Traditions of Forgiveness

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Chapter 1

Hope, Patience and Courage in the Practice of Forgiveness

The Return of Wisdom

In a technological society, which lives by innovation, wisdom is replaced by knowledge — and yesterday’s knowledge is useless.  –Page Smith (1)

Intellectual trends often fore-shadow broad-based social trends.  This development from the academic to the popular is captured in the saying “the philosophy of the last century is the common sense of today.”  For instance, psychoanalytic beliefs are now displayed abundantly in the advertising media, where all our insecurities and easy emotions are exploited systematically.   This is no accident of history, for it was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward L. Bernays, who became the first “scientific” public relations consultant:  “As Henry F. Pringle put it, the uncle may have discovered sex, but it was the nephew who made it pay.” (2)  Advertisers have become the laboratory technicians of psychological manipulation in society.

But over the past decade, a sea change has occurred within the social sciences and helping professions that promises to improve social relations at all levels:  intimate, social, political, and global. In the academic and professional communities, the materialist philosophies of individualism and collectivism are no longer prerequisite ideologies for ideas and programs to gain serious consideration.  It is now generally recognized that the modern world-view (developed through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Romanticism) has pitted the individual versus the collective in ways that have over-shadowed both the value of the unique person and the claims of the common good.

Our person-hood is more than our self-interested material individuality:  it includes social and spiritual motives as well.  The common good is more than the collective aggregate of material self-interests:  it includes interests and values that we share in common.  A credible alternative tradition to the modern world-view has emerged that combines a communitarian perspective and a solution-oriented approach to human problems.  Wisdom is returning to the social sciences and helping professions.

Robert Bellah established the intellectual ground-work for this shift with his books Habits of the Heart and The Good Society.  He and his associates made the case that the traditions of individualism in U.S. society have ascended to the point of crippling the civic and religious traditions, resulting in a serious deterioration of public life.  People who believe in responsibility and participatory democracy have lost the language to support their beliefs.  In these two books, the authors examine the institutions of the economy, government, education, the family, religion, and psychotherapy.

Habits of the Heart, published in 1985, described the “expressive individualism” (a remnant of Romanticism) of most psychotherapy.  Psychotherapy is not addressed in the more recent book, The Good Society (1991).  Since 1985, many changes have occurred in the fields of social psychology, social work, and conflict mediation.  The individualistic paradigm of psychoanalysis is being replaced by a relational paradigm more akin to the dialogic approaches of Freud’s contemporaries, Martin Buber and Viktor Frankl.  Significant works reflecting this change include William Doherty’s Soul Searching: Why Psychotherapy Must Promote Moral Responsibility (1995) and Harry Specht’s Unfaithful Angels:  How Social Work Has Abandoned Its Mission (1994).

This book fleshes out a relational paradigm by examining the issue of forgiveness in human affairs.  Forgiveness is perhaps the richest topic for exploring the dimensions of human relations.  Forgiveness challenges our higher aspirations and the humanity of our conduct in conditions of adversity.  Forgiveness engages the virtues of hope, patience and courage in our dealings with each other:  hope that the future can be better than the past, patience to see it through and the courage to act one’s part.

Hope, patience and courage are central to the practice of forgiveness, and serve to reinforce each other.  Courage, without hope and patience, is reckless desperation; patience, without hope and courage, is resigned stoicism; hope, without patience and courage, is naive, wishful thinking.  Hope protects us from the temptation of despair, patience protects us from the temptation of hate, and courage protects us from the temptation of cowardice.  Courage deals with fear, patience deals with anger, and hope deals with sadness, transforming these negative emotions into positive resources for change.  We will see how these virtues come into play in some of the best stories about forgiveness.

In this chapter I offer an initial definition of forgiveness, followed by a discussion of the need for forgiveness in particular.  Then I examine forgiveness in the light of a relational paradigm, using this as a basis to survey common attitudes towards forgiveness.  From this context, we will then delve into the history of forgiveness in the next four chapters, looking at pivotal stories and their meanings.

Initial Definition of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a traditional topic with a long history. Although there have been various definitions, most of them are fairly similar.  This book develops a practical definition, one that leads to standards of conduct.  As an initial definition:  forgiveness is a positive response to wrong-doing.  Wrong-doing refers to an action which harms or humiliates another person, whether deliberately or accidentally.  A positive response is one that is neither vengeful nor passive.

Although forgiveness is not anything we might want it to be, at the same time it is often more things than we immediately recognize.  It is my working assumption in this book that any lasting resolution to conflict involves an element of forgiveness, however small or covert. The opposite way to say this is that grudges erode peace sooner or later, directly or indirectly.  Part of this assumption is that human forgiveness is not complete and should be understood and detected in degrees.  Without recognizing this we would miss a lot of the small ways we forgive each other every day. Ordinary courtesies (such as “pardon me”), genuinely meant, form a fabric of civility that establishes the basis for greater acts of forgiveness.  Consider, for example, the following “Tale of the Holocaust”:

Near the city of Danzig lived a well-to-do Hasidic rabbi, scion of prominent Hasidic dynasties.  Dressed in a tailored black suit, wearing a top hat, and carrying a silver walking cane, the rabbi would take his daily morning stroll, accompanied by his tall, handsome son-in-law. During his morning walk it was the rabbi’s custom to greet every man, woman, and child whom he met on his way with a warm smile and a cordial “Good morning.”  Over the years the rabbi became acquainted with many of his fellow townspeople this way and would always greet them by their proper title and name.

Near the outskirts of town, in the fields, he would exchange greetings with Herr Müller, a Polish Volksdeutsche (ethnic German).  “Good morning, Herr Müller!” the rabbi would hasten to greet the man who worked in the fields.  “Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” would come the response with a good-natured smile.

Then the war began.  The rabbi’s strolls stopped abruptly.  Herr Müller donned an S.S. uniform and disappeared from the fields.  The fate of the rabbi was like that of much of the rest of Polish Jewry.  He lost his family in the death camp of Treblinka and, after great suffering, was deported to Auschwitz.

One day, during a selection at Auschwitz, the rabbi stood in line with hundreds of other Jews waiting the moment when their fates would be decided, for life or death.  Dressed in a striped camp uniform, head and beard shaven and eyes feverish from starvation and disease, the rabbi looked like a walking skeleton.  “Right!  Left, left, left!”  The voice in the distance drew nearer.  Suddenly the rabbi had a great urge to see the face of the man with the snow-white gloves, small baton, and steely voice who played God and decided who should live and who should die.  He lifted his eyes and heard his own voice speaking:

“Good morning, Herr Müller!”

“Good morning, Herr Rabbiner!” responded a human voice beneath the S.S. cap adorned with skull and bones.  “What are you doing here?”  A faint smile appeared on the rabbi’s lips.  The baton moved to the right — to life.  The following day, the rabbi was transferred to a safer camp.

The rabbi, now in his eighties, told me in his gentle voice, “This is the power of a good-morning greeting.  A man must always greet his fellow man.” (3)

The Need for Forgiveness

With the beginning of the 21st Century, there is certainly no lack for things to forgive.

The killing of innocent people in the World Trade Center bombings and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will certainly leave a residue of unforgiveness in our world.

In order to understand the need for forgiveness, we must look beyond the materialistic idea that conflict is no more than different interests competing for limited resources.  From the materialistic perspective, conflict resolution involves no more than negotiating the material differences to a quantifiable compromise. The view of conflict as competing interests is a market-place image: one bargains and dickers over the price of something, manipulating perceptions of supply and demand, until an exchange is agreed upon.

In contrast to this materialistic image, the case can be made that the most damaging conflicts arise not from need, but from greed.  Need often elicits cooperation; greed requires conflict and conquest.  When Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling joked that the difference between the State of California and the Titanic is that the Titanic went down with the lights on , the cruelty of his greed was revealed, a cruelty that damaged the lives of the innocent people of the most populated State of our Union.  With that bad joke, Skilling proved himself to be a betrayer of the American Dream, the promise that through honest hard work we can make our way to a better life without having our livelihoods raided by clever money-grubbers.

Indeed, the significant conflicts in life are not simply matters of asking too much or offering too little.  They concern offenses that have been committed where one party has been injured or humiliated by someone who has deliberately or accidentally offended.  These are conflicts where resolution requires some form or degree of forgiveness.

Conflicts are spreading globally.  Technology continually extends and intensifies the nature of conflict in numerous ways.  Examples include aggressive accounting practices, the increasing sophistication of weapon systems, suicide bombings, the proliferation of guns and explosives in the world populace, the instantaneous scandal-mongering of the electronic media, the litigious quality of our society where personal conflicts escalate into mountains of court testimony, the medical machinery that interferes with our relationship to death and each other.  As they say, don’t get me started.

The rise of civilization established some degree of division between the roles of civilian and soldier so that the increased means of destruction were not necessarily used against the innocent and helpless civilian population.  But technological war in the ballistic and nuclear age knows no such distinctions, nor does the modern soldier of fortune have any civilized scruples.   We now witness a proliferation of terrorist activities such as slander, abduction, rape, torture and “elimination” (as though any life can be reduced to “waste”) as part of the routine operation of mercenaries, death squads, militias, shock jocks, and other sadistic types.   How widespread these crimes have become in the warfare of the last decade is shown in a report by the international relief agency Save the Children, which concludes:  “Nine out of ten casualties of war are civilians.  Children are very often the main casualties — and they are indeed much more likely to be casualties of war than are soldiers.” (4)  The distinction between national warfare and domestic warfare has broken down:  inner-cities have become war-zones, with terrified children rendered unable to learn.  Lovers’ fights take on guerrilla tactics such as stalking and making crank calls.

The pace of increasing global conflicts is out-stripping our efforts to resolve these conflicts.  Apathy and exploitation abound; the only trend that dwarfs “compassion fatigue” (5)is unbridled greed and cynicism (6).  To counter these trends it would be helpful to review and revise approaches to conflict-resolution so that our efforts could be more effective and consequently inspire more hope.

Interest in the issues of forgiveness has grown among the helping professions for two reasons.  One reason is that more consideration is being given to the spiritual aspects of helping.  This is especially true since so much emphasis has already been placed on the strictly technical aspects of helping (whatever they may be, such as medical techniques, psychotherapy techniques, conflict resolution techniques, management techniques, and so forth).   Second, as helpers have become involved in more facets of life, they have had to think seriously about their practical role in conflict resolution.   Escalating conflicts generate and compound many of the problems all people have to deal with, be they medical problems, legal problems, political problems, psychological problems, social problems, economic problems, or whatever.  As a consequence, we have been challenged to reevaluate some of the basic assumptions of our professions and society in general.

A central assumption in the modern world-view has been that wisdom can be replaced by increased knowledge and technical skill.  This assumption is being reevaluated in all fields of human endeavor, including the natural sciences as well as the social sciences.   As a consequence, it has become more acceptable to argue that we must go beyond technique and get back to wisdom if we are to prevail over selfishness and cruelty in society.   A practical definition of forgiveness can help us restore the proper relationship between technique and wisdom.  Rather than an end in itself, technique as means should be put in the context of the ends; the values defined by wisdom.  Michael Lerner states graphically what happened in World War II when technique became divorced from wisdom:

Lacking a serious tradition of ethical and spiritual guidance, a neutral and value-free science quickly adopted the goals of mass murder just as it could adapt to any goals that had been assigned to it.  Some scientists resisted, but all too many, schooled in the empirical tradition that had banned spirituality and religion, served the Nazis just as they would later serve Stalin or the West.  It is not human reason that failed, but rather the evisceration of reason produced by the separation of knowledge from values; the teaching of technique rather than wisdom, of how to go along rather than how to critique power, and of respect for authority that ought to be challenged; and the sanctification of cynicism and self-interest without regard to the pain of others. (7)

The effort to restore the balance between wisdom and technique calls for a relational paradigm.

A Relational Paradigm

Freudian psychology played a central role in the development of the modern world-view.  Psychology is also the field from which we derive our most common ideas about forgiveness.  These days even religious authorities often turn to psychology for their understanding of forgiveness.  For these reasons, we should reevaluate common psychological assumptions in order to get a better understanding of forgiveness.

The most significant alternatives to Freud’s individualism in his time were the perspectives of the German psychologists Martin Buber and Viktor Frankl.  Buber’s philosophy emphasized the nature of dialogue in the I-Thou relationship, showing how humanity is fundamentally other-seeking.  Frankl’s psychiatric practice emphasized humanity’s search for meaning as a defining characteristic of motivation and behavior.  Together, their approaches have been described as “dialogic”, this word being a combination of Buber’s “dialogue” and Frankl’s “logotherapy” (that is, “meaning-based” therapy). (8)

Some of the basic assumptions of dialogic therapy are:

1)  Therapy that is healthy aims to increase the abilities of people to relate to each other; it is neither the individual nor the collective that commands our attention, but the relationships.  In this sense therapy should be interpersonal mediation.

2)  People gain true happiness as a by-product of striving for what is good.  To seek happiness without working for what is good will result in losing both.

3)  People learn about themselves through understanding others.  Others orient us to what is important and real about ourselves.  Unless it is other-oriented, the pursuit of self-actualization serves as a disguise for a self-serving attitude.

Similarly, the communitarian movement values social solutions to social  problems, using community-building to reduce the stress and social  isolation of modern competitive individualism.  A basic principle of the movement is that it is essential to find practical means to balance rights and responsibilities for the common good.  This requires us to revitalize our ability to address the ethical issues and economic injustices of American society.  As long as we continue to single-mindedly fight for individual rights, our common life will continue to deteriorate. (9)  When we consider Viktor Frankl’s proposal that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be balanced by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast, we can think of Frankl as one of the founders of communitarian philosophy.

A Relational Context for Forgiveness

The way Viktor Frankl compared his solution-oriented therapy to Freud’s problem-oriented therapy reveals some basic elements of a relational approach to forgiveness:

“[In comparison with psychoanalysis, logotherapy] is a method less retrospective and less introspective.  Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the assignments and meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future.  At the same time, logotherapy defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms that play such a great role in the development of neuroses.  Thus the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced. (10)

Even though Frankl is talking here about conflicts within a person (neurosis) rather than conflicts between people, the same principle seems to apply:  the role of the relationship mediator is to defocus all of the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms that play such a great role in the development of conflicts by shifting the investment of the disputants from the tragedies of the past to the promises of the future (committing oneself to hope in place of despair).  This principle provides a guideline for avoiding depression by fostering the hope which is the certitude that we can find something to do now which will make for a better future for all concerned.  In the face of tragedy, we must make room for sadness and mourning without allowing despair and depression to block or weaken hope.

As we explore the history of forgiveness, we will find that hope is a central value to all the relevant traditions.  Hope is what motivates people to move beyond self-centered positions.

Attitudes Toward Forgiveness

In order to develop and refine a viable definition of forgiveness, it helps to define some attitudes towards forgiveness that are not viable. We will start with the extreme attitudes, and then move to attitudes that are closer to the mark.

The extreme attitudes virtually define forgiveness out of existence. The cynical attitude that all altruistic acts are only hypocritical masks for self-promotion (the holier-than-thou revenge of the weak) results in a view of forgiveness as a dishonest form of retaliation.  The naive attitude that forgiveness is easy if we would only realize our “true selves” results in a view of forgiveness that is indistinguishable from the gospel of positive thinking.

A viable approach to forgiveness will be neither naive nor cynical:  we won’t understand forgiveness if we assume that it is either easy or impossible.  If I conclude that an offense committed against me cannot be forgiven, I harden my heart, exaggerating the offense at the expense of the offender, prolonging the humiliation as I “rub his nose in it.”  On the other hand, if I assume a serious offense is easily forgiven, I minimize the offense at the expense of the victim, and avoid the offender by letting him “off the hook.”  A hard heart or a weak heart won’t do — the one acts out of anger and the other out of fear.  A forgiving attitude will have patience and courage — it will actively avoid humiliating or excusing the offender.

A bit of foolishness may help by way of illustration of what I mean by “cynical” and “naive” in this context.  Two caricatures can help highlight flaws of thinking about forgiveness.  Nobody fits the following descriptions exactly, but these caricatures do portray common strands of thought.  Let us call these caricatures “psychoanalytic cynicism” and “new-age naiveté”.

Psychoanalysis has been described as confession without absolution (in other words, repentance without mercy).  The patient is expected to spill his guts while the analyst, instead of offering atonement as a priest would, maintains a detached attitude for fear of “counter-transference.”  The definition of mental health became the ability to confess our sexual and violent urges and accept that there is no redemption from them.

“New-age naiveté” has the opposite character, presuming forgiveness without the responsibility of repentance on the part of the wrong-doer.   Those who attempt to correct another person are labeled judgmental and told to “just let go” and “forgive yourself.”  But when it comes to what it takes to “let go” the best advice we get is some how-to formula such as “5 easy steps to letting go and forgiving yourself.”  The difficult responsibilities of concrete situations are avoided by the mindless application of a general formula.

So the effort to avoid being cynical or naive involves us in age-old debates over human nature and reality. The psychoanalytic view emphasizes the control of the body over the mind and dismisses objections as intellectualizations.  The new-age view emphasizes the control of the mind over the body and dismisses objections as self-fulfilling prophecies.  But, as Blaise Pascal wrote (11),  we are “neither angel nor beast” — our nature includes elements of both.  If we reduce our experience to either the mental or the material, then we won’t understand the nature of our reality.  In the same way, we cannot reduce reality to either the actual or the possible without missing the opportunities to realize the potential, the potential that is the real possibilities of the actual as it exists.

Applying this analysis to the experience and reality of forgiveness requires us to consider both the mental and material aspects: forgiveness is both a mental attitude and a material deed.  We can offer forgiveness all we want, but until the offer is accepted by the wrong-doer, forgiveness remains a wish, and not a reality.

For the potential forgiver, the reciprocity of forgiveness and repentance gives a perspective that is both humbling and empowering.  The offended cannot unilaterally forgive, because the completion of the act depends on the response of the offender.  On the other hand, the responsibility of the offender is made clear so that the call for forgiveness is not completely dependent on the good will of the offended.  If forgiveness were simply a unilateral act of the wronged person, then it would require that person to remain open to further wrongs by an unrepentant offender.  “Unconditional love,” in this context, is no love at all – it is masochism pure and simple.

More viable attitudes towards forgiveness consider it neither impossible nor easy.  Various interesting and serious books have been written in recent years that fit within these parameters, including books by theologians, philosophers, psychologists, and popular inspirationalists.   But within these parameters there are still divergent views.

There are two approaches that can be identified in these writings:  the prescriptive and the descriptive.  The prescriptive approach tends to be harder, more rigid and narrow as to what can be called true forgiveness (12).  The descriptive approach tends to be softer, looser and broader, holding that forgiveness is whatever anyone says it is (13).   There is a tendency for the prescriptive view to result in criteria for forgiveness that put the burden of the initiative on the wrong-doer:  forgiveness should not be offered until it is asked for.  The descriptive view tends to place the burden of the initiative on the person wronged:  it is the offer of forgiveness that motivates the wrong-doer to want to be forgiven.  The softer view emphasizes more the good will of the forgiver and how this influences the wrong-doer; the harder view scrutinizes more the repentance of the wrong-doer as the condition for making forgiveness possible.

In real life, we know that forgiveness occurs by both means:  sometimes by being asked for, and sometimes by being offered.  The proposal of forgiveness takes only one person, but the result of forgiveness takes two.  Indeed, forgiveness offered but not accepted is not forgiveness, just as forgiveness asked for but not given is not forgiveness.  A gift means nothing without the relationship between the giver and the receiver.

Further definition of the interpersonal nature of forgiveness will result in a richer, more practical approach.  But forgiveness often involves more than the two roles of forgiver and forgiven:  much of the literature addresses the issues of “third-party” forgiveness.  “Third-party” forgiveness is when a person confides or confesses to a priest, rabbi, minister, therapist, mediator, or friend.  The controversy is when the third party presumes to substitute for the other roles, either offering forgiveness in place of the person wronged, or accepting the offer of forgiveness in place of the wrong-doer.  Clarifying the roles in forgiveness will help us refine a viable definition.

The roles can be defined in grammatical terms.  The first person in forgiveness is the forgiver:  “I forgive you”.  The second person in forgiveness is the forgiven, the “you” to whom the offer is made, and the only person in a position to accept the offer.  The third person is anyone who becomes involved in the situation, either helping or hindering the prospects of forgiveness.  Unless we understand the limits of our roles, we are likely to hinder rather than help the process of forgiveness.

A dialogic approach does not limit itself to dyadic (two person) relationships, but considers relationships in triads, as well as larger groups.  Although the I-Thou relationship is considered fundamental, this relationship implies the third element of the “between” of two persons.  Dialogic therapy is relationship mediation, introducing a viable third element when that third element is lacking in the relationship.   When a relationship is flawed, the purpose of mediation is to strengthen what is “between” two people, what they have or should have in common. This perspective has implications beyond the involvement of professionals, for anytime a neighbor, a friend, a family member helps strengthen the relationship between two other people, that person is serving as a mediator in the relationship.

The only person in a position to offer forgiveness is the person who has been wronged.  The only person in a position to accept forgiveness is the wrong-doer.  The third person can help the wronged make the offer, and can help the wrong-doer seek or accept forgiveness, but the third party cannot substitute for either role.  This means that the proper role of a third party is as a mediator between the other two.

To mediate forgiveness means to encourage the offended to offer forgiveness and to encourage the offender to seek forgiveness.  The initiative to forgiveness can therefore come from three sources:  1) the offended, whose offer of forgiveness can lead to the repentance of the offender; 2) the offender, whose request for forgiveness can lead to the offended becoming forgiving; 3) a third party, whose mediation can lead to the offer of forgiveness or the request for forgiveness.

Forgiveness requires that we use our imagination, but it also requires that we not lose our judgment.  Without an approach steeped in the lessons of history, even the best of the current literature lacks a fully developed balance in this regard.


Chapter 2

Forgiveness Between People:  Stories from the Common Era

So forgiveness is a priceless ingredient in human life.  It stands against the two extremes of “anything goes” and “only perfection counts,” and opens the door to a whole new approach to human affairs.  –Lyman T. Lundeen (1)


Preliminary History

The word “forgive” is of Old English origin and dates in the literary record back to a 10th century translation of Bede’s Latin.  It means to “give completely” and therefore has association with the tradition of gift-giving in pre-market economies (2).  In fact, since a gift is given with no exchange specified or necessarily expected, forgiveness has a strong association with gift-giving.  But even though the acts of forgiving and gift-giving expect no exchange in return, this does not mean that the gift-giver does not notice the response of the receiver to the gift, since this response eventually comes to symbolize the relationship the receiver decides to have with the giver (depending on whether the gift is rejected, casually accepted, or accepted with gratitude).  As it is so eloquently stated in the Didache (generally considered the earliest church document after the New Testament):  “Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give, for you shall know who is the good reciprocator of the reward.”  (Didache 4:7)  In other words, be generous, and you will provide others with an opportunity to be generous in return.

To trace the concept of forgiveness further back into Christian and Jewish history requires a different vocabulary, for there is no direct word in Hebrew or Greek for “forgive.”  Instead, we must look to words like “mercy, love, compassion, blessing, charity, pardon, remittance” and related concepts like “confession, repentance, expiation, atonement.”  Many words in Hebrew are translated as “forgive” — perhaps the most common is “salah” (calach), which is also rendered as “to pardon” or “to spare.”  Linguistic studies of Aramaic, the language spoken by many Jews in the time of Jesus, suggest that forgiveness was spoken of in terms of remission from debt (many of Jesus’ parables, such as the Prodigal Son, are couched in these terms) or, more generally, release from bondage (which is what unpaid debt often led to).  Different from the secular mentality, the religious mentality considers humanity, created by God, to be indebted to God for the gift of life.  Since humanity owes all to God, any mercy God shows to us in life is a pardon for this debt and calls upon us to show mercy to each other.

Beyond the etymological root of the word forgive, let us consider the recorded origin of the idea of forgiveness.  This origin is the figure of Abraham, the founder of the three main western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  It was Abraham’s departure from Mesopotamia, both literally and figuratively, that provided the main theme common to these three religions.  This common theme is that we are all inheritors of the promise revealed to Abraham, the promise which provides a purpose and meaning to time and history.   There are three main aspects to this theme:  1) Creation is good; 2) God is merciful; 3) created in God’s likeness, we have a duty to imitate God and be merciful towards each other.

The first aspect is the repeated refrain in the beginning of Genesis:  “…and God saw that it was good.”  Creation, despite its imperfections, is considered to be fundamentally good — it is better to exist than to not exist.  This faith establishes a whole conception of time that is different from the conception that existed in the civilization of Mesopotamia at the time when Abraham departed. Abraham’s departure was due to the promise made to him that his seed would bear much fruit, and this is why Jews, Christians and Muslims are all meant to consider themselves the seed of Abraham.  The Mesopotamian conception was that good and evil were equal forces constantly striving against each other for dominance.  Good and evil would defeat each other in cycles and these cycles constituted the nature of time.  But with the promise made to Abraham (Genesis 22:15-18) we enter into a covenant that establishes a purpose to time:  creation exists for the purpose of bringing good to fruition, and that in the end, good will prevail.

If creation is good, the corollary is that God is merciful.  In the ancient world-view, we cannot understand the mercy of God without relation to sacrifice.  In ancient society, sacrifice was the core practice for alleviating divine anger and obtaining divine pardon. The sacrifice, whatever it was, was considered a precious gift offered to a divine entity to gain favor.  Kings had the power to pardon because of their semi-divine status.

And if God is merciful and creation is good, then we as creations of God are meant to imitate God and be merciful towards each other.  This is the third main aspect of Abrahamic religions that we are engaged in working out through our common history: people are made in God’s likeness and therefore have a duty to be forgiving.  The issue of how to live up to this duty is the struggle that troubles us so much throughout history.

The basic message of pre-rabbinic Jewish moral teaching was that control of self is more important than control of others.  From this we learn what forgiveness is not:  it is not vengeance.  “Vengeance is mine” saith the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35), and we are not to lay claim to God’s powers.  This negative definition of forgiveness is what we often mean by “Have mercy!”, meaning no more than “Don’t hit me!”  In the Hebrew Bible (Torah), justice meant “the sword,” punishment for wrongdoing, and mercy meant the release from punishment.  A good example of these principles can be found in Abraham’s plea for God to have mercy for the righteous in the corrupt city of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-32).  Sodom is still destroyed, but the righteous are allowed to escape.

A pivotal story for establishing the theme of self-restraint in the Torah is the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).  Abraham’s restraint, heeding the merciful voice of God to spare Isaac, becomes a paradigm for religious practice under the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the patriarchs).  Abraham’s restraint becomes generalized and codified in the ten commandments of Moses.  Although stories in the Torah such as Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50) demonstrate more than just a negative definition of forgiveness, the philosophy of a positive definition only develops in the Rabbinic  commentaries of the Talmud.  The shift within Judaism from the Temple to the Synagogue is important to understand this development, for the Temple had become the center of the system of animal sacrifice first established by Abraham.

We cannot understand the demise of the Temple system without understanding the friendship between the two Jewish prophets John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.   Both of these men departed from the tradition of animal sacrifice practiced in the Temple and established a tradition of self-sacrifice.  While doing this John the Baptist and Jesus were building on the prophetic tradition that called for the revival of religious values against the abuses of power associated with the Temple system (see Mark 11:15-19 for Jesus’ expulsion of the dealers from the Temple in Jerusalem).   It was in the aftermath of these radical criticisms that the Temple fell, and animal sacrifice has not been practiced in Judaism since. [This criticism does not reject the value of sacrifice and ritual purity, but values them as means of worship while refusing to allow them to be treated as objects of worship.]  This establishment of self-sacrifice in place of animal sacrifice is as  fundamental of a shift as that of  Abraham’s establishment of animal sacrifice in place of human sacrifice that we find in the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac (Abraham substituted a ram as a sacrifice in place of his son).  This transformation of the sacrificial system signals a development in the understanding of forgiveness.

What John the Baptist accomplished was to hone the Jewish message down to a single imperative:  “Repent!”  This message of self-criticism went to his very core:  “Someone more powerful than I (is coming), and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals.” (Luke 3:16)  What Jesus added to this was the consummate act of repentance in the act of self-sacrifice:  “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)  It is within the context of giving oneself over to others that the practical concept of “love of enemies” starts to make sense.

Before exploring the positive philosophy of forgiveness and repentance developed in the Talmud and the Gospel, let us consider a story of forgiveness as a basis for analysis.

An Example and an Analysis

The following story comes from the sayings of the desert fathers of the 4th century as translated by Thomas Merton.

Abbot Anastasius had a book written on very fine parchment which was worth eighteen pence, and had in it both the Old and New Testaments in full.  Once a certain brother came to visit him, and seeing the book made off with it.  So that day when Abbot Anastasius went to read his book, and found that it was gone, he realized that the brother had taken it.  But he did not send after him to inquire about it for fear that the brother might add perjury to theft.  Well, the brother went down into the nearby city in order to sell the book.  And the price he asked was sixteen pence.  The buyer said:  Give me the book that I may find out whether it is worth that much.  With that, the buyer took the book to the holy Anastasius and said:  Father, take a look at this book, please, and tell me whether you think I ought to buy it for sixteen pence.  Is it worth that much?  Abbot Anastasius said:  Yes, it is a fine book, it is worth that much.  So the buyer went back to the brother and said:  Here is your money.  I showed the book to Abbot Anastasius and he said it is a fine book and is worth at least sixteen pence.  But the brother asked:  Was that all he said?  Did he make any other remarks?  No, said the buyer, he did not say another word.  Well, said the brother, I have changed my mind and I don’t want to sell this book after all.  Then he hastened to Abbot Anastasius and begged him with tears to take back his book, but the Abbot would not accept it, saying:  Go in peace, brother, I make you a present of it.  But the brother said:  If you do not take it back I shall never have any peace. After that the brother dwelt with Abbot Anastasius for the rest of his life. (3)

To fully appreciate this story it helps to understand the historical context.  The Abbot’s Bible was not just a book, but was probably the only book he had or that existed within the desert community of which he was the leader.  The daily structure of the whole desert community depended on readings from the community Bible.  It is difficult for us to appreciate the significance of this loss to the Abbot and his community.

Even though we have no doubt that this story is all about forgiveness, notice that the word “forgive” never appears, nor do we ever hear an “exact” apology, such as saying “sorry.”  In fact, the story hinges on what is not said, what is unspoken but understood as that around which all the dialogue revolves.  The Abbot never says “you took my book,” the brother never says “I’m sorry for taking your book,” and the Abbot never says “I forgive you for taking my book.”  This formulaic dialogue (accusation, admission, pardon) is more like what might ideally happen in a court.  But the story is more personal and more revealing.

The reason that so much is left unsaid by the actors in the story is that the Abbot is actively avoiding letting lies take over in the situation.  Lies are what we are more likely to find in court where often the problem is that too much is said.  Yet the words in this story are very important indeed, for the words not only state the facts (and confirm or deny other statements):  they change the facts.  Every word spoken in this story changes the situation rather than just describing it.  Therefore to be skillful in the conduct of forgiveness one must be skillful in the methods of avoiding lies (not just the methods of arguing the evidence).

Another aspect of this story that stands out is the spirit of prayer and the readiness to sacrifice involved in the Abbot’s approach to the situation.  If he was not ready to give away the book he would have been more inclined to confront the thief, and if he had not reflected on the likelihood of denial with confrontation he would have been less ready to let the thief go.  Humility and realism, discipline and charity all play essential roles in shaping the Abbot’s responses.

In the final analysis, though, no matter how forgiving the Abbot was, forgiveness is only accomplished when the Abbot’s offer of forgiveness was accepted by the brother.  It is the brother’s repentance that completes the act of forgiveness.  Without it, the act remains incomplete.  To be properly humble and realistic, the forgiver must understand this dependence on the response of the forgiven.  As the act of forgiveness is what consummates our efforts to repent, so the act of repentance consecrates our efforts to forgive.   Forgiveness and repentance are mutually inclusive:  what can be forgiven can be repented and vice-versa.

Let us now look into these aspects of forgiveness in terms of the traditions that are their source.  I will address the issues of repentance with the Talmud and the issues of forgiveness with the Gospel.

The Talmud and Repentance

What can be repented can be forgiven.  What has the Talmud to say about repentance?  Consider the traditional role of the Day of Atonement in repentance and pardon for sin:

The Day of Atonement brings pardon for sin if there is repentance (Yoma 8:8), but Judah ha-Nasi holds that the Day of Atonement brings pardon even without repentance except in cases of very serious sin (Yoma 85b).  The Day of Atonement is ineffective if a man says:  “I will sin and the Day of Atonement will effect atonement.”  If a man says:  “I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent” he will be given no chance to repent (Yoma 8:9).  The second century teacher R. Ishmael is reported as saying (Yoma 86a):  “If a man transgressed a positive precept, and repented, he is forgiven right away.  If he has transgressed a negative commandment and repented, then repentance suspends punishment and the Day of Atonement procures atonement.  If he has committed a sin to be punished with extirpation (karet), or death at the hands of the court, and repented, then repentance and the Day of Atonement suspend the punishment, and suffering cleanses him from the sin.  But if he has been guilty of the profanation of the Name, then penitence has no power to suspend punishment, nor the Day of Atonement to procure atonement, nor suffering to finish it, but all of them together suspend the punishment and only death finishes it.”  This scheme contains all the tensions resulting from the different aspects of atonement mentioned in the Bible. (4)

Although some sins may be pardonable only at the end of the life of the penitent, this points out the difficulty of repentance for serious sin, not the impossibility.  This is exactly the manner in which such issues are addressed in the classical commentary on ethics by Rabbi Bachya Ibn Paquda, Duties of the Heart, where he stresses the degree of difficulty in repenting as dependent on the seriousness of the offense.  In fact, the Rabbi finds only one limit on the scope of repentance:  “Repentance is only withheld from the sinner by his own evil mind and deceitful heart.” (5)

This reciprocity between pardon and repentance is common in the traditions of both synagogue and church.  Consider the similarity between the quote above with the following discussion of the parable of the Prodigal Son where repentance is spoken of in terms of the return of the son to the father: “Few passages in the New Testament are better than this parable for teaching how sin is an offense against God and how absurd it would be to conceive of a pardon that would not also include the return of the sinner…Without such a return, there would be no pardon conceivable. More precisely, the father had always forgiven him, but the pardon only efficaciously reaches the son’s sin in and through the latter’s return.” (6)

In broader terms we can relate this reciprocity to the balance between mercy and justice as attributes of God.  The following passage from Jewish tradition gives a good sense of the inter-dependence of mercy and justice, that mercy without justice is merciless and justice without mercy is unjust: “The divine justice is inevitably linked with the divine mercy. According to the Midrash, God said:  ‘Sin will abound if I create the world by mercy alone; but how can the world endure, if I create it by justice alone?  I will therefore create it by both.'” (7)

Now let us consider more specifically the forms of repentance because if we cannot identify these we may miss opportunities to forgive.  The general forms to be found in the literature can be identified as 1) admission, 2) restitution and 3) discipline.


Confession is a strong tradition in both Judaism and Christianity.  A serious reading of the New Testament leads to the following conclusion: “When Jesus forgives sin, admission of sin is a condition for pardon.” (8) Exactly what constitutes admission is a different question.  For instance, the brother never needed to confess to the Abbot that he stole his book — the fact was understood rather than stated.  Rather there is simply no denial of the fact, and the admission occurs with the return of the book (that is, in the form of restitution).  Just what counts for admission is a question of legitimate debate, as we find in the Talmud.  For instance, consider the following discussion: “The penitent sinner must confess his sins.  According to Rabbi Judah ben Bava a general confession is insufficient; the details of each sin must be stated explicitly.  But Rabbi Akiva holds that a general confession is enough (Yoma 86b).” (9)

That there is room for a range of confession, from explicit to indirect, can be found in various discussions.  For instance we can look at the settings in which confessions occur in Judaism:  “These confessions occur in many contexts:  prayer, praise, interrogation, etc.; the confession of sins is thus often indirect.” (10)  As we may guess from the previous passage on the Day of Atonement, the proper form of confession depends on the nature of the wrong committed.  It is important to consider whether a confession is best kept general or made specific, whether it is done publicly or privately.  We can find some sensitivity to these considerations in the following passages: “Public confession of sin was frowned upon as displaying a lack of shame except when the transgressions were committed publicly, or, according to others, in the case of offenses against other human beings (Yoma 86b).” (11)

The Day of Atonement, with its general confession, is meant to increase people’s awareness that all have wronged and the importance of dealing with these matters with a humble attitude: “The confessions are phrased in the plural because the entire community regards itself responsible for many offenses that could have been prevented.  On the Day of Atonement, they are recited repeatedly to make the people intensely aware of the need of a fuller mastery over the impulses.” (12)

What these considerations emphasize is the spirit of humbleness, rather than arrogance, that repentance and forgiveness require.  Without further specifying guidelines for confession, one thing that shows up clearly from these considerations is that the denial of wrong-doing effectively blocks forgiveness.  As Fulton J. Sheen writes:  “The really unforgivable sin is the denial of sin, because, by its nature, there is now nothing to be forgiven.”

Similarly, “confessions” that are arrogant or flippant do not help.  A third party mediator should act to prevent these problems of admission from setting the tone of mediation.  As it says in the Talmud, we should not be an occasion for sin (for example, allowing for lies) or be a provocation for scandal (for instance, encourage confessions that are false in spirit). (13)

These issues of confession can be seen vividly at play in the following story from Hasidism, an eighteenth-century Eastern European Jewish renewal movement.  This version is related by Elie Wiesel:

Another story [from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt]:  perhaps the most important one of his rabbinical career and one he himself corroborated.  One day he received the visit of a woman known – too well, perhaps – for her conduct.  Whatever malicious tongues like to tell about a beautiful and rich and intelligent woman, they said about her.  “Rabbi,” she said, “I need your help, your intervention for me in heaven:  I want to repent, I want to change my ways – help me.”  They were not alone in the rabbi’s office; there were the secretary and the servant and also a Hasid or two, no doubt.  They all listened as the Master said angrily, “You dare come to me?  Shameless woman, you have the temerity to appear before me?  Don’t you know that I have eyes to see and that my eyes see into your innermost soul?”  And to prove it to her, he proceeded to reveal certain things she had done.  The woman paled and then answered gently and sadly:  “I don’t understand you, Master.  Why must you reveal in public what God Himself prefers to keep secret?”  And she went away.  One version says she was thrown out.  And she said, “God is kinder; He allows me to stay in His house.”  Later, the rabbi felt deeply troubled and stirred in his very soul.  “This is the only person who has gotten the better of me,” he later said to his disciples.  “This encounter has humbled me; it will remain a turning point in my life.  It made me see suddenly that I was on the wrong path, for I chose judgment over compassion.” (14)

In this example, the Rabbi unnecessarily pushes for a detailed confession in public.  This does not serve repentance – it only humiliates the woman as he rubs salt in her wound.  For this wrong, the Rabbi himself must make an explicit, detailed and public confession in order to repent, and the story itself is the evidence of how he did this.

When admission fails because the offender denies the wrong, the desert father Abba Poemen advises us not to despair:

Abba Poemen said, ‘If a man has sinned and denies it, saying:  “I have not sinned,” do not reprimand him; for that will discourage him.  But say to him, “Do not lose heart, brother, but be on guard in the future,” and you will stir his soul to repentance.’ (15)

This advice keeps us focused on the future and hope.  But if the wrong is grievous or compulsive, this advice might not be suitable, for then it could serve to let the wrong-doer off scot-free.


The second form of repentance, often following shortly after the first, is restitution.  Sometimes this form is addressed by the requirement of the wrong-doer to come to terms with the person wronged.  We find this both in the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:23f) and in the Talmud concerning the Day of Atonement:  “We are repeatedly reminded that Yom Kippur brings pardon for sins between man and God, and it cannot bring forgiveness as long as no attempt has been made to repair the injury inflicted upon one’s fellow man.  God does not clear the guilty in matters touching human beings unless reparation precedes all else (Yoma 8:8).  The wrong-doer must first win pardon from the person wronged.” (16)

Sometimes restitution is physical (such as returning the stolen book) and sometimes it is symbolic (when physical restitution is impossible). After World War II some Jews concluded that there could be no forgiveness for the Nazi executioners because there was no way they could repent to those they wronged because those wronged were dead. The literature on these matters is reluctant to let those involved off the hook so easily, though, as we can see in this passage from Duties of the Heart:   “If the wronged man had died, the penitent should return to the heirs the money he had wrongfully taken from the deceased.  If he had physically hurt a person now deceased, or spoken evilly about him, the penitent should make confession at the grave of the departed in the presence of ten men, and his sin will be atoned.” (17)

Restitution is the main focus of the movement to institutionalize a system of “restorative justice” in which the perpetrator of an offense is held responsible for making amends to the victim.  Criticisms of these efforts say that too much focus can center on the victim or the perpetrator, and that diminishing the power of experts in the process can lead to a vigilante tone. (18)   Certainly experts should help facilitate a civil process, but the issues raised by critics can certainly be addressed, and the focus of bettering the future with “restorative justice” is an important corrective to our system of “retributive justice” which does no more than punish for what was done in the past.


The third form of repentance is best characterized by the word “discipline.”  This is carried out in the spirit of what Jesus said to the adulteress: “Neither do I condemn thee:  go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)  In terms of repentance, this is the equivalent of saying that “sorry is as sorry does” — meaning that it is no good saying sorry if one is going to commit the wrong again.  In the Jewish tradition, the medieval philosopher Maimonides is most often quoted in this regard:  “Defined by Maimonides, repentance means that the sinner casts his sins out of his mind and resolves in his heart to sin no more.” (19) More specifically: “Defining perfect repentance, [Maimonides] offers this  illustration:  ‘When an opportunity presents itself for repeating an  offense once committed, and the offender, while able to commit the  offense, nevertheless refrains from doing so because he is penitent, and not out of fear or failure of vigor.'” (20)

What Maimonides is referring to here is well reflected in the story where the brother who stole the book devotes his life to the Abbot, not out of guilt for having stolen the book, but out of love for the Abbot’s forgiving spirit.  This third form of repentance is the most long-term and important indicator for the effect of forgiveness in any particular instance.  Regardless of the confession or restitution of the wrong-doer, it is the discipline that he adopts to address the weakness in his life that is most important in the penitent response.  A fully repentant wrong-doer comes to recognize forgiveness in daily life and becomes a forgiving person himself.  It is this long-term view that forgiveness should serve most.  Confession and restitution can effect a conciliation, but it is only with the longer-term view that a reconciliation is achieved.

The following story from the desert father Abba Poemen reflects this point of the ultimate importance of discipline:

A brother questioned Abba Poemen saying, “I have committed a great sin and I want to do penance for three years.”  The old man said to him, “That is a lot.”  The brother said, “For one year?”  The old man said again, “That is a lot.”  Those who were present said, “For forty days?” He again said, “That is a lot.”  He added, “I myself say that if a man repents with his whole heart and does not intend to commit the sin any more, God will accept him after only three days.” (21)

Finally, in response to the repentance of the wrong-doer, there is the duty of the person wronged to forgive:  “If the injured party refuses to forgive after the third request, he is described as cruel.” (22) This duty is based on the principle of our dependence on and imitation of God:  “Since man depends on the mercy of God, he is expected to extend mercy to his fellow men.” (23)  Christian writer George MacDonald goes so far as to call the refusal to forgive “spiritual murder”:

It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him.  The former may be the act of a moment of passion:  the latter is the heart’s choice.  It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over the feeling that excludes, that, in our microcosm, kills the image, the idea of the hated.

But in this regard we come across a curiosity in the Jewish tradition that should be taken as a warning:  “In the case of slander one is not duty-bound to forgive.” (24)  In the general confession (Al Het) on the Day of Atonement “a considerable number of sins mentioned…refer to offenses committed with our tongue, such as idle talk, slander and talebearing.” (25)  Slander is even considered murder on the name of the wronged.  But then why is it on the list of the general confession on the Day of Atonement if it is unforgivable?  Because the precept that one is not duty-bound to forgive slander is a warning against committing the offense rather than a proclamation that the offense cannot be forgiven.  Since slander is a lie and lying kills forgiveness, the precept warns both the offender and the offended not to expect too much from forgiveness alone.  Indeed, the warnings against offenses of speech should catch the ear of professional mediators, since the profession involves so much talking and so much listening to talk.  Gestures and deeds can mean more than words alone, and sometimes the fewer words the better.  For example, in child custody disputes, parents often engage in mutual character assassination that has devastating consequences for children’s sense of security and development of personal identity.

The Gospel and Forgiveness

Forgiveness is central to the message of Jesus and Christianity.  For instance, in the letters of the apostles, forgiveness is related to the commandments of Jesus to love God and neighbor and to follow his example.  Let us explore these three commandments by way of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John.

Love of God

II Peter 3:8-9:  Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:  not rendering evil for evil:  but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.

In this passage St. Peter presents the reason to forgive (“bless”) as the love of God and the desire to gain God’s favor (“inherit a blessing”). It is related to the “forgive us as we forgive others” sermon in the “our father” prayer.  There are two ways to understand this.  One is that we get back in the after-life what we dish out in this life.  The other is that while forgiving, we enact God’s forgiveness “on earth as it is in heaven.”  These considerations show how directly we move from love of God to love of neighbor and divine example.

A Jewish Hasidic story that demonstrates St. Peter’s sense of compassion comes from Martin Buber’s collection. This is the first of two “laughter” stories that are good illustrations of some of the issues before us.  It comes from the school of the Maggid of Mezritch, the great teacher associated with the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism in Eastern Europe during the 18th century.  It is entitled “The List of Sins”:

During his stay in Mezritch, the rav of Kolbishov saw an old man come to the Great Maggid and ask him to impose penance on him for his sins. “Go home,” said the maggid.  “Write all your sins down on a slip of paper and bring it to me.”  When the man brought him the list, he merely glanced at it.  Then he said, “Go home.  All is well.”  But later the rav observed that the maggid read the list and laughed at every line.  This annoyed him.  How could anyone laugh at sins!

For years he could not forget the incident, until once he heard someone quote a saying of the Baal Shem:  “It is well-known that no one commits a sin unless the spirit of folly possesses him.  But what does the sage do if a fool comes to him?  He laughs at his folly, and while he laughs, a breath of gentleness is wafted through the world.  What was rigid, thaws, and what was a burden becomes light.”  The rav reflected.  In his soul he said:  “Now I understand the laughter of the holy maggid.” (26)

Notice in this story how the rabbi laughs not in the presence of the penitent, but in the presence of God.  And it is not the penitent the rabbi laughs at, but the list of sins.  In this case it is hard to imagine that the list includes serious sins.  This is a compassionate response.

Love of Neighbor

Romans 12:19-21:  Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath:  for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.  Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink:  for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.  Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

This passage by St. Paul is a controversial and challenging one.  The controversial part is the reference to “coals of fire,” variously interpreted as referring to the conscience of the receiver of charity, or to an ancient atonement ritual of carrying coals in a dish on one’s head, or simply to St. Paul’s sadism and guilt-mongering.

But aside from the issue of St. Paul’s harsh temperament, the challenge of this passage relates the duty to forgive with the duty of fraternal correction.  “Love the sinner, correct the sin” is the traditional formula.  Psychotherapy has inherited this distinction with the idea of constructive criticism:  criticize the behavior, not the person.  What St. Paul adds to this is the perception that being generous to one who has wronged you serves to indirectly heighten the criticism.

A story that demonstrates St. Paul’s sense of challenge is this second Hasidic “laughter” story entitled “Tears and Laughter”:

A man once confessed a sin to the rabbi of Apt and told him with tears how he had atoned for it.  The zaddik laughed.  The man went on to tell what more he intended doing to atone for his sin; the rabbi went on laughing.  The man wanted to speak on, but the laughter robbed him of his speech.  He stared at the zaddik in horror.  And then his very soul held its breath and he heard that which is spoken deep within.  He realized how trivial all his fuss about atoning had been and turned to God.

Later the rabbi of Apt told his hasidim:  “Two thousand years ago, before I became high priest of the Temple of Jerusalem, I had to learn the service step by step.  First I was accepted into the company of young priests.  At that time this man who has just gone was one of those who lived remote from the rest.  He was stern with himself, pure and proven in the practice of all the virtues.  But unexpectedly he was snared in a serious sin.  In accordance with the law he prepared to bring a sin-offering.

“This was the custom in those days:  When a man came to the keeper in charge to choose an animal for the sacrifice, the official asked him what sin he was about to atone for.  When the man would begin to speak, the sorrow of his secret would spill over, and he would pour his heart out like water.  Then he would take the animal and walk through the streets of Jerusalem to the hall of the Temple where the animal was to be slaughtered.  There the young priests would come to meet him and they too would inquire what his sin had been, and again his heart would melt like wax in fire.  By the time such a man would reach the high priest and confess his innermost secret, he would be wholly transformed.

“Now when this man entered the Temple hall with his sacrificial animal, I took pity on his ravaged and tear-stained face.  I comforted him, wept with him, and eased his heart, until he began to regain his composure and his sin weighed on him less and less.  When he came to the high priest he did not experience the turning to God, and his offering was not graciously accepted.  So, in the course of time, he had to come down to earth once more and appear before me again.  But this time I loved him more.” (27)

This story is unique in Buber’s extensive literature on Hasidism in that Buber typically presents a more restrained picture of Hasidic culture.   Whatever one makes of the reincarnation aspect of this story, there is something authentic about the rabbi’s perception of the attempts at confession and restitution that are brought before him.  In a way these attempts were blocking the penitent from a true change of heart which is only achieved with the rejection of these false attempts.  Although the rabbi in this story laughs in the presence of the penitent, it is not the penitent the rabbi is laughing at, but his attempts at confession and restitution.  This story involves more serious sin than was the case in “The List of Sins,” calling for a more challenging response.

The elongated distortion of time in this story illustrates that repentance and forgiveness may have many false starts before they take effect in unexpected ways.  There is a pace to forgiveness that requires a patient, long-term commitment.  If we under-estimate the task, we will act hastily and lose heart at the failure:  too much too soon, too little too late.  But if we miss too many opportunities out of timidity masking as patience, it will be too little forever.  As the rabbi says of his courage at the end of the story:  “This time I loved him more.”

Divine Example

In the Gospel of John we find the strongest statement of this commandment:  “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”  In this formulation, the idea of following God’s ways is made specific to following the example of Jesus’ conduct.  It is because of the importance of finding examples for guidance that this book focuses on probing the examples of some good stories.

Reconciliation and Communion

On the day before Yom Kippur the people are prescribed to settle their outstanding differences from the year so that they won’t have blocks to atonement.  In the same vein St. Matthew tells us to settle our differences before taking communion:

Matthew 5:23-24:  So then, if you are bringing your offering (gift) to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering.

Think of what a powerful message it would be for people to deny themselves communion before repenting and forgiving.  As Donald Nicholl argued (28), such practices helped bring peace to places with conflicts like Northern Ireland.

Later in his Gospel St. Matthew articulates guidelines for how to go about settling differences:

Matthew 18:15-17:  Moreover If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone:  if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.  But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.  And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church:  but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen and a publican.

In this format, there is initially a personal approach which, if it fails, is supplemented by the introduction of a mediating third-party.  It is only if the second option is exhausted without benefit that the community institution is brought in.  In this way there is a method to avoid publicizing the conflict with ill-considered speech, publicity which often results in mutual scandal-mongering, humiliation and retaliation.  St. Matthew’s guidelines are designed to bring dignity to the conduct of settling differences.  The way Abbot Anastasius avoided publicizing the theft is a good example of this.

It is amazing how familiar these guidelines seem to those of us who help mediate conflicts, yet how little do we consider the tradition from which these practices come.  And how little do we find people following these guidelines in society at large, as conflicts fester and escalate?  This is especially the case in a society which has largely abandoned the value of the common good, in pursuit of instant gratification.  One of the results is that truth and diplomacy become divorced, where truth is reduced to the expression of personal desires and diplomacy is reduced to the expediency of avoiding unpleasant truths (29). Forgiveness reconciles truth and diplomacy with the common good.  The patience of forgiveness is the cure for the ravages of instant gratification.


Chapter 3

Forgiveness between Groups:

Stories about Families, Clans and Communities



The previous chapter developed guidelines for the practice of forgiveness from traditional Jewish and Christian sources.  That chapter focused on situations of inter-personal conflict.  In this chapter I extend the analysis to larger, inter-group conflicts primarily through researching the Arab practice of inter-group reconciliation called Sulha.  Given that this largely Muslim practice has Jewish and Christian roots, the guidelines derived from those traditions are directly relevant to a full appreciation of the Sulha, and should be used as background.

Islam does not generally have a positive reputation in the Western media for peace-making.  The external image of Islam tends to be one of militancy rather than tolerance and peace-making.  But the internal experience throughout various Islamic societies is one of on-going conflict-containment and resolution.  This can be found at various levels of society, from daily customs that smooth over differences to legal proceedings that determine the rights of minorities.  The media, focused on the sensationalism of bad news, broadcast the failures of Islamic peace-making traditions rather than the operation of these traditions on a daily basis (1).  As a result, few Westerners are aware of the tradition within Islam of non-violence (such as Gandhi’s associate in Pakistan, Badshah Khan) (2)  or of the reformers who are defining a positive and substantial place for Islam in the field of world religions and equality for women (such as Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran and the Muslim Women’s League).

The depth of this prejudice in U.S. society became apparent in 1995 when the public was surprised that neither the Oklahoma City bombing of the Federal Building nor the assassination of Israel’s president Yitzak Rabin were committed by extremists who were either Arab or Muslim.  Because of this negative reputation in the media, the Organization of the Islamic Conference issued the Teheran Declaration in 1997, stating in no uncertain terms that terrorism violates the Islamic law against the killing of innocents. (3)  Unfortunately, the amplification of the media has allowed the bombast and atrocities of the extremists to drown out the voices of the moderates.

Since September 11, 2001, the voice of Islamic moderates has been reinforced by Western writers such as religious historian Karen Armstrong, who shows how the views of the extremists are contrary to the basic tenets of Islam.  More recently, the Islamic Society of North America has called for the recognition of mainstream Muslims as distinct from the “radical fringe.”  It is imperative that we act to strengthen the voices of moderation, reform and renewal, for the soul of Islam is threatened by the fanaticism revealed in the September 11 attacks, just as the soul of America is threatened by the corruption revealed in the collapse into bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation.  Neither greed nor terrorism will bring peace and prosperity, at home or abroad.

Perhaps the most unique contribution of Islam to peace-making is the tradition of resolving group conflicts, that is, disputes that arise among “the people” (between families or clans).  But arbitration is an important aspect of Muslim Law that does go beyond the boundaries of Islam:  “But Muhammad had submitted to arbitration a dispute with a Jewish tribe, Banu Qurayza, and this precedent led to the principle that arbitration was permitted between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in matters which did not involve the faith, arrangements to end fighting, for example.” (4)  Nonetheless, arbitration is generally used to settle disputes within the faith.

Sulha seems to be the most developed method for addressing group conflict in Islam.  It is practiced by the Bedouins and other Arab groups, who are mostly Muslim, but also Christian.  The Arabic word “sulha” is related to the Hebrew root “salah” (letter HETH), meaning to forgive, still at root of the Modern Hebrew expression, SLIHAH = “forgive me, pardon me.”   As described by his informant in Daniel Smith’s article “The Rewards of Allah,” (5)  Sulha has roots in Jewish and Christian practices.   This perspective stands in contrast to much of the Islamic rhetoric that we hear in the media that serves to separate Islam from its Jewish and Christian origins.  Smith’s article is the first fully articulated account of this practice that shows the richness that can be found in Muslim tradition.

There are aspects of the Sulha that are foreign to modern society and may seem irrelevant to us.  Sulha developed in traditional societies where roles are very clearly prescribed.  Although issues of honor and revenge definitely have their place in modern society, they tend to be individual affairs rather than affairs that involve families or clans in the formally prescribed terms of the feud.  In response to this formalized honor code, the Sulha is highly ceremonial for the purpose of re-prescribing roles of revenge into roles of peace-making. Since our society is less ceremonial, we may want to look more at the principles involved in the Sulha than at the formalities themselves.  Nonetheless, modern society does suffer from a lack of positive customs and rituals (the word “rite” being of Sanskrit origin, meaning a custom as a way, a means to move in the social world).  One of the principles of the Sulha is that, in a volatile situation, it can help to replace risky words with meaningful social gestures.  In a ritual-impoverished environment, moderns talk too much — words are cheapened and they serve less to resolve conflicts than to inflame them.  Since sensationalism can serve to escalate conflicts and embroil groups, it is important to identify ways in which the larger community can play a constructive role when its involvement becomes necessary for resolution to occur.  The Sulha provides an example of a constructive role for the community.

Recently, the value of ritual is better appreciated in the field of family therapy, where it has been found to help prevent conflict and its escalation.  For instance, the Sulha process ends with a ritual meal.  It is no coincidence that the ritual of the family meal is now considered an essential form of communication to establish family cohesion.  Eating together symbolizes putting differences aside (Samuel Pepys, 1685, writes:  “Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody”).  A good example of how eating together can increase cooperation within and between families, and other institutions, can be found in the multi-family group program called Families and Schools Together (FAST) created by Lynn McDonald in 1988 (6).  In this program families participate together in an array of activities, including a meal.  These rituals help reduce and resolve conflicts between family members and between families and other groups (such as schools, agencies, other families).  FAST is specifically designed to develop habits that serve to reduce the power imbalances that block the resolution of many conflicts.   There are many ways in which the FAST program could be analyzed as a Sulha with a preventative orientation.  This is reflected in the order of the rituals:  whereas the Sulha ends with a meal, the FAST gatherings begin with a meal.  At first, families eat separately, but at the final (eighth) meeting, which involves a graduation ceremony, families eat together, enacting a higher level of inter-group integration.  Breaking bread together, com-pan-ionship (“pan” being Spanish for bread), helps prevent and reduce conflicts.  We will return to the FAST program at the end of this chapter.

Humans are the only species that will eat with an enemy.  A meal shared by the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan helped to further the Middle-East Peace Process of the 1990s before it collapsed after the assassination of Yitzak Rabin.  Sometimes we pay the ultimate price for eating with an enemy:  it was because Yitzak Rabin ate with Yasir Arafat that he was assassinated by one of his own people in 1995.

The value of family meals for family harmony is now recognized in our popular culture. Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) is most eloquent on the importance of family meals eaten in a common area:

Nothing that calls itself a family can afford to do without these basics, even if the common area is tiny and the meals are rushed. Regular gatherings, with their lack of a specific agenda, are what make people something more than just a collection of individuals delivering messages to one another. (7)

The Sulha

In Bedouin society, the Sulha does not take the place of the judicial system and, even though it can prevent the need for a court settlement, it is not limited to an out of court settlement:

We have to make the Sulha in order to establish peace between families – between villages – and between people in general, so that all the consequences of the quarrels and feuds will be eliminated totally, and life can go back to its natural course. (8)

Although a Sulha may be used to settle a wide range of disputes, it is in cases of non-accidental killings that we find its fullest application.  In these cases there are three major elements in the process of making peace:  1) the armistice; 2) the redemption money; 3) the day of peace.  Throughout this process, the role of the mediators is very exacting as they encourage step-by-step the repentance and forgiveness of the parties involved.

The Armistice (Atwa)

The roles and responsibilities of the Sulha are very clearly defined. If there has been an attack resulting in injury or death it is expected that the family of the attacker will immediately go to a delegation of notable people, known as the “Jaha”, and beg for their intervention. The Jaha “should be known to all in the area.  In the Galilee, for example, it is well known who are well-trusted and known for their honesty and decency.” (9)  If the family of the attacker does not bring the attacker along with them to make the request, they are not taken seriously by the Jaha.  Here we find the role of “admission” in the Sulha process, but in a broadened sense:  the family of the attacker has a responsibility for ensuring that the offense is neither denied nor ignored.  In this way the involvement of the family and the community presents some additional options for direct and indirect confessions.  Although confession by hear-say is not acceptable in that the presence of the offender is required, still there are options for confession by or through third-parties.

The composition of the Jaha is an important decision.  Aside from the need to pick people or families with broad and stable reputations, there is the question of the number needed to handle a case:

I don’t think that you need more than twenty members of a Jaha, because the bigger the Jaha, the more you will have problems with different opinions, and prevent its coming to a single and united decision.  In a small Jaha, it is easier to come to a decision.  Sometimes, however, you can’t escape it, you need a big Jaha, because the feud is so difficult.  In one case in the Galilee, almost every village sent in three or four of its notables, in order to interfere, because that feud was a big one.  There were about five people killed, and many injured between two strong families.  In order to restore peace between these two families a bigger influence was needed. (10)

Once the Jaha has been composed and has decided to take on a case, it is their responsibility to establish an armistice, or “Atwa,” with the family of the attacked.  This is done as soon as possible because “if the injured family waits for a long time, and nobody asks them ‘What happened,’ it is considered an insult, and they will accuse the other side of not caring about the violation or injury.” (11)  This is often done the same day the Jaha is composed, even to the point of the Jaha visiting the funeral for this purpose:

“After they bury their dead, we tell them ‘We shall not leave this place until we have your word of honour that nothing is going to happen between you…’  When we at last hear the word of honour, for their oldest people, that they won’t do anything, then it won’t be so dangerous.” (12)

Even though it is forbidden for the attacker or his family to speak to the family of the deceased, this does not mean that the bereaved family will accept the mediation of the Jaha.  Sometimes the Jaha must establish its credibility in various ways.  Two ways its credibility can be challenged are shown clearly in the interview.  One is a challenge to the character of the mediators themselves, as is so vividly demonstrated in the following story:

I remember the story that my father told me about a strong man from this town many years ago who was making the Sulha.  They were so sad about the death of a member of their family that the women went to the roof of the house and poured ashes on the heads of the delegation when they arrived at the house.  They wanted to express their anger.  Sometimes the role of the delegation is an anger absorber for the other side.  “You are angry?  Don’t throw it on your opponent — throw it on us…we take the anger on ourselves.”  Sometimes this might lead to the death of the Jaha member himself!  This strong leader that my father told me about said to the women pouring the ashes on them, “Go on, go on” — this was true patience and tolerance.  This was wisdom.  Such work will tell you how wide your heart should be.  If you scream, “You poured ashes on me??!” then you spoil the whole case.  The man said, “You have the right — pour the ashes — you have the right.”  The women said, “What kind of angel do we have here?  Perhaps we should be ashamed…”  You want the people to see that they are accepted with great love whatever they do.  When you do this, you are sacrificing for the sake of peace between people.  So, sometimes the family refuses the delegation — and you must tolerate it, and be patient.  Sometimes they will tell you to leave the house.  If they are more polite, they will simply leave the house and leave you there without a host.  This is a sign for people to say, “Please leave.”  It is so complicated and difficult and everything is passed on “How wise is the member of the Jaha?” (13)

Another way in which the Jaha can be challenged is on the sincerity of the attacker’s family.  For this reason there is the custom of the Atwa money (separate from the redemption money):

The Atwa should be supported and backed by a certain amount of money.  There are two kinds of Atwa.  One is Atwa of honour, when one side says “I don’t need money.”  Atwa money is a guarantee — as a support to the armistice so that nothing may happen between the two families in this period.  Many families accept this money.  It is their right.  Why?  If there is any violation of the armistice, it would be a great disgrace for such a family to violate this.  When the family takes money, in front of all the people, it will be difficult for them to retreat or withdraw. (14)

As we find in this passage, the offer of the Atwa money not only signals the seriousness of the attacker’s family, but its acceptance also binds the family of the attacked to abide by the armistice.  Now we can consider the third party’s responsibility in making the armistice.  First the attacker’s family must show serious intent to the Jaha; second the Jaha must show serious intent to bereaved family; third the injured family must show serious intent to the Jaha:

In general, the first visit may not necessarily get the agreement you are after.  It will take us probably two or three visits.  There is a beautiful terminology used and unless we hear the terminology, the special, decisive words of the other side, it is not a good sign for us, and we know that our mission is at stake…They must  be heard clearly, not a mumbled or inward manner so that we cannot hear it.  It should be open, in front of all the members. (15)

The Atwa can be set for varying lengths of time depending on the complexity and emotional tone of the case, and often there is need to extend or renew the armistice.  As can be imagined, the deliberations have to take into consideration any perceptions that a settlement is being pushed or delayed for the advantage of any particular party.   For this reason the Jaha meets in neutral places not associated with either family.

The Redemption Money (Diya)

In the Sulha process, the redemption money addresses the issue of restitution.  To understand the role of redemption money we need to know the philosophy with which the money is presented and the way the amount is determined.  The philosophy is presented as follows:

[After the Atwa] you have to decide on your ruling.  Let us take the case of a killed person.  We have to rule the redemption money.  This is the money that should be given to the family of the deceased, to “redeem his blood.”  This must be done — a man’s blood must not be spilled for nothing.  So we give them a certain amount of money. Traditionally it is accepted.  A good English term is “ransom.”  This money is symbolic.  You will tell them, “It’s not the ‘price’ of the man — there is no price for a human being.”  This money is only a symbol price for the man’s blood which has no price.  This is because there are two basic elements to the Sulha — they are rights and honour.  The minute that a family has a member killed, they have rights.  But it is not all “rights.”  If it were all materialistic, then we would simply come like a lawyer and say, “How much do you want — 50,000?  No, make it 100,000…!!”  No, no.  This is because of the other element which is honour.  Money, we know we can restore money, but how do you restore honour? (16)

Because of the issue of precedents and to maintain the status of the money as symbolic, the amount set by the Jaha is not negotiable:

Sometimes, we offer the diya money, and people say, “This is not enough.”  The more the family is respected, the more difficult it may be.  Honourable, deep people will not argue over the money.  But the minute the Jaha has ruled, it cannot be changed — it is too late. (17)

A question not addressed in the interview is what happens when the ruling is beyond the means of the family responsible (as is likely to occur when amounts are set according to tradition).  A reliable source informs me that often members of the Jaha itself will help cover the cost.  It is only by considering this fact that we can truly understand how different this role of the Jaha is from that of lawyer and judge and jury.

The Day of Peace (Sulha)

Next we come to the Sulha proper, the ceremony that is meant to restore the social fabric that was torn by the offense.  In the conduct of this ceremony we will find signs of forgiveness and repentance that are related to the issue of “discipline” that came up in the last topic on repentance.  But even more vividly than in the previous discussion, we will find in the description of the Sulha ceremony an experience of the relationship between the personal and social aspects of our conscience.

The basic structure of the ritual is described as follows:

The main pillars of the Sulha are three — shaking hands, forgiveness, and breaking salt and bread.  This is probably from the old Biblical Jewish tradition.  Salt and bread means, you must eat.  This must be done.  As I said before, you must be careful that all the steps of the Sulha will be taken care of, or else the Sulha can be violated or broken.  So we insist that even in the simplest case these three conditions be met – shaking of hands, forgiveness, and eating. (18)

It is not difficult to imagine how ancient are some of the roots of this ritual, not only in Judaism but also Christianity where the breaking of bread in communion is the sacrament of our reconciliation with God.  Literally speaking, this is what the word “company” means – “with bread.”

Now let us consider the intricacies of the ceremony.  After all the agreements are settled, a date is set:

Invitations should be sent to many notables all over the country… Peace should be done openly.  It should be done, we say “On the top of the heads.”  Everybody should see it, and everybody should witness.

And now there is the beautiful ritual of the family of the killed person standing in line.  The delegation will go and bring the family of the killer, under the auspices of the delegation itself, and under a white flag, as a symbol of peace.  The killer must carry the white flag in his hand, raising it.  It is white — clean — there are no spots. The problem has been cleansed.  The members of the delegation surround him as protection.  This is the most difficult moment, when he has to go down the line of his opponents, and shake their hands one by one.  When they put their hands together — the case is canceled.  There may be one or two thousand people in attendance.  At the moment, they are all living “at the edge of their seats.”  At this moment, everyone is watching with great anticipation and expectation.  Who knows, God forbid, something might go wrong.  I want to tell you out of my own experience, the less you speak the better.  The more you speak — one wrong word comes from your mouth — might spoil the whole thing, even if it was not intended.  You might have spoken innocently.  Who knows how the other side is going to interpret something said?  So, there is a heavy silence.

Someone may say, “I don’t want to shake his hand — he killed my father.”…the whole atmosphere will be electrified — another killing might happen at that moment.  You can hear our hearts beating until the last member of the family has shaken hands with all the men.  There is a special word spoken at the end of the ritual of the shaking of hands, “This peace is valid on those who are present and on those who are absent.”  Someone from America may come and say, “I wasn’t here, your peace is not valid for me so I am going to kill him.”  But we say “This peace is valid for all those who are present here, and all those who are absent.  For every embryo in the womb of his mother or for every sperm from the back of his father…”  After ten years you marry and have a son, and you say, “This son was not born…” and when he is eighteen he wants to take revenge.  No.  So, this is declared at the end, and then the speeches are made, which are formal.  Someone like a notable, or a respected person, or a mayor.  They will say something like, “Thank you.  You two families were so kind to accept this, and now we are going to open a new chapter in this village…”, something like that.

[The speeches are] fairly traditional.  The point is that we avoid speeches.  We refuse many requests to speak.  People love to speak, and will come to the Jaha and ask, “Please let me speak.”  In general, we refuse.  You don’t always know the types of people or what they are going to say.

What happens to the white flag?

After the shaking of hands, you have to ask important notables and leaders to come and put a knot in the piece of cloth.  It is symbolic, like the whole ritual is symbolic.  It is a guarantee from this influential leader who has the respect of many people, “Here, I make a knot so that this peace is not going to be ‘untied’ — I tie it strongly so that it will be valid all the time…Does anyone dare untie my knot!”  The accused, therefore, is under a flag with knots already in it.  In this case, tying the knot is a sign of consent, “Go ahead and bring the man,” and this is a guarantee that none will protest when he is brought, since they put their knot in the flag.

The notables are the witnesses.  They might say, “In the name of God, I tie this piece of cloth so that peace will be restored…”  It is a sign of their guarantee.  In general, there will be four or five knots like that.  Sometimes twenty people come, and then it loses its significance.

So – the first thing is the knot of the family that is bereaved as a sign to go and get the man who is accused.  Then he is brought, followed by the shaking of hands, and then the knots of the notables, and then the speeches. (19)

There is a heavy emphasis in this description on the danger of words and their replacement with symbolic rituals.  This is in agreement with the concerns we have found for avoiding “sins of the tongue” in the previous chapter on inter-personal conflicts.  Notice in particular that the killer, although in many ways the center of attention, apparently says nothing.  And this is his first direct contact with the family of the deceased.  Just as with the Abbot Anastasius story in the previous chapter, where the act of returning a stolen book said it all (in place of a confession and apology); here the ritual of the killer bringing the flag says it all.  Dignity and humility instead of humiliation and protestation.

In fact, we will not understand the nature of the ritual without understanding how silence sets the tone and punctuates the ritual.  At the tensest moment, the shaking of hands, we have what is called a “heavy silence.”  There is a recognition in this that what is called for is a change of heart for all involved:  repentance for the killer, forgiveness for the bereaved, and humility for the community in which the crime occurred.  To try to force this with words would be an act of pride and contrary to the spirit of what is called for.  What words there are act to set the stage for silence to have its effect.

Just as St. Matthew tells us to settle our differences before offering our gifts and taking communion, so with the Sulha, after settling differences the parties offer coffee and lunch and eat together:

Then the family of the killer must be taken to the family of the killed to go and have a cup of coffee.  Then the family of the killer will invite the family of the killed to go and have lunch with them.  Coffee one way, lunch the other.  Lunch is at the end.  After lunch it is finished.

It’s not important what you eat.  In general people will eat only three spoons, and then leave the table, because there are so many.  It is just a symbol that, “I ate your bread, and now we are friends.” (20)

Breaking bread together relates the reconciliation to the acts of our everyday lives, instructing us to establish the discipline necessary to avoid a similar tragedy from occurring in the future.

The informant describes the over-all effects of the Sulha tradition in terms very familiar to the modern-day mediator:

Somebody always loses in the court.  The person who loses in the court always leaves unhappy, because he lost the case.  The person who wins the case leaves the court happy, because he has gained.  A court cannot satisfy two sides, it can only satisfy one side.  Making the Arab Sulha satisfies all parties — there is no loser, and no gainer.  No happy and unhappy – all are happy in the end.  Even the whole village is happy. (21)

Similarly, in the Gospel of St. Matthew (5:25-26), Jesus warns of the dangers of not settling differences before ending up in court:

Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison.  I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.

Although it may be tempting to relate the methods of the Sulha to larger, international conflicts, the informant cautions us against any naive ideas along these lines (other than extracting some of the basic principles).  In order to extend this approach to forgiveness into the arena of international conflicts and modern warfare, we would have to explore issues of non-violent resistance and just war ethics.

Families and Schools Together:  Community Peace-Making

There are many structural similarities between the Sulha rituals and the activities involved in the Families and Schools Together (FAST) program.  FAST has proven to successfully recruit and involve parents who are often alienated from the schools their children attend.  Short-term and long-term results demonstrate that the program significantly reduces behavior problems of children at school and at home while leading to increases in parents’ educational involvement and employment.  Indeed, the success of the program has made it one of the most promising welfare-to-work strategies available in the United States (by 1999, the program had spread to 34 states and 5 countries).

The program forms its own “Jaha,” respected community representatives, to initiate and maintain the program.  A broad range of the community is represented, not just professionals from the school and community-based agencies, but consumers of social services who represent the population being recruited to participate.  The consumer voice on the team is not just included as a paid employee, but developed and promoted as a means of empowering the participants to make positive community changes.

FAST team members are trained to reach out to parents in much the same way as the Jaha approaches the grieving family.  Indeed, many FAST families can be considered families with grievances due to injustice and disrespect, as well as personal loss.  The following story is a good illustration of this compassionate outreach:

In one school, I overheard a group of teachers actually placing bets that we (the FAST program) would not be able to engage two specific families.  But they were proven wrong.  It took me five home visits per family, but they finally came, loved the program, graduated, and are now FASTWORKS leaders. (22)   [FAST is the 8-weekly multi-family group meetings; FASTWORKS is the monthly meetings for graduate families.]

The expenses of the program, provided by public and private funding sources, serve as a sort of community “blood money”: a symbolic contribution to acknowledge and help correct the power imbalances that exist between consumers and providers of service.  This funding provides incentives for families (low-income or not) such as dinner, child-care, transportation, and a family lottery prize.  But there is also the dignity of reciprocity:  the family that wins the lottery on one week hosts the dinner for the next week.  When graduate parents get involved in FASTWORKS, they often help each other out as well as contribute to the well-being of the community at-large.  Parent leaders become members of the FAST Parent Advisory Council, equivalent to the Jaha.

The FAST meetings themselves have many of the qualities of “The Day of Peace.”  All of the senses are engaged in an array of culturally universal activities such as cooking and eating, serving and being served, singing and drawing, greeting and meeting and taking leave. (23)  Different activities are used to improve relationships at all levels: parent and child, parent and parent, parent group and team, program and community.  In this way, the FAST program not only serves to reduce existing conflicts, but to prevent new conflicts from developing.

FAST is a modern, research-based social service program that has spread successfully in an alienated society where there is little sense of community.  The Sulha is an ancient tradition that developed in the history of forgiveness and peace-making.  The fact that we can find so many similarities between the two is a sign that wisdom is returning to social science, policy, and practice.

Both the Sulha and the FAST program bring forgiveness to group conflicts using broad-based community outreach and involvement.  A wonderful story of how the spirit of community can resolve group conflicts is told in Kathryn Watterson’s Not by the Sword:  How the Love of a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman. (24)  Larry Trapp was a Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan in Lincoln, Nebraska, and notorious leader in the white supremacist neo-Nazi and skinhead movements.  For years he led a campaign of terror against the Jewish-American, African-American, and Asian-American communities.  Unbeknownst to each other, the religious leaders of these communities, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist, organized efforts to make peace with Larry Trapp.  Trapp not only organized covert terrorist acts, but spread hate through a radio program, as well as threatening and harassing phone calls and letters.  The enduring spirit of community, using restraint, good humor, and hospitality, converted Trapp who, humbled by his worsening diabetic condition, ended his life living with a Jewish family that he had been harassing.  This is the kind of thing that can happen when communities act to strengthen themselves, and public policies should support programs like FAST in order to help communities do so.


Chapter 4

Forgiveness Between Nations:

Stories in the Aftermath of the World Wars


10% expendable!  I’ve been living on our planet and have seen, like many others, how politicians have been manipulating the people.  As if only 10% of the people are suffering then it’s okay.  For an individual, suffering is 150%.  We’ve got to preserve the social fabric.  – Ayub Ogada (1)

In this chapter I extend the guidelines on forgiveness established in the previous chapters into the issues of international conflict.   I do this by furthering the debate between Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Buber about the implications of World War II for peacemaking in the 21st Century.  Analyzing the facets of their debate helps establish guidelines for peacemakers who find themselves caught in the extreme circumstances of wide-spread regional or international conflict.


World Wars I and II have changed the terms in which we think about our place in the world.  No longer can we ignore the global implications of local conflicts.  These wars have also changed many of our concepts of human nature.  For instance, before WWI Sigmund Freud thought of violence as a quality that the sexual instinct could take on.  But the cruelties of the war convinced Freud that violence was an instinct in its own right, co-equal with the sexual instinct (similar to the ancient Mesopotamian concept of good and evil as co-equal forces in the universe).  In 1923 Freud published The Ego and the Id (Das Ich und das Es, or literally, “The I and the It”) which outlines this philosophy (first articulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle).  That same year, Martin Buber (also a Jew) published his best-known book I and Thou (Ich und Du, or colloquially, “I and You”) which describes a more humane perception of human reality with an awareness of the global implications of this perception.  The potential for global conflict raises the stakes on how we think and how we act on these basic issues.

No person has had more influence on the philosophy and practice of settling international differences than Mohandas Gandhi.  His methods have been described and analyzed in many studies and we can see the fruits of these methods in such places as the Philippines where the People Power movement affected the non-violent overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship, resulting in the election of Corazon Aquino in 1986.  Instead of reviewing these methods, which have been well documented, I will analyze some the dilemmas confronting the peace-maker that became apparent with World War II.   A good way to do this is to reopen a dialogue that started between Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Buber and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  In this dialogue we will find some useful guidelines on how to handle our emotions in extreme circumstances.  We will be exploring situations in which the limits of human forgiveness are tested and some things must be left to God.

Gandhi and Buber

In 1938 the debate between Gandhi and Buber was over whether the methods of non-violent resistance should be promoted and applied to the situation with Nazi Germany.  Although little was known about the enormity of Hitler’s crimes at this time, Buber made the case that the British colonial power in India was not the genocidal machine that the Nazis had constructed, and therefore one should not expect the Jews to use the same methods of moral persuasion to try to stop the Nazis as Gandhi successfully used to end colonial rule:

In the five years which I myself spent under the present regime, I observed many instances of genuine satyagraha (non-violent resistance) among the Jews, instances showing a strength of spirit wherein there was no question of bartering their rights or of being bowed down, and where neither force nor cunning was used to escape the consequences of their behavior.  Such action, however, apparently exerted not the slightest influence on their opponents…A diabolical universal steam-roller cannot thus be withstood…Testimony without acknowledgment, ineffective, unobserved martyrdom, a martyrdom cast to the winds — that is the fate of innumerable Jews in Germany.  God alone accepts their testimony, and God “seals” it, as it is said in our prayers…Such martyrdom is a deed — but who would venture to demand it? (2)

People still have very strong emotions stemming from this very debate. The debate has at times been over-simplified as a debate between “pacifists” and “militarists”.  But this over-simplification does not appreciate the complexity of their debate nor the respect these two men had for each other.  To better understand their debate it is important to understand the courage of these two men.  Gandhi wrote many things on the issue of courage and it could be helpful to review some of his writings that detail his thinking on what has been aptly termed “righteous indignation.”   In these writings we will find that Gandhi was far from being the practitioner of detachment that many assume him to have been.

First of all let us consider Gandhi’s feelings about oppression and oppressors.  In the following passages Gandhi uses the classic Christian distinction to sort out his feelings:

“Hate the sin and not the sinner” is a precept which, though easy enough to understand is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world. (3)

By a long course of prayerful discipline, I have ceased for over forty years to hate anybody.  I know this is a big claim.  Nevertheless, I make it in all humility.  But I can and do hate evil wherever it exists.  I hate the system of government that the British people have set up in India.  I hate the ruthless exploitation of India even as I hate from the bottom of my heart the hideous system of untouchability for which millions of Hindus have made themselves responsible.  But I do not hate the domineering Englishmen as I refuse to hate the domineering Hindus.  I seek to reform them in all the loving ways that are open to me. (4)

Although Gandhi depersonalizes his feelings by directing his anger at evil actions rather than at their perpetrators, he does not detach from his feelings.  In fact, Gandhi relates to his anger in much the same way that St. Thomas Aquinas says that anger gives us the energy to fight injustice:

I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world.

It is not that I do not get angry.  I don’t give vent to my anger.  I cultivate the quality of patience as angerlessness, and generally speaking, I succeed.  But I only control my anger when it comes.  How I find it possible to control it would be a useless question, for it is a habit that everyone must cultivate and must succeed in forming by constant practice. (5)

In addition to this, the practice of non-violence involves much more than the refusal to use force.  Just as we do not act to retaliate, neither do we act to surrender.  Neither hate nor despair should be guides for our actions.  Courage is the main attribute of true non-violence, and Gandhi consistently maintained that it is better to fight out of courage than to flee out of cowardice.  In fact, Gandhi denies the power of forgiveness not only to the cowardly but also to the weak:

What is true of individuals is true of nations.  One cannot forgive too much.  The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. (6)  Abstinence is forgiveness only when there is the power to punish; it is meaningless when it pretends to proceed from a helpless creature. (7)

We need not go to this extreme to believe that a true act of forgiveness does not proceed from fear.  But the issue Gandhi raises here relates to the distinction between a forgiving attitude and a forgiving act:  the deed cannot be accomplished without the power to address the crime with the perpetrator.  This issue of the “power to forgive” came up in the aftermaths of military dictatorships in Latin America where the victims of torture endeavored to repair the social fabric.  In a review of the book by Lawrence Weschler, A Miracle, A Universe:  Settling Accounts with Torturers, Lee Siegel describes the need for this “power”:

The victims of [the regimes] in Brazil and Uruguay — or currently under malevolent governments, left and right, throughout the world — had their bodies broken into, their identities stolen and hidden from them behind the omnipresent gaze of the regime.  What they still seek is to violate the torture chambers, drag out the secret crimes, and in so doing recover the force of their individual wills.  Once powerless, they want the “power to forgive,” and that could indeed pose a danger to them and to their societies, for it also implies the power to punish, and creates the possibility of another hell.  Nevertheless, taking such a risk, as Weschler eloquently concludes, seems to be the only answer to torturers whose single article of faith is their assurance to the victim that “No one will ever know.” (8)


In large-scale conflicts, part of this power to forgive requires that crimes committed by state officials be acknowledged officially, rather than left on the level of common knowledge where they can continue to be denied by those in power.  This “acknowledgment” was the goal of the Nunca Mais (“never again”) project in Brazil with the demise of the oppressive military regime or the 1960s and 70s, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, headed by Desmond Tutu (which explored both the crimes of the Apartheid Regime and the excesses of the African National Congress armed struggle). (9)

It is important to understand first that Gandhi’s principle of non-violence (ahimsa) is practical rather than ideological:  what is non-violent depends on the situation.  This is not to say that Gandhi practices a “situation ethics”, but that he wants his response to relate to the realities of the situation:

In life, it is impossible to eschew violence completely.  Now the question arises, where is one to draw the line?  The line cannot be the same for everyone.  For, although, essentially the principle is the same, yet everyone applies it in his or her own way.  What is one man’s food can be another’s poison.  Meat-eating is a sin for me.  Yet, for another person, who has always lived on meat and never seen anything wrong in it, to give it up, simply in order to copy me, will be a sin.

If I wish to be an agriculturist and stay in a jungle, I will have to use the minimum unavoidable violence, in order to protect my fields.  I will have to kill monkeys, birds and insects, which eat up my crops.  If I do not wish to do so myself, I will have to engage someone to do it for me.  There is not much difference between the two.  To allow crops to be eaten up by animals, in the name of ahimsa (non-violence), while there is a famine in the land, is certainly a sin.  Evil and good are relative terms.  What is good under certain conditions can become an evil or a sin, under a different set of conditions.

Man is not to drown himself in the well of the shastras (Hindu scriptures), but he is to dive in their broad ocean and bring out pearls.  At every step he has to use his discrimination as to what is ahimsa (non-violence) and what is himsa (violence).  In this, there is no room for shame or cowardice.  The poet had said that the road leading up to God is for the brave, never for the cowardly. (10)

This perception of Gandhi’s is very similar to the Jewish idea of the “evil urge”:  the same impulses that lead to betrayal and destruction (such as lust, greed) can and should be channeled for good (love, family and home, civic pride). Gandhi even considers that the defense of life may require the deliberate taking of life:

Taking life may be a duty.  We do destroy as much life as we think necessary for sustaining our body…Even man-slaughter may be necessary in certain cases.  Suppose a man runs amuck and goes furiously about, sword in hand, and killing anyone that comes in his way, and no one dares to capture him alive.  Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a benevolent man. (11)

These passages from Gandhi mostly precede the rise to power of the Nazis and give us a good idea of some of the considerations he had in his response to WWII.  During WWII, Gandhi recognized Hitler’s crimes as unprecedented and stated that there was certainly solid justification for waging war against him.  Nonetheless Gandhi still promoted the non-violent alternative for the German Jews on the basis that the results were equally unsure for both options and that the non-violent alternative would set a better example for future generations. (12)

Now let us review the considerations that arose in the debate between Gandhi and Buber and then outline a series of responses (illustrated by stories) that reveal important aspects of these considerations.

First of all, with both Buber and Gandhi we find in their outrage at injustice a primary concern for the welfare of others over the self. This is the outlook of compassion or charity.  For instance, Gandhi said that he would rather be killed than kill, but when he considers the duty to kill, it is in the context of stopping someone from murdering others.  Similarly, Buber does not challenge Gandhi for expecting Buber himself to choose an anonymous martyrdom; rather, he criticizes him for expecting it of the Jewish people as a whole.

The issue Buber raises is a complex one.  For instance, the majority of the German Catholic bishops thought it would be demanding too much of the laity to ask them to openly oppose the Nazis.  There is strong evidence that this decision was based on cowardice rather than charity. (13)  But the difference between the Catholics and the Jews in Nazi Germany is that the Catholics were not subjected to genocidal persecution.  The counter-argument to this is that the Jews were bound to die anyway so they might as well die resisting non-violently.  But if there is a chance to live by some means, or to save someone else, then what?  The dilemmas are acute, and we should know the particulars before judging a response as selfish or charitable.  A recent example of someone caught in this dilemma was during Mikhael Gorbachev’s imprisonment when he had to consider the threat of harm made against his wife Raisa while deciding to oppose the Soviet coup attempt in 1991.  They decided it was a risk worth taking, a harm worth bearing.  This reluctance based on family concerns has since been interpreted as cowardice on Gorbachev’s part (giving a tacit nod to the would-be-coup), but we should not be so quick to judge.

Given these various considerations in choosing a course of action in extreme circumstances, let us consider some examples of different responses.  These examples will be arranged from the most submissive to the most resistant.

Non-Violent Resistance

Buber says that there is value in God’s eyes of an anonymous martyrdom.  There is value in dying with dignity.  But not all martyrdom is as anonymous as it may seem.  For instance, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in the company of strangers, one witness was so impressed by the dignified manner in which Bonhoeffer died that the witnesses’ story found its way into Bonhoeffer’s biography and has become a source of inspiration for future generations. (14)

A similar story was presented in chapter one, titled “Good Morning, Herr Müller.”  This story demonstrates a gentle resistance to the systematic oppression of the Nazis.  By simply greeting his fellow human, in spite of the inhuman conditions of the concentration camps, the Rabbi achieves his survival and the survival of the tradition he embodies.   With his “Good morning, Herr Müller,” the Rabbi showed that he was prepared to die with dignity and was spared for that reason contrary to all the Nazi criteria that would have sent him to his death.  This can be considered a form of non-violent resistance, and an effective one given the circumstances.   But Herr Müller (the official who became a Nazi) was not as evil as Hitler.

A story from WWII that closely realizes Gandhi’s ideal of non-violent resistance is the story of Martin Niemöller.  It is a unique story of someone in a position to challenge Hitler’s authority who did so directly.   Niemöller was in a good position to challenge Hitler in this way because he was a decorated WWI military hero who became a prominent Protestant minister.  In 1934 Niemöller was part of the Pastor’s Emergency League which was trying to prevent the subjugation of the German churches to the constraints of Nazi ideology (as manifest in the Aryan Clause and the Muzzling Decree).  At the end of their meeting with Hitler and Göring on January 25th, Hitler’s final word was as follows:

Hitler retorted sharply that the clergy should leave the care of the Third Reich to him and, as Niemöller recalled, the pastors should concern themselves with getting people to heaven and looking after the church. (15)

But shortly before this Niemöller had noticed something about Hitler that transformed Niemöller’s feelings within the situation.   Enraged, Hitler had made a series of accusations and complaints:

Everyone was making life difficult for him, he complained, as was Pastor Niemöller.  “I was very frightened”, Niemöller said later.  “I thought, what do I answer to all his complaints and accusations?  He was still speaking, speaking, speaking.  I thought, dear God, let him stop.”

At that moment Hitler heard a motor car turning in the half-circle outside the Chancellery.  Niemöller remembered that the Reich chancellor, by whose authority he had been completely overawed till that moment, then said, “Every time I leave this Chancellery in my car, I am aware that someone might take a revolver and shoot at me.”  At those words, Niemöller recalled, “I felt absolutely liberated.  That was my salvation.  I knew this man was more anxious than I was.  I felt, ‘You have given yourself away.  If he has more anxieties than I have, then I have the courage to face him.’  His authority was absolutely negated when I felt that he was more governed by fear than me.” (16)

So when it was finally time to leave:

As the pastors prepared to leave, Niemöller wondered whether Hitler, following the usual habit of shaking hands with everyone, would actually shake hands with him.  He had determined, if possible, to give the Führer one more short word, about his remarks on the sole duty of the church being to bring people to heaven, in a way that showed that he did not feel inferior to Hitler.  He now felt, he recalled, “quite tranquil.”

Hitler did shake hands with Martin Niemöller, and Niemöller said to him, “A moment ago, Herr Reich Chancellor, you told us that you would take care of the German people.  But as Christians and men of the church, we too have a responsibility for the German people, laid upon us by God.  Neither you nor anyone else can take that away from us.” As Niemöller later remembered, “Hitler didn’t say a single word any more.  He just touched my hand, took his hand away and went on.” (17)

Soon after this incident Niemöller was made a “personal prisoner” of Hitler for the duration of the war.  Only his prominence prevented him from being executed, as is the situation with many political prisoners of our day.  His imprisonment did have an effect, though, by advertising that the German military was not united behind Hitler. Military officers played an important part in the plot to assassinate Hitler that we will consider later.

An example of a public non-violent protest against the Nazi regime was the “Rosenstrasse Protest” held in the heart of old Berlin.  In 1943, the Nazis began the Final Roundup of German Jews in Berlin.  There were 2,000 Intermarried Jews (i.e. with Gentile spouses) who were imprisoned at the former Jewish Community Center on Rosenstrasse, waiting deportation to the concentration camps and gas chambers.  For a week, the Gentile spouses, mostly women, protested in open defiance of Nazi machine-gunners threatening to mow them down.  This courageous protest resulted in the release of the Intermarried Jews during the most vicious period of Nazi atrocities.

A more recent example of successful mass non-violent resistance was the People Power movement in the Philippines headed by Benigno Aquino (martyred in the cause in 1983) that led to the removal of the Marcos dictatorship and the election of Aquino’s widow, Corazon.  This example of People Power will later be contrasted with the example of the course taken by the African National Congress in South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Now that we have covered the range of responses from dignified submission to non-violent resistance, let us move into the range where the methods of “force and cunning” mentioned by Buber are employed.   Remember, we are dealing here with situations in which the perpetrators of serious crimes show no signs of repentance, where lies govern the course of events, and where the criminals have both the means and the will to commit further, and more serious, crimes.  Jon Sobrino (1986) gives a good definition of the balance between forgiveness and protection against harm when he addresses the issue of socio-economic sin in Latin America: “Through love we have to be prepared to welcome the sinner and forgive him; and we have to be prepared to make it impossible for him to continue with his deeds which dehumanize others and himself.” (18)

Just War

The first example is not exactly a use of force, but presents a vivid picture of one way to respond to someone who makes a mockery of their faith while pretending to be sincere.  This story comes from the Eastern Orthodox tradition of St. Seraphim of Sarov. (19)  In this story, the female saint Pelagia challenges a bishop who is generating an atmosphere of lies.  This story shows that lying blocks the opportunity for forgiveness:

Rather more shocking was the behaviour of the Russian woman Pelagia (1809-1884).  She was a yuroditsa, or “fool for Christ”, attached to a nunnery where there was dissension, and the worldly party within the nunnery was being supported by the Bishop of Nizhni Novgorod.  In 1860 this bishop visited the nunnery and by a combination of smooth words and veiled threats overbore the just group within the community. Afterwards, traveling back in his carriage on the road to Nizhni Novgorod, he saw Pelagia sitting under a hedge by the roadside and knowing her reputation for holiness, as well as her firm opposition to his behaviour, he went up to her and unctuously greeted her.  At which she promptly gave him a clout on the cheek.  The bishop, however, had read his New Testament and knew that there were certain rules about how to respond in such circumstances, so he turned the other cheek to Pelagia.  But she simply said, “One is enough for you.”  Pelagia was a real Zen practitioner, trying to awaken the bishop out of his dream of concepts and rules into reality. (20)

Back to WWII, the following “Tale from the Holocaust” is an example of where cunning is used for the protection of the innocent:

Bronia and her son boarded a passenger train filled with German officers.  Her blond hair, blue eyes, and Berlin-accented German were a perfect cover, but she was fearful on account of little Yitzhak.  Because the family had lived in Berlin until the Zbaszyn Affair they all spoke the German language, but Yitzhak’s German was intermingled with Yiddish words because he had been born and raised in occupied Poland.  Bronia held the child in her lap, displaying his beautiful shock of blond curls.  Yitzhak was asleep, and Bronia prayed that he would stay asleep until Bochnia, their destination.

The German officers seated next to Bronia struck up a conversation with her.  Before long, they were discussing the Germans’ favorite topic — the Jews.  Their remarks were brutal and vulgar, although they apologized to Bronia for using such vile language in the presence of a lady.  Soon one officer was recalling how, on a similar journey, he had discovered a Jew who was traveling on Aryan papers:  “I sniffed him out, I have a special talent for it.  Right here in the middle of the compartment I made him pull down his trousers.  I was right.  The poor devil never made it to the next station.”  He told the story gleefully, trying to amuse beautiful Bronia.

Little Yitzhak turned his head in his sleep.  To think about the fact that he was circumcised made Bronia’s heart pound louder than the locomotive’s puffings, and her blood raced through her veins like the train in the dark night.  But she managed to smile her calm, charming smile.  She pointed to the sleeping child and said:  “Gentlemen, you don’t want to wake up a future soldier.”  The conversation continued in hushed voices.  One officer remarked that Bronia was the embodiment of German motherhood.  She reminded him of a beautiful madonna and child in his native Bavarian village of Saint Ottilier.

When the train stopped in Bochnia, Bronia, without giving any sign that it was her stop, remained in her seat.  Just as the train was about to pull out of the station, she swiftly stepped down to the platform.  The train pulled out of the station and Bronia waved to the German officers from below.  They responded warmly as the train sped on its way. Bronia breathed a sigh of relief.  The cool crisp air was refreshing. She hugged and kissed her little son, thanking him for being such a good boy.  Moments later, she was already planning the next step, the rescue of the other members of her family. (21)

In this example, honesty as a form of “non-violent resistance” could have resulted in the death of her child, and deception was a courageous and effective response.  Notice that Bronia must suspend her feelings of fear and anger, masking her feelings with calm and charming behavior. It is important to remember that Bronia’s deception was for the purpose of saving the child, not herself.  There are stories of non-Nazis who, in order to avoid imprisonment, pretended to be Nazis with the result that they rose to power in the Nazi ranks and became murderers.  Solely for self-protection, deception can be a tricky business.  The guidelines for self-protection outlined by Victor Frankl in his book From Death-Camp to Existentialism avoid this danger – by providing only minimal information to the Nazis (avoiding giving false information whenever possible), Frankl was better able to protect himself from the Nazis without endangering his fellow prisoners.  For instance, by identifying himself as a doctor rather than more specifically as a psychiatrist, Frankl not only gained more power to survive personally (a doctor being more useful than a psychiatrist), but also gained more power to help his fellow prisoners survive. (22)

Now let us consider the use of both cunning and force on a larger scale with the conspiracy of the German resistance to assassinate Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Protestant theologian in Germany and a member of a prominent family.  His grandmother had publicly protested the early abuses of the Jews by the Nazis.  For ten years Bonhoeffer had planned to visit India, and finally in 1936 had made arrangements with Bishop Bell of London to stay with Gandhi during a six month period.  Bonhoeffer’s interest in Gandhi’s methods had drawn criticism from his theological mentor Karl Barth.  Barth characterized Gandhi as non-Christian, and without Christ his teaching amounted to no more than secular humanism.  Contrary to this, Bonhoeffer perceived Gandhi as a Christian Hindu and as representing an ancient form of Christianity.

But Bonhoeffer canceled his trip to India in order to work on the German churches’ attempts to prevent their nationalization by the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer was prohibited from teaching in 1936 and in 1939 turned down a position in the U.S. in order to return to Germany and join the resistance.  This decision was based on his belief that a retreat to safety would for him be a sin of omission, a failure to respond to the call of duty to prevent the escalating crimes of the Nazis.  Bonhoeffer did not want to write his “confessions of a guilty by-stander.”

The main co-conspirator with Bonhoeffer in the resistance was his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer who was documenting Hitler’s war crimes.  The original plot was to organize a coup in which Hitler would be arrested for war crimes and declared criminally insane by Bonhoeffer’s father, a psychiatrist.  But when France surrendered on June 17, 1940, Bonhoeffer realized that this plot was no longer feasible.  After this, Bonhoeffer was the main advocate for the plot to assassinate Hitler to start a coup.  This plot resulted in three bombing attempts.  Bonhoeffer was imprisoned before the last bombing attempt, which he helped make possible through secret messages smuggled from prison.  The final attempt of July 20, 1944, although failing to kill Hitler, did injure Hitler sufficiently to remove him from command of the state (Himmler took over).  Within ten months Hitler had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide.

In Bonhoeffer’s biography, the following story gives a vivid picture of the effect of France’s surrender on his decision to practice deception:

While we were enjoying the sun, there suddenly boomed out from the cafe’s loudspeaker the fanfare signal for a special announcement:  the message was that France had surrendered.  The people round about at the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs.  With outstretched arms they sang “Deutschland über alles” and the Horst-Wessel song.  We had stood up, too. Bonhoeffer had raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed.  “Raise your arm!  Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later:  “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!” (23)

Bonhoeffer never directly addressed the issues of conspiracy in his writings, but he did address the issue of deception under extreme circumstances in a section of his book Ethics titled “Telling the Truth.”  In it he counters Kant’s contention that the categorical imperative requires a person to reveal the location of a friend to a murderer by saying that he would hope to tell a “robust lie” in order to save his friend’s life. (24)  The commandment to love thy neighbor supersedes the rule against lying, making the lie a necessary evil given the circumstances.  By extension, in the face of Hitler’s genocide, the commandment to love thy neighbor takes precedence over the commandment to not kill, and killing becomes the necessary evil as the only way to stop the “man run amuck.”

There were those, like Gandhi and the Quakers, who maintained that Hitler’s redemption could be attained through non-violence and love. Bonhoeffer concluded that Hitler would not repent so long as he remained in power.  One way to understand this is that Hitler’s power was built on lies and that lies by their nature preclude repentance and consequently block any opportunity for forgiveness.  But this does not mean that Bonhoeffer became cynical or acted out of anger – he maintained a forgiving attitude even though he figured that he himself could not achieve forgiveness with Hitler. Repentance and forgiveness were still possible for Hitler, but only after the temptations of power had been removed, only once the illusions of the world had been stripped from the face of God.

This lack of bitterness on Bonhoeffer’s part can best be found in the way he responded to his imminent execution, as related by a doctor who didn’t know who Bonhoeffer was at the time:

On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster…and Reichsgerichtsrat Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them.  Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God.  I was so deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  His death ensued after a few seconds.  In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. (25)

Now that, more than fifty years later, we have access to the love letters from prison between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer (26),  we can even better appreciate this observation of the way Bonhoeffer went to his death.

South Africa:  Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu

Ideally in this debate over WWII we would be able to determine the exact circumstances in which non-violent resistance is viable and when it becomes no more than an invitation to slaughter.   A good example of this judgment call is the policy changes of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa since it was founded in 1912.  The ANC was explicitly established on the non-violent resistance principles of Mohandas Gandhi (a South African “colored” of Indian descent whose first grass-roots resistance campaign was against the racial laws in South Africa from 1897-1915; an adopted son of Gandhi was in the ANC leadership). Ideally this policy would have achieved the kind of results that proved possible for Gandhi in India and for Aquino in the Philippines.  But after the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960, and the outlawing of the ANC soon thereafter, the ANC changed strategy and adopted a policy of armed struggle.  The armed struggle was waged until the power balance was affected and the “power to forgive” was restored, symbolized by the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990.  This power shift resulted in the resumption of non-violent policies by the ANC and the implementation of democratic elections and what currently appears to be a just distribution of power in order to bring national reconciliation.  The leadership demonstrated by President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu has certainly been important for making possible this positive turn of events. Mandela exemplified the just war position in this struggle, while Tutu maintained a position of non-violent resistance.   It is interesting to note the parallels between the differences of Mandela and Tutu and those of Buber and Gandhi.

The clearly defined differences along with the obvious and evident respect between Mandela and Tutu are interesting to explore.   The respect between these two South Africans can be seen in Mandela’s foreword to Tutu’s book of speeches and letters (The Rainbow People of God, 1994), as well as Tutu’s foreword to the important biography of Mandela written by Mary Benson in 1986.  In The Rainbow People of God, Tutu’s letter to President Botha, dated April 8, 1988 states:

I told you in my interview that I support the ANC in its objectives to establish a nonracial, democratic South Africa; but I do not support its methods.  That is a statement I made in the Supreme Court in Pretoria and on other occasions.  My views have never been clandestine…You know I went to Lusaka twice last year.  I tried to persuade the ANC to suspend the armed struggle; that is a matter of public record. (27)

In Mandela’s foreword to this book, he calls Tutu an “outstanding patriot” and “an eminent example” of “the struggles and sacrifices of peace-loving South Africans.”  In Tutu’s foreword to the Mandela biography, he calls Mandela a “remarkable” and “great man.”  Tutu continues:

God is good.  This man and those imprisoned with him should by now be embittered, disillusioned persons.  But they are remarkably abreast with what is happening in our land.  They can express concern about the welfare of others outside prison.  (Incredible!  He sent a message to me when he heard that some people had tried to break into my house.) And perhaps more effective than anything is his undoubted ability as an orator who can express the feelings of many in eloquent, well-chosen words; when you read his testimony in court you are proud that you too are black. (28)

To have this kind of mutual respect endure the pressures of oppression, investigation, persecution, imprisonment and state-sponsored terrorism is unique indeed.  But between two leaders who disagree on the basic methods of struggle, this kind of mutual esteem is nothing less than a miracle.  The extent of this esteem can be found in the following report after Mandela’s release from prison:

The occasion was a press conference held outdoors on the tree-shaded backyard lawn of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Anglican archbishop had put his home, one of the most luxurious in the virtually all-white suburb of Bishops Court, at Mandela’s disposal. In this more intimate setting, Mandela seemed a different person, and the incredible warmth and humanity of the man came forth…

For someone who had not held a press conference for thirty years, Mandela gave a stunning performance that day.  In fifty minutes, I revised all my impressions of his character gleaned from his appearance at the Old City Hall the day before.  Instead of straining to show he was still a tried and true ANC militant, he projected a personality full of compassion, compromise, and great hope.  His qualities as a statesman and diplomat came through immediately as he began answering our questions.  Speaking in a soft, slightly raspy voice, he fielded an enormous variety of questions about his long life in prison and his first impressions of freedom.  There was an ease and quickness in his answers that astounded his questioners.  Mandela exuded an inner calm, a quietness and certainty about himself that was unexpected and overpowering.  Most remarkable to many of us was the absence of any trace of bitterness about having spent the best years of his life behind bars… (29)

Tutu’s home becomes Mandela’s home.  The common ground establishes the basis for making peace.  Mandela feels at home in the respect granted by Tutu, and is able to extend that respect to his enemies and opponents.

Part of what makes this respect of Mandela possible for Tutu is his understanding of his role as a religious pastor.  When political leaders are imprisoned for political reasons, it is the duty of the pastor to speak out against political injustice until the political leaders are restored to a position in which they can address political issues themselves (30).  Tutu’s understanding of the pastor’s role of ministering to the flock in times of political oppression is similar to that espoused by Martin Niemöller in his confrontation with Hitler (see above).  Both of them use Biblical language to justify their role (31).

Even if we could determine the exact point at which non-violence becomes an invitation to slaughter, and when just war is called for, this still would not answer the question if there is some higher historical or spiritual value to a slaughter.  Ultimately this becomes a matter of individual conscience.  But it should be an informed conscience, a conscience developed in the company of practitioners of forgiveness such as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corazon Aquino, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

The Vietnam War and Reconciliation

An interesting example of forgiveness between nations comes from the normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam.  The scars from that war are deep on both sides.  Nonetheless, a consensus about the war has developed and the healing process has taken root.

Although there are strictly economic motives for normalization of relations, the spiritual dimension of improved relations certainly owes much to the long-terms efforts of peace-makers such as Thich Nhat Hahn, the Buddhist monk who opposed both the United States war effort and the Vietnamese government persecution of religion.  Recent stories reveal the unique quality of forgiveness and reconciliation leading up to Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s laying of the cornerstone for the new consulate in Ho Chi Minh City in June, 1997.

It is well known that Senator John McCain of Arizona was a long-term prisoner of war in Hanoi, and suffered terribly during that experience.  Nonetheless, McCain was a minority in the Republican Party advocating for normalization of relations with Vietnam.  What was less well-known was the reason McCain was a prisoner rather than a casualty of war.  This story was told in the November 1996 news story “Senator Meets His Savior in Vietnam:  Enemy soldier rescued McCain.” (32)  When McCain’s bomber was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, he was twice rescued by a North Vietnamese soldier named Mai Van On.  McCain probably would have drowned when his injured body parachuted into an icy lake.  Mai Van On pulled McCain from the lake and later protected McCain from the attacks of an angry crowd who were reacting to the wide-spread bombing that was taking place.  Upon finally meeting On 29 years later,   McCain said of him:  “He’s a wonderful man.  It’s very touching to talk with him.”  After embracing McCain, On said of the rescue:  “I don’t know why I saved him at the time.  But now I know.  He is an important American senator who is trying to help Vietnam.”

The personal dimensions of forgiveness between nations are further revealed through two stories involving photographs and two stories about the My Lai Massacre of 1968.  The first “photograph” story is recounted at the beginning of this book, the story of U.S. soldier Richard Luttrell and the photograph he retrieved of Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Tran Ngoan and his daughter that haunted Luttrell for 30 years.

Even more than Luttrell’s story, the story of Pham Thi Kim Phuc shows how a photograph can begin the process of inserting the personal dimension into a war that was largely waged by remote control.  In 1972, when she was nine years old, Kim Phuc’s village was attacked by U.S. forces, bombing and napalming.  The image of Kim running away from the attack with other children, her clothes having been burned off by the napalm, was captured by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut.  This photograph won a Pulitzer Prize and became a symbol of the cruelties of the war.

Since then, Kim went through seventeen operations and still lives with pain.  She lives in Toronto, is married and has a child.   On Veteran’s Day in November 1996, she addressed the observance at the Vietnam War Memorial, offering forgiveness to those responsible for the attack in 1972.  After Kim’s talk, a former officer and helicopter pilot, John Plummer, approached her and told her how sorry he was for his responsibility in the attack.  (33)

The exact nature of Plummer’s responsibility for the 1972 attack has since come into question (34).   What is clear is that at the time of the attack, Plummer and others thought that the village had no civilians, only soldiers.  But when he saw Nick Ut’s photograph the next day, Plummer realized that they had been wrong.   The image of Kim haunted Plummer for decades. His conscience bothered him; he turned to alcohol, and went through two divorces.  Finally, he converted, became a Protestant Minister, and came to the conclusion about the girl in the photograph:  “It took a long time, but I came to realize I would never have any peace unless I could talk to her. I had to look in her eyes and say how sorry I am.”


Plummer got his chance to meet Kim at the Memorial Day observance in 1996.  Although Plummer’s responsibility for the attack was more remote than what was originally reported, a bigger question is why those more responsible for the attack did not seek to do what Plummer did.   Plummer’s expression of sorrow and Kim’s exclamation of forgiveness have brought new meaning to one of the numerous tragic events of the Vietnam War.  That war, with its emphasis on air power and remote-control weapons, made the anonymity of killing into a daily routine.  The photograph of Kim made it possible to re-humanize that dehumanized condition.

The My Lai Massacre was emblematic for revealing the evils of the U.S. military efforts in Vietnam.  Little known until recently, there was a true U.S. military hero at the scene of the My Lai war crime.  During the attack, U.S. copter pilot Hugh Thompson realized that innocent civilians were being slaughtered and he ordered his copter crew to land and protect on pain of death the group of civilians over which they took control (13 survivors).  He personally ordered to shoot any U.S. military that attacked the Vietnamese civilians and effectively faced down an immediate threat of another war crime in the midst of the wide-spread slaughter which killed a total of 504 innocent villagers.  Not only are those civilians indebted to this act of bravery, but we as U.S. citizens owe a similar debt of gratitude to Hugh Thompson as the Germans do to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis.  Thompson was belatedly awarded a Soldier’s Medal in 1998, thirty years after his bravery.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in May, 2000 brought to light many hope-filled stories between the United States and Vietnam.  Among these stories are:  1)  the marriage in 1999 of former POW Pete Peterson, who became U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, to Vi Le, who was born in Saigon and became Australian diplomat to Vietnam; 2)  the documentary “Regret to Inform” by Vietnam War widow Barbara Sonneborn, who tells the stories of widows in both the United States and Vietnam, revealing the common tragedies and struggles resulting from war; 3)  the efforts of various Vietnam Veteran’s groups, such as Veterans for Peace, to help community development programs in war-ravaged Southeast Asia.  These efforts include removing mines and unexploded munitions, countering the wide-spread toxic effects of Agent Orange that continue to poison that land, setting up medical clinics and reforestation.

These stories illustrate two themes in this chapter.  First:  even in conditions of war, it is the personal stories of kindness, repentance and forgiveness that make the difference.  Second:  these personal stories can only make a difference for the long-term when there is an official acknowledgment of the war crimes.  Only then is there the power to make forgiveness succeed.  An example of this was the American media coverage of the 25 year memorial in Hanoi of “Operation Linebacker II” – from December 18th to the 26th 1972, one month before the peace agreement of January 27, 1973, United States bombers executed a massive bombing campaign that killed 1,600 civilians in Hanoi (35).   Without recognition of facts like this, normalization would lack the spiritual dimension of forgiveness, and there would be no true reparation in renewed economic activity.


Neutrality versus Multi-Partiality

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressors.  – Desmond Tutu

It is a common idea that peace-makers should be neutral and detached.  The stories in this chapter show that the best practitioners of forgiveness do not conform to this idea.  Far from being detached, they were passionately, as well as prayerfully, engaged.  They converted anger into compassion and fear into bravery, accepting their own limitations while being vigilant against self-deception.   They put their own lives on the line in a way that makes death a victory.  What this calls for is not an attitude of objective neutrality, but of balanced wisdom.  We only find truth by becoming part of truth.  The potential dangers of a neutral position in situations of extreme conflict became apparent in Bosnia:  United Nation Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted that the UN peacekeeping policy of neutrality was responsible for allowing widespread slaughter (36).  The laissez-faire neutrality of the Senior Bush administration towards the crimes of Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic led to the later necessity of the NATO armed intervention during the Kosovo atrocities in 1999.  Without that armed intervention, Milosevic would never have been brought to justice before the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

All too often a balanced approach is not sufficiently distinguished from a neutral one.  Let us consider some of the essential qualities involved in a truly balanced approach, beginning with an example.

During the 1989 democracy demonstrations in China, one of the few instances in which demonstrators resorted to violence shows the dangers of allowing passions to get the better of one’s judgment.  There was an incident in which a soldier started machine-gunning a crowd without any provocation, slaughtering many. The crowd managed to catch the soldier and made his execution into a public spectacle.  It may be possible that the soldier needed to be killed to prevent him from further murder, but the way in which the soldier was executed became a powerful propaganda tool for the Chinese hard-liners.  By showing film footage of the execution of the soldier without reference to the soldier’s slaughter of innocents, the regime had a better chance of portraying the democracy movement as made up of violent criminals and treasonous thugs.  This incident was therefore instrumental in helping the regime bury the truth.  The revenge practiced upon the body of the soldier backfired, leading to greater oppression rather than more freedom.

Nowhere is this principle that excess retaliation backfires more eloquently stated than in the May 1995 statement by the imprisoned Palestinian Samir Kuntar.  In 1979 he engaged in a plot to disrupt the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt by killing civilians (he had been orphaned at age twelve as a result of Israeli attacks on Lebanon):

We, the Palestinian nation, must carry out some serious soul-searching. The decision taken by our organizations, principally in the early 1970s, allowing for violence against civilians, was a terrible mistake – a boomerang…The result was the creation of an environment among us that encouraged indiscriminate violence. (37)

Simply stated, two wrongs don’t make a right, nor do they make things equal or neutral.  In mediation what this means is that we must avoid the perception that admission of wrong on one side automatically justifies, or makes right, the position or conduct of the other side (my offense does not justify your revenge, nor your  revenge justify my recommitting the offense).  But another thing that “balanced” does not mean is having the same attitude towards the violator and the violated.  A violation may be part of a larger story, but each violation is a story in its own right and mediators should avoid minimizing or discounting the harm done.  It is a brave heart, not a hardened heart, that is ready to help resolve conflicts.  Donald Nicholl vividly describes the test he set for his own attitude before taking on the role of peace-maker in his position as the rector of the Tantur Institute for Theological Research near Jerusalem.  In answer to the question, “Is there any sign available to indicate when one’s heart is becoming corrupted?,” he writes:

It is simple.  If your immediate spontaneous reaction — if the movement of your heart — upon hearing of some tragedy, is an ideological one, then your heart has become corrupted, and you should leave straight away and go on pilgrimage until it is cleansed.  Suppose you hear, for instance, that scores of civilians have been killed in an air raid upon PLO headquarters in Beirut, and your immediate reaction is, “Well, what else do they expect if they share quarters with terrorists?”  In that case your reaction is not a human one but an ideological one.  Your ideology may even be correct; but if it is primary then you have lost your heart of flesh and set up in its place an idol of stone.

I quoted this example to a high-placed Israeli official, and when I noticed how his facial muscles twitched I realized that he was grieved by what had been revealed to him in the cave of his heart.  A good man, nevertheless; and he grieved.  More saddening was my encounter with a Marxist whom I know.  After describing to him the sign of discernment that I had been given, I proposed a different illustration as a test, an incident in Haifa bus station.  There a bomb planted by the PLO killed a number of innocent citizens.  Again, I said, if one’s instant reaction is to sigh, “Well, such things are only to be expected if they are oppressing another people,” then an ideology has turned one’s heart to stone.  However, my Marxist brother seemed not to be grieved, as my Israeli brother had been, by what had revealed itself in the cave of his own heart.  Instead he attacked me sharply for being obscurantist, for not recognizing that ideas also “have life.” (38)

Finally, for those who have committed themselves to reconciliation and peace-making, one of the greatest obstacles to maintaining a balanced attitude is the danger of becoming obsessed.  Dwelling on tragedy, we can lose our hope and passion for life.   Obsession hampers our imagination and fuels anger and fear.  The best defense against obsession is a strong, non-cynical sense of humor.  We find this perspective amongst the best practitioners of forgiveness. The value of humor in the work of forgiveness is the subject of the next chapter.  But in general a good sense of humor under extreme circumstances involves using our imagination to resolve the struggle between duty and free-will.  The following passage from William Ernest Hocking provides a good example of how this can be done:

The answer cannot be found in the idea of duty; it must lie in a disclosure of the nature of the world.  For a demand upon feeling calls for a transformation of desire; and desire, formed in us by nature, can be transformed only by a vision of unsuspected beauty and meaning in the heart of things. (39)



Chapter 5

Hope, Humor and Forgiveness:

A Global Survey

Part 1:  Towards a Philosophy of Humor and Forgiveness

Laughter?  Does anyone ever care about laughter?  I mean real laughter – beyond joking, jeering, ridicule.  Laughter – delight unbounded, delight delectable, delight of delights…

– Milan  Kundera (1)


My single peal of laughter

Startles heaven and earth. – Zen phrase (2)

Anyone trying to help in a situation of serious conflict would do well to have a good sense of humor.  Without good humor, a meddler is likely to be too confrontational or neglectful about sensitive and crucial issues.  We will find that good humor is related to the virtues of hope, courage and patience.

To be really effective, this chapter needs a running joke. But the topic is so vast and largely uncharted that researching it has the character of a wild goose chase.  But is this a goose that we really want to catch, if we could?  And if we did catch it, what would we do with it?  These are some of the absurd questions that populate the field of humor in distracting numbers.  No, there is no running joke as yet capable of encircling the relationship between humor and forgiveness.  Lacking a running joke, we shall have to content ourselves with a limping joke. Indeed, this chapter has something of the quality of stubbing one’s toe and lamely attempting to make the most of it.  Perhaps, though, this is just to the point:  the idea of humans forgiving each other is an inherently awkward concept, and we shouldn’t get too critical of our own and others’ bumbling attempts to be of good cheer in the face of the tragedies of life.

Indeed, I did chase many wild geese to compile the material of this study.  Like any jolly good fellow, I first set out to hear what my various friends would have to say when I asked them, “Tell me your favorite funny story on forgiveness and [whatever topic was the impetus of my contacting this particular person]…”  But be careful what you wish for, because you might actually get it.  The result of my excursions into humor was something like the story of the goose with the golden feathers:  many of the stories I so diligently chased, I ended up getting stuck to, and they dragged me cumulatively to a fate I have as yet to comprehend.  But if it is anything like the Brother’s Grimm story “The Golden Goose,”  we can be like Simpleton, who through his hospitality to the old gray dwarf gains a golden goose that becomes the object of greed for 3 sisters, a parson and sexton, and two farmers.   These individuals become so attached to their objects of greed that they are glued to the goose who then becomes such a hilarious spectacle that it makes the king’s daughter laugh, who has never laughed before.  And this, dear readers, is why the king’s daughter married Simpleton.  So as I have become stuck to the humorous stories to come, I hope they will get stuck to you.

It is not hard to imagine why so little has been written on the role humor plays in forgiveness:  forgiveness is serious business and humor is an elusive phenomenon.  Combining the two would seem like risky business.  The combination of forgiveness and comedy would seem even riskier.  The serious quality of forgiveness and the playful quality of humor might seem ill-suited, but appearances can deceive.

Forgiveness originally appears as a religious value.  Humor originally appears as an issue of wit and social manners.  Perhaps, as Conrad Hyers points out (3), the solemnity generally associated with religion makes laughter and merriment seem impious.  In many circumstances this would be true, but not in all circumstances.  For instance, it would be unseemly to make a joke during a funeral service, but an amusing story at a memorial service, told in the spirit of friendship, might be just the right thing.  As humor can help with mourning between friends, so humor can help us mend the social fabric with forgiveness.

Humor forms a broader class of phenomena than jokes or comedy.   Comedy is a genre of story-telling and drama.  Comedy involves humor, not in the formal literary technique of making a story or drama, but in the comic inspiration.  Humor not only plays a role in the inspiration of comedy, but also permeates our ordinary, informal, everyday lives.  People create humor with each other using comments, questions or actions that serve as pleasant surprises, surprises that punctuate the otherwise boring and tedious course of common life tasks.  Daily humor is embedded in the context of the story of everyday life, serving as the punch line that helps make our day.  Comedy more formally sets the context by telling the story (a joke or comic drama), with the humor being the pleasant surprises that punctuate the story throughout, especially at the end.

Much of humor in everyday life uses methods that are also used in comedy, such as puns, nonsequiturs, slapstick and other foolishness. As imaginative and playful as it is, humor uses everything at its disposal in any possible way.  Humor spans the acting range from A (let’s say the wettest buffoonery) to Z (the driest irony).

Humor tends to work in the moment and be diminished in the retelling.  On the other hand, there are things that happen in life that are not funny at the time, but become humorous in the telling.  Sometimes we even foreshadow this by saying “Someday I will be able to laugh about this.”

Story-telling and humor share the common element of surprise.  The word “story”, coming from “history”, originally meant “learning by enquiry.”  If there is no surprise involved, if the meaning of the account is apparent from the first, then there is no need for enquiry and no learning results.  It’s like hearing a joke with a punch line we already know — there is no surprise and we are not amused in the same way as when the joke is fresh.

Humor and play are associated with experiences that are enjoyable.  Humor is a form of play in which something funny occurs.  We experience humor as an unexpected pleasure, a pleasant surprise.  Humor has a cognitive element (the dissonance of the unexpected), an emotional element (enjoyment), and a behavioral element (smiling, laughter). Henri Bergson pointed to the behavioral element of humor as demonstration of humor’s social function.  Smiling serves as a social initiation and means of bonding; laughter serves as a social liberation and display of folly.

To define the proper uses of humor in the endeavor of forgiveness, it would be helpful to find ways to detect and encourage a healthy and friendly sense of humor.  Good stories and clear thinking will help us do this.  At each step we should be careful to distinguish humor that helps others from self-serving humor at the expense of others.

There are many theories of humor, including the superiority theory, the relief theory, the incongruence theory, and the solidarity theory. The superiority theory assumes that humor serves to advance the humorist at the expense of the “butt of the joke.”  The relief theory assumes that humor serves to stimulate and release tension in the individual and society by mixing things up, activating people while ultimately providing a positive experience that serves as a release from the tension created by the suspense of the story.  The incongruence theory assumes that humor messes with people’s minds, surprising them in subtle or challenging ways.  The solidarity theory assumes that humor serves to bring people together, introducing and bonding them in a common cause, or for no cause, but simply because we share the ludicrous condition of being human.

I generally assume that humor is releasing and challenges our minds.  The real debate in this chapter is between the superiority theory and the solidarity theory.  By prevailing against cruelty, good humor serves to bring people together in solidarity while bad humor serves to set some elite in superior opposition to an unsophisticated mass (those “in” the joke versus those “out” of the joke).  In order to demonstrate that humor can be serious business, I will define a solidarity theory in contrast to a superiority theory.   In the next chapter I will apply the humor of solidarity in its various forms to personal healing, to inter-personal, inter-group and inter-national conflicts, and generally to our common human predicament.

Now let us consider the background of the theories of humor as solidarity versus humor as superiority.


“There has got to be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief.

– Bob Dylan

Humor is part of human imagination.  Ever since Aristotle defined humans as “rational animals capable of laughter,” the role of humor in human evolution has been a legitimate, if largely neglected, topic of philosophical inquiry.  Humor involves the ability to perceive extra possibilities in a situation:   “Humor is an essential means of teasing one into the recognition of the variety of perspectives permitted by the totality of existing things.”  Enjoying humor together is a universal means of establishing rapport and loyalty.  Many writers have commented that it is hard to imagine loving someone without good humor, while others point out that harmonious social relations depend on easy humor.

But solidarity is always in relation to something against which we stand together.  Ethnic humor establishes solidarity between those in on the joke against the group excluded by the joke, those who get the joke versus those gotten by it.  This kind of humor has an intrinsic flaw in that the solidarity it generates is fragile.  Humor which dehumanizes other human beings is vulnerable to being exposed in a negative light.  As the ethnic joke attempts to expose the limitation of the ethnic, whether it be an intellectual limitation (stupid jokes) or a moral limitation (conniving jokes), the limitation of the ethnic joke stereotyping is always subject to exposure.

If we are going to band together as humans and die laughing at the expense of a common enemy, the best target to attack with humor is death.

Solidarity and Death

Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855) thought that the established conventional wisdom of bourgeois Danish society of the 19th century had stifled serious ethical and religious discussion.  Humor seemed to him a means to liberate language so that serious ethical and religious issues could be addressed.  Whereas ethical issues tend to isolate people in their own individual accountability (such as the categorical imperative of Kant where each person is responsible for recreating the whole moral universe solely by means of individual effort),  humor tends to bring people together with the relief that all humans share in common their mortality.  But because the starting point of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is the individual’s experience of existential guilt, Kierkegaard’s appreciation of humor tends to be introspective and ultimately impotent.  The philosophy of Charles Peguy (1873-1914), based in the experience of joy and the value of hope, provides a more reliable guide for appreciating the ultimate importance of humor.

One way to approach the relationship between the seriousness of forgiveness and the “not-seriousness” of humor is to consider the more general relationship between work and play.

Work and Play

Many of those who have studied and researched human development have concluded that play has a pivotal role in the development of cognitive, practical, social and emotional skills (7).  Work can be considered formalized play, play being the experimental activity of learning necessary for work-skill acquisition.

Many theorists of humor point out the essentially social nature of humor.  Humor helps us get along with people, make friends, and so on.  This view is supported by the research in developmental psychology on smiling and laughter.  That research shows that infants and young children use smiling and laughter to help regulate tension and social stimulation in order to prolong face-to-face interactions (8).  These behaviors and the skills involved in using them are important for children’s social, intellectual and emotional development (9).  The ability to manage social stimulation is related to one’s attention span and ability to learn.

The topic of the relationship between work and play has rich and vast philosophical implications, and many social theorists, including Freud, have explored this topic (work and love were Freud’s primary themes before love and death).   Seriousness and playfulness are both qualities and quantities.  As qualities they can be defined by the extremes of “dead serious” and “just playing” (mortal consequences versus no consequences).  But usually the two qualities are mixed in varying degrees, as can be seen in most products of the human imagination.  The beauty of many religious works of art testifies to the fact that imagination and solemnity can work together.  The consumer ethic itself demonstrates that playful, aesthetic considerations can have serious financial consequences:  automobiles often sell more on style than on safety or other practical considerations.

Perhaps no writer has better described the implications of the relationship between work and play than Charles Peguy in his Portico of the Mystery of the Second Virtue, written in 1911.  By describing the inter-play between work and play in a common domestic scene, Peguy provides the basis for understanding the virtue of hope.   Observing children helping their mother in the kitchen, Peguy notes that for young children work and play are so inter-mixed that they don’t distinguish the two.  All they know is the wondrous joy of being involved in life.  When considering the implications of this observation, Peguy writes:  “Hope also is she who enjoys herself all the time.” (10)

For Peguy children are literally the embodiment of hope.  Why does a father persistently work long hard hours, particularly in harsh cold winter conditions?  For his children, for the future of his children, for his children as future:  “And thinking about how his children will be in the future, he laughs, warms up, and goes about his work.” (11)

Peguy distinguishes the virtue of hope from the virtues of faith and charity.  Faith and charity are good habits of attitude and conduct, but they do not provide the motivating, spontaneous energy that hope brings.  Without hope even good habits grow tired.  Hope has no particular object because it brings life to everything.   Peguy’s vision of hope is so vivid that he even has God astonished by the hope that humans demonstrate:  “Hope, said God, this does astound me…That these poor children seeing all that goes on should believe that tomorrow will be better…” (12)

Robert Royal writes that Peguy’s passages of God’s astonished response to hope are unique in theological literature.  Royal’s appreciation of Peguy’s poetry articulates the relationships between hope and humor, play and ultimate seriousness:

As these passages show, Peguy’s stylistic sense for God’s voice is very sure.  It would be very easy to overplay this joking peasant Deity, or to fail by merely having God rehearse stale theological formulas. Peguy avoids the temptation to be both too cute and too predictable. His Deity is playful, and the game he is playing, though graced with humor, is too serious to be merely a reflection of any systematic schemes, however orthodox. (13)

Peguy’s work on hope is laced with humor and punctuated with laughter. He even describes the child Jesus as “the little fellow who laughed like a jewel.” (14) None of this is done with the least amount of sentimentality, but with the hard labor of a farmer tilling his soil.  Such hard work leads him to such uniquely revealing (and relieving) thoughts as:   “Fortunately saints are not jealous of each other.  That would be the last straw.  That would be a bit too much.” (15)

Peguy says that Hope is the Heart of God.  This is the main thing to keep in mind on the relationship between good humor and forgiveness — good humor is joyful and hope-filled in its vision.  Without hope, humor becomes desperate and despairing, turning towards the insensitive and cruel forms of bigotry, derision, sarcasm, mockery, spite, and so forth.  This is why the promotion of good humor becomes legitimately serious business.

As with all creations bound by time and timing, humor has its limits. But it is questionable whether these limits are categorical.  For instance, Kierkegaard in his Postscript, and those influenced by that work (such as Reinhold Niebuhr) exclude humor from the heart of religion.  For Niebuhr, humor has no place at the “holy of holies”, the Altar of God (16).   For Kierkegaard, the “exclusion zone” is repentance:

It might be said that repentance, for example, is a contradiction, ergo something comic, certainly not to the esthetic or to finite common sense, which are lower, or to the ethical, which has its power in this passion, or to abstraction, which is fantastic and thereby lower (it wanted to interpret as comic from this standpoint what was rejected as nonsense in the foregoing), but to the religious itself, which knows a remedy for it, a way out.  But this is not the case; the religious knows of no remedy for repentance that disregards repentance. (17)

It is true that there is no redemption, no “way out” of the burden of guilt, without repentance.  And certainly in the repentant response there is no room for thinking of wrong-doing as “funny.”  But if Hope is the Heart of God, then humor is close at hand, and can be a hand-maiden to repentance.  For there is a way out, which is forgiveness, which comes from the perspective of joy, celebration, and good humor.

The two Hasidic “laughter” stories in chapter two show how loving laughter can correct false humility in confessions.  In the larger picture, even a truly repentant response can take on comic significance.  For instance, consider the true story of Saint Callistus I:

Callistus was born in second-century Rome, the Christian slave of a Christian master.  Placed in charge of a Christian bank, he lost or misplaced all the Christian money.  He skipped town, but was caught and sentenced (by a civil court) to the treadmill.  Released by his merciful Christian creditors, Callistus started a brawl in a synagogue, blaming the Jews for his financial embarrassment.  For this offense, he was condemned to the dreadful salt mines of Sardinia.  Released by claiming (falsely) that his name had been inadvertently omitted from an amnesty list, he returned to Rome and was hired by Pope Zephyrinus to supervise the papal cemetery.  Eighteen years later, Callistus succeeded Zephyrinus as pontiff.  A man who knew something about guilt and rehabilitation, Callistus ruled that penitent sinners, even murderers, fornicators, and adulterers, were welcome in church.  He also formally recognized the many shocking liaisons between Christian widows and Christian slaves as legal marriages.  This led to schism, and riot, in the course of which the forgiving slave-convict-pope was thrown down a well to his heavenly reward. (18)

This rendition of Callistus’ biography makes him sound like a true life Jonah, the mythic prophet who runs away from God, only to be comically used by fate to fulfill his prophetic purpose.   Perhaps during the course of this saga Callistus thought “someday I will be able to laugh about this.”  And perhaps someday we will be able to laugh together with him.

Hope, Humor and Survival

Hope and humor are important for survival under difficult circumstances.  People who can imagine no future for themselves give up; under extreme circumstances this can lead to death.  Viktor Frankl is most specific in this regard when speaking of survival in the concentration camp:

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.  It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.  I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site (in the concentration camp) to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we should promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation. (19)

The use of humor to imagine a future after liberation is an intriguing definition of hope.

The use of humor as an aid to survive difficult or extreme circumstances is not limited to western culture.  In Custer Died for your Sins, Vine Deloria writes of Native American Indian humor:

For centuries before the white invasion, teasing was a method of control of social situations by Indian people.  Rather than embarrass members of the tribe publicly, people used to tease individuals they considered out of step with the consensus of tribal opinion.  In this way egos were preserved and disputes within the tribe of a personal nature were held to a minimum. (20)

When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive. (21)

This role of humor seems to be a cultural universal.  Indeed, humor, story-telling, gift-giving and forgiveness are related anthropological phenomena.   A good joke has many characteristics in common with the tradition of gift-giving in pre-market economies, as has been delineated by the psycholinguist Jonathan Miller, who makes explicit reference in this regard to Marcel Mauss’ seminal work on the anthropology of gift-giving (22).  In much of social life, jokes are offered free of charge, as though the ancient coinage of language has in some ways survived outside of the exchange system of the market-economy.  Good humor as a gift can be perceived as a peace offering, as a chance for forgiveness.  Good humor can be one of those “small acts of civility” that make the difference on our pilgrimage to forgiveness.  As Jerome A. Miller points out, in contrast to the economy of consumption and competition, good humor establishes an economy of celebration. (23)

Reciprocity in humor and gift-giving is analogous to reciprocity in forgiveness.  Just as forgiveness is accomplished with the repentant response of the forgiven, so humor is accomplished with the appreciation of the recipient.  Humor functions socially:  humor does not live unless it is appreciated.  The same is true of gift-giving and forgiveness.

There are traditions that relate humor to the ultimate concerns addressed by religion.  For instance, the following story from the Jewish tradition makes humor a defining characteristic of paradise:

A rabbi is in a market when the prophet Elijah appears to him.  The rabbi is naturally excited and respectful.  He begins a conversation with the prophet, and at one point, he asks, “Is there any Jew in the market here who is destined to play an important part in the World to Come?

Elijah looks around and answers, “No!  I don’t see anyone who would qualify.”

Just then two men appear and Elijah holds up his hand.

“Wait, here are two who will do so!”

Then he disappears.  The rabbi turns to the two men and inquires: “What are you?  What do you do for a living?”

One answers:  “We are merrymakers.  We seek to make people happy when they are gloomy, to make peace where there are quarrels.  This we do by making people laugh.” (24)

There are many ways in which humor can speak to our common human condition.  The fact that we are limited creatures, suspended awkwardly between the realm of angels and the world of animals, makes us by nature prone to the proddings of humor.  For good humor, death is ultimately the butt of the joke.  We live and laugh at the expense of death.  Pascal’s wager can be made into a story with a humorous twist:

A local free thinker, a professed atheist, reaches the age of 70.  That year, on Yom Kippur, he shows up in the shul and is observed in fervent prayer throughout the service.

The shammes (sexton) sidles up to him during a break in the prayer.  “Yonkel,” he observes, “what are you doing here?  For so many years you have told everyone you don’t believe in God?”

“True,” the atheist rejoins, “but let me ask you.  Suppose I was wrong?” (25)

Humorous twists can provide profound insights, as when the student asks the rabbi where God can be found, and is answered that God can be found wherever God is welcome.  The shift from location to attitude serves a theological purpose.  Similarly, the ironic saying that life is too long for comfort and too short to get anything done, reveals a common human condition.


The superiority theory holds that humor is the expression of sublimated aggressive and sexual impulses.  This was the thesis of Freud’s main work on the topic, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.  In this view, humor is a verbal form of aggression and sexuality where there is always a persecutor and a victim.  By means of humor, the persecutor achieves a superior position in relation to the victim.  The term “to put someone down” is apt for describing this — the joker verbally gets on top of the victim by embarrassing the butt of the joke.  The way in which the joker “mounts” the unwilling subject of the joke shows how sexual harassment is a verbal form of rape.

Humor can certainly function in this way, and this section will point out a few forms of this type of humor.  But not even Freud considered this to be the only function of humor — in a little known essay entitled “Humor,” Freud explored the ways in which humor can be used as a defense mechanism in the face of intolerable conditions.

Satire is a good example of humor used in an aggressive and sexualized way.  The word comes from the ancient Roman Saturnalia, a festival based on Greek practice in which inhibitions were released and a lot of ribald humor was allowed.  In this context, the goat-men Satyrs were sexual predators.

Satire as a comic form serves to deflate or debase the pretensions of the respectable.  In its gentler and more constructive form, it can be an invitation to the pretentious to get down off their high horse and join the human race.  Parody, as a gentler form of caricature, can serve this purpose well, and is explored further in this chapter.  The harsher forms of satire function not just to knock them down but to keep them down, perhaps kicking them in the teeth while at it.  Satire of this sort seeks immediate results, but usually doesn’t achieve them.

The word “derision” means literally to “laugh down at” someone.  The term assumes malicious intent to dehumanize an unwilling subject.  A person who is derided is not being invited to join the human race; quite the opposite.

Sarcasm is often the tone we detect in malicious humor.   The original Greek word “sarkasmos” meant to “tear flesh” like a “sneering” beast.  There is reason to relate sarcasm with cynicism.    The word cynical originally meant “dog-like” – not in the positive sense of an animal that is good, but literally a “snarler”, that is, a mean dog.  Mean dogs tear flesh, are sarcastic.  Sarcasm and satire don’t point out our animal nature in the positive sense in which it exists in relation to our angelic aspect — they eliminate the angel and torment the beast.  As long as it is profitable to exploit the lower emotions, our society will be in danger of unraveling.  Instead, we should invest in cultivating the higher emotions.

Christopher Lasch criticized the tendency to use cynical jokes for the purpose of lowering all to the lowest common denominator:

Whereas Wurmser pleads for the “heroic transcendence of shame” through love and work, Nathanson recommends a kind of inoculation against shame — a healthy dose of shame in manageable amounts, such as we find in the therapeutic comedy of Buddy Hackett, that keeps it from becoming lethal.  What he finds appealing, I take it, is the lowering effect of Hackett’s bathroom humor.  The reminder that no one escapes “the call of nature,” as our grandmothers used to put it so delicately, serves both to deflate self-importance and to mock false modesty – all the more effectively, Nathanson seems to think, when it is couched in coarse, uninhibited language.

Hackett’s “comedy of acceptance” reconciles us to our limitations, according to Nathanson.  I think it merely encourages us to lower our sights.  There is a crucial difference between the acceptance of limitations and the impulse to reduce everything exalted to its lowest common denominator.  “Acceptance” becomes shameless, cynical surrender when it can no longer distinguish between nobility and pomposity, refinement of taste and social snobbery, modesty and prudery.  Cynicism confuses delusions of grandeur, which call for moral and therapeutic correction, with grandeur itself. (26)

Humor of the lowest common denominator masks as humble and egalitarian. Instead, it is false humility and elitism.  It points out our basest selves as an excuse for not striving for better.  And by arguing that our basest selves are our only “true” selves, it is calling anyone who believes otherwise naive and stupid, while the cynic is held up as smart and realistic.  Misery loves company, and will go to the most ridiculous lengths to get it.

Malicious humor aims not to correct a person, but to brand that person as hopeless.   In this sense it lacks the qualities of hope and respect. There is no hope for the butt of the joke, and the joker has no intention of taking a second look (respect means to look again) at the victim.  If the intention is to “score,” then the joker won’t recognize anything but the basest qualities in the target.  No second chance to redeem oneself.  One way to respond to such “jokes” is to call them what they really are:  insults.

In contrast, a person who teases as a way of correcting another may say things that are sharp or even biting, but seeks to engage the higher emotions of the person being corrected, helping that person save face and avoid unnecessary humiliation.  In short, this positive sense of teasing as a humorous form of fraternal correction shows its relationship to forgiveness:  the teaser endeavors to help the teased find a way out.

To see the forms that hopeful inclusion and cynical exclusion take in our current historical situation, it helps to consider some of the historical background to the inter-ethnic context of much of today’s humor.

Cultures in Contact:  Exclusion and the “Ethnic” Joke

The “ethnic joke” as we know it today developed from the mingling of ethnicities immigrating in the context of urban industrialization and the shift of population away from agriculture.   In general, ethnic humor involves negative stereotypes about other groups than the group with which the joke-teller identifies.   In his survey Ethnic Humor Around the World, Christie Davies tracks international pecking orders.  The picture that emerges could be described as “kicking the dog” – that is, abusing someone smaller in revenge for being abused by someone bigger.  Often times the same joke that is told of one group gets transferred on down to the next marginal group:  jokes about stupid Irishmen, canny Scotsmen, coarse Australians, boastful Americans, militaristic Germans, devious Welshmen, are told within each of these countries as jokes about the peoples of Kerry, Aberdeen, Tasmania, Texas, Prussia, and Cardiganshire, respectively. (27)

“Ethnics” are generally depicted as “stupid” or “canny.”   The “stupids” generally depict old-fashioned country folk who resist or don’t learn the ways of the city.   “Lightbulb” jokes, as in “how many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” are examples of this type of joke.  For those who assimilated to modern ways slowly, immigration to the city could be a path filled with insults.

Ironically, the very word “bigotry” comes from a “stupid” joke (bigotry=ignorance) – “bigot” was originally a French insult against the Normans.  The French themselves have been subjected to charges of chauvinism.

In contrast to the “stupid” joke, the “canny” joke is about a clever character who outwits his foe, sometimes in devious ways.  These jokes are told of ethnics who adapt all too well to city ways, losing touch with their heritage and values while opportunistically taking advantage of others.  Generally the canny ethnic is not to be trusted.   Neither the stupid nor the canny character is depicted as noble, virtue being reserved for the group of the joke-teller (although occasionally a joke told about a group will be used within the group by one faction against another, such as jokes about the stuffy upper class British).

The following joke plays on multiple European stereotypes in a way that is more egalitarian and self-referential:

In Heaven,                                                          In Hell,

the chefs are French                                           the chefs are English

the police are English                                         the police are German

the lovers are Italian                                           the lovers are Swiss

the mechanics are German                                 the mechanics are French

the administration is Swiss                                 the administration is Italian. (28)

Cultures in Contact:  Inclusion and the “Jewish” Joke

In contrast to the typical ethnic joke, which is told by an outsider of the group being made fun of, the “Jewish” joke is a joke by Jews about their own ethnicity.  This tendency for Jewish joking to be self-referential probably developed from the prophetic tradition that directed the community to self-criticism rather than condemnation of others.  Certainly other groups have jokes about their own people, but the unique thing about Jewish humor as distinct from other “insider” jokes is that so much of Jewish humor has spread to other cultures and become part of a commentary on universal human foibles.  Indeed, Jewish humor as we know it today developed in the cultural mix of Eastern Europe where story-telling was a highly evolved tradition.  For instance, many similarities can be found in the holy fool tradition of 18th century Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the tales of 18th century Jewish Hasidism. To consider some ways in which the Jewish joke can cross boundaries and bring us together, let us consider some examples.

Even when making fun of other groups (in this case the Cossack oppressors), Jewish humor often reserves a space for making fun of themselves:

If you tell a joke to a Russian farmer, he’ll laugh three times:  once when you tell the joke, the second time when you explain it to him, and the third time when he finally understands it.  But if you tell a joke to a Russian landowner, he’ll laugh twice:  once when you tell it, and once when you explain it.  Understand?  He’ll never understand.  If you tell a joke to a Cossack, he’ll laugh once:  when you tell it.  He won’t let you explain it, and he certainly won’t understand it.

And if you tell a joke to another Jew, he won’t laugh at all.  Before you finish the story, he’ll stop you and shout, “I’ve already heard it! Besides, I tell it a lot better than you do!” (30)

Although the Russians are depicted as stupid and the Jew smart, the smarty-pants rudeness of the Jew in this joke is criticized.

Jewish humor certainly has its share of “stupids.”   For instance, the schlemiel and schnorrer characters are generally stupid “no-goods” (although the schnorrer is opportunistic and sometimes “canny”).  Many jokes about these characters were told by the affluent urban Western European Jews who felt beset by immigrant Eastern European country cousins who were poor, dirty and unaccustomed to the Western European city ways.  Eastern European Jews had developed the basis for this humor in their own “Chelm” stories — a mythical town in Eastern Europe in which the foolishness of the town elders served for wisdom and the stupidity of the commonfolk brought luck.

Even when the hero of a Jewish joke appears clever, the reality isn’t always what it seems:

There is to be such a debate in which the two opponents are to ask each other the meaning of Hebrew words.  The first to confess ignorance will pay with his head.  The Jewish community is upset.  They are sure no good will come of it, one way or the other.  If they win, their representative, presumably the rabbi, will probably be penalized in some nasty way.  And if they lose, God forbid, they are likely to be hurt also.

So they call for volunteers, and a local drayman offers himself.  The people of the community are amazed.  But better to lose a drayman than to subject the rabbi to such a hazard.

So the disputants are introduced at the governor’s mansion – Father Thomas on one side, and Noiach the drayman on the other.  The governor decides to let the Jew ask the first question.

The executioner steps forward and receives his instruction:  he is to lop off the head of the first one to show that he cannot answer.

Noiach asks, “What is the meaning of eyneni yodayah?”

The priest responds promptly, “I don’t know” (which is the translation!).

Immediately, the executioner steps forward and off with the head.  The contest is over.

The Jews gather in the shul (synagogue).  There is naturally much joy.  The drayman is being carried around amid much merriment.  Finally, when things have calmed down a bit, the rabbi asks him, “How did such a wonderful question come into your head?”

“Well,” Noiach answers, “I remember when I was a child studying elementary stuff in the cheder, I ran across that phrase.  So I asked the melamed (teacher) what eyneni yodayah means and he told me ‘I don’t know.’  Now I ask you.  If my melamed didn’t know the meaning of it, how could you expect the priest to know it?” (31)

Sometimes the appearance of “canny” turns out to be “stupid”, but lucky none-the-less.  The surprise of being saved by luck rather than skill is a common comic quality.

Perhaps the genius of Jewish humor is not only in its ability to spot pride and pretension, but in its ability to tease out hypocrisy from its most cherished religious values:

In a synagogue on a Saturday morning the rabbi is delivering his sermon.  He is most impassioned in declaring the relative insignificance of man when compared with the glory of the Creator.  “Who is omniscient and omnipotent?” he exclaims.  “Certainly not man.  God alone, the merciful, all-knowing dispenser of justice is our shield and our source.  And in that perspective, we are nothing!” he stresses. “We are nothing!  As the great Rabbi Johanan said, ‘The words of the Torah abide only with him who regards himself as nothing.'”

Carried away by the rabbi’s eloquence, the cantor intones, “Yes, indeed, we are nothing, we are nothing.”

And the congregation president, who is also seated on the bimah (platform) next to the cantor, equally excited, also adds, “We are nothing!”

At this point, a congregant in the back of the temple jumps up shouting, “I too, I too, am nothing.”

The congregation president nudges the cantor.  “Listen to him, that shmendrick” (a derogatory term), he whispers.  “Look who wants to be nothing!” (32)

This joke works on many levels, exposing the pretense of humility among the elite, the contradictory criteria of conformity, and the way social status can infect and negate spirituality.

Finally, the following joke is about false humility in repentance, and is reminiscent of the New Testament maxim against making a show of one’s piety:

We are in the shul (synagogue) during the High Holy Days.  A fairly young man is expressing his penitence for all the things he has done wrong during the past year, by beating his breast fiercely, very hard.  An older gentleman approaches him and says, “With such violence you will get nowhere with God!” (33)

There are many reasons why Jewish humor is so important for our understanding of inclusive humor.  First and foremost is the Jewish prophetic tradition’s injunction against tripping the blind, ridiculing the deaf, or otherwise persecuting the disadvantaged and oppressed. This frees humor from the ancient association between laughter and malice.  But what has made Jewish humor so relevant to our current global situation are the changes brought about by World War II.

Prior to World War II, Europe was divided between stable national cultures and the extra-national, wandering groups, the Gypsies and the Jews.  The national groups could assume an identity without question, whereas the wanderers were constantly faced with the question of assimilation versus asserting an identity-in-exile.  Many ethnic jokes revolve around the extremes of the immigrant dilemma – those who over-assimilate (trying to deny their ethnic heritage) versus those who stubbornly refuse any adjustment to the host culture.

World War II exposed the evils that had spread within German nationalism.  The fact that the radical evil of the Nazi regime could flourish in the advanced civilization of industrial Germany shocked the world with a new consciousness.  The shock produced by that radical evil has thrown us all into moral exile.  We can no longer presume a national identity to be good.  The Nuremberg Trials ended unquestioned allegiances, and we all are as wanderers in the absence of stable national identities. Ethically speaking, we are all immigrants in the world of power, facing the dilemmas of assimilation and resistance.

In this sense the Wandering Jew is no longer a minority, but the universal embodiment of our identities cast adrift.  Once we lose the illusion that national power provides us with an anchor for our identity, we find ourselves together in the same boat on the high seas of a common human predicament, awkwardly suspended between the realm of the angels and the world of the animals.  Beyond merit, beyond fortune, beyond triumph is our common humanity, noble and ridiculous.

We can find this type of wry Jewish humor in the movie No Man’s Land by Bosnian War documentarian Danis Tanovic (2001).  The fictional story (with factual touches) is set in the Bosnian War where a Croatian soldier and a Serbian soldier become trapped together in a trench and confront a ludicrous dilemma – another Croat soldier, wounded and presumed dead, has been booby-trapped by Serbian soldiers with a “spring mine” that will explode when the body is moved.  The wounded soldier revives, and the situation draws the bickering Serb and Croat into a common cause of survival that drags in an unwilling international community.  It is the black humor of this situation that provides a way out of the endless bickering of the two soldiers over who is responsible for the war.  In an interview, Tanovic identifies this humor in the face of tragedy as “the secret weapon of Jewish humor.”  Tanovic’s movie, which does not deny the tragedy of the victimization of Bosnia by Serbia, has won awards both in Tanovic’s native Bosnia, and internationally.

In conclusion, it seems appropriate to concur with Henry Eilbirt’s summation of Jewish humor:

Someone has said that Jews are like everyone else – only more so!  I think this book has proved that.  It must be clear by now that their joking includes the things other people joke about – and more, for behind the Jewish joke one can see vistas of Jewish life and Jewish history.

I hope that while you were reading, you found yourself smiling, or chuckling, or laughing outright from time to time.  The fact is that living in our so-called civilized society demands that we be able to laugh.  It has been said that people nowadays are so tense that they can’t even fall asleep in church, or, I suppose, in synagogue.

Jews learned that lesson long ago.  And now I leave you with an old Jewish saying:  Lach!  Lach!  Duktoirim zugen ahz lachen iz gezunt!  Which means, “Laugh!  Laugh!  The doctors say that laughing is healthy.”  Amen! (34)

So now on to Humor and Health (and other maladies).

Hope, Humor and Forgiveness:

A Global Survey

Part 2:  Humor and Forgiveness as Weapons of Peace

Now that we have established the humor of solidarity as the form of humor that serves forgiveness, we can see how it operates in the context of different levels of conflict.  But before we move into the issue of conflicts between people, groups and nations, let us first consider how humor helps us resolve conflicts within ourselves.  But don’t confuse this with the question of self-forgiveness, which will be addressed in the conclusion of this book.


Many books have come out highlighting and documenting the healing power of forgiveness.   Indeed, the combination of social isolation and hostility are highly correlated to heart disease and other ailments.   Forgiveness and a forgiving attitude towards life serve to counteract those dis-eases.  So does a non-hostile sense of humor.

There is certainly a difference between healthy humor and sick humor. Sick humor nurses grudges and sets the self up as superior in one way or another, or drags everyone down to the basest level. Healthy humor serves to bring people together with greater empathy, love, and opportunity for healing.

Many studies have shown that laughing has positive health benefits (35).  Even pretending to laugh can have positive physiological effects (36).  Norman Cousins documented the ways in which laughter cured him of terminal illness (37).  As Norman Lear says of his comedy writing:  “Sometimes I can get carried away by the whole thing.  I can get carried away completely.  And I can add time to my life.” (38)  In a similar vein, a recent bumper-sticker parodies a common saying:  “She who laughs, lasts.”

There is a reason that Raymond Moody parodies his own title Life After Life with his book on the healing effects of humor entitled Laugh After Laugh (39).  The common phrase “comic relief” suggests a wide-spread notion that laughter is stress-reducing and a diversion from dis-ease, and medical studies increasingly confirm this notion.  The medical benefits of humor have generated a whole industry, including the creation of the American Association for Therapeutic Humor.  In 1995, the Guinness Book of World Records certified the world’s oldest person, a French woman who smoked until she was 117.  She attributes her longevity to lots of good-hearted laughter.

There is a relationship between humor and confession in that they are both “free speech.”  In both we tend to “let it all hang out.”   But before we get too giddy about this topic of humor, let us remember the warnings against “arrogant or flippant confessions” that make light of serious offenses.  An insistently comedic presentation becomes witless, compulsive and irresponsible.   For instance, a popular writer of psychotherapy books writes:  “I constantly joke with clients about their problems in order to cure them of seriousness, which is what locks the model down.  You get serious, you get stuck.” (40)  The assumption that seriousness is incompatible with humor and that everything can and should be made into a joke is, at best, a juvenile mentality.   This categorically joking attitude can be dangerous — the author’s dismissive attitude towards serious issues helped him to get involved in a world of hard drugs and guns, and ultimately murder.

Conrad Hyers articulates this problem with categorical humor very directly:

Even humor in relation to oneself can be a two-edged sword.  On the one hand it can become a masochistic device for self-abasement and humiliation.  On the other hand, and more commonly, it can become a means of avoiding, rather than moving toward, humility and contrition.  It is possible to laugh at oneself as a way of excusing oneself, and of casually evading the deeper necessities of repentance, seeking forgiveness, and gaining restitution and change.  Here humor, instead of being the servant of seriousness and objectivity, becomes the screen of irresponsibility. (41)

A more positive role of humor in healing is the technique first articulated by Viktor Frankl as “paradoxical intention.”  This technique asks the patient to imitate a compulsive or phobic behavior in such a way that helps the patient overcome the compulsion or phobia with humor.

In the Brief Therapy developed at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California, this method has been named “symptom prescription.”  The MRI method prescribes that the patient reenact the symptomatic behavior in a more benign form because some behaviors, if attempted deliberately rather than done automatically, are harder to perform, or have a different effect if done deliberately.   But with the MRI method, the therapist is instructed to administer the prescription in a totally dead pan manner, never letting on that there is a humorous, paradoxical element to the prescription.  This can result in the therapist (covertly) laughing at, rather than laughing with, the client.  For Frankl, paradoxical intention helps by laughing with the client:

One of my American students, who had to take his exams from me and in this setting was to explain paradoxical intention, resorted to the following autobiographical account:  “My stomach used to growl in company of others.  The more I tried to keep it from happening, the more it growled.  Soon I started to take it for granted that it would be with me for the rest of my life.  Began to live with it – laughed with others about it.  Soon it disappeared.”

In this context, I should like to place emphasis on the fact that my student adopted a humorous attitude towards a symptom.  In fact, paradoxical intention should always be formulated in as humorous a manner as possible.  Humor is indeed a definitely human phenomenon.  After all, no beast is capable of laughing.  What is even more important, humor allows man to create perspective, to put distance between himself and whatever may confront him.  By the same token, humor allows man to detach himself from himself and thereby to attain the fullest possible control over himself.  To make use of the human capacity of self-detachment is what paradoxical intention basically achieves. (42)

Paradoxical intention has an artificial, performance quality that is reminiscent of dramatic methods in the comic arts.  Indeed, “paradoxical intention” and “parody” may have more than a surface similarity of spelling – Frankl’s method may be best understood as a Shakespearian comic technique.  Compare Frankl’s definition of paradoxical intention with Dwight McDonald’s definition of parody:

What is parody?  The dictionaries are not helpful.  Dr. Johnson defines parody as “a kind of writing in which the words of an author or his thoughts are taken and by a slight change adapted to some new purpose,” which is imprecise and incomplete.  The Oxford dictionary comes closer:  “a composition…in which characteristic turns of an author…are imitated in such a way as to make them appear ridiculous, especially by applying them to ludicrously inappropriate subjects.” This at least brings in humor. (43)

These definitions can be useful in the behavioral as well as the literary domains if we simply replace “words, writing, author, etc.” with “behaviors, prescription, client, etc.”  Dr. Johnson’s would serve as a definition of “symptom prescription” in the “dead pan” MRI model (where the humor of the twist is not made explicit); Oxford’s definition of parody, making humor explicit, would serve as a definition of “paradoxical intention.” Perhaps we could rename Frankl’s technique of paradoxical intention “self-parody” (paradox and parody being related etymologically), where a patient has a ridiculously difficult time imitating his or her own symptom.

In his book Provocative Therapy, Frank Farrelley articulates the reasons why those in the helping professions should learn how to laugh with their clients and avoid laughing at their clients (44).  If we can learn how to do this, we can broaden our humor to poke fun at moralistic, bawdy and jargon-laden mentalities (45).  If we can thus speak the language of those we encounter and laugh with them, imitating them in proper form and in a calm, humble and confident manner, we can develop with others a sense of the ridiculous without ridicule, of humility without humiliation.

Humor can help us gain more compassion for someone whose behavior might elicit disapproval.  Viktor Frankl tells this joke in order to show how relapse to alcoholism can result from a lack of meaning and purpose in the social world:

A man meets his family doctor on the street.  “How are you, Mr. Jones?” asks the doctor.  “Pardon?” asks the man.  “HOW ARE YOU?” asks the doctor again.  “You see,” answers the man, “my hearing capacity has deteriorated.”  Now it was the doctor’s turn.  “Certainly you are drinking too much.  Stop drinking and you will hear better.”

Some months later they meet again.  “HOW ARE YOU, MR. JONES?”  “You need not shout at me, Doctor.  I am hearing quite well.”  “Certainly you have stopped drinking?”  “That is true.”  Some months later they meet for the third time.  But again the doctor has to raise his voice in order to make himself understood.  “Certainly you have resumed drinking?” he asks his patient.  And the latter replies, “Listen, Doctor.  First I was drinking and my hearing got worse.  Then I stopped drinking and heard better.  But what I heard was not as good as whiskey.” (46)

Frankl tells this joke in order to show the social nature of motivation.  Since the patient isn’t making sufficient social connection in order to “like what he hears better than whiskey,” he uses whiskey as a substitute for the meaning lost through alienation and demoralization.  It is only by renewing the social connection that this patient will regain the hope and motivation to relinquish the substitute of whiskey.

When a joke like this resonates widely, it can travel long distances and inhabit settings and contexts quite diverse.  Consider how the German whiskey joke above seems right at home in the U.S. Southwest, the four-corners region of Tony Hillerman’s mysteries about the Navajo Tribal Police.  While tracking a homicide, tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn interviews the aging, sardonic owner of an isolated trading post:

McGinnis poured the bourbon carefully, stopping exactly at the copyright symbol under the Coca-Cola trademark on the glass.  That done, he glanced up at Leaphorn.


“Had a doctor tell me I ought to quit this stuff because it was affecting my eardrums and I told him I liked what I was drinking better’n what I was hearing.” (47)

A wonderful parable that shows the relationship between healing and social connection comes to us from the Hasidic story-telling master Nahman of Bratslav:

In a distant land, a prince lost his mind and imagined himself a rooster.  He sought refuge under the table and lived there, naked, refusing to partake of the royal delicacies served in golden dishes – all he wanted and accepted was the grain reserved for the roosters. The king was desperate.  He sent for the best physicians, the most famous specialists; all admitted their incompetence.  So did the magicians.  And the monks, the ascetics, the miracle-makers; all their interventions proved fruitless.

One day an unknown sage presented himself at court.  “I think that I could heal the prince,” he said shyly.  “Will you allow me to try?”

The king consented, and to the surprise of all present, the sage removed his clothes, and joining the prince under the table, began to crow like a rooster.

Suspicious, the prince interrogated him:  “Who are you and what are you doing here?” – “And you,” replied the sage, “who are you and what are you doing here?” – “Can’t you see?  I am a rooster!” – “Hmm,” said the Sage, “how very strange to meet you here!” – “Why strange?” – “You mean you don’t see?  Really not?  You don’t see that I am a rooster just like you?”

The two men became friends and swore never to leave each other.

And then the sage undertook to cure the prince by using himself as an example.  He started by putting on a shirt.  The prince couldn’t believe his eyes. – “Are you crazy?  Are you forgetting who you are? You really want to be a man?” – “You know,” said the Sage in a gentle voice, “you mustn’t ever believe that a rooster who dresses like a man ceases to be a rooster.”  The prince had to agree.  The next day both dressed in a normal way.  The sage sent for some dishes from the palace kitchen.  “Wretch!  What are you doing?” protested the prince, frightened in the extreme.  “Are you going to eat like them now?” His friend allayed his fears:  “Don’t ever think that by eating like man, with man, at his table, a rooster ceases to be what he is; you mustn’t ever believe that it is enough for a rooster to behave like a man to become human; you can do anything with man, in his world and even for him, and yet remain the rooster you are.”

And the prince was convinced; he resumed his life as a prince. (48)

Medical research has shown that the risk of heart disease can be reduced by reducing hostility and social isolation.  Similarly, forgiveness reduces hostility, social isolation and associated health risks such as depression, hypertension and heart disease. We do not heal ourselves alone without having something beyond ourselves to live for.  Similarly, we do not develop a sense of humor without getting beyond our isolated selves.  These considerations naturally lead to an exploration of the relationship between humor and positive social relations.



The True Path

Just before Ninakawa died, Zen Master Ikkyu visited him.  “Shall I lead you on?” Ikkyu said.  Ninakawa replied, “I came here alone and I go alone.  What help could you be to me?”  Ikkyu answered, “If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion.  Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and going.”  With those words, Ikkyu had revealed the path so clearly that Ninakawa smiled and passed away. (49)

At the moment of greatest aloneness before death, Ninakawa found a good humored connection with his friend Ikkyu.

It is a virtue to be well-disposed toward humor.  Unless a comment is patently offensive or implies something very nasty, good manners encourage us to be good humored in response to attempts at humor.  Giving the benefit of the doubt and receiving the gift of humor graciously, even when the joke is not understood or the gift appreciated, is good practice.  Jonathan Miller notes the role of pretense in humor, the expectation to laugh even when the joke is incomprehensible, similar to the expectation to give thanks for an unwanted gift (50).  Pretending to be pleased, in this sense, has its own reward in the performance, separate from the good or bad performance of others.   Under any circumstance it is fun to be a good actor.  It is the same as Pascal’s maxim that if one wants to learn how to believe, one should act as if one does believe.  “The willing suspension of disbelief” is how Coleridge put it.  Pretending to laugh can have health benefits, and pretending to laugh can have social benefits.

Living with others is a blessing and a curse.  Erasmus’ classic In Praise of Folly is most eloquent on how humor can help a mix of people live more harmoniously together in the face of inevitable difficulties:

In sum, no society, no union in life, could be either pleasant or lasting without me [Dame Folly].  A people does not for long tolerate its prince, or a master tolerate his servant, a handmaiden her mistress, a teacher his student, a friend his friend, a wife her husband, a landlord his tenant, a partner his partner, or a boarder his fellow-boarder, except as they mutually or by turns are mistaken, on occasion flatter, on occasion wisely wink, and otherwise soothe themselves with the sweetness of folly. (51)

Good humor often sets a tone of generosity for good company, sometimes preventing conflicts, sometimes helping smooth over mole-hills that threaten to become mountains.  Humor and a generous response to humor are some of the “small acts of civility” that provide the basis for larger acts of forgiveness.  For example, consider the gracious humor of Rabbi Ishmael in the following Talmudic story:

Rabbi Ishmael, son of Rabbi Jose, visited the home of Simeon ben Jose ben Lokunia.  They offered him a goblet which he accepted at the first invitation and drank in one draught.  Said they to him:  “Do you not agree that he who drinks his goblet in one draught is greedy?”  Said he to them:  “This is not said when your goblet is small, your wine sweet and my stomach broad.” (52)

This light-handed repartee helps ease the tension of the potential conflict in a socially awkward situation.  Although not a serious situation (where such ready humor might be considered belittling or dismissive of a complaint), the humor here prevents bad feelings from developing.  The rabbi’s gracious teasing of his hosts is accomplished through a mixture of praise (“sweet wine”), criticism (“small goblet”) and self-derogation (“broad stomach”), all of which combine to establish the rabbi as a “jolly good fellow.” (53)

Notice that even if the Rabbi’s hosts were too slow-witted to get his humor, they would still understand that he had not responded with the anger or fear that one might expect of someone confronted socially.  In this sense, they could treat him as a “jolly good fellow” just as if they had gotten the joke.  Aside from the joke, the Rabbi’s good humor provides them with an opportunity to be generous in return.  This points up some of the multi-faceted aspects of laughter in social situations.

Being good humored in society involves relating to others as humans below the angels and above the animals.  It does no good to pretend to be pure, nor endeavor to be beastly.   We need not make beasts of people in order to point out how we are not always angels.  For instance, consider this story in which a desert father pokes fun at his brother who wants to deny the reality of the body and become an angel:

It was told of Abbot John the Dwarf that once he said to his elder brother:  I want to live in the same security as the angels have, doing no work, but serving God without intermission.  And casting off everything he had on, he started out into the desert.  When a week had gone by he returned to his brother.  And while he was knocking on the door, his brother called out before opening, and asked:  Who are you? He replied:  I am John.  Then his brother answered and said:  John has become an angel and is no longer among men.  But John kept on knocking and said:  It is I.  Still the brother did not open, but kept him waiting.  Finally opening the door, he said:  If you are a man, you are going to have to start working again in order to live.  But if you are an angel, why do you want to come into a cell?  So John did penance and said:  Forgive me, brother, for I have sinned. (54)

There is a universal quality to this lesson.  The following Zen Buddhist story has the same character of the importance of learning the limitations of the body:

Daiye was a great Zen Master of the Sung dynasty in China, and he had a student monk named Doken who had spent many years studying Zen without much progress.  One day the Master sent Doken to a distant place on an errand that would take half a year.  Doken was very discouraged because it would hinder his study of Zen in meditation.  Doken’s friend and fellow monk, Sogen, took pity on him and said, “I will accompany you and help you in whatever way I can so that you can continue to study even while traveling.”  So both of them set off on the errand.

One evening Sogen said sadly to Doken, “You know, I am willing to help you in every way, but there are five things I can not do for you.” “What are they?” asked Doken.  “For instance,” said his friend, “when you are hungry or thirsty, you must eat or drink by yourself.  My eating will not fill your stomach.  When you need to respond to the calls of nature, you must take care of them yourself; I can not be of any use.  And then, in traveling, you must carry your own body along this highway.”  With these remarks, Doken’s mind was opened.  He did not know how to express his joy.

Sogen said to his friend, “My work is done, you don’t need my company any more,” and he left.  When Doken finished the errand and returned to the temple, Master Daiye immediately perceived the enlightenment of Doken. (55)

Those who learn this lesson well gain a sense of humor about themselves.  For instance, Abbot John the Dwarf took to the comic view to the extent of finding salvation by means of gladly enduring sarcasm:

Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him.  When this period was over, the Master said to him:  Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom.  When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went.  He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing.  Why do you laugh when I insult you? said the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing.  Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours.  Abbot John used to tell the above story, saying:  This is the door of God by which our fathers rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven. (56)

It became common wisdom among the desert fathers to consider good humor in the face of insults to be the mark of the promising spiritual aspirant:  “Nothing is so useful to the beginner as insults.  The beginner who bears insults is like a tree that is watered every day.” (57)

The use of irony is a common quality in Jewish humor and rabbinic teaching style.   Many of Jesus’ teaching methods have been interpreted to include the rabbinical style of using humor and ironical twists to turn the tables on the unjust or to stand the pretentious on their heads (58).  Examples include making the last first and the first last in the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:31), the idea that the rich have as much chance of entering heaven as a camel has of passing through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24), and the idea that the penance of prostitutes, tax collectors and ethnic minorities have greater value than the pious performances of Temple educated Pharisees and Sadducees (Mark:12:40; Luke 10:29-37).

The following story from the desert fathers achieves a wonderful ironic twist on the Gospel of John story where Jesus prevents the stoning of the adulteress:

Abba Ammonas came one day to eat in a place where there was a monk of evil repute.  Now it happened that a woman came and entered the cell of the brother of evil reputation.  The dwellers in that place, having learnt this, were troubled and gathered together to chase the brother from his cell.  Knowing that Bishop Ammonas was in the place, they asked him to join them.  When the brother in question learnt this, he hid the woman in a large cask.  The crowd of monks came to the place.  Now Abba Ammonas saw the position clearly but for the sake of God he kept the secret; he entered, seating himself on the cask and commanded the cell to be searched.  Then when the monks had searched everywhere without finding the woman, Abba Ammonas said, “What is this?  May God forgive you!”  After praying, he made everyone go out, then taking the brother by the hand he said, “Brother, be on your guard.”  With these words, he withdrew. (59)

This is an example of an event that was not funny at the time but becomes humorous in the telling.  It is refreshing to have an ancient story in which the man is held responsible for carnal relations, and a stroke of genius how the bishop prevents the brother from being caught.  Guarding the secret and chastising the crowd allowed the bishop to admonish the brother privately – a brilliant example of fraternal correction.

A Zen Buddhist story on a similar theme also includes a humorous fraternal correction:

Tanzan and his disciple were traveling to the next village.  They came to a stream, swollen by recent rain.  At the edge of the stream stood a well-dressed, beautiful young woman unable to cross because the small foot bridge had been washed away.  Seeing her problem, Tanzan offered to help, and lifting her in his arms, he crossed the stream with her and set her down.  Then he and his disciple continued their journey.  All afternoon his disciple pondered his teacher’s action, for surely, in addition to the five precepts, monks are warned never to approach women, much less take them in their arms!  That evening at supper he could contain himself no longer.  “Why did you take that woman in your arms?” he asked his teacher.  Tanzan replied, “I left that girl back on the other side of that stream.  Are you still carrying her?” (60)

The better we know a person and the more positively we are connected with that person, the more liberty we have to correct that person.  Intimacy, humor, and artistic license have a compelling relationship. Without that relationship, proselytizers should be careful about how they approach persons unfamiliar to them.  The desert fathers were clear that correction was reserved for those with whom they were familiar, and suspended judgment for strangers:

Abba Macarius went one day to Abba Pachomius of Tabennisi.  Pachonius asked him, “When brothers do not submit to the rule, is it right to correct them?”  Abba Macarius said to him, “Correct and judge justly those who are subject to you, but judge no-one else.  For truly it is written:  ‘Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.'”  (1 Cor. 5.12-13) (61)

This rule discourages correction of those outside one’s group, but also gives license to correct those who have voluntarily subjected themselves to one’s spiritual direction.  The following story, a primitive Christian version of the “Zen koan” prescribed by a master to vex his disciple, shows how such a task could take on the quality of a practical joke that would be cruel to a stranger, but could be enlightening to a disciple:

It was said of Abba John, the disciple of Abba Paul, that his obedience was very great.  Now there were some tombs thereabouts where a hyena lived.  The old man saw some dung in the place, and told John to go and fetch it.  He said, “And what shall I do about the hyena, Abba?”  The old man said to him jokingly, “If she sets upon you, tie her up and bring her here.”  So in the evening, the brother went there.  And lo, the hyena fell upon him.  According to the man’s instructions, he rushed to catch her.  But the hyena ran away.  He pursued her, saying, “My abba says I am to tie you up.”  He seized her and bound her.  Now the old man was uneasy and sat waiting for him.  When he returned, he brought the hyena on a rope.  When the old man saw this he was filled with wonder, but he wanted to humiliate him, so he struck him, and said, “Fool, why have you brought a silly dog here?”  Then the old man set her free at once and let her go. (62)

Perhaps only in the conditions of the desert could one consider this practical joke to be an act of friendship.  But when a student is hyper-obedient to the point of lacking common sense, a dramatic example like this demonstrates that not all words should be interpreted literally.

Humor can say a lot about a person and how we perceive that person. The way each of us makes and responds to humor either increases or limits our ability to move through society in a positive way.  Perhaps the greatest Eastern European author, Dostoevsky, considered the way a person laughs to be the best indicator of the state of that person’s soul.  In The Adolescent (also know as A Raw Youth), Dostoevsky has the narrator break the flow of the story to present a lengthy essay on this theme.  In this essay (considerably shortened here), Dostoevsky distinguishes between good humor and vulgar, unkind humor, and echoes many of the themes of hope and good humor that we found with Peguy.  The adolescent, in this essay, explains his spiritual attraction to an old man who lives as part of the “holy fool” tradition:

Laughing people have no more idea of what their faces look like than sleepers have of theirs…

And so, if you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don’t bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, or seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you’ll get better results if you just watch him laugh.  If he laughs well, he’s a good man.  You must, however, note all the shades of his laugh…

I deliberately decided to insert this lengthy dissertation on laughter here, even at the expense of the continuity of my narrative, because I consider it one of the most important conclusions derived from my life experience…All I claim to know is that laughter is the most reliable gauge of human nature.  Look at children, for instance: children are the only human creatures to produce perfect laughter and that’s just what makes them most enchanting…

And that day I perceived something childlike and incredibly attractive in the fleeting laughter of the old man, and unhesitatingly I went up to him. (63)

Dostoevsky claims this gauge of human nature to be useful for identifying everything from holiness to a good marriage prospect.  Indeed, the ability to be subject to humor is essential to the very nature of holiness.  We can find this principle in a story of Jesus, who is humorously corrected by a woman in a way very similar to the story of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt in chapter two:

Jesus left that place and withdrew to a region of Tyre and Sidon.  Then out came a Canaanite woman from that district and started shouting. “Sir, Son of David, take pity on me.  My daughter is tormented by a devil.”  But he answered her not a word.  And his disciples went and pleaded with him. “Give her what she wants,” they said, “because she is shouting after us.”  He said in reply, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”  But the woman had come up and was kneeling at his feet.  “Lord,” she said, “help me.”  He replied, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs.” She retorted, “Ah yes, sir; but even house dogs can eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, you have great faith.  Let your wish be granted.”  And from that moment her daughter was well again.                          (Matthew 15:21-28)

We can see how this woman turns Jesus’ metaphor of dog food back on him in order to expand his sense of humorous compassion over his humor-less ethnic judgment.

In summary, good humor is inherently social, and plays an important role in developing positive social relationships, in preventing conflict and the escalation of conflict, and in helping us identify what is most valuable in others.


When there are tensions between groups in which a volatile situation might develop, it helps to make interactions more predictable.  We found this with the more sober ritual of the Sulha in chapter three, as well as the more ordinary and light-hearted family rituals incorporated into the FAST program (also in chapter three).  The same guideline serves for the use of humor in unpredictable group situations where it is hard to tell how any one person might respond to any given thing:  keep it simple and put it in a predictable, routine format.

In no situation is it more important for groups to cooperate than under adverse environmental conditions.  In the Arctic regions, the Inuit Eskimos have survived as a race due to their ability to cooperate on large hunting expeditions.  Some ways in which they have traditionally established this cooperation between their leading hunters can be instructive.  Some of these leaders develop long-term “joking partnerships” that include various ritual behaviors.  Prior to the hunt, the leaders and their families would meet for a festival and gift-giving.  During this time the men would stage ritualized humor competitions, including such activities as face-wrestling (where one man tries to make as funny of a face as possible of another man’s face by poking, pulling, squeezing, etc. various facial parts) and insult songs.  When a joking partnership was well-developed, these joking songs were sometimes put on the road, as in the following descriptions by Spencer in 1959:

It is clear that the joking partnership was a great source of interest and entertainment to everyone in the community.  When a traveler arrived, he announced that he had a song for such and such man.  At this, everyone in the community came around to hear it, and the new arrival sang it to the recipient before the assembled community, usually choosing a karigi [ceremonial house] as the place for the singing.  The erstwhile importance of the songs as a recreational outlet is indicated by the fact that they are still remembered and still sung in many cases.  The men who sent songs to each other and maintained the song-partner relationship are likewise vividly recalled. (64)

The songs could be highly competitive, taking on the quality of literary duels, as the following description shows:

The sense of rivalry in such singing was strong.  The last song was considered better because it used the same theme as the original song and turned it back at the original singer.  The song sent back from kuk by annesiraq, while clever, was not so well done in that it failed to tie into the original song of kucirrak. (65)

An excellent example of a lampoon song comes from Miss Manners, the syndicated advice column by Judith Martin.  In the following, Miss Manners took the “original song” and “turned it back at the original singer,” managing to poke some fun at herself along the way:

Dear Miss Manners:  Too many manners just might mean too little fun.

With this in mind, I would like to ask you if you have:

1)  eaten a pizza with bare fingers?

2)  been to a bowling alley (of your own free will)?

3)  drank a six-pack of beer?

4)  called a man a “hunk”?

5)  ever not worn underwear on a hot day?

6)  eaten fried chicken straight from the bucket?

7)  ever gone on a date in a pickup truck?

Gentle Reader:  Have you ever:

1)  been shocked by Miss Manners?

You are about to.  Prepare yourself.

No, she is not going to plead for your cultural approval by claiming that her recreational tastes are identical to yours.  The prospect of riding in the back of a pickup truck with six cans of beer sloshing around in her stomach and no underwear is not, as you have astutely guessed, her idea of a rollicking good time.

But she has no objection to it being yours.  The shocking news is that none of the things you mention is intrinsically rude.

What you are really trying to say is that manners apply only to formal behavior, and that the opposite of manners is informality and fun.  Wrong, buddy, wrong.  Do you imagine that there is not an etiquette for bowling? Try going out of turn. (66)

These lampooning rituals can remind us of some of the personal comments in the debates of representative democracy.  The following example from 19th century British parliamentary history has the same style of verbal dueling:

At one point during a debate, Gladstone became so angry at Disraeli that he shouted:  “Sir, you are contemptible!  I say you will end up either on the gallows or in a hospital for the treatment of venereal disease!”

Disraeli immediately replied, “That, my worthy friend, depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.” (67)

Ritualized insults like this can also remind us of the African-American youth practice of “the dozens,” where each insult is expected to be topped in ritualized fashion, similar to break-dance competitions.  When such rituals are well-prepared, they can serve to reduce tension and develop joking partnerships.  An odd couple example of this comes from a Chicago housing project, where the home boys were challenged to a Rap Music contest by undercover cops (68).  The undercover cops gained the respect of the home boys by successfully parodying them with their band called “the Slick Boys.”

But when competitions like this are not equally matched or well-prepared, social damage can result.  Sometimes the Eskimo lampoons resulted in the ostracism of the less adept competitor (69).  Numerous examples exist of retaliation by gang members for being “dissed” (disrespected) with disparaging comments or gestures.

Comedy and jokes poke fun at the extremes of behavior and attitude.  The more groups one mixes, the greater variety of extremes one is bound to encounter.  Although this can lead to greater chaos and conflict, it can also lead to more interesting contrasts.   Consider the following two-family mediation, where the rabbi uses the mix of extremes to counter each other with one pithy line:

A woman comes to the rabbi in her town.  “Rabbi, help me.  My husband is so generous, I think he will give away all we own if he continues.”

“Have him come and talk to me,” the rabbi tells her.

Soon thereafter, a man comes to talk to the rabbi.  “Rabbi, my family is in such dire need.  We don’t even have enough to eat.  And worst of all, my brother is wealthy and won’t help us at all.  Maybe if you talk with him…”

“Have him come talk to me,” the rabbi says once more.

Both men arrive together and the rabbi, for some reason of his own, asks both of them to come to his alcove together.

“Why are you giving away all your hard-earned money?” he asks Mr. Generous.

“Rabbi, we are only human.  After all, one can die at any moment.  I would be afraid to appear before the Almighty to be judged if I thought that I had not acted properly, in line with what our Lord commands us to do!”

“And you,” the rabbi turns to the other man, “how is it that you do not help your brother?”

“Well, Rabbi,” is the answer, “we are only human.  Who can tell how long he is to live.  I am afraid that if I live a long time and don’t save my money, I too will end up in poverty.”

The rabbi thinks for a moment and comments, “Well, may the Almighty see to it that your fears turn out to be groundless!” (70)

By coming into contact with each other under the questioning of the rabbi, these two men are able to see their own foolishness while observing the folly of others.

Teasing out foolishness in the good humored presence of others is quite evident in the multi-family group program Families and Schools Together.  Young children’s natural enjoyment of “hokey” activities provides an atmosphere in which it is easier for parents to enjoy family and social life.  This allows parents to shift from the extremes of authoritarian or permissive styles to a more positive enjoyment of leadership and bonding with their children.  The demonstrated positive results of the program are largely attributed by its founder to the tone of good humor it sets and the opportunities for mutual laughter it provides.  Many families report that prior to getting involved in the program, they had not laughed together for years, and that laughing together was an important change for the family. (71)

Humor can be helpful for easing larger group conflicts as well.  When there is an entrenched feud, it sometimes takes the presence of an outsider to introduce the comic alternative.  The “Belgian Army Joke” illustrates this possibility.  Robert Pinsky, in a memorial poem to a joke-loving friend named Elliot, tells the “Belgian Army Joke” in the following way:

[…].  There’s one

A journalist told me.  He heard it while a hero

Of the South African freedom movement was speaking

To elderly Jews.  The speaker’s own right arm

Had been blown off by right-wing letter-bombers.

He told his listeners they had to cast their ballots

For the ANC — a group the old Jews feared

As “in with the Arabs.”  But they started weeping

As the old one-armed fighter told them their country

Needed them to vote for what was right, their vote

Could make a country their children could return to

From London and Chicago.  The moved old people

Applauded wildly, and the speaker’s friend

Whispered to the journalist, “It’s the Belgian Army

Joke come to life.”  I wish that I could tell it

to Elliot.  In the Belgian Army, the feud

Between the Flemings and the Walloons grew vicious,

So out of hand the army could barely function.

Finally one commander assembled his men

In one great room, to deal with things directly.

They stood before him at attention.  “All Flemings,”

He ordered, “to the left wall.”  Half the men

Clustered to the left.  “Now all Walloons,” he ordered,

“Move to the right.”  An equal number crowded

Against the right wall.  Only one man remained

At attention in the middle:  “What are you, soldier?”

Saluting, the man said, “Sir, I am a Belgian.”

“Why, that’s astounding, Corporal — what’s your name?”

Saluting again, “Rabinowitz,” he answered:

A joke that seems at first to be a story

About the Jews.  […] (72)

This joke may remind us of the role Jews played in Sarajevo during the Bosnian Civil War:  they were the only group allowed to operate a hospital unmolested.  This was a power denied both Serbian and Muslim medical professionals by their opposing militaries.

Thus far, this analysis of humor has not addressed issues of power:  we usually share a joke more readily with someone we consider a peer. When the relationship is unequal, the situation becomes trickier.


In the Ancient Greco-Roman world, it was commonly assumed that the poor were by nature inferior and it was generally acceptable to ridicule the disadvantaged.  In contrast to this, the Judeo-Christian tradition has sought to raise the moral standards so that all people are treated with dignity – one should not “trip the blind” for amusement or one’s own advantage.  It is this vision of our common humanity that is the grounds for the prophetic tradition that speaks out against the abuses of power.

The Roman imperial world-view was that power makes a man great; the prophetic view that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely was foreign to the imperial mentality.  The consequences of the abuse of power are tragic, but the ludicrous idea that a limited human creature could assume God-like powers lends itself to prophetic humor.  Traditionally the role of court jester or holy fool was to keep the powerful from taking themselves too seriously and consequently abusing power.  Hyers relates this to the role the prophet plays in deflating the pretensions of the powerful:  “For at the heart of the comic spirit and perspective is the acceptance of the prophetic warning against idolatry, and against that greatest blasphemy of all, the claim to possess or to be as God.” (73)  In the following passage, Hyers associates the abuse of power with an intolerance of humor about oneself:

In this regard, there is a marked affinity between religious absolutism, ideological radicalism, and political tyranny.  Theological dogmatism shares with its socio-political counterparts in the attempted abolition of humor in relation to itself.  A common trait of dictators, revolutionaries, and ecclesiastical authoritarians alike is the refusal both to laugh at themselves and to permit others to laugh at them. (74)

An ancient Chinese story provides a good example of how the court jester can use humor to prevent an abuse of power:

A Chinese Emperor…would allow nothing but ten-cash pieces to be minted.  No one dared explain the disadvantages of this to him until two of his clowns thought of a comic turn to perform “for his amusement.”  One took the part of a soft-drinks seller, the other the part of the customer.  The customer asked for a one-cash drink, and handed over the smallest coin he had — a ten-cash piece.  The vendor could not give him any change, for he had no smaller coins either, so, with a great deal of puffing and blowing, the customer drank ten big drinks.  Then he sighed, and burst out with, “There!  But if the Government made us use those big hundred-cash pieces I’d have popped!”

The Emperor laughed long and loud — but the next day he ordered one-cash pieces to be put back into circulation. (75)

Notice that the clowns were making fun of the situation that the Emperor was intending to create (using exaggeration) rather than making fun of the person of the Emperor.  The indirect nature of their criticism allowed the Emperor to save face, feel included in the joke, and correct his behavior.  Yet however indirect the criticism, the Emperor must have had a modicum of humor about himself to appreciate the joke and change his mind, realizing that his clowns were gently pointing him out to be the fool.

Another eastern story with a powerful official demonstrating a humorous appreciation of his human limitations comes from the Japanese Zen tradition:

Kitagaki, the governor of Kyoto, called upon the great Zen Master of Tofukuji Temple, Master Kiechu.  He gave the attendant monk his calling card to give to Kiechu.  The card read:  “Kitagaki, Governor of Kyoto.”  Kiechu looked at the card and said, “I have no business with such a fellow.  Tell him to get out of here!”  The attendant carried the card back with an apology.  “No, that was my error,” the governor said.  He took the card, scratched out the words “Governor of Kyoto,” and said, “Please take this back and ask your teacher again.”  When Kiechu saw the card he said, “Oh is that Kitagaki?  I want to see that fellow.” (76)

These stories from China and Japan have similar features to the Russian holy fool tradition of the yurodivi.  But holy fools do not often meet up with officials who have a sense of their own human limitations, and sometimes officials like that require what has come to be called the “dope-slap”.  In the story previously related in chapter four, Saint Pelagia literally delivers the punch-line to the Bishop in the form of a direct rebuke that adds insult to injury (in other words, she cuffs him one, but refuses his request for a second).  That story has comic elements of both physical humor (slapstick) and intellectual humor (Zen).   Pelagia’s performance also includes the use of reversal and exaggeration (slapping a superior) as well as another reversal with under-statement (refusing to slap the other cheek on command from the superior).  Pelagia was part of the 18th century religious renewal movement in Russia initiated by St. Seraphim of Sarov, a movement associated with the Jewish Hasidic renewal movement during the same period.  From this story we can see how the prophetic voice has an important role when Christendom takes on features of the Roman Empire and its abuse of power. (77)

St. Seraphim himself had run-ins with the authorities.  In order to stop him from being spiritual director and supporter to a convent, the Ecclesiastical ranks arranged with the civil authorities to block supplies being taken in to the convent.  This is how Seraphim outwitted his persecutors:

“One day when I was with Father Seraphim,” Mother Eudoxia tells us again, “he gave me a large sack and told me to return to Diveyevo by way of Sarov’s Holy Gate.  He usually advised me to make a detour in order to avoid the soldiers.  I was astonished that, this time, he was mercilessly sending me into harm’s way.  (The Abbot and monks had, in fact, ordered the soldiers to stop us going through and it was I in particular whom they had told the soldiers to intercept, because I used to come more frequently than the others to fetch our provisions.)  Not daring to disobey, I shouldered my burden without so much as knowing what it contained, and off I went.  When I got to the Gate I said my prayer; at the same instant the soldiers seized my sack and took me to the Abbot, who ordered me to open it.  My hands were trembling; he was watching me without saying a word.  When I opened the sack what was my surprise to see it filled with stones, crusts of bread, bits of wood, old sandals, all this crammed so full that it was a ton of weight!  Taken aback, Niphont exclaimed:  ‘O Seraphim, it’s not enough for you to mortify yourself, you have to torment the Diveyevo sisters as well!’ And he let me go.  Another time the father again gave me a load of stones and sand and said to me:  ‘This will be the last time that they will stop you.’  And indeed, I was stopped as I went through the Gate and taken to Niphont.  When he saw the stones he told the soldiers not to stop me any more.  After that I could go through the Holy Gate as often as I liked.”

The Staretz would smile when the sisters told him these stories because, although his heart grieved him, he always looked on the humorous side when with his ‘orphans’. (78)

In this story the joke serves to adjust a power imbalance, and it succeeds because the target of the joke doesn’t get it (is out-witted).  A more direct protest joke is told of the Russian holy fool Nicholas.  Nicholas offers Ivan the Terrible raw meat during Lent.  Ivan refuses by saying he is a Christian and doesn’t eat meat during Lent.  Nicholas objected, “But you drink Christian blood?” (79)  As with the Pelagia story, the abuser of power is set up as a straight man, uttering a conventional religious position, in response to which the punch-line is an unconventional religious revelation.

Provocative challenges to the powerful are not only found in western societies.  The following Zen Koan shows a Master being very provocative in challenging the temper and pride of a samurai soldier:

Nobushige, a soldier, came to Hakuin, a famous Zen Master, and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”  “Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.  “I am a samurai,” Nobushige replied.  “You, a samurai!” exclaimed Hakuin.  “What kind of lord would have you as his guard?  You look like a beggar!”  Nobushige became so enraged that he began to draw his sword.  Hakuin continued, “So you have a sword.  It is probably too dull to even cut off my head.”  Nobushige brandished his weapon. Hakuin remarked, “Here, open the gates of hell.”  At these words the perceptive samurai sheathed his sword and bowed.  “Here, open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin. (80)

Countering the abuses of power with prophetic humor is a tradition in all major religions, the holy fool being an advanced form of the trickster figure that can be found throughout comparative religious history.

The prophetic voice has relevance in the industrial and post-industrial eras.  The last time that unjust inequalities of power threatened the social fabric in the United States, during the Gilded Age of the robber barons, the sociologist Thornstein Veblen helped change social attitudes toward opulent living by coining the phrase “conspicuous consumption.”  This phrase changed the perception of luxury from a status symbol to a sign of excess and pretension. (81)

Political humorist Molly Ivins, that passionate advocate of free speech, took on the prophetic voice to lambaste talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh for making fun of people who do not have the power to defend themselves.  It should be sufficient to tell the offender to pick on someone his own size.  But offensive speech, especially at the expense of the disadvantaged, has become much too common.  It is important to preach toleration, to be slow to anger, and to not take offense easily.  But patently offensive speech became so prevalent during the 1994 elections that retiring Senate Minority Speaker Republican Bob Michel, expressed shock when he heard what was on the radio.  When the offender is called to account for such speech, often the best we get is a “sorry if I offended anyone” type of insincere apology, as if the offense is not an objective social fact, but only exists in the mind of anyone who would be so weak as to be offended.  Such an “apology” leaves the door wide open for recommitting the offense, as events since Senator Michel decried the conduct of his own party have amply proven.  It is now a given that any true American hero who has the courage to exercise free speech will become the target for character assassination by the right-wing media machine.

It is ironic and tragic that sometimes such un-Christian behavior masks itself with the pretense of Christian self-righteousness.  Behavior this base should be characterized for what it is.  The Yahoos of Jonathan Swift’s satire come to mind:  monkeys sitting in trees, defecating on those “below” them.  It would be nice to be able to welcome the offenders back into the civic forum.  But silence and a modicum of modesty would be better than phony apologies.  Until there is a change of tone in the hate-speech style that infects the media these days, it will be legitimate to fight fire with satire, applauding such gestures as that of the independent bookseller Neil Coonerty, who made a splash by selling Rush Limbaugh’s book for the price of baloney.

Even under the most oppressive conditions, it is hard to stifle the spirit of protest.  A good example of the use of satire to protest military occupation and oppression comes from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II:

Once there came into the ghetto a certain Nazi from a province where the Jews are required to greet every Nazi soldier they encountered, removing their hats as they do.  There is no such practice in Warsaw, but the “honored guest” wanted to be strict and force the rules of his place of origin on us.  A great uproar arose suddenly…The little “wise guys,” the true lords of the street, noticed what was going on and found great amusement in actually obeying the Nazi, and showing him great respect in a manner calculated to make a laughingstock out of the “great Lord” in the eyes of all the passersby.  They ran up to greet him a hundred and one times, taking off their hats in his honor.  They gathered in great numbers, with an artificial look of awe on their faces, and would not stop taking off their hats.  Some did this with straight faces, while their friends stood behind them and laughed…That wasn’t all.  Riffraff gathered for the fun, and they all made noisy demonstration in honor of the Nazi with a resounding cheer.

This is Jewish revenge! (82)

The idolatry of the Nazi, expecting to be worshipped like a God, is exposed as silly pretension.  Although prophetic in this sense, the satirical protest of the street kids risks severe retaliation.

When conditions of oppression become so extreme as to cripple free speech, good humor is all the more important.   The Czech writer Milan Kundera points out how humor can help us find our friends under the paranoia-producing conditions of living in an occupied country:

I learned the value of humor during the time of Stalinist terror.  I was twenty then.  I could always recognize a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled.  A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition.  Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humor. (83)

When free speech is stifled in the public realm, it can continue in these signs of good humored camaraderie.  Ironic jokes develop under such conditions, such as this one:

A man who has requested an exit visa to one of the Western countries is summoned to the police station.  “Why do you want to leave?  Isn’t your salary good enough?  Is your work too hard?”

“No, I can’t complain.”

“Isn’t your flat big enough?”

“No, I can’t complain.”

“In that case, why do you want to leave?”

“Just because I can’t complain.” (84)

Under conditions of oppression, humor can help us find our friends, maintain our morale, and keep the door open for reconciliation with oppressors.  The following story told by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, before the end of apartheid, illustrates these points well:

In October 1985, a few days after police had hidden in crates on a lorry to decoy youths to stone their vehicle and had succeeded in their awful plan, killing at least two youngsters, I went to Cape Town to speak at a protest meeting.  The venue was close to Pollsmoor prison, where Nelson Mandela and others are now jailed.

There had been understandable anger in the community, but, remarkably, the audience — a very mixed one indeed — had a wonderful capacity to laugh.  Their funny bones were exposed, and it took very little to tickle them.  It seemed extraordinary, this gift of laughter in the midst of so much anguish.  Perhaps, as has sometimes been remarked, we laugh only because if we did not, we would cry and cry; there is so much that tugs at the heartstrings.  I marveled too at this meeting to observe the fund of goodwill among the races, which our rulers are frittering away so irresponsibly with their ham handed and ironfisted dealings with the victims of their vicious policy.  It is a real miracle that blacks still talk to whites after such a long history of rebuffs, exploitation, oppression, injustice and exclusion from any meaningful participation in the crucial decision-making processes. (85)



When a situation of oppression is too severe to allow for humor as a political tactic, it is still necessary to maintain a sense of humor as a defensive reserve.  Oppression can lead to obsession in the cause of justice, and obsession dis-eases the minds of those resisting oppression.  Dwelling on tragedy, we can lose our hope and passion for life.  Obsession hampers our imagination and fuels anger and fear.  The best defense against obsession is a strong, non-cynical sense of humor.  Studies of brain damage suggest that the imaginative ability to understand humor is important to maintain personality integration and prevent personality disintegration. (86)

We find the same recognition of the importance of humor among the best practitioners of forgiveness.  The imaginative, personality-integrating character of humor was recognized by Mohandas Gandhi in the following passage: “If I had no sense of humour, I should long ago have committed suicide.” (87)  As, indeed, may have some of those who followed him.

We have already seen how humor helped Viktor Frankl and his fellow inmates survive imprisonment by the Nazis. This principle seems to be a given amongst those who fare well when unjustly imprisoned, for we find the same sentiment from Thomas More, who was imprisoned and then executed by Henry VIII for his non-violent resistance: “The devil…the prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked.” (88)

Even when a political prisoner is cut off from social contact, a solitary (as distinct from private) sense of humor is important.  After he was imprisoned by the Nazis for his resistance activities, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following notes on a scrap of paper (smuggled from prison): “A sober view of things instead of illusion — the disappearance of memories and self-pity; for the one who has overcome:  humour.” (89)

Developing a sense of humor adequate to meet the challenges of extreme circumstances involves using our imagination to resolve the struggle between duty and free-will.  Frankl notes that “Humor is said even to be a divine attribute.  In three psalms God is referred to as a ‘laughing one.'” (90)  It is interesting to read the sentiments of these Psalms, two of which include the following:

The wicked man plots against the virtuous, and grinds his teeth at him; but the Lord only laughs at the man, knowing his end is in sight.

Though the wicked draw the sword, and bend their bow, to kill the upright, their swords will only pierce their own hearts and their bows will be smashed.

The little the virtuous possesses outweighs all the wealth of the wicked, since the arms of the wicked are doomed to break, and Yahweh will uphold the virtuous. (Psalm 37: 12-17)

For the psalmist, this rather frightening warning to those in power is balanced by an invitation to the communion of the humble:

The One whose throne is in heaven sits laughing… Happy all who take shelter in him.   (Psalm 2:4, 12)

This greater vision of hope, humor and celebration can give us the reserve to survive suffering, cruelty and oppression.  Perhaps this is the very life of prayer:  the ability to perceive hope in this world.  In this sense prayer is not so much what one says as what one hears.  The ability to listen attentively helps us distinguish what is true. Martin Buber asks how in the Bible we can distinguish the word of God from the voice of an ape of God (an impostor) (91).  Buber turns to Elijah for an answer.  When Elijah brings his plight before God at Mount Horeb (1Kings 19:11-13), the following occurs:

There came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh.  But Yahweh was not in the wind.

After the wind came an earthquake.  But Yahweh was not in the earthquake.

After the earthquake came a fire.  But Yahweh was not in the fire.

And after the fire there came the sound of a gentle breeze.  And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

“Gentle breeze” has also been translated as “small still voice,” or more literally “thin quiet calling.”  The images are very universal and have a Zen-like quality.  Truth is not found in the loud insistent voice of identity but in the calm and gentle voice of integrity.

Buber uses this tool to criticize Kierkegaard’s view of an irrational God who first tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, then tells him to spare Isaac.  Buber concludes that the voice telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not the voice of God, but of an ape of God.  God’s voice comes through with the plea to spare Isaac.  There is a way out, and humor can help us find it by pointing out the ape.

Once we have put aside the “sound and fury” of the impostor, and can hear the voice of the gentle breeze, what then?  Elijah hears God asking “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Peguy uses the same imagery to bring us back to hope embodied by children:  “And the voices of children are purer than the voice of the wind in the calm of the valley.” (92)  Forgiveness brings hope, joy and innocent laughter. Forgiveness is also dependent on these qualities.

Just as imagination is a necessary faculty for over-coming conflicts and achieving forgiveness, so humor is one of the tools of the imagination that can help bring flexibility to an otherwise rigid situation.  The same qualities that help forgiveness succeed are also necessary for good-hearted humor:  hope, patience and courage.  With both forgiveness and humor:  timing is everything.  And if at first you don’t succeed:  try, try, again, something (anything! please…) different.  This is how we limp along on our pilgrimage of forgiveness, with or without the goose or the wild goose chase!


Different cultures create similar stories to address common human dilemmas.  We found an example of this earlier in this chapter with the similarity of the Desert Father story of the monk who wants to be an angel and pray all the time and the Zen Koan about the monk who wants to meditate all the time. It is a humorous coincidence that there is another Desert Father/Zen Koan couplet on the topic of forgiveness.  Consider the similarities of the story in chapter two of Abbot Anastasius and the monk who stole his Bible with the following Zen story:

Eno, the sixth patriarch of Zen, received from the fifth patriarch the symbols of authority:  the bowl and robe.  Because of the jealousy of some of the other monks, Eno left the monastery at night, taking the bowl and robe with him.  Some brother monks pursued him, intending to wrest the treasured objects from him.

Among them was a tall, extremely powerful monk named Emyo.  Eno knew Emyo was coming, so he sat and waited, placing the bowl and robe on a nearby rock.  When Emyo appeared, Eno said to him:  “These objects just symbolize the truth.  If you want them, take them.”  But when Emyo tried to lift the bowl and robe, they were as heavy as mountains.  Trembling with shame, he said:  “I came for the teaching, not for the material pleasures.  Please teach me.”

Eno instructed him:  “Do not think of good; do not think of evil.  Show me instead your original face.”  At these words Emyo’s entire body was bathed in perspiration:  he was enlightened.  In gratitude he said, “You have given me the secret words and meanings.  Is there yet a deeper part of the teaching?”  Eno replied:  “What I have told you is no secret at all.  When you realize your own true self, the secret belongs to you.” (93)





Guidelines for Practice

Thus far we have traced the accumulated wisdom of the ages about how to encourage forgiveness at various levels:  inter-personal, inter-group, and inter-national.  We have also explored how humor can ease conflict and be part of forgiveness.  The findings of this study can be presented as a set of guidelines arranged according to level and the paths of the different elements involved.

I use the term guidelines in place of what might be considered principles because a guideline suggests a signpost for possible correction rather than an ever-present imperative.  Guidelines explicate considerations that are relevant to varying degrees dependent on the situation.  For instance, one situation may call on me to be more patient than courageous, while another calls on me to be more courageous than patient.  At the same time, in social interaction, another person’s courage might benefit from my patience, while another’s patience may call on my courage.  Guidelines are dynamic considerations that shift over time and between players.

 A)  Guidelines for Defusing Inter-Personal Conflicts

1)  The future-orientation embodied in the traditional value of hope is essential to forgiveness.  Hope is an antidote to depression and despair.  It should be the dominant tone in the process of forgiveness, even if the seriousness of the situation calls for it to be conveyed in a sobering or challenging manner.

2)  Forgiveness is neither impossible nor easy.  For this reason, a forgiving attitude is neither cynical nor naive.  A person with a forgiving attitude evaluates his/her own motives in order to avoid acting out of anger or fear, and uses the energy of these emotions for productive deeds.  As hope is an antidote to depression (preventing despair), so patience is an antidote to anger (preventing hatred), and courage an antidote to fear (preventing cowardice).

3)  Forgiveness comes in many guises and degrees, from the smallest gesture of civility to the greatest act of self-sacrifice.  In order to encourage forgiveness, it helps to recognize these forms so that they can be employed and augmented in the process of forgiveness.

4)  Forgiveness is achieved through repentance.  The forgiver’s abstention from revenge can effectively encourage the offender to repent.  Repentance, like forgiveness, is not an isolated act, but a process of work and achievement.

5)  The signs of repentance can generally be classified in the forms of admission, restitution and discipline, with discipline (abstention from recommitting the offense) being the most critical sign.  It is one thing to say “sorry”, but sorry is as sorry does (that is, don’t just say it, but mean it).

6)  The minimum requirement for admission is that the offender does not lie about the offense.  Confession may be indirect or explicit.  It is important for serious offenses to be admitted as serious, but we should not mistake an arrogant or flippant “confession” (which includes pride and cruelty) for honesty (which includes remorse and humility).

7)  Restitution may be literal, but is often symbolic.  Willing restitution symbolizes a sincere desire to be forgiven.  An attempt to give back what has been taken is a step towards seeking or accepting forgiveness.

8)  Discipline shows the lasting effects of forgiveness.  With discipline, the forgiven can take on a forgiving attitude, a readiness to forgive others.  This is how forgiveness breeds forgiveness.

9)  A person can encourage repentance and forgiveness with compassionate and challenging responses, setting an example of discipline and self-sacrifice.  This involves conveying hope, patience and courage.

10)  Encouraging this process requires care that the seriousness of the offense is not belittled and that the offender is not humiliated unnecessarily.  Compassionate responses serve to reduce humiliation and challenging responses serve to heighten the sense of seriousness.

11) The practice of forgiveness acts to prevent conflicts from escalating through counter-offenses and sensationalism.  This calls for a mixture of diplomacy and truth. To achieve this, private conflicts should be handled privately as much as possible.  When this fails the disputants should bring in a respected, non-partisan mediator to intervene directly.

B)  Guidelines for Defusing Inter-Group Conflicts

1) The more serious the conflict, the more important it is that the parties demonstrate their commitment to making peace with substantial and lasting deeds.  Roles and responsibilities should not be ambiguous in this endeavor.

2)  When conflicts escalate to engage groups, and private mediation no longer works, a disciplined community response is called for.  Activities that encourage mannerly conduct (common courtesies, rituals and ceremonies) and discourage scandal-mongering and inflammatory speech should be instituted.

3) The larger community should be involved only when a conflict has escalated beyond the control of the mediation process.  Larger conflicts generally require more time and more people to settle them, but the mediator(s) should decide who is to be involved, making sure that responsible members of the groups involved can identify with someone leading the effort.

4)  When acts of violence generate a public safety risk, the conflicted parties should be separated until the conditions are established to restore the social fabric through repentance and forgiveness.   Families and friends should mobilize to buffer against the risks of retaliation and escalation.

5)  Respected and disinterested community leaders should be put in charge of the intervention effort.  They should set a tone of hope, patience and courage.  Traditions for settling differences should be relied upon, short of litigation and other methods of retaliation.

6)  Universal cultural activities can help establish common ground between diverse groups.  Regular opportunities to eat together, sing, play and work together, can help prevent and ease conflicts before they spread and destroy our common interests.

 C)  Guidelines for Defusing Inter-National Conflicts

1)  When a conflict takes over a community and spreads without recourse to an effective institution, or where violation of human rights becomes institutionalized, a forgiving attitude can still be exercised through non-violent resistance or just war practices.   Some people will not resort to just war in good conscience; others in good conscience will practice just war as a last resort (which includes criteria for both just cause and just means).  Either way it is up to each person to consistently evaluate his or her own motives so that decisions are based on clear and solid values rather than fleeting emotions.  War acted out of anger is not just war; non-violence acted out of fear is not non-violent resistance.

2)  Legitimate self-defense and just war claims should not deny the potential for self-deception in all justifications.  The use of force and cunning is best minimized and reserved for the defense of others; when we lie to save our own skins, we risk putting other’s skins in danger as a result.

3)  We should not underestimate others’ capacity for resistance and endurance.  If we collude with corruption with the justification that we are protecting others more helpless than ourselves (family members or other dependents), we are likely using loved ones as an excuse for our own cowardice.

4)  When highly active in a struggle against oppression and injustice, a contemplative core is important for a person to avoid becoming obsessive.  Obsession can expose one to the dangers of despair, hatred and cowardice.  A good imagination helps prevent obsession and destructive fantasy from taking hold of the personality.

D)  Guidelines for the Use of Humor in Situations of Conflict

1)  Play can be serious business and humor can have serious consequences, for better or for worse.  A balance between humor and seriousness helps resolve conflicts.

2)  Humor can initiate or consolidate a change of emotional tone in a conflict, shifting the atmosphere from one of anger, fear and grief to a calmer tone of hope and encouragement.

3)  Humor and comedy are both stimulating and tension-releasing.  To feel socially included with humor is to experience a pleasant surprise.  Such experiences can have positive social and health benefits.

4)  Humor and wit should be distinguished from sarcasm and derision which act to ridicule and humiliate an involuntary target.  Sarcasm serves to escalate conflict, increasing fear and grief and hate.

5)  Wit can serve a challenging function in a social situation because it is sharper than humor (humor being more gentle and compassionate).  As forms of wit, parody and satire can be engaging but also risk alienating the person being caricatured.  Parody is the more gentle form, giving the subject of the caricature more room for saving face.

6)  A sense of humor about oneself and one’s own limitations is a prerequisite for a good sense of humor with others.  If one can’t take being teased, one has no business teasing others (“glass houses”, “splinters and logs”, etc.).  One learns how to make fun of oneself by observing the foolishness of others and how they accept this aspect of themselves.

7)  Power imbalances complicate both humor and forgiveness.  In situations of conflict, all gestures are risky.  Any potential provocation should be ventured tentatively so that damage can be minimized.  Apologies should be sincere or not offered.

8)  When conditions of oppression prevail, a strong sense of humor continues to play a role in survival, as a defense against tyrannical mind-control.  Humor helps one find one’s friends and fight obsession in a compulsory and friendless world.  Under the extreme conditions of unjust imprisonment, a solitary (rather than isolated) sense of humor can be a form of prayer and vehicle for intimacy with God.

9)  Different cultures tell similar stories about common human dilemmas.  The use of humor to tease people out of the temptations of despair, hatred and cowardice can be found in all cultures.  The more a culture encourages these virtues, the more it thrives.


Self and Forgiveness

In his book The Person and the Common Good (1), Jacques Maritain defines a human person as more than a material individual.  Part of our nature is to be social.  If we reduce social relations to material power structures, we reduce the person to the individual and the community to the collective.  Individualist and collectivist ideologies serve to divide people, whereas personalist and communitarian perspectives help bring people together.  Rather than self-interested individuals and groups, we need other-oriented persons and communities.

Michael Lerner articulates a philosophical basis for an other-oriented, rather than a self-centered, ethic:

Thus, the deepest truth of our subjectivity is not its “being for itself” as Sartre would have it, but rather its “being for the other.”  Our most fundamental self is expressed not in our ability to act in a ferocious and unguided Faustian fashion, but rather in our ability to be ethically alive responders to others, compassionate caretakers of others and of the world – to be able to achieve mutual recognition with them, so that we see them and they see us as ends rather than as means, as embodiments of holiness and deserving of dignity and freedom, as infinitely precious and sacred. (2)

Viktor Frankl formulated an other-oriented position when he wrote that it is less important what we ask of life as what life asks of us. President Kennedy popularized this perspective patriotically when he said that we should ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country.  Dear Abby reworked this in the inter-personal realm by writing “ask not what others can do for you, but what you can do for others.”    The opposite of this is the me-first philosophy of Ayn Rand whose refrain of greed-is-good became the motto for corrupt corporate practices that have damaged society and destroyed lives world-wide. (3)

Perhaps no better formulation of our historical position in this regard in the U.S.A. can be found than this comment by a parish priest, Father Michael Marini, who reflects on what has happened to parish life since the Depression and World War II:

In those days [the depression and WWII], “parish” was a place where people gathered to pray out of a common experience of need whether that need was for financial security or the safety of children who had gone off to war.  One prayed not for one’s own needs but for the needs which one knew everyone had.

We’re a much different parish now.  We are fragmented.  Today the task of prayer is to break down the walls which have risen between us and make us a community of people once again concerned for each other’s welfare. (4)

Self-help books have proliferated and gained a sizable market. Although many of these books have been helpful to many people, a disturbing negative trend has emerged.  As corporations have sought increasingly powerful management techniques, as the intelligence community has sought increasingly questionable mind-control techniques, various self-aggrandizing manipulators have cashed in.  Some self-help books immodestly promise almost everything to almost everybody, but they mostly help the shameless exploit the vulnerable.  Richard Bandler and his brand of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (5) is a prime example of this sham being marketed to unscrupulous individuals at the expense of society-at-large.

Criticisms of the promised New Age for the Inner Child have emerged.  Erik Erikson long ago made the distinction between the child-like qualities (a positive Judeo-Christian value) and childish-ness.  But Erikson’s influence has not stemmed the tide of inner-child liberties that have led to the more severe criticisms of the eminent Jungian psychologist James Hillman, who was driven to ask “Is Therapy Turning Us Into Children?” (6)  In a lighter vein, the self-help movement has been parodied in recent cultural criticism, including the following comic gem that shows up the inherent ambiguity of “self-helpism”:

Nicole Gregory and Judith Stone advise us all to get back to our puppy-like selves in Heeling Your Inner Dog:  A Self-Whelp Book (Times Books, $12).

“Your inner dog is the innate core of joy, creativity, courage, and exuberant, unrepentant slobbering living deep within each of us,” they write in the introduction.  “It is the hidden, happy, primal self.”

An external, other-guide (e.g. mentor) is much more effective than an imaginary inner-guide.  An inner-guide can help us integrate good guidance that we have received from others (the ego-psychology concept of internalization), but we are better off resuming contact with wise others than introspecting for very long.  Although we should not “shoot the inner-dog” (to extend the title of Karen Pryor’s delightful book on training, Don’t Shoot the Dog), we should also note Pryor’s caution on the weakness of self-reinforcement and what it might suggest to us on the inherent weakness of self-forgiveness:

How about shaping yourself?  All kinds of programs exist for changing one’s own behavior:  SmokEnders, Weight Watchers, and so on.  Most such programs draw heavily on shaping methods, usually called behavior modification, and they may or may not be successful.  The difficulty, I think, is that they require you to reinforce yourself.  But when you are reinforcing yourself, the event is never a surprise – the subject always knows what the trainer is up to.  This makes it awfully easy to say “The heck with getting another star on my chart, I’d rather have a cigarette.” (7)

Note the parallel here with good humor being inherently social; laughing to oneself to the exclusion of others is a pathological habit.  If we cannot make others laugh, if we cannot get others to follow our guidance, we should not laugh at our own jokes or follow our own inner-guide.  This is as foolish a prospect as the one Miss Manners pokes fun at:  the idea of arranging for oneself a surprise birthday party! (8)

Certainly we should advocate self-care and the incorporation of the positive child-like qualities into our more mature personalities.  But to be successful at doing this, we could use a better language for incorporating the positive elements of childhood into a mature approach.  A shift from a “self-help” to an “other-help” approach may be the necessary and sufficient change.

One of the core beliefs in the self-help movement is the necessity of self-forgiveness for emotional and/or spiritual growth.  Self-forgiveness is a confused and often misleading concept.  Perhaps the most concise criticism of this idea appeared in an article by Gordon D. Marino entitled “The Epidemic of Forgiveness”:

The idea that we can forgive ourselves our own trespasses violates all traditional conceptions of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a relational act and as such cannot be carried out alone.  Here it might be instructive to imagine, and for some it will not take much imagination, someone having put a wrecking ball through your life.  As the years roll on, you try to forgive the rabid individual who left you with a cicatrix running from your spine to your soul.  However, every time you conjure up this person’s face, nothing but fear and hate comes to you.  Try as you have, you cannot forgive him.  And then one day you hear that this very person has learned to do what you couldn’t do, namely, forgive himself.  What would you feel?  Maybe I am hard of heart, but I would feel as though my tormentor were simply kidding himself.  I would feel as though he was compounding one transgression with another.  Not surprisingly, the notion that we can forgive ourselves seems more viable to the person who has slung the stone, and now has the furies breathing down his neck, than it does to the person who is trying to peel his life off the floor. (9)

Forgiveness is an essentially interactive process and is therefore, by nature, inter-personal and social.  One person forgives another person.  This position is counter to the idea that people can forgive themselves. Self-forgiveness seems to assume that forgiveness is a magical power that can be applied like a formula, regardless of the response of the other person.  Formulaic approaches easily fall prey to foolish performances, supporting Bergson’s (1913) theory that humor arises from an organism behaving rigidly like an inflexible mechanism. (10)

Forgiveness may be wonderful, but it is not magical.  It is hard work and messier business than any of us would want to admit.  C.S. Lewis wrote:  “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive”.  Magic implies a technical and material power over the fate of things and people.  If one does certain things, it has certain effects.  This may be true in the crafts and sciences of nature, but in the moral and spiritual realms it is not certain and should not be promised or even implied.  A person contemplating forgiveness or helping others to forgive should face free-will and fate openly, or be ready to be shown up as the fool in the presence of those unpleasantly surprised by failure of the effort.

Sometimes people seek forgiveness from a third party.  The use of a third party to gain absolution is a tricky proposition in that it can become a pretext for avoiding settling the conflict between the conflicted parties themselves.  This is the reason that many priests, ministers, rabbis and other religious authorities these days direct penitents to make right the wrongs they have done as part of the confession and reconciliation rites.

But if third party absolution is tricky, how much more so is the idea of absolving oneself.  An isolated act of self-forgiveness can only be riddled with opportunities for self-deception and the easy way out.  Self-forgiveness smacks of cheating and insider-trading, and fraud is all too easily accepted in our opportunistic society.

Sometimes those who talk of self-forgiveness would do better to talk of something more akin to “self-acceptance.”  For instance, if a person realizes that an action was harmful to another person and seeks that person’s forgiveness, but fails to gain it after an honest and thorough attempt, then the best that the penitent can do is to accept the fact that the past cannot be changed and strive to make the future better.  This can be done by making proper restitution, achieving discipline, and becoming an agent of forgiveness in our troubled world.   Although the forgiveness of the injured is not obtained, repentance is achieved (a fact that enhances the possibility of ultimate divine forgiveness), making self-acceptance a possible and desirable outcome.  In this scenario, self-acceptance is sufficient, without any inflated notion of self-forgiveness, to counter the false humility of excessive guilt and self-hatred.

It might be suggested that different parts of the self, or even different selves within a person, can forgive each other (a higher self forgiving a lower self).  Although there is a reality and usefulness to these ideas, they do not serve to effect forgiveness. Forgiveness requires a real other person who is harmed by an action over which they have no direct control.  The closest there is to this in the self is the idea of a divine self that is at the center of the personality and provides the possibility for personality integration.  But to the extent that this divine self is “other” than our “real” self, it is no different than the concept of God who is both within and beyond each one of us.

In this way we can break down the vague idea of “self-forgiveness” into two better defined ideas of “self-acceptance” and “God-forgiveness.” In that God resides in the core of each person’s soul, therefore being forgiven by a neighbor is at the same time being forgiven by God.  It is only when the wronged person is unable or unwilling to forgive that turning to God in their place is justified.  As Gordon Marino so aptly puts it:

But it is one thing for me to resolve to accept what I have done and stop torturing myself, and another for me to imagine that I can wipe my slate clean.  Likewise, though I have twice heard the heretical invocation to self-forgiveness come from the pulpit, it is one thing for me to pray for and have trust in God’s forgiveness and quite another for me to imagine that I can forgive myself.  On this point, I have the strong sense that the idea of self-forgiveness is a symptom of the secularization process.  People for whom the idea of a personal God has become an offense often wish to retain some of the ethico-religious ideas associated with faith, such as forgiveness.  So, fantastically enough, they take this power upon themselves. (11)

In order to further explore the contradictions involved in the concept of self-forgiveness, let us consider a story analyzed in Lewis Smedes’ 1984 book Forgive and Forget:  Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve.  This book was a definitive popularization of the topic of forgiveness.  Smedes projects a great deal of education and experience in a presentation that is very personable, and this book has many virtues.  But steeped in the self-help literature, this popularization is flawed by its uncritical acceptance of the concept of self-forgiveness.  It is illuminating to see how Smedes goes about defining and justifying self-forgiveness.

The substance of Smedes’ argument is revealed in his interpretation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  In Dostoevsky’s novel, the main character Raskolnikov murders an old woman while under the delusion that by doing so, he would become a great man and transcend good and evil, like Napoleon.  Smedes describes Raskolnikov’s redemption in the following way:

Yet now and then, Raskolnikov did get a glimpse of “the fundamental falsity of himself.”  He knew deep inside that he was lying to himself.

And finally it happened.  How it happened he did not know.  He flung himself at Sonia’s feet and accepted her love.  “He wept and threw his arms around her knees.”  He finally had the power to love.  And his power to love revealed that the miracle had really happened; he had forgiven himself.

He forgave himself?  For such a crime as cold blooded murder?  Yes. “Everything, even his crime, his sentence and imprisonment seemed to him now…an external strange fact with which he had no concern.”

Release!  Release by a discovery that his terrible past was irrelevant to who he was now and was going to be in the future.  He was free from his own judgment and this was why he was free to love.

Raskolnikov stands out in staggering boldness to show us that even the worst of us can find the power to set ourselves free. (12)

How Smedes comes to the conclusion that Raskolnikov’s transformation is the result of self-forgiveness is anyone’s guess.  What we find in the story is that Raskolnikov was deluded and committed a crime, that in his confusion he comes across a woman who shows love for him, that he accepts her love and in so doing humbles himself, giving up his delusion and repenting his crime.  What changes him is not self-forgiveness, but his love for Sonia.  Sonia’s love becomes for Raskolnikov a sign of God’s forgiveness.

A clue to Smedes’ thinking can be found in how he says we are to go about forgiving ourselves:

But how can you pull it off?

The first thing you need is honesty.  There is no way to forgive yourself without it.  Candor – a mind ready to forego fakery and to face facts – this is the first piece of spiritual equipment you need. (13)

The fact is, when we are deluded, when we are deceiving ourselves, we are in no position to correct ourselves.  It takes the perception of another to correct us.  This is what Raskolnikov finds with Sonia.  She corrects his perverse perception with love.  His delusion is corrected in his acceptance of her love.

Smedes’ omission of the essential role of others in our healing belies the narrowness of his view of how “we heal ourselves.”  Perhaps this accounts for his way of defining the differences between his approach and the views of Paul Tillich:

Many profound thinkers do not want the healing of the memory — short of climax –to count as forgiveness.  Take the late American theologian Paul Tillich, for instance; he says that “genuine forgiveness is participation, reunion overcoming the power of estrangement.”  In Tillich’s opinion forgiving does not really happen unless people are brought together in a renewed relationship – close, intimate, mutually accepting.  Forgiveness completed, fulfilled in the coming together of two people, is the only genuine article.

I think Tillich is wrong; I think we can have reality even if we do not have the whole of it.  We can have a great experience climbing a mountain even if we never reach the peak.

Sex can be good – if not all we want – even if orgasm escapes us; forgiving can be real even though the person we forgive is out of our reach.  We need not deny ourselves the healing of incomplete forgiving; we can forgive and be free in our own memories. (14)

In Smedes’ account of Raskolnikov’s healing, leaving out the essential role Sonia played, the metaphor is not sex without climax, but sex without a partner.  One of the things that seems to hamper Smedes’ view is his either/or attitude towards the inter-personal act of forgiveness.  Either it leads to complete and wonderful reconciliation or it doesn’t happen at all and we have to heal alone.

But perfect forgiveness is not of this world; our task is to recognize and encourage the degrees of forgiveness on our human scale.  It is wonderful for forgiveness to come with a warm embrace between two people who are in conflict with each other, but if there is simply enough room in this town for the two of them, sometimes this too is a sign that forgiveness is at work.  In reconsidering reconciliation, we can at least settle for the ability to live in the same town (or planet, at least).  At the same time, we should be open to the surprises forgiveness can bring, as can be found in the rich stories of Laura Davis’ book, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again:  The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation.

On the other hand, when we turn to God for forgiveness rather than to our self, it should be because our neighbors are not able to stand for themselves due to death or other insurmountable circumstances.  Not only the basic Judeo-Christian texts, but more modern religious writers, moral philosophers and helping professionals subscribe to this position (15).  When we turn to God in place of our neighbors who can stand for themselves, we project a narcissistic image on God and are worshiping an idol of self-deception.  God includes and embodies our neighbors and will not allow us to exclude our neighbors in an attempt to possess God.  God wants us to accept reality (including ourselves), seek forgiveness and forgive each other.  When death separates neighbors, God embodies neighbors in order to bring them back together again.  This is the deepest way in which we all belong to each other.  This is the basis of a depth sociology and an other-help approach.

Even when we consider harming oneself (suicide, self-mutilation), a similar approach applies.  In his book Being and Having, Gabriel Marcel concludes that suicide is not a legitimate option because we both have a body (in this sense, our soul possesses our body) and are a body (our soul is limited by being embodied, and therefore we, as bodies, are possessed by our Creator).  With suicide, we dispose of our bodies in a way that indisposes us to God and other committed relationships, thereby denying the very basis of trust, fidelity and faith (16).   The duality of both being and having a body makes the idea of self-harm treacherous:  harming oneself also harms those who rely on us, as well as harming creation, of which we are a part.  It is no coincidence that Viktor Frankl suggests the question, “Why not commit suicide?” as a means of eliciting a patient’s sense of meaning and meaninglessness in life.  It is the reasons for living that connect us with others and bring true happiness (17).   Forgiveness affirms the reasons for living by reconnecting us with others after our love of life has been damaged by hard times.


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