It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn’t sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.Thus begins Gregory David Roberts’ autobiographical novel, Shantaram.
There is indeed freedom in forgiveness.
To be sure, our own tortured existences are less likely to be of the physical variety undergone by Jesus or Roberts. There are those, today, whose torture is physical, some even in our fair city of Boston. But for most of us our torture is more existential than physical. We are on the existential rack, so to speak, being pulled between the winches of denial and guilt. In denial we attempt to pretend that nothing is wrong, or at least that whatever is wrong is not our fault. In guilt we remember that it is in fact our fault but then conclude that no force in heaven or on earth could overcome it.
And yet, there is freedom. Our freedom does not overcome the torture, any more than Roberts’ freedom stopped the torturers or Jesus’ freedom obstructed the crucifixion. No, our freedom is in the midst of the torture. We are never absolutely conditioned. Yes, torture is psychologically debilitating. And yet, in speaking with at least some torture victims, what is striking is not their bitterness and anger but their compassion.
To arrive at this point, where we can take up our freedom responsibly, is to humbly reject humiliation. Pain and degradation, whether physical or existential, is not the last word. But without a carefully cultivated humility, the pain and degradation become totalizing. Humility is the recognition that denial and guilt make it all about us. But torture is rarely about the tortured; it is always about the torturer, attempting to convince the tortured and themselves that it is about the tortured. Freedom comes when humility wins the day and we know that this is not so. Then, and only then, are we free to forgive.
From the cross Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“When it’s all you’ve got, that freedom is a universe of possibility.”
Thanks be to God.