Finding strength to forgive the unforgivable

Horrendous murders test a childhood faith in the power of forgiveness. One consoling thought: the pain is a kind of gift.

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The burial site for the two Powell sons.

Horrendous murders test a childhood faith in the power of forgiveness. One consoling thought: the pain is a kind of gift.

It’s Lent, and as someone raised Catholic, I’ve been thinking about the process, the point, and the meaning of, forgive me, forgiveness.

We all pitied the surviving members of the Powell family last month as they made typically private decisions under the glare of media, pundit and talk radio scrutiny.  There’s no question that what Josh Powell did in killing his two sons in a fire and likely did to his wife are among the most horrific acts that any person can do to another, and that the horror is compounded infinitely by the familial ties.  Few can imagine the abject sadness and anger among the survivors in the wake of so much death.

That said, many of us profess to subscribe to belief systems that include forgiveness among their fundamental tenets.  This has kept me up late recently wondering about my own beliefs, and my own capacity to forgive.

The outcry over the attempts to bury Josh Powell next to the sons he murdered is understandable, but it makes me wonder about the true nature of forgiveness at its most stark and unadorned.  It seems to me that the time when forgiving is the most important — and the most powerful — is when it’s the hardest to forgive.

From a theoretical standpoint, I find it easy to think about the concept of forgiveness. I can remember sitting in Holy Family Church on Rose Hill in Kirkland as a child, surrounded by images of Jesus, hearing my favorite priest give another excellent homily that touched on forgiveness. (This same priest a few years later left the priesthood and married; he’d always seemed more “real” than the other clergy.)  There in the pew as a 10-year old, I found forgiveness seemed pretty easy and made sense. But I don’t remember many opportunities as a child to try it out.

Formal Catholicism or, really, any organized spirituality, is not something I’ve kept engaged with as an adult, like so many others here in the Pacific Northwest.  But I have noticed at the conclusion of the very occasional yoga class (and a single meditation workshop) that the instructor typically speaks a few words encouraging us to “be Zen” and at peace with one another, and to live in harmony with the world.  There on the yoga mat or folding chair, it all seems, again, pretty easy.

But then you get out into the real world, interacting with family and friends and co-workers and trying to live a life consistent with your values.  I’ve never been personally involved in anything like what the Powell family is experiencing.  Yet there have been times in my adult life when I’ve felt betrayed by others, and when I’ve suffered intense emotional pain because someone I was close to and who I trusted hurt me in ways I’d been incapable of imagining beforehand.  I’m also still carrying a grudge for what the Nazis and Soviets did to my father in his native Poland, and what the Luftwaffe did to my mother in her native London.

I’ll admit it: I’m still working on forgiving a few people, and it hasn’t been easy.  I assume I’ll probably be working on the forgiving for the rest of my life.  But I think that the “working on forgiving” is the important part, and that this will help me continue to evolve and grow and will ultimately make me a better person.  If only for a few moments, years from now, right before I stop breathing.

I once interviewed Walla Walla theology professor Darold Bigger, a man who knows much about forgiveness in theory and in practice.  Bigger’s adult daughter Shannon was murdered in 1996, and he and his wife have spent the past several years sharing their experiences and openly wrestling with what it means to forgive.  My grievances pale beside the Bigger’s suffering, but their example offers hope for everyone struggling to really forgive and move beyond grief.

In a recent New York Times profile of Stephen Colbert, the “Colbert Report” host talked surprisingly about the grief he experienced after his father and brothers died in a plane crash in the 1970s. Colbert, who is Catholic, said that his mother taught him, “that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift.”

That “the pain is actually a gift” is the most powerful expression of accepting grief that I’ve ever heard.  I can’t recall similar words at Holy Family all those years ago, and it hasn’t come up in yoga or meditation so far.  And it sure doesn’t sound easy.

There’s also the soundbite-friendly concept of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” which is often misattributed to gospel or scripture but, if you believe the Internet, is actually from Mahatma Gandhi.  I first heard this saying in reference to one political sex scandal or another (it was hard to keep track of them) in the 1990s, but it seems trite to put adulterous politicians in the same category as murderers.  And I wonder, is the irreversible sin of murder something that can be atoned for, especially if the murderer dies along with his victims?  Must the “sinner” whom we profess to “love” be contrite and repentant?  Must the sinner actually seek our forgiveness in order for us to forgive?

While part of me admires the quick-thinking and industrious efforts of the Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor and Pierce County CrimeStoppers to buy the cemetery plots next to the Powell boys to prevent their father’s remains from being buried next to theirs, there’s something about this part of the story that seems shortsighted to me from, let’s say, an eternal standpoint.  But again, unlike the Sheriff and other Pierce County law enforcement officials, I wasn’t there at the crime scene or with the family, and I haven’t had to personally address any of the aftermath.

I know it’s not my or anybody besides the Powell family’s decision, but I’ll admit that there’s an idealistic part of me that envisions Josh Powell buried next to his sons as the most profound earthly expression of forgiveness imaginable.  Won’t the wounds heal someday —who knows how many lifetimes from now — and won’t having the family that was destroyed in this world resting together for eternity in the earth eventually seem like the right thing to do for the ages?

I freely acknowledge that I’m gratefully naïve in matters of this magnitude, but I like to think that there might be another place beyond this one, regardless of anyone’s beliefs, where even a father who murders his wife and their sons can be forgiven.


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