Should Societal Judgment Be Time Limited?

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The impetus for this post was a most unlikely subject. I’ve been recently deconstructing my own uneasy feelings towards disgraced NFL Quarterback Michael Vick. My partner, a native of Philadelphia, is a huge fan of the Eagles professional football team and is thrilled at the its recent success with Vick at the helm. When the dog fighting revelations surfaced, I admit that I wanted to see him banned from the league for life. Instead, Vick served nearly two years in jail, filed for bankruptcy, missed two full seasons, and was blackballed from his original team. His stunning return to form was highly unexpected. And as much I try to be a forgiving person, I simply cannot extend it to a player who is nonetheless a strong candidate to be eventually awarded the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player for a most impressive season.

My partner’s response is calm, but firmly adamant. How long should we continue to punish anyone for past sins, particularly after they have done their time and suffered for it? I do see her point, though I still retain my skepticism. She frequently and adamantly encourages me to reevaluate my initial viewpoint, with limited success. So it is that on this same basic subject, a fellow Quaker, Betsy Cazden, recently invoked a thought-provoking, and highly controversial query for us all to ponder. Adapted from the theologian and philosopher Miroslav Volf, Cazden poses, “In heaven are there permanent memorials to Auschwitz, to Hiroshima, to the Middle Passage, to the Quaker martyrs?”

Or, to put it another way, can the atrocities humans have committed against each other be rightly let go after a time? Visitors to Holocaust concentration camps and memorials to those killed by Nazi atrocities are implored to “never forget.” Is it healthy to eventually forgive and forget? Is it even possible to keep its memory alive beyond a certain time? Eventually, everyone negatively influenced by these infamous crimes against humanity committed in the name of the Fatherland will pass on to the next life. When they do, will wave after wave of museums, memorials, films, literature, and personal anecdotes suffice to serve as the supreme deterrent? Seemingly in in opposition to them is the radical forgiveness espoused by Jesus, commandments unwavering and undeniable.

“If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

“Stop judging, so that you won’t be judged, because the way that you judge others will be the way that you will be judged, and you will be evaluated by the standard with which you evaluate others.”

We are reflections of the way we react to other people, particularly in how we respond to those who break the rules, for any reason, and at any time. Putting ourselves in the place of those we criticize will be sure to create discomfort. If we are honest enough with ourselves, we can see how our judgments evolved and grew throughout the course of our lives. Every human develops differently based on specific environmental factors combined with the complex biology of how we came to be in the womb. This is not to excuse offhand anyone’s bad behavior or poor decision making, but rather to note the complicated series of events that goes into the formation of each and every human life. Without contemplating the entire picture, our instant, summary judgments are based on incomplete and inadequate information.

Since I became a Friend, I have been called to avoid absolute words like “evil”, in that they provide no possible way to see the Divine within the mortal. Even so, I find it a severe challenge not to see historical figures like Adolf Hitler in such blanket terms. The best I can manage is a weak, strained kind of halfhearted concession which states that der F├╝hrer certainly must have loved dogs. Which is more than we can say for Michael Vick. Hitler may have loved canines, but he certainly didn’t love many of his fellow human beings. It is an extraction of the scriptural passages above that forms Quaker theology and I concede that as a spiritual discipline, I need to work on myself to not fall into the habit of making self-righteous pronouncements of any sort. Still, when one considers genocides, regardless of who is involved, I seek not to dishonor the memory of those who perished. With this ambivalence, a column I began with open-ended questions I conclude the same way.

Is it finally time to forgive, even if we do not forget? Would forgiveness facilitate healing? What is the ultimate and lasting value of maintaining an open sore? For all our striving, are we fighting a losing battle with time? If we are religious or spiritual people, do we trust in the guidance of God to open hearts and close wounds, or is this our responsibility, first and foremost?


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    • Diane G on December 28, 2010 at 01:54

    to remember no man is created in a vacuum, he is created by his parents, his peers, his training and his time in history.

    People are warped by many things.

    And one can never live well in perma-victim state, I say as a survivor of abuse.

    Knowing someone “broke” them is halfway there to real forgiveness.

  1. I apologize in advance for the shortnesss of this comment.  What you’re talking about deserves a more extensive remark.

    The process of projection makes it look like the genocide, the killing, the abuse, the rape, the “evil”, is outside of us and is enacted by them.  How can we forgive them?  Actually, the genocide, the killing, the abuse, the rape, all of that, is inside us.  If it weren’t there, I doubt we’d see it in others.  So the first task, in my view, is to find the Idi Amin, the Hitler, the [name your most hated person] inside me, and to see what that person is up to.  It’s probably mischief, because I don’t like my inner Hitler very much and would like to disown him.  But I know he’s in there, and that I need to haul him out, get to know him, and honor him for whatever function he might serve.  It’s only then that I can begin to contemplate the possibility of forgiveness.

  2. Maybe they are biologically wired to that type of behavior.  There is much to suggest this, just as there is much to suggest that people who are homosexual are also pre-wired to be homosexual.  In other words, behavior is in your DNA.

    That does not mean that criminal conduct should be excused.  It just means that we need to understand why the behavior occurred.  It really is not hard to forgive someone if the person had no choice in doing what he/she did.

    I don’t believe that we have that much “free choice.”  I believe that nature trumps nurture most of the time.  But then again I am an atheist.

    Moreover, if you look at Michael Vick’s case, the powers-that-be decided to make an example out of him.  I doubt seriously most people who are caught dog fighting get anywhere near the punishment he got.

    People who commit far worse crimes commonly receive far less punishment.

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