Celebrating the Power of Forgiveness

On a June evening in 1988, Robert Cushing, a retired schoolteacher who had raised seven children heard a knock at the door. When he opened the door in his peaceful New Hamphire neighborhood, a deranged man leveled a shotgun at him at shot him twice in the chest. Mr. Cushing died in front of his wife. Last week in New Hampshire, the state senate voted 12-12 on a bill that would have abolished capital punishment. The legislation had already overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives, and many believed that abolition will soon come to New Hampshire. The legislation is sponsored by Renny Cushing, the son of that murdered former schoolteacher. Rep. Cushing founded Murder Victims' Family Members for Human Rights in 2004 and has been a leading voice for resisting the impulse to respond to violence and murder with revenge and excessive punishment. He is a living witness to the power of transcending the harm we do to one other in search of reconciliation.

I have spent nearly 30 years trying to help people who have seriously hurt, injured or killed other people. I recognize that this community of offenders with whom I work is an unusual choice. That's especially true since I hate violence. It breaks my heart when I see people abuse others, mistreat others or even disrespect others. Living in the United States, I see too much abuse, too much violence and too much disrespect. It might seem odd to want to help those who have offended, injured or hurt others, but I'm persuaded that simply condemning and persecuting those who offend, those who fail, is not a healthy way forward. I believe there is something important, possibly even transformational, in helping people recover from their worst mistakes.

In too many places, fear and anger shape the way we act and the way we treat each other. Americans buy over four million guns each year despite the fact that over 30,000 people die every year from gun injuries in this country. Some politicians and leaders exploit fear while gun makers describe owning weapons of violence and destruction as an essential, inalienable right. We arm ourselves and resist meaningful efforts at understanding the sources of our fear. We don't want to discuss or question whether our anger is justified or legitimate.

America now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We have five percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. Today, one in three black male babies born in the U.S. is expected to go to jail or prison at some point during their lifetime. The percentage of women sent to prison has increased 640 percent in the last 20 years. We have condemned nearly 3000 children to die in prison. We send people with drug problems to prison for decades, some non-violent offenders are sentenced to life imprisonment for petty crimes. The mentally ill and disabled have been imprisoned for lengthy sentences because we won't help them treat their illnesses. In one of the world's greatest democracies, we hurt each other constantly and punish each other severely with very little concern about forgiveness or understanding.

We have a history of racial injustice and inequality in America that has left deep wounds and untreated injuries. African Americans have been enslaved, terrorized, traumatized, subjected to racial subordination and presumed guilty, dangerous and inadequate in hundreds of ways. Native Americans have been slaughtered and confined into spaces where poverty and dysfunction have become epidemic with serious, continuing challenges. We have responded to some immigrants by ignoring their humanity and focusing only on the fact that they are undocumented, reducing them to fugitives and creating enormous suffering and despair in many communities of color.

Even our families can be torn apart by the forces around us that push us to abuse trust and minimize our obligations to care for one another. Our lives have been undermined by fear and anger and an unwillingness to talk about the importance of reconciliation and restoration in big and small ways.

Yet, there are many among us who are determined to find a better way. There are family members of murder victims who have organized themselves to seek reconciliation rather than capital punishment. There are gang members that have laid down their arms in pursuit of peace and less violence. There are places where black people and white people have come together to promote truth and reconciliation and racial healing and justice. There are family members who have made their love for one another strong enough to overcome abuse and hurtful misconduct.

We are living at a time when talking about forgiveness and how we must value each other more dearly is critically important. There is a limit to how much we can recover from our mistakes, our transgressions, our abuse of one another by adopting solutions that are rooted in anger, fear and more violence. There must come a time when we seek to understand more, to recover more. We have to value reconciliation over revenge, restoration over retribution, rehabilitation instead of resistance to the idea that we are all no more than our worst acts. I work with offenders because I've learned that there is justice in compassion. There is power in forgiveness, hope when we seek more than condemnation.

We need more hope, more forgiveness, more justice. But it only happens when each of us is more hopeful, more forgiving and more just.

Renny Cushing has responded to people who question why after having lost a family member to murder he chooses to seek reconciliation. "Not only would my father have been taken from me, but so too would my values ... I think it is the same for all of us as a society. If we let those who kill turn us into killers and evoke violence and evil from us, we are much the worse for it."

It is not easy, it is not obvious. There are real dangers in the way some of us behave. We have an endless capacity to hurt and do violence to one another that can't be oversimplified or ignored. We have a legitimate need to want to be safe and protected from reckless and destructive forces. But ultimately our freedom, our humanity and our peace abides not in our capacity to condemn, to hate and to fear, rather it turns on our willingness to forgive, to understand and to seek reconciliation.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge, which is a free 30-day online program developed by Desmond and Mpho Tutu to teach the practical steps to forgiveness they share in their new book, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. Learn about the campaign here, and sign up to participate yourself. Read all posts in the series here.