Rod Dreher

After last night’s bleak post about man’s inhumanity to man, I wanted to counter with a post about something awesome: man’s capacity for forgiveness and healing. On my Templeton-Cambridge seminar last summer, my friend and colleague Amy Sullivan presented a project about forgiveness in Rwanda after the genocide. The story she told about what she had seen and studied in Rwanda was literally astonishing — and terrifically hopeful. She told the story of a reconciliation between a Tutsi woman whose family had been murdered by her Hutu neighbor … and the neighbor. Frederica Mathewes-Green, writing about a film on Rwandan forgiveness, observed:

Bishop Rucyahana, president of Prison Fellowship Rwanda, says, “Many people ask me why should a survivor of the genocide forgive . . . when you consider that a million people got destroyed by the cruelest means ever known, hacking people to death with machetes and banging children on the walls. First of all, forgiveness releases them. . . . The desire for bitter justice against those perpetrators is so great and that eats them up. When they forgive . . . it releases them, and then they can think right. . . . Those perpetrators, after they get forgiven, come to us and say, ‘Can you help us to do something to show our remorse?’ And now they are building houses for their victims.” Saveri spent eight months helping build a village of 30 new homes, including one for Rosario, in hopes of proving his remorse. (This home-building project continues; you can see it at Living Bricks Campaign.) So, yes, I got a little teary. But not, as I’d expected, at the images of skulls stacked on shelves, the children’s bodies on the ground, a corpse bobbing down the river. What touched me was the unexpected beauty of forgiveness, the victory of love over evil, the bursting of light into darkness. When Hotel Rwanda was newly released, I read a comment in Roger Ebert’s review that has stuck with me ever after. He wrote, “Deep movie emotions for me usually come not when the characters are sad, but when they are good. You will see what I mean.” It’s true. Watch As We Forgive; I think you’ll see it too.

I think I know what she means. My favorite scene in all of cinema is the following one from “The Mission.” Robert De Niro plays a slaver in colonial South America who made his ruthless reputation capturing Indians and pressing them into slavery. His adversary is a missionary priest played by Jeremy Irons. When De Niro’s violent passions get him thrown into prison, Irons negotiates his release, promising to take him to the mission in the mountains and put him to work. De Niro’s anger and self-hatred is bound up inside himself. He makes the agonizing climb to the mission at the top of the jungle mountain dragging a heavy burden of pots bound up in a net [Dan Berger corrects my memory: “the bundle was not a bunch of pots. It was his armor and weapons, symbolizing the fact that his life of violence was holding him in sin” — obviously, a representation of his guilt, which is very real. When he reaches the mission with Irons, he’s covered in filth and shame — and the Indians see that they have among them the man who had enslaved members of their families and tribe. Here’s what happens next:Notice how De Niro can do nothing, except receive the mercy he’s offered. Notice the deep, incomprehensible relief in his eyes. Here’s a column I did after the massacre in the Amish schoolhouse a few years back was met by the Amish community not with anger, but with forgiveness, and a reaching-out to the family of the killer, Carl Roberts. Excerpt:

What sets hearts apart is how they deal with sins and tragedies. In his suicide note, Mr. Roberts said one reason he did what he did was out of anger at God for the death of his infant daughter in 1997. Wouldn’t any parent wonder why God allowed that to happen? Mr. Roberts held onto his hatred, purifying it under pressure until it exploded in an act of infamy. That’s one way to deal with anger. Another is the Amish way. If Mr. Roberts’ rage at God over the death of his baby girl was in some sense understandable, how much more comprehensible would be the rage of those Amish mothers and fathers whose children perished by his hand? Had my child suffered and died that way, I cannot imagine what would have become of me, for all my pretenses of piety. And yet, the Amish do not rage. They do not return evil for evil. In fact, they embody peace and love beyond all human understanding. In our time, religion makes the front pages usually in the ghastliest ways. In the name of God, the faithful fly planes into buildings, blow themselves up to murder the innocent, burn down rival houses of worship, insult and condemn and cry out to heaven for vengeance. The wicked Rev. Fred Phelps and his crazy brood of fundamentalist vipers even planned to protest at the Amish children’s funeral, until Dallas-based radio talker Mike Gallagher, bless him, gave them an hour of his program if they would only let those poor people bury their dead in peace. But sometimes, faith helps ordinary men and women do the humanly impossible: to forgive, to love, to heal and to redeem. It makes no sense. It is the most sensible thing in the world. The Amish have turned this occasion of spectacular evil into a bright witness to hope. Despite everything, a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

If the human heart is capable of the foulest evil, it is also capable of awesome acts of goodness. It’s important to remember that. For me, though, if not for the power of God, I know I wouldn’t have it within my abilities to forgive something like this. According to Frederica, Amy Sullivan told the audience at a panel discussion on Rwandan forgiveness:

She pointed out that, although many religions teach forgiveness, “Christianity puts it into hyperdrive, with Jesus forgiving those who killed him from the cross.” And indeed the element of biblical faith is an important factor in the success of reconciliation in Rwanda, where Catholicism is the majority faith.Thus we see Rosario reading her Bible. “How can I refuse to forgive when I’m a forgiven sinner too? . . . I did not create this man. Even my family that he killed — I did not create them either. His crime was against God, who created the people that he killed. So I placed everything in the hands of God.”

The scientific aspects of forgiveness is something the Templeton Foundation is deeply concerned with. Here’s a link to a four-part video interview on the Templeton YouTube channel between NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty and Michael McCullough, author of “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.”

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