Why Forgiveness Matters

     Susan Werner’s song Forgiveness                             – a song bite by Tim McKamey

     A friend mentioned recently how even though we believe forgiveness to be a good thing, it can be so difficult to practice. Susan Werner’s song Forgiveness acknowledges this. “How do we love those who never will love us?” This song asks a rhetorical question in a thoughtful and original manner. It is at once both a beautiful song to listen to and at the same time a very difficult message to hear. Why are we so uncomfortable with forgiveness?

     I performed Forgiveness recently at a showing of a film produced by Amnesty International called “Education Under Fire”. (Click here to listen to the song) The film portrays the plight of the Baha’i community in Iran today, how they are unjustly persecuted, imprisoned and even executed for refusing to disown their spiritual beliefs. If they identify themselves as Baha’is they are refused admittance to university. In spite of this oppression, the film shows the brave efforts of students and teachers affiliated with the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE) founded in 1987. I heartily recommend anyone with an interest in religious freedoms and human civil rights watch this film and find ways to support the BIHE, and also acknowledge and help support the many gifted and talented graduates of BIHE who now live and work in America.

     So why did I choose the song Forgiveness for this occasion? Last week I heard a production on NPR hosted by Ray Suarez about the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East. Regardless of the religious persuasion of those interviewed, all were in agreement that in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran where religious minorities are oppressed, the outcome is that some of the brightest and most forward-thinking individuals in these countries are ultimately forced to leave their homes and live elsewhere. This causes a huge ‘brain-drain’ on the society and such countries are going to end up the poorer for it. How can any society exist in the progressive world of the future if they do not value the progressive minds living in their own society today?

     Furthermore, the fact that a religious majority would exercise unjust oppression against religious minorities makes it quite clear that the solution to such problems is not likely to be a religious solution. When I watch a film like “Education Under Fire”, or read about injustice, I get all stirred up, I want to do something about it. But what do we do? Human enterprise can be very confusing and disheartening. So to begin with, I go back to Nature.

     In Nature, a healthy ecosystem is a place where bio-diversity flourishes. It should be no different in human societies. Diversity should flourish. Diversity should be encouraged. This should be so not simply for the good of any particular special interest group – but for the overall health and well-being of the entire society.

     In Nature growth occurs naturally. Left to itself and given enough time, an amazing variety of species will evolve and flourish. That same impulse that drives ever-changing life forms to develop in Nature is present in human societies as well. But when systems of authority rise up and choose to inhibit that natural impulse, diversity is repressed, and oppression becomes the order of the day.  Oppressive regimes that discourage and inhibit diversity most likely do not even realize that ultimately they are committing themselves to a dead-end. For if history has shown us anything, it is that human societies that flourish are those that are allowed to progress. Progress; to move forward.

     The revoking of religious freedom among minorities in countries like Egypt and Iran is causing many of the brightest, most well-educated and most progressive minded members of those societies to simply leave. Any culture that promotes this is signing its own death warrant for as I stated above this only robs the culture as a whole from the progressive talents and gifts brought about when diversity is encouraged. And while it is perfectly natural for freedom loving people to want to escape tyranny, overall this is not an effective strategy for change. When I think of successful agents of progress against oppressive regimes, 3 names come to mind;

Mahatma Gandhi, who said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

And Nelson Mandela who said “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

     Mandela also said something else, and it applies to the topic of forgiveness. As apartheid finally came to an end in South Africa and he was released from prison on his way to become his country’s president, he said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

     Faced with oppression, we cannot help but experience emotions such as fear and outrage, anger and sorrow.  This is only natural. But we must remember that these emotions alone will never bring us PROGRESS. Ultimately we must move beyond these emotions. How do we do this?

     The Baha’i teacher and son of the founder of the Baha’i faith, Abdul’-Baha, continually reminds us to “do all things in a spirit of joy and radiance.”  Imagine waging a revolution against injustice “in a spirit of joy and radiance.” And in many ways, this is what Gandhi, King and Mandela did.

     In Susan Werner’s song Forgiveness, the rhetorical question is raised, “How do you love those, who never will love you?” One might add, why should we? Why should we love our enemies? Why should we go about all things “in a spirit of joy and radiance”? as Abdul’-Baha tells us. The more I think about this the more it begins to make sense.  For if I’m only looking out for myself, and only worried about what’s happening to me, then any action I take will not go far beyond my own individual needs. But if I truly care about the health and well-being of the entire society in which I live, then my struggle for freedom and justice is not a selfish struggle, it is for the world in which I live, and this must include my enemies.

     I believe that Gandhi, and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were able to wage peace successfully not simply because they knew who their oppressors were, or that what was being done to them was wrong. Their campaigns of non-violence were successful because the very form of resistance they chose to implement exemplified the human ideals they were fighting for. They did not succumb to the violence of their enemies. They rose above that and practiced what they preached.

     So when I listen to or sing Susan Werner’s song Forgiveness, I feel the pain inflicted by oppression. But I find it very interesting that she chooses to end the song with the hope that one day we will come to understand how and why we must love those who never will love us, “but who still we must love.”  And even though the ideal of forgiveness comes to us from religious teachings, it is not for that reason alone that we should learn more about how to practice it. It is because it simply makes good sense if we wish to learn how to get along in the world.

Here is a link to my rendition of Susan Werner’s song Forgiveness;

Forgiveness by Susan Werner

How do you love those who never will love you?
Who are happy to shove you out in front of the train?
How do you not hate those who would leave you lie bleeding
While they hold their prayer meeting?

How do you love those who never will love you
Who are so frightened of you, they are calling for war?
How do you not hate those who have loaded their bibles
And armed their disciples, ’cause I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know anymore

And I can’t find forgiveness   –  for them anywhere in this
And with God as my witness,  I really have tried.
How do you love those, who never will love you?
I think only god knows,  and he is not taking sides.
I hope one day he shows us  how we can love those
Who never will love us  – but who still we must love.
How do you love those?

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