Forgiveness and Terrorism

Third in a multipart series addressing how those on a spiritual path can encounter, make meaning of, and respond to terrorism.

The great spiritual masters of all ages and traditions have taught that forgiveness plays a critical role in any authentic spiritual path. Buddhists might prefer the term compassion to forgiveness, but at their essence both terms speak to how we respond to another when they behave in a manner we label as “problematic.”

I have carefully chosen the term problematic so as not to begin with the assumption of blame. Instead, a behavior is problematic in my eyes because it is not consistent with something I value. This formulation covers a wide range of behaviors on the part of others. It also locates the locus of why a behavior by another is problematic in my personal values, not in the other’s behavior. The moral implications of such a formulation will be addressed in a later part in this series.

Let us consider forgiveness using this formulation through the example of a spouse or lover who violates my trust by having an affair or leaving me for another. This is certainly not consistent with something I value. I have a choice in how to respond. I can strike out with anger and blame. I can hold onto and nurture the righteous hurt I feel (perhaps for years). Some would say the best revenge is to live well, so I could go out and find a better relationship and be happy. In all three, I have failed to do the hard, inner work of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is my work to do. Nothing needs to change in the other person for me to forgive them. I need to change. At one level, this is classic grief work, experiencing the pain from the violation, grieving the losses it caused, and then coming to some form of resolution that allows me to move forward with my life. This work involves me finding a place inside myself in which I forgive the other person, releasing my emotional attachment to the pain I’ve experienced and the blame I have placed on the other.

This kind of grief work is important, but it could be understood as emotional work, not spiritual work, emotionally grounded forgiveness, not spiritually grounded forgiveness. Spiritually grounded forgiveness involves something different, something about my relationship to whatever I take to be Ultimate (perhaps labeling this as God, the Divine, or Spirit). It is about my soul work, not just my emotional work. It rises above the emotional reactivity I feel in the situation, reaching for a perspective that holds all things happen for a reason, are part of our soul’s journey in this lifetime, and perhaps even the result of a choice I have made on a soul level. It honors that the other is on their own soul journey, reinterpreting their actions and choices from the perspective of their soul and their relationship to what they hold to be Ultimate.

Let us now turn to terrorist acts with this formulation. I value human life. I abhor human suffering, especially when caused by the willful act of one person or group upon another with the explicit intention to cause suffering. So yes, I definitely find terrorist acts deeply problematic (that is an understatement!). So how do I respond on a soul level? I actually respond on multiple levels. On one level, my soul hurts. I ache with pain at the suffering of the injured, the dead, and their loved ones. I ache with pain that another soul has lost its connection with God so deeply as to be able to perpetrate such an action with their free will. But do I experience forgiveness for the perpetrator(s)? Or is the more accurate formulation do I offer forgiveness from my soul to theirs? In this sense, forgiveness is a gift from one soul to another, a gift freely given in recognition of the other soul’s already and ever being a manifestation of the Divine, just as is my soul. It is living the intention behind the Sanskrit word Namaste, meaning, the light in me, the Divine in me, recognizes, acknowledges and honors the same in you. Can I find this place inside myself, inside my soul, in the face of a terrorist act?
The answer to this question could be understood as a test of how far I have progressed on my personal spiritual path. It has been said, with some wisdom, “If you think you are enlightened, spend a weekend with your parents.” The same could be said of terrorism. If you think you are enlightened, look deeply into your response to an act of terrorism. You are looking into a mirror for your soul.