disagreement. We only see ill-motivated villains – because our nasty, hidden curmudgeons want it that way. Give me enemies. Please. Unforgiveness is like the alluring free martini lingering before the alcoholic, complete with its gin-soaked olive. We crave it even while we die of cirrhosis of the soul.
Our crazy aunt’s shriek deafens us to the freedom of forgiveness, of letting go. I remember serving a maligning, rumor-mongering church that magnified all my flaws and made up some others to fan the flames. I wanted revenge, so I marinated in the imprecatory psalms (see 139:19-22: “If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD, and abhor those who rise up against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies”). I shunned passages like Matthew 5:43-47: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even the pagans do that?” and Colossians 3:13: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
I didn’t pray so much as I yelled at God.
Picturing An Alternative
But then I imagined a huge bird straining to rise as it thumped its wings over a lake. It couldn’t. Its talons clung to an immense anvil. It finally released the weight, which splashed, and the bird soared and rode the thermals. I knew it: I was that bird. I was clinging to my anger and I could not fly. I craved my martini with its gin-soaked olive even though it yellowed my soul. I saw how forgiveness, letting go, blesses the forgiver just as much as the sinner. The imprecatory psalms give us permission to vent so we can eventually arrive at the passages in Matthew 5 and Colossians 3.
I then remembered two friends: Diane and Dan (not their real names). Diane, a drop-dead gorgeous kick-boxer, grandmother, and bust-the-quota corporate sales agent, once endured a failed marriage in which she was beaten. Yet she was infectiously hilarious and energetic. Dan was fatalistically morose despite his middle class upbringing and loving wife. He coated himself in pop psychology’s excuses: his parents were naturally quiet and distant; they couldn’t express affection; they didn’t understand him. It was obvious. Diane had the more violent past, yet she soared. That bird showed me why: She had forgiven; she had “let go.” She carried no weight. Dan still carried his lighter weight and could not rise to her heights.
A phrase struck me: “The greater the sin, the more necessary it is to forgive.” The rape victim must forgive her rapist lest he continually haunt her dreams. Bring it up to group level: The Hatfields must forgive the McCoys and vice versa. And then to societies: Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants must “let go;” The Congo’s antagonists must “let go;” Jews and Palestinians must “let go.” It’s the only realistic course. Settling old scores merely resets the vicious circle. Step out of the circle. Render it irrelevant: Let go and soar. Eileen Borris has seen the practicality in societal forgiveness and has advocated letting go in Liberia, Nepal, Pakistan, India, and the Middle East. This does not mean we refuse to bring people like Charles Taylor – the former leader of Liberia — to trial. It means Charles Taylor no longer defines our thoughts and actions.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Perhaps, but I would phrase it differently: We humans are not designed to carry our resentments. We’re like that bird. We’re designed to ride the thermals of the Holy Spirit. If we are to walk in intimacy with God, whose mercy triumphs over his judgment (James 2:13), then we must let go. Forgiveness is not only our obligation. It is our pleasure.
For more reading:
Kosova, Weston, “No One Forgives Anymore,” Newsweek, April 2, 2010, http://www.newsweek.com/2010/04/01/no-one-forgives-anyone.html