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Film Club Discussion on The Power of Forgiveness

In 1998 there were only a handful of studies researching the subject of forgiveness. By 2005 that number had climbed to 950. The Power of Forgiveness, the latest documentary from Martin Doblmeier, traces the growing scientific interest in forgiveness during these years, ironically reflecting my own journey in those same years as I developed my own expertise on the subject, not so much from studying it at Seminary, preaching it as a pastor, or being such a generous giver of it as much as from making life decisions that made me desperately aware of how much I longed to receive it. I confess up front that my experience in extending forgiveness is outweighed by my experience in needing it.
The Power of Forgiveness weaves stories and interviews together from people who have journeyed the road of forgiveness. These stories range from personal injustices to those within entire communities. From generational conflict in Northern Ireland and religious persecution during the days of the Holocaust to the ethnic injustices to African slaves and the losses endured by families of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the stories highlight the complexity that is found within the one word forgiveness.
In watching the film there were multiple themes that continued to be voiced from a range of scientists, victims, mental health professionals, and theologians. Among them was the most obvious: Forgiveness is difficult. Always.
However, scientific evidence and religious teachings from all belief systems seemed to agree that forgiving others was worth the pursuit and of value to the victims. Researchers interviewing those who had had their trust violated showed that whether the person had forgiven their offender or not, all interviewees had spikes in their blood pressure when they began to recount the wrongs done to them. Data seems to agree that one can forgive, but still not forget. The difference only happened as the victims continued in the telling of their story. The blood pressure of those who had forgiven the wrong normalized quickly as they progressed through the details of their memory. While those who hadn’t yet forgiven, regardless of the length of time that had passed or the size of the offense, would continue to not only heighten their blood pressure throughout the telling, but also live with a higher resting heart rate than their forgiving peers.
Undoubtedly there seems to be benefits, both spiritually and physically, in the process of forgiveness. But that didn’t seem to necessarily answer the question that was voiced from a mother whose son was killed when the Twin Towers collapsed, and whose body now lies in a trash heap outside of New York City, as she asked the question that was echoed through out the interviews of various victims: Are there some acts that are unforgivable?
Apparently there is a proposal for a Garden of Forgiveness to be created at Ground Zero. Some find comfort in the idea of that space being provided for their reflection, while others think it offensive to even suggest that such a place is appropriate at a site of such acts of wrongdoing. The question lingers in so many various forms but all hinting of the same ache: Can you forgive someone who doesn’t take responsibility and ask for forgiveness? Or whose atonement or punishment hasn’t been completed? Or, even with those factors in place, are there occasions where forgiveness is impossible or wrong to extend? In other words: Are there transgressions that outweigh the value of forgiveness?
As we enter into a format of a movie discussion, I encourage those who have seen the movie to offer pieces of the interviews that most spoke to you, taught you, inspired you, convicted you and touched you. What did you see and hear that moved you on the subject of forgiveness? And, how would you answer those haunting questions of people who hurt so deeply as they grapple with the concept of whether forgiveness really is the right pursuit for all of us?
Shasta Nelson writes from San Francisco where she is a life coach and pastor.
Read an interview with filmmaker Martin Doblmeier here.

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