'Forgive Us Our Trespasses': The Complexity of Forgiveness

A woman recently loaded her four children into a mini-van and drove it into the Hudson River drowning all but one of her children. Before she committed this suicide/murder, the mother posted on her facebook page: "I'm so sorry everyone, forgive me please for what I'm gonna do ... " Knowing she was about to commit a horrible crime, the mother begged for forgiveness -- but to whom? God? Her family? A world horrified by her actions? And will God, her family or the world grant her that forgiveness?

'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' This pivotal phrase in what is known as the 'Lord's Prayer' reveals the unambiguously mandated centrality of forgiveness in the Christian tradition. Within Judaism, Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, requires repentance and forgiveness between humans, and between humans and God. And Muslims pray for forgiveness five times a day using the words: 'I seek God's forgiveness from all wrongdoings, and to God I return.'

Forgiveness is such an obvious part of religious commitments and human sensibility that the conversation around giving and getting forgiveness is often mechanistic, sentimental or superficial. Fortunately, veteran filmmaker Helen Whitney is offering a rare chance to shine a clear light on the question of forgiveness in all its complexities, horror and hope in her two part series entitled: Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate to be shown on April 17th and 24th on PBS stations around the country.

The prologue immediately lets the viewer know that Forgiveness will not be an exercise in easy answers or cheap grace. An opening scene shows a white South African asking forgiveness from a family whose son he murdered. As the man expresses his contrition, an object is hurled at his head leaving his face covered in blood, and eyes wide in shock as the narrator intones:

"If the request for forgiveness comes too late, if it is felt to be false or to violate our sense of justice, then it can provoke outrage, even understandable violence."

Whitney's film takes the viewer on a slow roller coaster of emotions. Instead of finding hundreds of talking heads and moving speedily from idea to idea, the documentary lingers on a relatively few cases; letting the viewer sift through the layers of complexity and raw drama. The shooting of the Amish School children, a victim of a brutal attack with an axe, the murder of a police officer by a 1960's revolutionary, a woman knowingly infected with AIDS -- different life situations that challenge the breezy rhetoric of 'forgive and forget' and move deeper into genuine wrestling with the emotional and spiritual demands inherent in forgiveness.

While the first part of Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate focuses mostly on personal interactions, the second segment pulls back the lens to include forgiveness on the national and international level. The viewer watches German Chancellor Willy Brandt fall to his knees at the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as one step in the long and unfinished process of Germany's repentance and atonement for the Holocaust; and witnesses excruciating footage from the Truth and Reconciliation efforts in South Africa; and the tribal courts or 'gacaca' after the Rwanda genocide.

Familiar terms such as acknowledgement, repentance, contrition, atonement and reconciliation may seem to forge a well-cleared path towards forgiveness, but in case after case the depth and magnitude of the pain inflicted and evil endured serve to severely complicate the question of forgiveness. As the film proceeds, the viewer begins to appreciate that forgiveness on the national or personal level is tenuous, non-linear, specific to any situation, and requires the will to endure the hardest emotional and spiritual work humans can do on both the part of those asking for and granting forgiveness.

Even more troubling is the viewpoint expressed by people in the film that sometimes forgiveness is not possible, or even appropriate. In the wake of the shooting at the Amish schoolhouse, the world expressed admiration for the immediate forgiveness granted by the relatives of the victims for the deceased shooter, his wife and children. Yet some in the film insist that only the immediate victims of a crime can offer forgiveness, and in the case where there is a death, the victim is gone and cannot grant forgiveness.

In the case of the Amish shooting, theologians and counselors in the film also wonder if there is a kind of violence to the self that such a quick forgiveness might inflict. They worry that the suppression of natural emotions might stunt healing; and that a legalistic understanding of forgiveness could short-circuit the full response that such a tragedy requires. In a chilling anecdote, two boys are watching the destruction of the school house where the murders took place and one boy says: "They can take down our school, but they can't take away the things we remember." To which another boy replied: "You better be quiet don't let people hear you say that -- we are supposed to forgive."

And yet in other cases, forgiveness is a way to cut loose from the perpetrator and finally begin life again. For a Jew who survived the concentration camp and continued to live in Germany surrounded by his oppressor and for the woman who was infected with AIDS by a knowing partner, to forgive was less an act of graciousness but rather an intentional effort towards personal freedom and renewed power.

While religion does play a part in forgiveness, it clearly no longer is the sole proprietor. In the Rwandan genocide, priests were often implicated in the killings. And yet Helen Whitney has said that in this deeply religious country, God is like the wind at their backs as they spiritually move toward forgiveness of one another in the wake of such horror.

Forgiveness: A Time To Love and a Time To Hate leaves the viewer both daunted and emboldened. The need for forgiveness is far more complex, and yet even more central to the human existence than we may have thought. As Monsignor Lorenzo Albecete proclaims in the epilogue of the film, "We are made for relationships. Forgiveness emerges as the need to re-establish a broken relationship, without which we cannot live. The search for forgiveness is the search for a healing of an ache of the human heart."


Choice is at the heart of all our actions. For civil war and genocide to take place, ultimately it is the individual who commits atrocities -- horrors that stun the mind. They take us to the very limits of comprehension and forgiveness.

And yet in the resonant words of John Paul II, forgiveness can purify memory; it can travel through time and history, breathing life into the killing fields, into the collective soul of nations. Into the lives of its brutalized citizens. No less than any nation, the country of an anguished heart also cries out to forgive and to be forgiven. Personal betrayal can cut as deeply as a machete. Forgiveness can offer hope for these intimate woundings of the soul.

So in the end forgiveness begins and ends with one person facing another. Friends, strangers. A mother and a child. A father and a son. Husband and wife. The decision to forgive or not. A choice at the heart of our shared humanity.

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete: We are made for relationships. Forgiveness emerges as the need to re-establish a broken relationship, without which we cannot live. The search for forgiveness is the search for a healing of an ache of the human heart.

It is the memory of lost possibilities. It is the enormous presence of absence. It is an ache for what could have been ... and is no more.

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete: In fact, the religious notion of Hell -- what is it? Hell is absolute loneliness. It is the break of all relationships. It means the incapacity to establish a relationship, or to have anyone establish a relationship with you. It is what death is. It's nothingness. So the thirst for forgiveness is that fundamental. It is an expression of the fear of nothingness. The religions attempt to deal with it, but this ache -- this primordial ache, precedes all religion's expressions of it and ways of dealing with it.

WATCH: Forgiveness: A Time To Love and a Time To Hate Prologue

WATCH: Forgiveness: A Time To Love and a Time To Hate Epilogue