Sunday, May 24, 2009

Waiting to Forgive

My friend just phoned me and rehearsed to me a speech that she’s supposed to give in a few weeks. It’s about the memoir she is writing, Gently to Nagasaki, and it offers a spiritually moving glimpse of healing.

Joy’s topic is and . She contrasts two attitudes toward the bombing of : self-justification and remorse. Most Americans took – probably still take – the view that the bombing was justifiable, reasoning that it ended the war rapidly and spared many American soldiers. I remember feeling elated when I read about the bombing. It was only much later that I was ashamed. Is there any such thing as a “just war”? While it goes on, the fighters always can justify what they are doing. However, the only moral clarity comes from acknowledging that it is also — or perhaps never anything except — evil.

Joy doesn’t take sides. She describes the horror of the American bombings, but also the horror of Japan’s atrocities, especially the . She speaks of the Nazis and the Turks as well: two societies that perpetrated genocide, but then took different stances toward their own actions.

The Germans made it a crime to deny the holocaust. The Japanese, on the other hand, continue to deny what they did. So do the Turks, who refuse to let the Armenians apply the term “genocide” to the slaughter of their kin, and the Americans, who officially claim that Hiroshima and even Nagasaki were justifiable responses toward their enemies.

I have forgiven Germans because they have acknowledged their own wrong-doing. But when I deal with Turks, Japanese, and even many of my own American kin, I sense that reconciliation is incomplete. I cannot restore trust by an act of will. Forgiveness is impossible in the absence of their apology.

That is my own shortcoming. I should be able to forgive Hitler himself by saying, as Christ did on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” But my spirituality is under-developed. It’s still a work-in-progress, and I don’t think I’ll ever attain such magnanimity.

I know that relationships with friends are constrained. Issues remain unforgiven or unacknowledged. There may be a superficial politeness but no trust or affection.

These days I am particularly aware of my damaged friendships with a Sri Lankan family of five who came to Canada as refugees 26 ago. They became “my” family, for they came to live in my home and stayed, in various combinations, for six years. It became clear that the father of the family had brought the war with him and was fighting it from Canada, probably even using resources of mine. My own motivation had been to protect the vulnerable and give victims a new start in a new land. People who had become dear to me were continuing participants in a war that would claim 70,000 lives, and I did not know what to do about it.

I came to understand how denial works. The wife and children in my Tamil family refrained from confronting their father, refrained even from admitting to themselves what consequences resulted from his activities as a Tiger leader.

I even managed to repress the awareness myself for several years. I knew but did not mention what he was doing. Only ten years or so ago did I pull myself up morally and invite the whole family to dinner to discuss this terrible reality. The husband, wife, and one son came. The other two children declined. The father proudly stated that he would appreciate it if both his grown sons would go to fight for the in Sri Lanka.

The wife/mother, on the other hand, insisted that her husband and I were on the same side somehow. It was impossible for her to believe otherwise, for she respected my commitment to peace, while also trying to hold her family together. Only once did her denial crumble; it happened when she saw her sister-in-law on TV, a victim of the suicide bombing of the central bank in Colombo. For a day she stayed in her room, angry, but then she resumed her pretense that there was no conflict in her family.

My attempt to work through the dispute failed and the cool politeness between us hardened. I rarely saw the children, who had grown up and moved away. The mother and I grew distant. She no longer phoned, nor did we invite each other to social functions. They all knew that I despised the warrior-father. As a fervent spokesman for the Tigers in Canada, he always justified what he did as “serving my people.”

Only once did he show any insight into his motives. A couple of years ago he brought a friend of his to see me — a spiritually-oriented man who had written a book about Gandhi and other pacifist religious leaders. My Tiger friend mentioned an article I had published in Peace Magazine — an interview with a Christian war correspondent, .

The impressive thing about Hedges was that he acknowledged his own craving for the excitement of warfare. He had been in every ongoing war during the 13 years of his work for the New York Times, and he titled his remarkable book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. People fighting in a war cannot doubt the significance of what is going on around them, he said. Life seems full and intense; even the colors seem brighter because you know that you may die at any instant. Private life as a civilian may be hum-drum and ambivalent, but in a war everyone has to take sides. Even the journalists take one side or the other and slant their reporting to make “their” side look better than the enemy. It is inevitable. You cannot talk people out of that mind-set while they are actually in a war. People on both sides feel the same aliveness, and both sides feel sure that they are morally justified in whatever horrors they perpetrate. Honestly admitting his motives, Hedges had to promise himself that he would stop going to war. Yet he was missing it.

My Tiger friend reminded me of this interview and said that it had described himself perfectly. He too was a Chris Hedges.

I barely replied. His confession was apparently not an apology. Of course he owed me an apology for having made me, a full-time peace activist, complicit in his war. But he owed huge apologies to the victims of his war — the people blown up by , the children abducted and forced to become soldiers, even the Tamils in Canada who were forced to pay “taxes” to buy the weapons that kept the war going.

But his acknowledgment was no apology, and I had no absolution to offer. He was like a brother to me, but a brother whom I despised for the immense harm he was doing. Despising him was not a spiritual accomplishment on my part; I wish I could forgive without his apology but that is a state of mind that I cannot summon up, even in my imagination. What would it be like for a peace activist to love Hitler? For Christ to love the people who crucified him? How would I behave if I could do that? I am only partly a Christian and certainly am not Christ-like, but I try to be like , and I cannot even imagine what his inner experience was like. But I know he always confronted evil instead of acquiescing to it, as I had eventually done.

So now the war is over. The newspapers say it is time for reconciliation. They call upon the government of to be generous toward the Tamils, and insofar as the president does so, it is by distinguishing sharply between and Tigers. In reality, almost all Tamils went along with the Tigers, whether they believed in the cause or not, just as the mother and children in my own Tamil family went along with their Tiger. Perhaps they came to believe in him — they never said.

Reconciliation now? Why not earlier? I am writing this after the war. While it was going on, I kept quiet. A producer for the CBC phoned a few weeks ago, asking me to go on The Current and talk about the Tigers. I refused. Yet I am writing this self-revelation now. Why so? During a war, people consider it futile to attempt to stop the animosity. They are right. Wars, once underway, are not terminable by soft words that would “turn away wrath” in other circumstances. Wars underway, not being terminable, have to be fought to the end, until one side is crushed. I just wanted them to hurry the crushing up, bringing the whole thing to a close. But I did not like to say so on the radio.

Now there is a potential for reconciliation that did not exist a month ago, but according to journalists in Sri Lanka, the mutual hatred is more intense than ever before. I don’t think they want reconciliation. Peace is not what they want, but victory – and the hope for victory is not easily abandoned. Usually it subsides gradually, leaving behind a permanent soreness, a hardness of soul.

Or there may be genuine reconciliation. In a world where no one is Christ-like, the only reconciliation that is possible begins, as the Germans did, with the full acknowledgment of their own evil actions. And some of the Germans’ enemies also apologized. (I remember , for example — the Canadian peace activist who founded Veterans Against Nuclear Arms — who wept publicly when acknowledging having flown in a plane that .) Reconciliation involves abandoning the proof that your side was right and the other side was wrong -- even if they were.

What I heard this week was a great outpouring of pity for the displaced Tamils being held in tent cities. They are certainly the Sri Lankans suffering most at the moment, but this is not a balancing exercise, where the harm done to either side can “compensate“ for – and hence justify — the evil they have done to the other. Both sides have perpetrated . The Tigers can never collect enough instances of their own suffering to exculpate their violence. Sorry, but no one who portrays them simply as victims is being truthful. Now is the time to come clean.

I was wrong — terribly wrong — to rejoice when I heard, at age thirteen, that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Forty-odd years later I encountered one of the scarred victims of that bombing at a million-person march in New York City, and we both embraced and wept.

Forty years is too long. Reconciliation begins with forgiveness, and forgiveness must be sought. I want to forgive my Tamil friends. But all I can do is wait.

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Anonymous Francisco Wulff said...

Dear Metta,
I am deeply moved by your story and the evidently painful honesty of it. As you know, I have always shared your motivations and you have been an important teacher in my own search for a Way of Peace.

Currently I live in a country deeply polarized, painfully divided in two halves that refuse to recognize each other, and are bringing the country down in the process. And I find myself powerless to change anything!

My faith tells me that Love is the answer. Love instead of force; love in the form of self-giving, which so often leads to self-sacrifice. But such love is still a mistery to me.

How can one have influence over a closed up heart?

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Phil Esmonde said...

Dear Metta,

Thank you for sharing this personal and moving account.

I have met leaders of (armed and frothingly anti-tiger) Tamil parties over the years and they (then) paid 'back-handed' compliments to tigers, stating that Tamil rights wouldn't be as far along as they were if not for the tigers...but one thing sinhalese got wrong was their fairly wide-spread (not always conscious) perception that Tamils looked to Tamil Nadu first as their 'home'; most if not all tamils i spoke with identified with sri lanka as their 'home'......I remember about 10 years ago stephen toope (sp?) from McGill giving a talk in Colombo about trudeau and constitutional change and quebec, and making the very poignant statement that trudeau made the mistake of more or less saying to quebec, you have to choose: are you Canadian or quebecois. He made them choose, rather than accept and acknowledge and allow the ability and richness of someone to be both.... That is partially the situation where sri lanka is now: will it allow and support the right of tamils to be fully and proudly tamils and also be able to be and seen to be fully (patriotic) sri lankans at the same time ...right now in the euphoria of victory that is present in today's atmosphere, it is too soon to see if the needed political changes and actions will take place, or if this government will repeat the mistakes of least if this government tries to bring the fundamental structural changes required, they will not (as in past times) be accused by the other sinhalese parties of selling out the there is now real opportunity for historic political change to take place.....

A rule of thumb for working in a war-ravaged sri lanka (a sri lankan once told me) was as follows: tamils never forget; sinhalese always forget. Every tamil in canada has etched into their memories the pain, the abuse, the tragedy of what happened to their families/their community. They have more often than not witnessed gross abuses of rights. And they have never forgot. It has spurned them to action, and cloaked them in (at some levels) the denial you speak of. One major challenge within the tamil diaspora is to transform that generalized rule of thumb into "While we never will and shouldn't ever forget, we will try to understand why and how this happened, and we will try our utmost to forgive so that we and our community can move forwards". A major challenge for the sinhalese and their leaders is to transform that rule of thumb into "while we need to forget the anger and hatred generated by this war, we do need to remember and deeply understand why this war started. It was due in many ways to our forgetting - and thus the breaking of - promises made to the tamils. We must act from memory and make the changes needed."

One aspect of what you write, Metta, I take exception to. Even in the heat of war, there are things that can be done that help to temper human misery, that help to challenge positions and rationales, and that help to equip people with skills to ensure the transition (immediately after the war is over) is maximized and not lost to the lingering hatreds, anger and bitterness, or simply engulfed by the euphoria of the victor. While, yes, any war has to 'come to an end' I believe there are things that can be done by peace workers that can help speed up the end to a war (not speeding up the military end, but rather creating political options/space.) This can be done through many means, both public and private.

As you say, there are no real winners in war. But it is extremely hard to convince or help those being fired at that that is the case. We need always to address and keep focused on the underlying causative issues, and try our utmost not to get caught in (trapped by) the emotions of the "moments".

It is far from easy.

warm wishes,
Phil Esmonde
Sri Lanka

12:37 AM  

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