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April 22, 2013

Question:  How can someone forgive when the injury is insurmountable? Why should we forgive?

 Forgiveness has profound implications both for the individual’s happiness and the well-being of society. But I shall respond first to the phrase “when the injury is insurmountable.” Let us for a moment imagine the unthinkable: an assailant has murdered your child. Although this grievous crime would seem insurmountable, on occasion parents have indeed forgiven such a murderer. In 1983 Pope John Paul II entered the jail cell of Mehmet Ali Agca who had attempted to assassinate him for the express purpose of granting him forgiveness. What seems impossible for one person may indeed be possible for another.

Sound psycho-spiritual reasons exist for granting forgiveness. The unwillingness to forgive will result in its destructive polar opposites: hatred, vengeance, bitterness, acute pain, and spiritual immobility. These negative states of mind hold the potential power to possess our soul. Forgiveness grants freedom, not only to the perpetrator but also to the victim. Think of the societal consequences of the failure to forgive. For family or gang violence, tribal conflicts, civil wars, ethnic strife, warfare between religious and political groups, vengeance and vendetta simply perpetuate the vicious cycle. Forgiveness, one of the highest expressions of love, will help to heal.

But this does not mean that individuals or nations should submit to naked aggression. Here we must make an important distinction: forgiveness by the individual should not be confused with society’s right to protect itself and to punish criminals. If all crimes were forgiven, the very foundations of society would crumble. Crimes cannot be forgiven by the state. But the purpose of the punishment of criminals is not vengeance, but rather the protection of society. Justice is not vengeance. Justice helps to restore order in society; forgiveness sets individuals free.

We also have the strange and deplorable phenomenon of those individuals who are able to forgive others but not themselves. Self-forgiveness is as necessary as loving-kindness and compassion for others. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá counselled “…that if a person falls into errors for a hundred-thousand times he may yet turn his face to you, hopeful that you will forgive his sins; for he must not become hopeless, neither grieved nor despondent.”   
-  Jack McLean

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