On Forgiveness and Faith
By Najeeba Syeed Miller
These times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age
And the trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They're the very things we kill, I guess
Pride and competition cannot fill these empty arms
And the work they put between us,
You know it doesn't keep us warm.
India Arie, Lyrics
I am sitting in my office, thinking of yesterday, which was Mr. Nelson Mandela’s birthday. He is a man. One that chose in the end forgiveness instead of infliction of pain. Forgiveness sets free the soul to be released from fear. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” (Mandela)
Certainly, he is not perfect, nor is he infallible. He does however, exhibit the human capacity to forgive. I was struck too, with the story of a Muslim victim of a post 9-11 hate crime, who is pleading to save the life of the very man that tried to shoot him. The young man, Mr. Bhuiyan said, “[his] parents and his Muslim faith taught him to forgive his attacker.”
My parents and family raised me just as Mr. Bhuiyan was raised. I have not faced the terrible loss he did. In nearly two decades of working on violent conflicts, with young people who are victims of violence I learned a few lessons.
The Cycle of Violence
I remember reading the Outsiders with a group of middle school kids in Los Angeles schools when I just graduated law school. We talked about the incredible pain felt by the characters in the classic novel. I asked them what their parents instructed them to do if they were faced with violence. The nearly universal response was, “Get back at those guys just like they got at me.” It struck me then that all the railing against kids done by adults is actually caused by the way we raise them. The messages that perpetuate cycles of violence are not self-manufactured they find their way from the messages we give young people: That it is the right choice to inflict violence if it’s been inflicted on you. In fact, this is the form of justice these young folks knew. Their perspective is that this was the ethical way to act.
Over a few weeks of conversation, they came to me after drawing and painting their responses to the question, “What would you do if you had someone act violently against you?” with a new response. “I might just stop and think, maybe that is not the braver thing to do, maybe courage looks different from what I thought it was before.” Another said, “Maybe the courage I need is to break that cycle, be the strong link in the chain. If I respond with violence, the chain keeps on going forward. It’s time to write a new ending to this story.” What’s most powerful is that the lesson was found by their own exploration of the ramifications of violence and a re-scripting of the familiar retaliatory mentality.
What forgiveness does to anger
One of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, I carry around with me always:“The strong is not the one who overcomes the people by his strength, but the strong is the one who controls himself while in anger." I think about it always when I think about strength. So often, we measure strength by one’s ability to dominate. What if we changed that calculus to honoring men and women who built their power on reconciling people, on joining people together in love? It is not an act that emanates from the sense of faith, ethics or purpose that is devoid of the heart.
Forgiveness is a function of both the mind and the heart. The mind pushes us to seek a balance in the pain we feel, to find the cause and cut it down. When we forgive, we exercise an element of faith. One need not be religious to utilize this type of faith, your commitment could merely be to the belief that humanity deserves recognition. For me, it is my religion that pushes me to forgive, that opens and softens my heart to the possibilities that indeed a position of strength is not to pound back when hurt with the same measure of pain.
I work everyday, if not every minute on forgiveness and controlling anger. It takes a form of necessary discipline that I practice sometimes successfully or unsuccessfully. One must be deliberate, daily and determined to forgive the smallest things, then we can be open to forgiving the greater deeds. For my husband and me, we made part of our marriage promises to each other to never yell at each other. It has not been easy, but for us, this fundamental practice has allowed us to feel safe, to know that there is not an explosion waiting for us at the end of an argument. We are still working on it, of course. So I pray nearly every moment to be stronger, to forgive harder, greater, larger, and with more tenacity. I cannot imagine another way for as India Arie says, “how can love survive in such a graceless age?”
Najeeba Syeed-Miller is a professor of interreligious education at Claremont School of Theology. She is a lifetime peacemaker who has received numerous awards for her work in interracial, gang and interfaith conflicts. The principle by which she lives her life is to save lives. Her conflict resolution experience has made her a sought after trainer for those who work on conflicts in India, Latin America, Guam, and most recently in Israel and Palestine. Her model of intervention is to build the capacity of those closest to the conflict. In particular her research and community activist efforts have focused on the role of women as agents of peacemaking. She is the mother of two children, a boy and a girl and is working on a book about reimagining the role of religion in peacebuilding.