A reader wrote in the other day to ask for some advice:
I’ve never been angry like this politically, and I feel—I think I hate [the president]. I think I hate his minions and his froggy supporters. Please understand that I’m a Medicare-dependent disabled single mother living below the poverty line. My illness is manageable but potentially fatal without treatment, and I feel like I’m staring down a very bad barrel.
I don’t think I’ve ever hated anyone before. I’ve never felt like this before, anyway. And I know it’s wrong and I can’t seem to let go. What are you telling people about forgiveness and not hating any of their neighbors, however deplorably they may be acting?
I’m so uncomfortable with being this upset with people. I just don’t know how to start to forgive.
Let’s talk about the feelings here first before we get into the bigger implications. Anger is something we feel in response to a threat, whether to our body or our values. Given your situation and the immediate threat to your well-being, it’s not surprising that you would experience visceral anger toward the extremists running the GOP. You’re not alone: it doesn’t take long to find people who feel deeply angry at this regime.
Anger is a motivator. Its “job” is to get you to respond to the threat. Sometimes that can harden into hate, a continuous devaluation of a person, or rage, the desire to completely and immediately obliterate the source of the threat. Again, that’s not surprising given your situation. You feel like punching Nazis all day long, which is understandable, if ill-advised. And again, you’re not the only one.
One more thing to know about anger: it’s not an automatic response. It’s a product of our thoughts and perceptions. That means it can be, yes, managed by looking at what we bring to the table. It also means that anger isn’t something to hidden or repressed. The first step toward dealing with anger is admitting that you’re angry—sometimes with good cause. Still, like you, most people feel uncomfortable with emotions like anger, much less hate. It’s unsettling to feel that way about another person.
Now, let’s talk about forgiveness, the voluntary remission of claims you might have against another person who has done you wrong. That can be legal, as in forgiving a debt. It can also be emotional. When some family members of the people murdered by Dylann Roof offered him forgiveness, it was a statement that they were giving up on their legitimate claim to hate him forever, not a release from the legal consequences of his actions.
It’s unjust to expect to victims of wrongdoing to offer forgiveness. In fact, abusers use that expectation to manipulate victims and repeat their actions. Forgiveness can only be given in freedom, and being burdened with a demand for forgiveness is not free. Offenders have to know they have done wrong and be willing to make up for it in order for forgiveness to be complete. Obviously, that’s probably not going to happen in this case. Even if these extremists were of the mind to suddenly repent and undo their wrongs, they’re public figures. They can’t know what’s on your mind, much less how to put it right. That makes it hard to forgive them.
But you can work on it, to free yourself from the burden of anger, hate and rage, if nothing else. There are three components here: letting go of attachments, recovering the humanity of the person who has wronged you, and time. None of it is easy.
It’s not difficult to forgive a child for carelessly breaking a lamp, for example. Most of us aren’t very emotionally attached to everyday objects. It’s much harder when someone hurts your child, or when they endanger your well-being. We obviously shouldn’t be expected to give up our attachment to a loved one or ourselves. What we can give up are things like the need to be right, the need to be superior, or the need to enforce justice. A lot of anger is generated by people who think anyone who disagrees with them is stupid or evil. Give that up, and watch the steam evaporate.
Likewise, it’s not always easy to see amoral monsters like the President or Steve Bannon as people like ourselves. The important thing is to understand we’re more like them than not. We have hopes, dreams, fears, needs. In some cases, those may be grossly distorted, such the President’s apparently bottomless desire for approval and attention. But we all need to feel loved, don’t we? Recognizing the brokenness of someone who has wronged us increases our empathy. Recognizing that we share the same needs helps to relativize our feelings of superiority. And remember: monsters are monsters because they can’t see other people as human. If you can do that, you can legitimately feel a step ahead of them.
Some people might say this is making excuses. I don’t believe so. It’s developing a clear-eyed view and increasing control over our own emotions, so that we don’t have to react in paralyzing fear and anger.
Again, none of this comes easily. It takes time. Forgiveness is a lifelong practice. We often see that those who are able to master the craft—Sandinistas forgiving torturers or Anabaptists their oppressors—come from communities that stress the need for forgiveness and count it as a form of discipleship.
Christians like myself believe that forgiveness is sponsored by God, reflecting the divine nature. It’s furthered by Jesus, who teaches his disciples to forgive as they are forgiven, and whose death on the cross accomplishes a permanent forgiveness between God and humanity.
Even for non-Christians, it should be apparent that forgiveness is a form of both power and freedom. Forgiveness at least limits the ability of another person to make us miserable. It opens up possibilities for alternative behaviors not rooted in coercion and domination. Specifically, forgiveness makes possible solidarity: with the victims by placing ourselves freely among their numbers, and with the victimizers by refusing to give up the hope that they can change.
All of this is challenging at best and scandalous at worst. It’s often charged that arguing for forgiveness diminishes the suffering of victims, and it can. The point, however, is for things to be different, not reversed. Forgiveness breaks the cycle of domination and humiliation.
Forgiveness, our defenses tell us, is a weakness. It is not. It is a source of strength and hope because it testifies to the possibility that the world could be other than what it is now. It begins with the desire to forgive, even before the ability.+ + +