Volume 29 Number Two Summer 2008, PAGES 20-23
“I trust in the mercy of God forever”-Psalm 52:8
“I think about the guy whose life I took. Because of my action, he will never be a father. I think about his wife. Did she ever find somebody else? She was young, but still. Does she sleep alone every night? Is she scared? Does she have money problems? And I finally get what they mean when they ask me at my parole hearings if I have ‘insight’ into my crime. I have insight, you know what I mean?”- “J”, CDCR inmate
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”-Alexander Pope
To be forgiven is a deeply-ingrained human need: in the “Our Father”, forgiveness is mentioned just after “daily bread.” Perhaps forgiveness is bread for the soul. When we pray the “Our Father,” we ask God to forgive us in exactly the same vein that we forgive others, which, for most of us, is a pretty risky thing to ask. I still haven’t quite forgiven my brother for boycotting my sister’s wedding. I haven’t forgiven the two guys who robbed my daughter at gunpoint. I have barely forgiven my husband for telling me that my new haircut looked “mature.”
I am in big trouble if God is going to forgive me my sins the way I forgive others, which is why I prefer to pray for God’s mercy and compassion. For us flawed humans, mercy and compassion are important steps on the path to forgiveness: we must embrace the power that comes from the seemingly meek act of “turning the other cheek.” We need to practice letting go. A further step is to lose our fear of empathy. When we empathize, we find more forgivable the things we can imagine ourselves doing. We’ve all had bad days when we’ve done something foolish in traffic because we aren’t paying attention to our surroundings. We know what it’s like to be overburdened, overstressed, overtired, overwhelmed, and so we can summon some understanding when we see these shortcomings manifested in others. But we have not all committed murder. Murderers, we agree, commit unforgivable acts: a life taken cannot be given back. We can perhaps picture ourselves in certain specific instances of life-taking: we can understand a drunk driver, whose crime arises from muddled judgment, better than a suicide bomber, whose crime arises from misguided zeal. But the murderers I know, and with whom I have become close, are the most unforgiven people I have ever met.
IN THE PRISON
Not that all of the inmates who attend the Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous (CGA) meetings on Level Two at the state prison where I volunteer are murderers. Some are drug dealers or embezzlers, spouse abusers or chronic thieves. To be honest, I don’t ask. As a volunteer with the Catholic chaplain, I don’t have access to their permanent records, and I don’t really want to know. I am only there as a fellow believer, to share the faith journey within the structure of a 12-Step program. The inmates are there, of course, as criminals and gang members who want to begin with Step One, to recognize that their lives have become unmanageable, and so there are no protestations of innocence or of having been framed. But concerning the details of their specific criminal activities, I only know what is freely offered during the meetings: crime and shame and a prevailing acceptance that what they have done cannot possibly be forgiven.
Forgiveness for their crimes, after all, is out of their hands. The people who can forgive them, their victims or the families of victims, often attend the inmates’ parole hearings to make sure that the crime is neither forgotten nor forgiven. And who can blame them? To forgive the most grievous harm of the violent death of a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife, seems impossibly superhuman, which is to say, divine. We humans are not capable of such forgiveness, and so we should not even be asked.
Except that’s exactly what God asks of us.
Most inmates neither expect nor even dream of being forgiven by the victims of their crimes, or by their own family members whom they have let down or hurt. To be forgiven by another is out of one’s control, and possibly pie in the sky, which is why, in our meetings, we focus on forgiving ourselves, and on forgiving those wrongs that have been done to us.
And Lordy, have some of these men been harmed. From inmates I have heard the most heartstopping stories of bad and neglectful parenting, the most horrific tales of brutality by authorities, that I have ever imagined. Some of these men have been so physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically abused that it has long been an act of bravery just to get up in the morning. These stories, oddly enough, are usually offered not as excuses for criminal behavior, but under the broad category of “Things That Suck.” An absent father, a drug-addicted mother, a fist-happy cop: they just suck, man. It is a moment of shining grace to watch a person realize that these are actually terrible injustices done to him that he has the power to forgive. To realize that the Things That Suck can be forgiven and must be forgiven if one is to move forward in the quest to change. And that bestowing forgiveness is liberating, invigorating, and life-altering: true grace from a steadfast God.
Forgiving themselves is much harder.
I once heard Sister Helen Prejean speak about how we rationalize our inclination to classify inmates as less-than-human, which then makes it okay to deprive them of their human dignity. Imagine, she said, the worst thing you have ever done in your life. Call to mind the thing you did whose memory makes you the most ashamed, embarrassed, or regretful. Hold it in your mind, even though you’d rather not. Now imagine that that thing is the only definition the world accepts or understands of who you are. Nothing else about you is known or matters one bit. That, she said, is often what it is like to be a convicted criminal in our society. There are no second chances for you in people’s minds, no mitigating circumstances, no pity, and sometimes no true justice. You remain unforgiven.
So imagine, further, that your permanent record of the wrongs you have done to others over the years accompanies you everywhere you go: the time you cheated on a geography test in fifth grade, the time you stole a magazine because it had a picture of a hot movie star that you wanted, the time you told everyone it was Elliott who spilled the beans about who pulled the fire alarm—not you—and labeled Elliott as a snitch forever, the time you didn’t pick up the phone even though you knew it was your mother, the time you “forgot” to declare some extra income on your federal tax return; all the times you hurt feelings or broke rules or behaved badly. You know you are more than the sum of these things, that you are not the same person who did those things, that you have learned many lessons from many mistakes, but society insists on defining you by your permanent record. Even worse, the kid whose test you copied, the store owner you stole from, Elliott himself, the IRS auditor, even your own mother, show up periodically to testify to your badness, to make sure that people you’ve met since those times know exactly what you’ve done and also condemn you for all of it.
Talk about Things That Suck. Just the imagining leaves me breathless.
Many convicts have been conditioned to think of themselves as chronically unforgivable, by their victims, by their families, by their society. They think of being unforgiven as sort of their natural state. Some of them are convinced that the things they have done are so wrong that not even God could forgive them. The ghosts of their victims sometimes seem to be sitting next to them during our meetings, their hands folded, their breath stilled. So the men don’t really see the point of forgiving themselves. It reeks of a self-indulgent, Oprah-like, empty ritual that has no application to them. They are bad. “Nothing good ever come of my life, you know what I’m saying?” a young man asked me recently. I knew it was a rhetorical question, since it punctuated every single one of his sentences, but I thought, “No. No, I don’t know what you’re saying, because in spite of your defeated expectations, there is ‘good come of your life.’ Despite your self-image, there is good in you.”
THE PRODIGAL SON
We cannot truly love those whom we cannot forgive, and that includes ourselves. Loving ourselves is another of those touchy-feely concepts, but if we fail to love and forgive ourselves, we fail everyone else in our lives. We have to start at home, from scratch, at rock bottom: Do I love myself? Can I love myself? Am I capable of forgiving myself? Where do I begin? Am I just trippin’?
In our CGA meetings, a good place to start turned out to be the parable of the Prodigal Son. In a roomful of prodigal sons, men whose judgmental older siblings had written them off, but whose mothers often still wrote letters or came to visit, the story of the boy who squandered his inheritance and ended up glad to have work in a pig sty really resonated. The boy who did everything wrong, whose behavior was shameful and scandalous, was a sort of Everyman for this audience. But the boy in the story then took the unbelievable chance of opening himself up to his father’s wrath and judgment. He returned home. He figured he had little to lose. He didn’t expect to be forgiven or welcomed back into the family; he merely requested a shot at a job. His father, of course, celebrated his return with feasting and an outpouring of love. In his total vulnerability, the boy was able to accept the blanket of forgiveness in which his father wrapped him. He would still face the judgment of others, particularly in the eyes of his older brother, but his father forgave him without question, because his repentance was real, was from his heart. And in his repentance, he found the grace to forgive himself.
Yes. It can be done.
When we forgive ourselves for wrongs that we own, a small miracle happens. We learn how to pass on forgiveness to those who have wronged us. Because we have been there, we empathize with those who need our forgiveness. And we recognize that there is tremendous grace on both sides of the act of forgiveness. We are free to move to the next level of righting wrongs, which is restitution (and another topic for another time). As forgiveness becomes easier, it also seems as essential as breath, as water, as bread, to life. It’s just that some of us have to go to prison to learn this. To get this.
LIVING FORGIVENESS ON THE OUTSIDE
In truth, there remain mountains to climb for CGA members who are not lifers, and who will eventually be returned to their former lives. The radical changes of heart brought about in prison are not easily maintained on the outside. I thought of this recently when I was listening to a reading from the book of Ezra at daily Mass.
“O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. . . . And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments . . .” prayed Ezra, at the end of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews (Ezra 9:6,10). Ezra needed to say nothing after this, for the God of steadfast love had already returned the Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and to begin a new life as the holy people of God. There was one small requirement of the men of Israel, however: in order to return to the roots of their faith, they needed to leave their foreign wives and their children behind. The book of Ezra ends with a long list of the names of those men who sent away their families, in obedience to a seemingly harsh God.
Many inmates can relate to this story. Often, in the quest to begin anew on the outside, they must in effect exile themselves from the world they know. The familiar neighborhoods, habits, friends, and even family members they left behind when they went to prison are sometimes major contributors to the reasons why they went to prison in the first place. The people and places they know are toxic to the new life they would like to lead. Many inmates become quite fearful as their release date approaches, because they doubt their own power to stick by the changes they have made while in prison. As miserable as life behind bars can be, its regimentation and restrictions can make the straight and narrow path seem like a cakewalk compared to the hazards, temptations, and self-doubt waiting on the outside. The CGA program treats crime as an addiction. The old patterns and rationalizations need to be examined, understood, and discarded. Much like a recovering alcoholic would be smart to stay away from bars, a recovering criminal needs to break away from the lure of potential criminal acts. Which is sometimes the only environment criminals have ever known, and the one in which they will be promptly deposited upon their release from prison. Much like the Israelites at the time of Ezra, the inmate endeavoring to begin anew must place his will in the hands of a loving, yet exacting God.
In order not to become a disheartening statistic of recidivism, he will also need his understanding of forgiveness not to desert him in times of stress or trouble. He will need to cling to his sense of himself as a forgiven person, as a beloved child of God. He will need to walk in a new direction, as well as to continue working his steps with a sponsor he trusts. He will need prayer, his own and ours, always.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray, often by rote, but then we must behave in a way that makes that prayer meaningful. We must actually forgive those who trespass against us, and ask forgiveness of those whom we have hurt, if the “Our Father” is to make any sense at all. We must believe, deeply and passionately, in a God who forgives. We must trust in a God who extends the possibility of redemption to everyone, no matter how long his rap sheet, no matter how unforgivable his crime, no matter how unreachable his heart. To a God who is love, not one of us is unlovable.