By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
When we see people oppressed, trampled on, violated, and their loved ones murdered, “forgiveness” is one of the first words that often comes to hand. There are thousands of memes and stories that urge people to forgive. Indeed, popular wisdom informs people that the anger they carry is only damaging to them. Offload it, we’re told, and everything will be fine.
Forgiveness can be a positive force, of that there’s no doubt. But we must distinguish between a harmful “instant forgiveness” and a helpful, spiritually satisfying “sustainable forgiveness.”
Real, sustainable forgiveness rarely comes quickly, and it cannot be forced, compelled, or coerced. A sustainable forgiveness certainly isn’t about quickly offloading anger, which often forces victims to deny their reality –putting them in the same position that they were in when they were first victimized.
Indeed, there are many steps on the path toward sustainable forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness doesn’t emerge straight away from victimization, and it certainly doesn’t ascribe to “forgive and forget!”
Many times, when people talk about an easy and instant forgiveness, what they’re talking about is erasing everything that’s happened to the one who’s been victimized. “Let’s just move on,” they say. But that’s not forgiveness, that’s denial.
Sustainable forgiveness doesn’t mean you let go of your rights or stop talking about the abuse that’s happened to you. Instant forgiveness can be a tool that helps the powerful to escape accountability, but real forgiveness cannot.
From Native Americans, African Americans, and even Palestinians are often asked to forgive and “move on.” But, before forgiveness, there must first be a reckoning, for instance, with the price that African Americans have paid: from slavery, through Jim Crow, through today’s structural racisms and police violence. This story has to be told and understood so that we move toward restoration and reconciliation. We can’t start the forgiveness process without this reckoning.
What might this look like? Instead of trying to push people to “forgive” and “move on,” we might talk about fixing the inequalities in our schools that hobble African-American children. At that point, we’re acknowledging the harm done and restoring what it’s possible to restore. These steps push us toward reconciliation and healing.
After that, forgiveness comes naturally, as an end result.
Making the choice to forgive then brings us to a place of grace and acceptance. It helps us come to the realization that some lives are not going to be repaired. Some damage cannot be resolved. Accepting grace means coming to a realization that the good we do comes from God.
This grace validates healthy boundaries and offers release in a true “letting go.” Yes, the harm was done. Yes, some reparations were made. And yes, there are some harms you cannot undo, no matter what.
What of the transgressor, whose privilege has stepped on someone else’s rights? This person now has to learn empathy.
In 2016, the news of that a young woman was raped by a young man described as an Olympics-bound swimmer rocked through the US and the world. It touched people hard both because of the man’s light sentence and because of the graceful letter written by the victim. This young woman had wanted to forgive and move on with her life. However, during the trial, not only was she attacked, but the swimmer-rapist refused to accept responsibility for what he’d done. He refused to truly acknowledge her pain or to make such reparations as might be possible.
The swimmer-rapist wanted to compel forgiveness by showing that he was vulnerable, that his reputation had been harmed. In doing this, he closes off any space for real forgiveness. If he had really wanted to create a space for forgiveness, he would’ve first owned up to both his own transgression and her resulting pain.
Instead, the swimmer-rapist’s push for her to forgive and move on—before he’s made any reparations—creates even more pain and hurt. The promotion of denial isn’t a solution. It compounds the problem.
In order to make forgiveness possible, there must be accountability. As this case shows, we are very good at calling the poor and unprotected to account. But people of privilege, and people who can afford excellent attorneys, can often escape this reckoning. A society that holds the poor to a much higher accountability is a society where forgiveness becomes difficult.
We can’t make progress until we hold ourselves accountable for our actions, admit wrong-doing, acknowledge suffering, rebuild what we have destroyed, and act together as a community.
Often, instead of doing this, we focus on finding “bad guys” and “thugs” among marginalized communities, such as new Somali immigrants and working class Immigrants or African-Americans. There are certainly people who commit crimes, and they also must be held to account. But this obsession with “bad guys” avoids and evades owning up to the mistakes we’ve made, for instance, in Iraq, with structural racism, with Native Americans, with slavery, and with Jim Crow.
When is forgiveness good for you?
Forgiveness can be a beautiful form of spiritual nurturing. It is positive, at a spiritual level, to forgive and move on. But you don’t, at any point, have to forgive. When you’re engaged in peace-making with another party or parties, it can certainly be mentioned as a choice. But you don’t ever want to force someone into it.
Once reparations and acknowledgements have been made, healthy boundaries also have to be re-established, so that the same transgressions don’t happen all over again. At that point, forgiveness can empower a person to move on and own their life. This is a form of “letting go” where a person doesn’t deny what’s happened to them.
It’s important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean that a person disappears and stop seeking their rights! It doesn’t mean that you stop fighting for what belongs to you.
It’s also important to remember that forgiveness can’t be just an easy way to escape pain and suffering, a shortcut to acceptance by the oppressor or the mainstream. There are no shortcuts to forgiveness.
I am working on a case of a beautiful forgiveness out of choice, acceptance, realization and grace from the story of Prophet Joseph, upon him peace, as well as Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings. I will share it once it is done.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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