Almost all western religions talk about the value of forgiveness, and almost all western cultures ignore it. I remember when I was a kid in Catholic school and I first heard the part of the Sermon on the Mount about "if someone smacks you on the right side of your face, show them the left side so that they can smack that one too." Ok, I'm paraphrasing, here's the real verse:
"You have heard that it was said, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."(Matthew 5:38-42, NIV)
I remember reading that and thinking "Jeeze, you'd be a real sissy if you did all those things." That kind of "forgiveness" made you a sucker... a rube... a doormat. In the movies of my childhood the hero always got the last laugh. I really liked the cartoon G.I. Joe, and you never saw those guys turning the other cheek when Cobra Commander attacked their secret base. This spilled over into my real life too. I used to have these vivid fantasies about learning kung fu from an old master and beating up the school bullies with my lighting fast spin kicks and hardened chi punch-blasts (I told you they were vivid!). Turning the other cheek meant that you... well, had lost. And who wants to be a loser?
Unfortunately it seems like grown-ups are just as succeptible to these revenge fantasies. After September 11 Noam Chomsky wrote a book detailing exactly what the US had been doing to make Muslims so angry and he was given a really rough time about being a terrorist sympathizer. People wanted to get even with those guys, not to understand them. Anyone who saw how angry Arabs were with us and actually wanted to know the reasons behind this anger (beyond "they are evil") was treated like a traitor. 9/11 is just the first example that popped into my head, there are so many smaller ones. Another one I can think of is whenever the US executes someone, the media always manages to find a relative of one of the victims who says "I hope he rots in hell." Not to forget how some people said AIDS was god's vengeance on homosexuals.
And in our own lives, how often do hear about something bad happening to someone we dislike, and think "well, he got what he deserved." The other day a taxi almost ran over me on my bicycle and as he sped away I thought to myself, "I hope he smashes up his taxi and has to pay for it." This kind of thinking for most of us is subconscious and automatic. Sure, it's nice to say "turn the other cheek," but come on people, this is the real world. You don't want to be a sucker, do you?
Well, this week we all had a chance to catch a glimpse of what the world would be like if we all lived up to the ideal of Jesus. A gunman went into an Amish school and executed 5 schoolgirls before he killed himself. The full, sad, story is here.
This is an interesting event to me because it is the most extreme example of injustice anyone could ever come up with. These people are Amish! They have never hurt anybody. Not only that, they were Amish schoolgirls! There wouldn't be a soul on earth who could blame these parents for hating the man that did this with all their hearts.
But that's not what the Amish did. They forgave the gunman. And they went beyond that, they really did turn the other cheek, they set up a fund for the killer's family at a local bank. The full, uplifting story is here. What's so wonderful is that both the Amish and the killer's family aren't getting stuck in a cycle of blame and recrimination. They are moving foward, and even creating new bonds in their community out of the ruin of this tragedy.
And do the Amish look like suckers? No way! They have shown the world that they are true Christians, (I am now a big fan of the Amish and will think highly of them for the rest of my life) If they could do that for a madman who killed their daughters, would it be so hard to imagine forgiving that taxi driver and wishing him the best, maybe even not try to cross the street in front of him even when my walk signal is green?
It's almost impossible to imagine a world where terrorists attack us and we say, "we forgive you. How can our government aid you in a way that your young people have more to live for than becoming human bombs?" But we can make small steps in our own lives, not only to forgive, but to take the extra step, give the theif our shirt and our cloak.
It makes me think of one of my favorite lines from G.I. Joe. When one of the good guys would have a risky plan, the team would always think it over and after much debate someone would say, "It's so crazy it just might work."