New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Toward Forgiveness

April 04, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Current Events, Robert C. Koehler

Finding the Wisdom We Need to Survive

by Robert C. Koehler

I’m far more interested in forgiveness than justice.

I say this just to calm myself down after a morning of media overkill, so to speak. There are so many murdered mothers and children in the news, some with names and faces, so many just adding anonymously to one death toll or another.

An Iraqi mom, 32 years old, is beaten to death in her house in El Cajon, Calif. A note by her body reads: “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” Was it a hate crime? An isolated incident?

The guy who killed Trayvon Martin is still at large, somewhere. But his 2005 mug shot is everywhere, making him the poster child of vigilante justice. Do I have to reduce the killer to that viral scowl to feel compassion for Trayvon?

Dehumanization, the death of the human soul, is now reaching an advanced stage and its consequences are spreading across the country and the planet like global warming. I feel my own immune system breaking down. I can’t absorb the news anymore without hearing a deep alarm go off somewhere, insistent, berserk.

It’s not just the violence. Violence is a symptom — of social brokenness, alienation, profound disconnection at so many levels, perpetuated by our institutions and popular culture.

So I think about the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi and the Afghan civilians allegedly murdered by a lone, drunk American soldier (with the implausibility of the official scenario of yet another lone gunman growing in magnitude) and I feel myself groping for so much more, in all these tragedies, than — at best — the discharge of sterile justice.

The soldier, whisked out of Afghanistan, is sequestered in a holding cell in Kansas: “Sgt. Robert Bales Joins Military’s Notorious Criminals at Ft. Leavenworth,” ran the ABC News headline. This is like a cartoon show of crude stereotypes.

And we’re told he could get the death penalty, the ultimate in sterile, meaningless justice, especially considering that it would be the outcome of a U.S. military trial and serve the purpose of shutting up the scapegoat for good. We know, in our hearts and guts, that something more is necessary here than the playing out of bureaucratic logic, as though the murder of 17 people is a procedural error. This is not a matter of “break the rule, pay the fine,” yet as a society we lack sufficient wisdom to think about it any other way.

How can we know so little? How is it that we lack, as a society, what we once had, that is to say, wisdom and a sense of connection to the larger whole?

“It is an Ojibway teaching,” writes Rupert Ross in Returning to the Teachings, “that healthy relationships — and ‘a good life’ — depend on constantly cultivating seven attributes: Respect, Caring, Sharing, Kindness, Honesty, Strength and Humility.”

I’m sick of hearing ideas like this ground cynically into self-parody or reduced to idealistic singsong: Can’t we all just get along? I’m sick of cynicism itself and society’s unchecked impulse to create enemies, an impulse that serves so many agendas in our Darwinian world.

I refrain, as a matter of spiritual discipline, from turning even neighborhood-watch gunman George Zimmerman into my enemy or nailing his arrogantly grimacing picture up at my personal altar of hate, much as I shudder at the Florida law that empowered him, allowing him to “stand his ground,” stalk and murder a black teenager.

What good does it do to hyper-simplify the complexity not just of the crime but of the loss? All crimes, but especially murders, rend the social fabric, tear open the soul; all crimes occur in a context; and they are committed by whole, complex people acting from their unconscious depths. Western bureaucratic justice is incapable of bringing wisdom to any of this. And it is incapable of, and has no interest in, helping victims and survivors heal from their tragedies. It just wants to balance its books.

“Western law,” writes Ross, “seems to assume we are captains of our own ships and that each of us is equally capable of moving out of antisocial behavior on our own, just by deciding to do so. Traditional wisdom suggests that each of us rides a multitude of waves, some stretching back centuries, which we cannot fundamentally change and which will still confront us tomorrow.”

We cannot kill our way to peace.

Understanding this, I wish only for a moment of collective calm and a social shift toward forgiveness. Let the moment be fleeting, but let us feel the harm we keep inflicting on ourselves and then both seek and bestow forgiveness for all we have done. And let us drop our weapons, if only for that moment, so we can understand that it’s possible.

Robert C. Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw(at)gmail(dot)com or visit his website at

0 Comments to “Toward Forgiveness”

  1. In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, about all the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. The tribal ceremony often lasts several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.


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