Ending the Cycle of Hatred
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them! But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?Aleksandr Solzhenit syn
Recited by millions From childhood on, the Lord’s Prayer includes the plea, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Familiar as it is, I often wonder whether we real-ly mean what we say when we repeat these words, and whether we sufficiently consider their meaning. To me, at least, they imply that once we recognize our own need for forgiveness, we will be able to forgive. This recognition does not come to most of us easily, because it demands humility. But isn’t humility the essence of forgiveness?
In the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us that the meek will be blessed and inherit the earth. And in the parable of the unmerciful servant, he warns us not to treat others any more harshly than we would want to be treated:
A rich man wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One of them, who owed him several thousand pounds, was brought in front of him, unable to pay. Because he was defaulting on the loan, the rich man ordered that the servant should be sold into slavery, together with his wife and children, to repay the debt. Although the rich man was within his legal rights to demand this, the servant begged him for patience. So the rich man took pity on him. He cancelled the debt and let him go. But the experience left the servant badly shaken, worried about the state of his finances, and no sooner had he returned home than he went to a friend, who still owed him a small amount of money, and demanded repayment. His friend was also unable to pay, and begged the servant for mercy, but he refused. Instead, he had his friend thrown into prison.
When the other servants saw what he had done, they were very upset and told the rich man everything. The rich man was furious, and called him in to answer for his actions: “You begged me to cancel your debt, so I did. Why didn’t you show the same level of mercy to your friend as I showed to you?” In his anger, the rich man turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he could pay back all he owed.
in my experience, the strongest motivation for forgiveness is always the sense of having received forgiveness ourselves, or – if we do not have that – an awareness that, like every-one else in the human race, we are imperfect and have done things we need to be forgiven for. Jared, an African-American student from Boston, says that was definitely the case with him:
I was six years old when I awoke to the reality of racism: from the sheltered environment of my home, I was pushed out into the world – a local elementary school just down the road from our house. I went there for only a month before city law mandated that I be bussed across town to another school. My parents were not happy with this; they wanted me to go to a school where I was known and loved. They owned a farm out in the country, and so we moved there…
My father, a veteran of the civil rights movement, taught me love and respect for everyone – white or black. They tried to teach me not to see everything in life along racial lines. All the same, I was the only black child in my new school, and many of the other children had obviously been taught to hate.
Children can be brutal about each other’s differences. They may begin with an innocent question – “Why is your skin brown?” – but then they start to laugh at you and mock you, because somewhere along the line they have been taught that if you’re different – not “normal” – there’s something wrong with you.
I was a fish out of water, and these kids didn’t make it easy for me. I’ll never forget one especially painful incident: I introduced one of my white friends to another white kid on the bus one day, and from then on they always sat together but left me out. Later I moved to a different school, and by the time I was in the seventh grade, the tables had turned completely. Our class was now all black, except for one white guy in my class, Shawn, who was the only white in the whole school. We treated him as an outcast and taunted him with racial epithets and physically abused him. We took out our hatred of white people on him even though he hadn’t done anything to harm any of us. We were angry.
Shawn symbolized everything that we knew about whites and their history: the humiliation of our people, the lynchings, the mobs, and the slave trade. We took out all our bitterness and anger on him.
I was never able to apologize to Shawn. By the time I saw my racism for what it was, we had parted ways. But I did ask God to forgive me for the harm I caused Shawn, and I resolved to forgive the guys who didn’t have a heart for me when I was the only black kid in their midst.
hela ehrlich, a Jewish friend, has a similar story. Hela grew up in Nazi Germany, and though her immediate family escaped the death camps by emigrating just before the outbreak of World War II, her grandparents on both sides and all her childhood friends lost their lives in the Holocaust.
For many people, the passage of time softens heartache; for Hela, the opposite occurred. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, her hurt turned into bitterness, and her pain into anger. Hela did not want to be bitter; she wanted to be free to live and love. In fact, she struggled constantly to keep from hardening her heart. But she could not forgive.
Then one day it dawned on her: she would never be able to forgive her family’s executioners until she was able to see that despite their guilt, they were still fellow human beings. Trembling, I realized that if I looked into my own heart I could find seeds of hatred there, too. Arrogant thoughts, feelings of irritation toward others, coldness, anger, envy, and indifference – these are the roots of what happened in Nazi Germany. And they are there in every human being. As I recognized – more clearly than ever before – that I myself stood in desperate need of forgiveness, I was able to forgive, and finally I felt completely free.
JoseF ben-eliezer, anoTher Friend, had a similar journey. Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929, he is the son of Polish Jews who fled their homeland to escape persecution and poverty, but found little respite from either: My first memory of anti-Semitism is from when I was three years old. I was standing at the window of our house on the Ostendstrasse when a formation of Hitler Youth marched past, singing Wenn Judenblut vom Messer spritzt (“When Jewish blood runs from our knives”). I still remember the horror on my parents’ faces.
Our family soon decided to leave the country, and by the end of 1933 we had moved back to Rozwa-dow, Poland. Most of its inhabitants were Jews: artisans, tailors, carpenters, and merchants. There was a great deal of poverty, but under the circumstances we were considered middle-class. We lived in Rozwadow for the next six years. In 1939 the war started, and within weeks the Germans entered our town. My father and older brother hid in the attic, and whenever someone knocked at our door and asked for them, we said they were not at home.
Then came the dreaded public announcement: all Jews had to gather in the town square. We were given only a few hours. We took whatever we could carry in bundles on our backs. From the square, the SS forced us to march toward a river several miles from the village. Uniformed men rode alongside us on motorcycles. One of them stopped and shouted at us to hurry up, then came up to my father and struck him.
At the riverbank other uniformed men were waiting for us.They searched us for money, jewelry, and watches – they did not find the sum of money my parents had hidden in my little sister’s clothing – and then ordered us to cross the river, into a no-man’s-land. They did not instruct us what to do after that, so we found lodging in a nearby village. A few days later we suddenly heard that the far side of the river was also going to be occupied by the Germans. We panicked, and with the money we had hidden, my parents – together with two or three other families – bought a horse and wagon to carry the younger children and what little we had managed to bring along on our backs.
We traveled east toward Russia, hoping to reach the border before dark, but found ourselves in a large forest when night fell. During the night we were attacked by armed thugs who demanded we hand over everything we had. It was a frightening moment, but luckily the men in our caravan had the courage to resist them, and in the end our attackers left, taking only a bicycle and a few other small items.
Josef spent the next years in Siberia, from where he escaped to Palestine in 1943. After the war he met Jews who had survived the concentration camps: When the first children freed from Bergen-Belsen and Buchen-wald began to arrive in Palestine in 1945, I was horrified to hear what they had gone through. They were young boys – twelve, thirteen, and fourteen years old –but they looked like old men. I was devastated, and filled with hatred for the Nazis…
Then the British began to restrict the immigration of Holocaust survivors to Palestine, and I was filled with hatred for them too. Like other Jews, I promised myself that I would never again go like a sheep to slaughter, at least not without putting up a good fight. We felt we were living in a world of wild beasts, and we couldn’t see how we would survive unless we became like them. When the British mandate in Palestine came to an end, we no longer had them to fight, but we did have the Arabs, who wanted “our” land. That was when I joined the army. I could no longer allow myself to be trampled on…
During one campaign, my unit forced a group of Palestinians to leave their village within hours. We didn’t allow them to leave in peace, but turned on them out of sheer hatred. While interrogating them, we beat them brutally and even murdered some of them. We had not been ordered to do this but acted on our own initiative. Our lowest instincts had been released. Suddenly, my childhood in wartime Poland flashed before my eyes. In my mind I relived my own experience as a ten-year-old, driven from my home. Here, too, were people – men, women, and children – fleeing with whatever they could carry. And there was fear in their eyes, a fear that I myself knew all too well. I was terribly distressed, but I was under orders, and I continued to search them for valuables…
Josef was no longer a victim, but his new position on the side of power brought him no peace. In fact, it did the opposite. Again and again, the memory of his own suffering ate at him and brought new waves of guilt. Josef left the army, but he still wasn’t happy. He abandoned Judaism, and then religion as a whole. He tried to make sense of the world by rationalizing its evils. But even that didn’t seem to work. It was only through his discovery of the “real” Jesus, he says – “someone who has very little to do with all the violence that is carried out in his name” – that he realized the freedom of a life
lived without hatred.
In my heart I heard Jesus’ words, “How often did I want to gather you, and you would not.” I felt the power of these words and knew that it could unite people across every barrier – people of all nations, races, and religions. It was an overwhelming experience. It turned my life upside down, because I realized that it meant the healing of hatred, and the forgiveness of sins. In my new faith, I have experienced the reality of forgive-ness. And I ask myself, “How, then, can you not forgive others?”
Jared, Hela, and Josef had more than enough reason to withhold forgiveness. The burdens they carried were, at least initially, the result of other people’s prejudices and hatreds, not their own. In a sense, they had every right to feel the way they did. Yet as soon as they were able to see themselves as fallible human beings, they were able to lay aside their self-justification. And in making the conscious decision to break the cycle of hatred, they discovered their ability to forgive.
WRITTEN BY: Johann Christoph Arnold