Forgive the Boston Marathon Bombers?

Leaf by Larry Rose

No matter the event, whether tragedy or triumph, we look for connections. “I was born and grew up there!”

“My sister lives around the corner!”

“I did a summer internship in that building!”

“My nephew was his college roommate!”

Most grievously, when the connection has been foisted on us by life’s merciless and random roulette wheel: “That was my 8-year-old son who died in the blast.”

My own connection to the Boston Marathon is manifold. Exactly 20 years ago, I had approached that same finishing line where the explosions happened, exultant, like everyone, after finally living every runner’s dream: I had run Boston. It would be my final marathon, a grand occasion that had drawn me out of “retirement,” and for which I endured many months of difficult training and injury setbacks, none of which mattered as I floated down Boylston Street into the finisher’s chute.

I’ve also been in the city on several vacations, and like many people who do, declared, after eating in Little Italy or going to Fenway or strolling the Charles, “Oh yeah, I could live here.” I still know people who do.

The revulsion (or the joy) is always intensified, we feel we have a greater involvement and stake in the matter, when we are somehow connected to an intense event, of the kind that has a whole nation on edge, remotes in hand or thumbs on the cursor, obsessively clicking to find a different image, a fresh insight, a new bit of inside info into the background of the perpetrators or the fate of the victims.

And once our initial revulsion and muttered epithets of “Monsters! Who would do such a thing?” have faded, we are left to sort through the carnage in our own minds and hearts as we contemplate the horrors we have beheld. And inevitably, if we are religious persons, we touch upon the conundrums forever swirling around forgiveness.

Amazon returns 8,035 results when one types the word “forgiveness” into the books search bar. I am making an informed guess that I needn’t go through all the descriptions and reviews to surmise that virtually every one of them revolves around a similar basic theme: the moral, psychological and spiritual necessity of forgiving those who have wronged us. The authors talk of “moving on,” “letting go,” no longer being in the grip of anger and resentment about the transgression, with a black hole where the bright light of compassion and understanding should be.

In the case of the Boston bombings, the perpetrators hadn’t even been caught and surviving family members of the three murdered victims hadn’t yet had time to begin thinking about funeral arrangements before entreaties about the need for “forgiveness” began swirling around the Internet on religious websites, You Tube and Facebook.

And all I could think about the perpetrators up to that point, as a religious person, was: “Bastards!”

So: a few reflections on forgiveness here, in no particular order of importance, as I try to set my own mind aright after a tumultuous week for our national psyche.

• Talking about the need to forgive perpetrators of heinous acts before victims’ bodies have even turned cold is premature at best, presumptuous at worst.  (Unless you are the victim or are related closely to the victim(s), in which case I doubt very much whether forgiving the perpetrators is uppermost in your mind.)

• Righteous anger or at least revulsion is an appropriate response to a horrible act. The closer your “connection” to it, the more right and perhaps necessity you have to fully experience and express such anger. Full submersion is in many ways the precursor to the healing you ultimately seek.

Conversely, the more distant your connection, the less right you have to prescribe any emotions whatsoever for the aggrieved. (“You really need to forgive before you can move on with your life” is easy to say when it’s not your 8-year-old whose clothes you’re picking out for his funeral, or whose birthday you are mourning one or five or even 10 years later.)

• “Forgiveness” is often confused or conflated with acceptance, with finally being “done” with a hurt or tragedy that has had a grip on your heart. Many writers on forgiveness emphasize that it’s not nearly as much about the perpetrator as it is about the victim: We forgive as a gift to ourselves, as a way to no longer live in anger and seethe in resentment, so that our emotional lives are no longer under the control of our rapist or the murderer of our child.

This more egocentric view doesn’t even require a request for forgiveness from the perpetrator. Instead, forgiveness is more an internal act, a psychological adjustment of our own mind in order to achieve inner liberation from the darkness our transgressor has brought into our lives. But does this really fit the definition of “forgiveness?” (“To grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.”)

• I reject this view elaborated above, chiefly because I think forgiveness (as distinguished from “acceptance”) is a process—never to be rushed—that requires certain conditions to be met. And the first of those conditions is a sincere desire for forgiveness on the part of the perpetrator.

Violence or other transgressions are a rupture in the social fabric, representing a breach of the trust we must necessarily have in our daily relationship with the world and people within it. (I must trust you will not have a bomb in your backpack when I go to the coffee shop, or that you will not follow me out to the parking lot to rob or rape me after I leave.) The repair of this relationship, this basic trust in the world, requires the efforts of two parties: the transgressor (absolutely required) and the victim (not required, offered only when he or she is ready and willing).

To sum up this point, I say only this: If my forgiveness is desired for someone having harmed me or my loved ones, let the conversation begin with, “I’m sorry.” Until then, it’s all just abstract blather.

• It makes little sense for anyone far removed from a circumstance to feel a need to “forgive” the transgressors, or to counsel victims to do the same. (Unless you’re their therapist or minister, and even then, you should tread very lightly on emotional prescriptions.) It is invasive, presumptuous and patronizing to “forgive” what one party has done to another party. That is up to the victim in every case.

I am horrified by what happened in Boston, I feel anger and revulsion toward the perpetrators, but my relationship to the event is fundamentally different than is the victim’s. It is not necessary or even relevant for me to forgive the perpetrators. I’ll get over my anger easily and soon enough. It’s the victims who must carry that cross, and they’re the ones who need our outpouring of compassion.

On this last point, I am unmoved by well-meaning pleas to feel compassion for the perpetrators and the circumstances that “drove” them to their heinous acts—especially if they express no repentance. Again, let them start with an apology. Then I will avidly listen to their story.

Do I feel compassion for Charles Manson and that “life” he leads in his jail cell? No.

• I suppose my point above means I am not the Buddha. So be it. The Buddhist-Christian model of forgiveness hinges on universal compassion, that to be compassionate and understand the sufferings of another goes hand in hand with forgiveness; you can’t practice true compassion without forgiveness. But here I fall into line more with the fire & brimstoners of Christianity than I do with the Universalist side of my own tradition, which holds that all are “saved.” Since I do not believe in an afterlife, it stands to reason that forgiveness must be worked out here on this plane.

But if the perpetrator doesn’t ask for forgiveness, or worse yet, laughs in my face if I decide to offer it to him, then he is left to his own miserable and hateful life. Is it then still necessary for me to forgive him, if even for my own sake, in order to “let go?” I don’t think so. There are many techniques by which we can cultivate inner peace and equanimity, come into full acceptance of the “is-ness” of life, the horrible reality of things that may have happened, without needing to turn that into forgiving the agent of that horror. We can accept the circumstance, no longer be ruled or kept fearful and sad by it, without offering some forced “forgiveness” to a transgressor who may want no part of our needy forgiving ways.

• Finally, the last thing victims ever need to hear is even the barest, most veiled insinuation that they are somehow spiritually immature, their emotional lives permanently stunted, if they do not come to forgive their transgressors. No bromides, no even gentle “advice,” no prescriptions or timelines for how they are supposed to feel or behave or emote or pray.

Until you’ve endured that tortuous, unimaginable mile in their shoes.

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Sculpture photo by Shaun Merritt, under Creative Commons licensing, some rights reserved, see:

Sculpture entitled “Consolation” by Joe Rosenthal, in the City of Windsor, Ontario, Canada