Retribution or Forgiveness

I recently read a book called Lunch with Mussolini by Derek Hansen.  A theme developed in the novel is that of retribution or forgiveness.  The story concerns a woman who, as a teenager in World War 2, walked a delicate path between being a collaborator with the enemy and a source of critical information for the Italian patriots.  This character’s mother was killed by the enemy in an act of reprisal and revenge following a strike by the partisans against the occupying German forces.

Later in life, far removed by time and space from the events of World War 2, the woman believes she has met again the man with whom she had consorted in the war and who she believes had killed her mother.  The central question is whether she exacts revenge or whether she lets the events of the war lie buried in the past.

The desire for revenge and retribution is understandable.  If you have been wronged you may very well experience a desire to punish those who caused you that wrong.  A sense of justice may urge you to the view that when someone transgresses against the rules of society or the laws of the country they should be punished for that.

Some of those who are family members of the men killed in the Pike River mine explosion (November 2010) continue to pursue the re-opening of the mine not just to recover the remains of their deceased family members but to pursue evidence which may be used to hold someone responsible.  The resolution of the prosecution of the mine’s chief executive has left some dissatisfied and feeling that justice has not been served.  I can comprehend the desire for retribution on the part of those family members.

As time passes, however, one also questions whether it serves any useful purpose to continue to pursue a punishment for someone, to seek that someone be held accountable, when such a course does not return the lives of those lost, and in circumstances where the inquiries into the disaster and the legislative amendments that have been made following the disaster have moved mining operations towards a safer system of practice in the hope that such a tragedy does not befall anyone in the future.

The desire for revenge can end as a millstone that you carry with you – a burden that wastes your energy and erodes your sense of well-being.

Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew who, between 1941 and 1945, survived incarceration in several concentration camps and a death march to Buchenwald, established an organisation to pursue justice against members of the German army for the war crimes committed by them.  He was instrumental in bringing some of the most notorious offenders to justice.  I believe his efforts were highly laudable.  It seems strange though that in the 2020s there are still some people being brought before the courts to face justice for what they did in World War 2.  A 100-year old man is to face trial in Germany for his alleged complicity in the murder by firing squad and poisonous gas in a concentration camp between 1942 and 1945 when he was aged in his early 20s.

Such people as this were very young when they committed the acts of which they are accused.  They have lived their lives since with knowledge of their actions and the burden their consciences will have given them in the intervening decades.

I once watched a documentary about the Mai Lai massacre perpetrated by American soldiers on a village of civilians in the Vietnam War.  One surviving American soldier was in an appalling state, heavily medicated, incapable of living any constructive life and tortured by his memories of what he and his fellow soldiers had done that day.  He had been drafted into the army, sent away to fight, and in a group, under orders, he behaved in a way that was to haunt him forever after.  He cut a pitiful figure as he tearfully recounted the events of the massacre.  Some may say it is right that he should suffer as his sins are great.  Others may feel that there is value in him being helped to recover his life and that forgiveness of him by others and of himself would play a part in that.

As with the dilemma of the principal character in Lunch with Mussolini there is a question as to whether the time has come for an approach in which forgiveness plays a role.

I once represented a young man who drove his car recklessly and, in the ensuing accident, a friend who was a passenger in the car, was killed.  At my client’s sentencing, victim impact statements were presented to the court including one from the deceased young man’s mother.  She had written in a very compassionate way in her victim impact statement.  She reflected on the friendship of the accused and her son, the absence of any desire on the accused’s part to cause harm to her son, and the suffering the accused must be experiencing as a result of the tragic events.  She accepted that the process of law had to do its work and that legal consequences would flow to the accused.  However, she did not clamour for revenge or retribution.  She did not call for him to be locked up and the key thrown away.

She mourned but she did not seek to bring anyone else’s life down for the events that had cost her son his life.

Forgiveness does not mean to condone behaviour.  It does not mean to support, justify or vindicate someone’s behaviour.  It does, however, mean to acknowledge what was done, accept the naked reality of what was done and to move on.

Those concerned with revenge or retribution are stuck in the past.  Their present state is adversely affected by their focus upon what has happened earlier and a desire to get even.  So long as the past has that sort of hold upon you, you will not be at peace in this moment.

Forgiveness is concerned with the present and with the future.  Forgiveness calls upon us to, in this moment, put aside past animosity, ill-will and a sense of grievance.  In place of those feelings forgiveness calls for reconciliation and acceptance.  From that base, a new relationship is possible.

That new relationship governs the future.  A new relationship based on forgiveness rather than grievance creates space for greater connection, greater contentment and allows you to put your attention and energies on new directions and pathways.

When is it time to forgive?  According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus, upon being crucified, said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”.  There was a condition to be met for forgiveness to take place, namely, the ignorance of the wrong-doers of their wrong.  I have suggested that the lapse of time may make forgiveness appropriate.  A desire to build rather than break relationships may be the basis for forgiveness.  Someone may come to you and apologise and seek forgiveness.  A willingness to feel something new may prompt forgiveness.  The new feeling may be freedom from angst, bitterness or guilt.

That last sensation, guilt, is prominent when it is time for you to forgive yourself of something.  In conversation with someone the other day, they spoke of how their perception of having done something wrong lingered with them and that they experienced guilt.  The “something wrong” was a trifle, of no great moment, and yet it gnawed at her.

I have transgressed often enough to have plenty of cause for guilt of one type or another.  Typically I rue being too quick with my words such that there is no filter of discretion or better judgment between what it occurs to me to say and what I actually say.  I have lived long enough to comprehend that I need to forgive myself to keep moving forward.  To do so does not mean to act as if nothing had been done wrong.  It means to acknowledge to myself where I have erred, to make a commitment to avoid erring in that way again, to make an apology, but to forgive myself so as to be content now and with my focus on a better way in the future.

Consider where feelings of recrimination or vengeance towards others or guilt with respect to yourself are present.  Reflect upon whether the time has come, the moment for a new relationship or a new way of feeling has arrived, that means forgiveness is the way forward.  To do so does not mean condoning or ratifying wrongful behaviour.  It is simply a powerful step forward in creating new relationships, a new state of feeling and a positive future.