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Why do we find it so difficult to forgive other people, especially when their apparent attack on us is extreme? One reason is that, in our eyes, it seems that the attacker is gaining something at our expense and even enjoying his attack upon us, which if true would make him an evil monster. But A Course in Miracles says we have it all wrong: In fact, the attacker is gaining nothing from his attacks on us, and even when he seems remorseless, he is secretly burdened with crushing guilt and begging us to help him find his lost innocence through our forgiveness. I recently read a remarkable story that powerfully illustrates this teaching: the story of a Mexican assassin who was miraculously freed from his prison of guilt through the power of forgiveness.
This story is told in a book called El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, by Charles Bowden and Molly Malloy. The anonymous teller of this true story worked for many years as a sicario, an assassin or hit man for a Mexican drug cartel. His main job was to kill anyone his boss told him to kill – generally people who had crossed the boss in some way, often people who owed the boss money. The sicario's job also included kidnapping people (often to ransom the family), beating them, and torturing them. Anything to keep his boss happy.
In exchange for his services, the sicario lived the high life – literally. He was given lots of money, all the drugs and women he wanted, and access to luxurious mansions. Therefore, on the surface, he looked like he was gaining a great deal from his attacks. And on the surface, he was remorseless too: While he says he didn't actually enjoy torturing people, he nonetheless took great pride in his work. He took special pride in being such a clean and efficient killer. In his mind, the people he attacked deserved it because they had betrayed the boss in some way. They had it coming.
But underneath the surface, he was wracked with guilt, and over time, this guilt slowly came to the surface. He was living a dead-end life that was no good for anyone. He realized that in spite of the money and luxury, he was really a prisoner of his boss's whims, one mistake away from being killed himself. He worked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, always at the beck and call of the mysterious man at the other end of his cell phone. He was nothing but a puppet. He had no life of his own, but just unquestioningly followed orders of a man he usually didn't even see.
He began to think more about his life. It had started out with such promise, for as a child he was gifted in many ways. What had happened to the innocent, intelligent, and ambitious child he had once been, his mother's pride and joy, a young person who could have really made something of his life? All of that potential seemed lost forever. He gradually began to feel that he had irrevocably turned into a horrible monster:
This is when I realized that I was completely bad in my character, in my person….
…I realized that something really bad was happening to me. I was no longer any good….I could no longer control my instinct to be violent and aggressive.
As time went on, things kept getting worse. He could no longer sleep peacefully or for very long. He had violent nightmares almost every night. In an incident that prompted the thoughts quoted above, his wife tried to wake him up from a nightmare and he tried to strangle her – not because he was upset with her, but out of sheer blind fear and fury. Eventually, he didn't even go home any more because he was so filled with fear, rage, and violence that he was afraid that he would kill his wife for no real reason at all.
Eventually, he realized that he couldn't go on like this. He was a madman living la vida loca, high on drugs all the time; in fact, he realized that the drugs played a major role in driving him to such horrendous violence. They were one way his boss controlled him. So he gave them up, which actually made him a more efficient killer in the short term, but also made him more aware of his guilt. In addition, giving up the drugs led his boss to become suspicious of him. What was going on?
A new life seemed to be calling to him, but he needed help. And at that point, help seemed to present itself to him in unusual ways. Again and again, he saw billboards that read, "IF YOU NEED HELP…HE WILL HELP YOU, "IF YOU HAVE PROBLEMS, CALL UPON HIM" and "CHRIST LOVES YOU." He also made a mistake that angered his boss – an obvious mistake that almost seemed to be unconsciously calculated to force him to leave the life he was living – so now other sicarios were after him. It seemed that his life as a sicario would end the way such lives usually ended: in death.
But he miraculously eluded his pursuers with some unexpected help, and he was eventually led to a man who was part of a born-again Christian group. The man knew what the sicario was and knew about the life he had led, but said that God could free him from his prison. The man took him to the Christian group. At first, when he saw the men in the group crying, dancing, and singing so exuberantly, he thought it was stupid. What was wrong with these weird "faggots"?
The next time he came to the group, however, he had a dramatic, life-changing experience. This experience was so amazing that I want to share his account of it at length:
My surprise was, as soon as I got there…I don't know what I felt. I really can't explain this feeling. I just started to cry. [He starts to cry now as he tells the story. Tears wash over his face.]
…I cried as I had never cried, more than I ever remember crying in my childhood….I cried for five or six hours without stopping. Kneeling down on the floor and asking God to forgive me for all I that had done.
And I heard the people crying for me, and I felt their hands touching me. I reached out to them…
All of this [criminal life] that I had lived for years, in the matter of minutes or hours, it all flashed through my mind, and it was being erased from me. All of this that I had done. "Look, I did this and this and this!"
And each time someone came close to me and touched me, I could feel the warmth of them touching me, burning away my past sins. They said, "You are free. You are free."
And I remembered, "No, I did this and this and this…"
…And I said, "What is this?" This is all good, this is what it is to be good, this is setting me free from this yoke, this burden, that I have been carrying on my back all this time….
…I felt that each time I accepted the guilt for each of the things that I had done and that each time someone touched me, I felt that I was burning and I felt forgiveness. And from this moment I felt free from each and every one of the terrible things that I had done. Free from all the errors that I had committed. I put myself in the hands of God. I asked the Lord for his forgiveness, and I accepted Him in my heart.
His life was completely transformed in that moment. His "sins" were washed away by the love of Jesus and the people who helped him. The sicario's call for help had been answered. The guilt stemming from his attacks had been washed away by forgiveness. He left the criminal life for good. And he says that the reason he gave the interviews that led to the book (and a movie as well) is to help others to do the same. In coming out of the shadows and telling his story he is literally risking his life, because he is still a wanted man. But to him, it is worth it, because he wants to give others the same freedom that others gave him.
This, of course, is what A Course in Miracles is all about: setting our brothers free through forgiveness. I see in the sicario's tale a perfect illustration of a powerful line in the Text section called "The Justification for Forgiveness" (T-30.VI). This line tells us that, rather than seeing forgiveness as an unjustified reprieve for someone who heartlessly gained at our expense through his attacks on us, we are to see it as the most natural response in the world to the situation as it really is:
You are merely asked to see forgiveness as the natural reaction to distress that rests on error, and thus calls for help. (T-30.VI.2:7)
Let's draw out the logic of this line. The logic starts with the "error." Using the sicario as an example of what the Course says is a universal pattern, what is the error? The error is his attacks. He thought that he would benefit from these attacks, and indeed in the beginning he seemed to. He left a life of poverty for a life filled with money, mansions, beautiful women, and the thrill of drugs. But in the Course's view, needless to say, these things are really nothing, which means he really gained nothing.
What he did get from his error of attacking, though, was "distress": specifically, the distress of guilt. As we can see in his story, the guilt was slowly destroying him. He felt guilty because he thought he had gained at other people's expense, that he had ruthlessly taken from them and was therefore an evil man. In his words, "I was completely bad in my character, in my person….I was no longer any good." In his eyes, his attacks had hopelessly corrupted him, had made him irredeemably rotten to the core. It seemed that his innocence was forever lost.
So he was distressed, and distress "calls for help." Specifically, his distress of guilt called for help to rediscover his lost innocence – in other words, for forgiveness. Help came to the sicario in many forms: the billboards on the road, the people who helped him escape his pursuers, and especially his brothers in the Christian group. Though their theology is different in many ways from the Course, in essence they communicated a message of forgiveness. They said that no matter what the sicario had done, God still loved him and they loved him. Underneath his errors, his spirit was still good. He thought he had gained at others' expense and turned himself into a monster, but in the Course's words, "He…merely failed to gain" (W-pI.133.9:3), which was only an error, not a sin. He was not a monster; he was still a child of God.
This recogition of his true worth as a child of God is what healed him. In realizing this with God's and his brothers' help, he was free: "free from all the errors that I had committed." "Each time someone touched me…I felt forgiveness." Through forgiveness, he came to realize his eternal innocence once again.
What I love about this story is its reversal the way we normally see "hardened criminals." We normally think that they are remorseless thugs, and therefore unredeemable. Indeed, to my great shock, a very kind woman I know advocated that a certain gang of young criminals from El Salvador should be killed in cold blood because they are nothing but "animals" now. In this woman's mind, their (admittedly atrocious) acts had corrupted them so completely that they were no longer part of the human race.
My fiancée Patricia saw a similar attitude in some of the people at a workshop she attended. The workshop was on applying the law to help women live a life free of violence, and of course there was much discussion of violence against women by men such as their husbands and criminals like the sicario. Violence against women is a serious problem here in Mexico, as it is in many places. There was much discussion of how to help the victims and how we must overcome the patriarchal social system that encourages such violence.
These discussions were valuable, but Patricia felt that something was being overlooked. When presenters addressed the topic of helping and treating the men who commit these violent acts, she asked: What role does forgiveness of these men play in the work you do to help alleviate this situation? What can you say about the effects of women forgiving the men who had attacked them? The good news was that there were some excellent presenters who were in favor of helping the men, including some who were actively doing exactly that. And at least one presenter saw a positive role for forgiveness in this process.
But, Patricia says, overall there was a pervasive attitude among the participants in the workshop that said: Why help the men? They are the bad guys. Allocating resources to help them takes away resources from the victims who really need the help. Helping violent men amounts to rewarding them for their bad behavior. Forgiveness just lets them off the hook so they can commit more violent acts. In short, though it was not necessarily put this bluntly: They are monsters who will never change, so what is the point of doing anything for them?
It must be said that, on the surface, there really are people who look utterly remorseless and beyond help. There really are people who use others' forgiveness in a manipulative way that enables them to continue in their attacking ways. And it is true that there are forms of false forgiveness that can perpetuate the cycle of violence: for instance, a woman who "forgives" her abusive partner but who mistakenly believes that forgiveness means she must stay in the situation, thus allowing it to continue. So, I can understand some of the reasons behind the attitudes at the workshop.
But from the Course's point of view, our stereotypical image of the remorseless monster is only an appearance. There are no monsters, and no one is truly remorseless. Underneath the various facades, all of us are wracked with guilt for our attacks, and all of us are calling out desperately for forgiveness. Among "hardened criminals," the sicario is hardly an exception. I have heard and read many accounts of seemingly hopeless cases who eventually got in touch with how they really felt about their crimes. I have a friend who was a psychotherapist working with criminals like murderers and rapists. He himself saw many who, like the sicario, looked utterly cold and calculating on the surface but who cried like babies when they finally reached that dark pit of guilt underneath their hard surface.
But getting in touch with guilt isn't the end of the journey; it is only one step on the way to the final destination. According to the Course, underneath that dark pit of guilt is the destination we are really trying to reach: our true Identity, the place at the core of us that contains the eternal, God-given innocence and goodness we never really lost. The sicario discovered this in himself – "This is all good, this is what it is to be good" – and again he is no exception. Here, too, I have seen numerous accounts, such as those of Mother Antonia, the "prison angel of Tijuana" who works every day with the people society has thrown away, where the miracle of another person's forgiveness set a "hopeless" person free from his guilt. Peace Pilgrim, a woman who set many people free from guilt through her unconditionally forgiving love, said of one remorseful man she touched that he "had reached the good in him. Oh, it's there – no matter how deeply it is buried." Yes, the goodness of our true nature is always there, just waiting to be revealed through forgiveness.
The good news from the Course's standpoint is that we all have the power to do what people like Mother Antonia and Peace Pilgrim do. We all have the power to set our brothers free of guilt through forgiveness, even the so-called dregs of society, even the "worst of the worst." And the more I look about the world and see how things are going – the more I come face to face with violent situations like the one here in Mexico, the more I see how our unforgiveness perpetuates these situations even when we are trying to make things better – the more I am coming to believe that forgiveness is our only hope. I believe with all my heart that the Course is right when it has us pray:
Father, forgiveness is the light You chose to shine away all conflict and all doubt, and light the way for our return to You. No light but this can end our evil dream. No light but this can save the world. For this alone will never fail in anything, being Your gift to Your beloved Son. (W-pII.333.2:1-4)
So, whom do you need to forgive? Who is the "sicario" in your life, the person who seems like an irredeemable monster, the person who seems to be gleefully gaining at your expense? Perhaps you can learn from those good men who looked beyond the sicario's rough exterior and saw the innocent child of God he always was and will forever be. Perhaps, with the help of the Course, we can all see past the prison of sin and say to every one of our brothers crying for release, "You are free. You are free."