Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Thinking about forgiveness and reconciliation

For a handful of reasons, I have been thinking again about forgiveness, reconciliation, and healthy limits.  And about responsibility and justice, as well.

My dear f/Friend Peterson Toscano wrote this insightful piece recently:

"Some Thoughts on Forgiveness" 

What Peterson wrote resonated with me, and intertwined with some other things that have been simmering quietly in the cauldron, or are newly on the front burner for me: work I read a a few years ago by Laura Davis on reconciliation;  an abusive person in my extended family who's expressed interest in reconciliation through the family grapevine; Bruce Birchard's plenary speech at FGC Gathering this summer; a formerly close friend who has apologized multiple times for how messed up things are between us; someone in another part of my family who wishes for reconciliation between people who are in conflict; an abusive former family member who is stalking me.

Peterson wrote:
It is most effective if the offender communicates regret over their actions, can articulate what they have done, and actually requests forgiveness. My forgiveness does not mean I can (or should) trust the person again immediately or ever. Forgiveness does not give me permission to overlook reality.
Peterson also mentions the concept of restorative justice.

A real apology is not a "get out of hot water free/make someone be no longer angry at me" card.  It's an interactive process.  It has costs.

This is where forgiveness, reconciliation, and restorative justice can come together.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are related, but are not the same thing.  And they do not always take place together -- one may happen without the other.  
Immediate forgiveness and absolution distracts from the necessary cathartic process for both the offender and those harmed... While many of us rejoice in happy endings and prefer to skip over the conflict to the resolution, usually its the complicated, messy process that results in a satisfying ending.

I am reminded of the original Twelve Steps of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous, the original being the ones with which I am most familiar.  

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol (our addiction)—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (addicts), and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

A "searching and fearless moral inventory" comes pretty early on in working the steps (step 4), with the support of a Higher (or Deeper) Power and, preferably, also of one's sponsor in step 5.  Then there are several steps after the moral inventory before the word "amends" even appears.  In addition, there's a full inward step concerning amends (step 8), before outward, direct amends can be considered (step 9).  What's more, in step 9, our main concerns are not only "direct amends," but avoiding harm -- to the people we had previously harmed, or to anyone else.  If making amends to them would harm them or others, we find different ways to make amends; we still make them.

There's no guarantee of forgiveness from the wronged person.  However, in working the steps honestly and with an open heart, there is a real possibility of self-forgiveness, and, if one is a theist, of forgiveness from a Higher/Deeper Power.  (It's a little more complicated than that if one is a non-theist, but something analogous is still possible.)

We don't work the steps so that other people will think better of us: we work them to save our lives. 

As Peterson says, "...peace does not come about by overlooking wrongs. It requires action" -- and that action may liberate the wrongdoer as well as the wronged.  The person a perpetrator may help might be themselves.

Peterson's article, and the Twelve Steps, show potential forgiveness, potential reconciliation, and restorative justice as messy, complicated, genuine processes.  Not superficial ones.  And both Peterson's article and the Twelve Steps show responsibility-taking and amends-making as necessary -- even if forgiveness and reconciliation are not forthcoming.

Peterson writes:
If a family member has abused others and then repents, it is complex and difficult work to bring that person back into family life and gatherings. Not impossible, but I believe we must not overlook history or the gravity of offenses committed.

In general in society now, there is less pressure for women and girls to reconcile with abusive former romantic partners -- former husbands, spouses, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, partners, significant others -- and that's a good thing.  But that pressure does still exist.  When that pressure occurs, it's also now more likely to be seen as dangerous, and that's a good thing.

However, there is still tremendous pressure for adults, teens, and children to reconcile with other (non-romantic partner) family members who have been violent and abusive towards them.

And when someone is pressured to reconcile with an abusive other family member, it is less likely to be perceived as dangerous.  This is a problem.

Other abusive family members, current or former, are just as dangerous as abusive romantic partners and abusive former romantic partners.  When other people fail to see the danger, the danger increases

We seem to be able to see an abusive, violent former husband/significant other as dangerous.  We seem to have a harder time seeing other family members as dangerous.  But someone is no less dangerous for having been any other kind of relative -- someone's parent, uncle/aunt, sibling, cousin, in-law, grandparent, etc.  We need to be able to see that, too.  Our failure to recognize this increases the danger level. 

We need to support survivors in keeping themselves safe.  We need to honor their boundaries.  We also need to help keep other people in our families and families-of-choice safe from known abusers. 

Peterson Toscano, Laura Davis, Bruce Birchard, John Calvi, and Friends Peace Teams (in Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities) all talk about circumstances under which reconciliation is possible, even when the most unthinkable violence has been perpetrated.

It does not happen through forced forgiveness.  It does not happen through forced reconciliation.  It does not happen through pressuring the people involved because it makes the rest of us so uncomfortable to see division among us -- whether within a family, or within a spiritual or religious group, or a political group, a minority group, etc.  Quakers, families, LBGTQ rights groups, anti-racist groups, Pagans, it does not matter.    

Most of all, reconciliation does not happen by blaming the people who are honest about violence perpetrated on them, or by pressuring them to accept further violence to their boundaries by forced "forgiving and forgetting." 

Survivors are in no way required to forgive or reconcile. 

Reconciliation may happen when people who perpetrate violence and abuse are able to take responsibility for their actions.

But whether or not forgiveness or reconciliation are possible, it is still incumbent on those who perpetrate violence and abuse to take responsibility for what they have done. 

And that's really what so much of this comes down to.

Can you acknowledge what you've done?  Can you see what it's done to someone else?  Can you, if appropriate, make amends?

What can you do to bring about justice?  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Faith and Practice quote from Residential General Meeting

I attended my first Residential General Meeting for Scotland this weekend.  Our morning business session opened with this quote (23.46) from Britain Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice.  It spoke deeply to me and to my condition:

I have been greatly exercised for some time by the image we like to present of ourselves (albeit with beating of breasts) as a white, middle-class, well-educated group of heterosexual people, preferably in stable marriages with children that behave in socially acceptable ways. I do feel that this is a myth. The danger of such myths is that we exclude many potential Quakers who feel they cannot/do not live up to the image or who feel that such a group is not one with which they wish to be associated. Sadly, many of us within the Society who do not fit in feel marginalised and second-class.

Another effect is that many problems faced by a large proportion of people are seen as separate: people who are poor, facing oppression, living in poor housing, experiencing prejudice are the 'others'. This enables us to be very caring but distant (and sometimes patronising) and also makes it difficult to be conscious of prejudice behind some of the normally accepted assumptions of our society/Society, such as that people who are unemployed are a different group from those who have employment; that poor people are poor ... because they are not as bright or as able as the rest of us or because their limited homes did not give them the opportunities that a good Quaker home would have done; that children living in single-parent families are automatically deprived by that very fact.

Until we as a Religious Society begin to question our assumptions, until we look at the prejudices, often very deeply hidden, within our own Society, how are we going to be able to confront the inequalities within the wider society? We are very good at feeling bad about injustice, we put a lot of energy into sticking-plaster activity (which obviously has to be done), but we are not having any effect in challenging the causes of inequality and oppression. I do sometimes wonder if this is because we are not able to do this within and among ourselves.

Susan Rooke-Matthews, 1993