For weeks, I've been mulling over a photo essay, "Portraits of Reconciliation," that appeared in the April 6 online issue of The New York Times Magazine.
Pieter Hugo's stark photographs, accompanied by text from Susan Dominus, each show a different pair of Rwandans involved in a reconciliation program.
In each photo, we see a perpetrator of the 1994 genocide that killed almost a million people in Rwanda, alongside one of the people he attacked.
In each case, the criminal has asked forgiveness and the survivor has granted it.
This forgiveness isn't fuzzy, low-stakes do-goodery.
As Dominus writes, "In one (photograph), a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers. In another, a woman poses with a casually reclining man who looted her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children."
Beneath the photos, the perpetrators give brief descriptions of their crimes, and the survivors tell what they suffered. Each testifies to the deliverance he or she has found through a program that encourages repentance and forgiveness.
I can't help but contrast those Rwandans with two Kentuckians I spoke with recently.
A man told me he didn't put any stock in the New Testament, because he didn't buy the pivotal story that says St. Paul persecuted Christians before his conversion.
If Paul had done that, this guy argued, there's no way other Christians would have allowed him to lead them or would have believed he'd repented or would have cared if he did indeed change. Nobody could forgive a person who'd attacked his loved ones.
I talked with a woman who said she'd known several folks who lived despicably, then on their deathbeds prayed for forgiveness. Somebody had told her that, assuming these people were sincere in their prayers, they surely went to heaven.
That ticked her off. How could anybody live an ugly life and then, at the last hour, receive a get-into-heaven-free card from God? No fair.
These conversations weren't unusual. I often encounter people offended by the very concept of forgiveness, whether it's God's forgiveness or man's.
Yet forgiveness is central to Christianity, the faith I practice. I don't know as much about other faiths, although most of them encourage forgiveness, too.
Here are my ruminations:
1) For Christians, forgiveness isn't an option. It's a commandment with a warning: If we don't forgive, Jesus said, neither will God forgive us. That's as plain a statement as the Bible contains. God mercifully pardons wrongdoers; if we're to be his children, we must likewise practice mercy and forgiveness.
2) For us humans, forgiving isn't easy. If we've been wounded, it's not as if we can just shrug it off. We ache. We fester. We fume. Forgiveness is a process.
3) Forgiveness isn't fair. The woman I spoke with was correct — it isn't fair that God, or people, would acquit a blatant sinner. But that was Jesus' good news for the morally challenged: We're all morally challenged, and we're all offered amnesty.
4) As the Rwanda story implies, it's easier to forgive someone who acknowledges he's hurt you and begs your pardon than someone who's mistreated you but refuses to admit it. Still, we're urged to forgive not only those who admit their errors, but also those who don't.
5) Forgiving isn't a sign of weakness, but of strength. It's an exertion of our will that overrides our pain. It doesn't ignore the wrong done. It doesn't require us to like the evildoer. It says, "I was treated shabbily. I don't care for what this person did. Yet I won't seek revenge. I will pray for him and treat him as generously as I'm able."
6) Forgiveness also is a work performed within us by God. Our willpower enables us to perform deeds consistent with forgiveness, such as feeding an enemy who's hungry, but it can't heal our scarred souls. For that, we need God.
7) Forgiveness may require distance. I'd forgive a copperhead for biting me; that's what copperheads do. But if it's still a copperhead, if its nature hasn't changed, and if I get close, it'll bite me again. For safety, I might need to avoid the snake.
8) Forgiveness can redeem its recipient. François Ntambara, a perpetrator, says in the Times Magazine article: "... I participated in the killing of the son of this woman. ... (Now) if she needs some water to drink, I fetch some for her. ... I used to have nightmares recalling the sad events I have been through, but now I can sleep peacefully. And when we are together, we are like brother and sister, no suspicion between us."
9) Forgiveness always improves the forgiver. Here's Christophe Karorero, a Rwandan survivor: "Sometimes justice does not give someone a satisfactory answer. ... But when it comes to forgiveness willingly granted, one is satisfied once and for all. When someone is full of anger, he can lose his mind. But when I granted forgiveness, I felt my mind at rest."
10) Forgiveness is an act of faith. In forgiving, we admit God's ways are above ours. We inch toward a better world to come, an eternal land where the slights and injustices we've experienced here will be dim memories of no consequence.