Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Who Gets Forgiven?

No one can force you to forgive. It doesn’t work that way. Is it reasonable to ask a victim to forgive their wrongdoer when there has been no admission of wrong-doing, and furthermore, when the harm is on-going? To pressure a victim to forgive under these conditions is to re-traumatize the victim. This sin is especially prevalent, I’m sorry to say, in so-called “spiritual” circles. “To err is human, to forgive divine,” they solemnly intone. But what about the wrongdoer? Is there anything they need to do to facilitate this process? Or is forgiveness a one-way street?
            Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort was a frequent guest speaker in my world religions classes at Palomar College. He was brilliant, funny, warm – in a word, a mensch. It was from Rabbi Eilfort that I first learned about the three Rs. In order for us to be forgiven for our wrongdoing, in order for us to be restored unto right relationship with God and with one another, we must first do three things.
            First we must feel remorse. We must genuinely feel the suffering we have caused the other. Secondly, we must repair the damage. If you stole, pay it back. If you lied, admit it. But how can you repair murder, false-imprisonment, or structural discrimination? We’re going to have to get creative. And this is key: our efforts at repair must be made directly to the harmed – we cannot sit back and wait for a supernatural third party to do it for us. Thirdly, we must reform, that is, lend new shape to our lives. The offending behavior has to stop. When these three conditions are met – remorse, repair, and reform – forgiveness may be granted thereby drawing both wrong-doer and victim into right-relationship and inner peace.
As a straight cisgender white male, I am the beneficiary of untold unearned privilege. When I walk into a store, when I rent an apartment, when I apply for a loan, when I interview for a job, or when I’m stopped by the police, I am treated differently than people of color or other discriminated groups not because of my individual merit, but because of an accident of genetics.
Being a person of color means living in the shadow of multi-generational, institutionalized, and often unconscious discrimination. Growing up black in America means growing up in a nation built by slaves, learning American history from white teachers in schools named after slave owners, and living with the fear that simply being black is a death sentence in all too many situations.
And yet a majority of white people mistakenly believe that racism is no longer a major problem, and that it’s all behind us. “I don’t see color,” they say. Believing that racism doesn’t exist is a privilege reserved only for those who never experience it.
Racism skeptics also say things like, "Black people need to get over it. Slavery was a long time ago. And besides, I didn't do it, I don't have a racist bone in my body." How are people of color supposed to forgive the dehumanizing horror of racism when it remains unacknowledged and when they're gaslighted for even bringing it up? So they don't. And we don't talk to each other. And a sickening silence descends like a fog keeping us all in the dark. Real forgiveness is possible. Real restorative healing is possible. But first, the dominant culture must work through the three Rs.

[This piece first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the November/December 2019 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]