Question: How can we forgive people like murderers, rapists, and child molesters?How can we accept these people as loving children of God who perpetrate "bad" behaviors without judging the behavior?
Short answer: We forgive people who perpetrate such acts by recognizing the Christ in them. From this perspective, we realize that no matter how "bad" their behavior seems to be, it is only a mistake, not a sin — through seeing this, we forgive our own "sins" as well as theirs. This is the Holy Spirit's judgment of their behavior, and we are to allow His judgment to replace ours. We forgive by using the practices the Course itself offers us for this purpose. Through forgiving the "unforgivable," we follow Jesus' own example, and learn the lesson that is at the very heart of his teaching.
We forgive people who perpetrate such acts by recognizing the Christ in them.
Forgiveness is a decision to look past what we think people are, and invite the Holy Spirit's vision of what they really are into our minds. What they really are is the Christ, the Son of God. The following quote, which describes how the teacher of God heals his patients, captures the essence of seeing the Christ in our brothers:
He [the teacher of God] overlooks the mind and body, seeing only the face of Christ shining in front of him, correcting all mistakes and healing all perception. (M-22.4:5)
Recognizing the Christ in a brother who commits grievous acts like rape and murder is no different than recognizing the Christ in anyone, although it certainly seems more difficult. To see the Christ, we must look past our brother's acts, since the acts are simply things that his body did, and the Christ in him is not a body. We must also look past the faulty decisions and beliefs of his mind that led to such acts, because the Christ in him is beyond those faulty decisions and beliefs. The vision we will experience when we look past these things is a vision of our brother's reality: the face of Christ, his true Identity, which sweeps away the mistakes his body and his mind seemed to make.
Certainly, this is a lofty vision of people whom society generally regards as the scum of the earth. Yet this is the vision the Course is calling us to offer all of our brothers without exception — even those who commit what we consider to be horrible crimes. "When a brother acts insanely, he is offering you an opportunity to bless him" (T-7.VII.2:1). We bless him by forgiving him, by seeing him with the vision of Christ. How can we actually do this? More on that below.
From this perspective, we see that their "bad" behavior is only a mistake, not a sin. Through seeing this, we forgive our own "sins" as well as theirs.
When we see the Christ in our brothers, we see all the horrendous things we thought they did as simple mistakes, rather than sins. What is the difference between a sin and a mistake? In a nutshell, a sin is a real violation of God's laws which inflicts real harm on God and His creation: "To sin would be to violate reality, and to succeed" (T-19.II.2:2, italics mine). A sin, because it did real harm, would merit punishment. A mistake (or error), on the other hand, is simply our mind's foolish attempt to violate God's laws, an attempt that is completely illusory and thus has no real effects. God's laws cannot really be violated. Therefore, since it did no real harm, a mistake calls for simple correction, not punishment.
Applying this to people like murderers, rapists, and child molesters, what this means is that these people did not really injure their "victims." There is no denying that they did so on the level of form, but in truth, the eternal reality of their "victims'" true Identity is completely untouched. "Injury is impossible" (W-pI.198.1:1), and so all of the heinous crimes that we think we and our brothers have committed are merely mistakes, rather than sins. They are illusion, not reality. And this recognition is the basis of forgiveness:
Forgiveness recognizes what you thought your brother did to you has not occurred. It does not pardon sins and make them real. It sees there was no sin. And in that view are all your sins forgiven. (W-pII.1.1:1-4)
The last line of the above quote clues us in to a very important benefit of forgiveness: Forgiving others is how our own "sins" are forgiven. As the Course tells us, "You never hate your brother for his sins, but only for your own" (T-31.III.1:5). Now, this does not mean that if you condemn a rapist, you secretly believe that you are a rapist (or at least a potential rapist); hating your brother for your own sins has nothing to do with the particular form that your brother's "sin" takes. What it does mean is that your interpretation of the rapist's act as sinful is a projection of your belief that you are sinful, though your "sin" may well take different forms. The crucial point is that withdrawing our belief that our brothers have sinned is what allows us to recognize that we have not sinned. Thus forgiveness is not an act of sacrifice on our part in which we let a criminal off the hook at the cost of our sacred "right" to punish him. Instead, it is the way we claim our sacred right to forgiveness ourselves: "[Forgiveness] keeps your rights from being sacrificed" (T-30.VI.2:9).
Being willing to see our brothers' seeming sins as mere mistakes is thus the key to seeing the Christ in them, and in ourselves. The world that the belief in sin shows us "stands like a block before Christ's face" (C-4.4:1); but "mistakes are tiny shadows, quickly gone, that for an instant only seem to hide the face of Christ, which still remains unchanged behind them all" (S-2.I.6:5).
For an excellent discussion of the distinction between sin and error, I recommend reading the Text section entitled "Sin versus Error" (T-19.II).
Our job is to let the Holy Spirit's judgment of behavior replace ours.
The vision described above is how the Holy Spirit sees everyone. He sees the Christ in everyone, and sees all "bad" behavior as a mistake, not a sin. Our job, then, is to let go of our own judgment of what other people's behavior means, and allow it to be replaced by the judgment of the Holy Spirit. As Section 10 of the Manual says, when a person gives up his own judgment, it puts him "in a position where judgment through him rather than by him can occur" (M-10.2:7). When we give up our own way of seeing things, which is rooted in the ego's belief in sin, we become conduits through which the Holy Spirit can extend his forgiving judgment.
I think it's very important to realize that when the Course tells us not to judge, it is not telling us that we cannot have an opinion about something, or that we are not to see genuine mistakes as mistakes. It is literally impossible not to have an opinion or viewpoint about a situation; even to say "We shouldn't have an opinion" is an opinion! Not judging simply means letting go of our own viewpoint and, as the above passage says, letting the Holy Spirit's viewpoint be expressed through us. And since "in time, the Holy Spirit clearly sees the Son of God can make mistakes" (T-19.III.5:1), it follows that when we are using the Holy Spirit's judgment, we can see mistakes as well, both other people's and our own. Jesus himself frequently discusses our mistakes in the Course, and stresses the importance of "the recognition of a mistake as a mistake" (M-7.5:8). Of course, when we think someone made a mistake, we would do well to question this judgment. It may well be coming from the ego. But it is also possible that this judgment is not coming from the ego. Because of this, I don't think that it is necessarily a violation of the Course's injunction against judgment to see the acts of people like Hitler and Charles Manson as mistakes that had tragic, painful consequences in time. People do make mistakes, and we certainly shouldn't pretend otherwise.
In addition, giving up judgment doesn't necessarily mean that we shouldn't do anything behaviorally to deal with people who commit crimes. According to the Course, the same judgment that is to guide our perception — the Holy Spirit's judgment—is to guide our behavior as well. The question, then, is: What would the Holy Spirit have us do behaviorally to deal with crime? I don't know the answer, and certainly this question is a controversial one. But I suspect that at the very least, the Holy Spirit would have us do things to physically protect law-abiding citizens from those who commit criminal acts. He may well guide us to sequester (i.e., imprison) people who commit particularly violent or abusive acts, so that they will not be able to harm others or themselves. This is certainly not the change of mind that alone can really solve the problem of criminal behavior, but it may be the best our society as a whole can do at its present level of development. Whatever we do behaviorally, the crucial thing from the Course's standpoint is that we heal our perception. We must do the mental work so that we can see criminal acts as merely mistakes rather than sins, and see the perpetrators as innocent Sons of God, regardless of their acts. This is the Holy Spirit's judgment.
How do we forgive? By doing the practices the Course gives us for this purpose.
To say that we should forgive the criminals is all well and good, but this begs the obvious question: Just how do we actually do it? The question of how we actually forgive is one that many Course students ask. Fortunately, we need look no further than the Course itself to find all the instructions we need for how to forgive.
These instructions are sprinkled throughout the Course; indeed, one could say that the entire Course is a course in how to forgive. But in particular, there are six lessons in the Workbook that give us specific practices for forgiving particular people. These lessons are Lessons 46, 68, 78, 121, 134, and 161. These lessons offer forgiveness exercises that all follow the same basic pattern; in each of them, you 1) choose a person to forgive, 2) get in touch with your current perception of him as a sinner, and 3) invite a new perception of him as the Christ, your savior. (Robert Perry has written an excellent article on this topic, from which I have drawn some of this material. The article contains a composite forgiveness exercise based on these six lessons. It is entitled "How Do We Forgive?", and appears in the December 1998 issue of the Circle's newsletter, A Better Way. I highly recommend it.)
One lesson that is particularly powerful for me is Lesson 161, "Give me your blessing, holy Son of God." Of course, I recommend reading the lesson in its entirety, but just to offer a brief example of forgiveness in action, here is a short version of the Lesson 161 practice. You might want to give it a try.
First, bring to mind the specific person you want to forgive. It could be anyone, of course (though I would recommend picking a person other than yourself). But in keeping with the topic of this Q and A, perhaps you might want to choose a notorious "bad guy" from the past or present, someone whom society vilifies for his atrocious acts, someone who elicits a particularly strong response of anger and hatred in you. Once you have this person vividly in mind, warts and all, invite a new perception of him into your mind, using the words of Lesson 161:
What you are seeing now [your current picture of this person] conceals from you the sight of one who can forgive you all your sins; whose sacred hands can take away the nails which pierce your own, and lift the crown of thorns which you have placed upon your bleeding head. Ask this of him, that he may set you free:
Give me your blessing, holy Son of God. I would behold you with the eyes of Christ, and see my perfect sinlessness in you. (W-pI.161.11:7-8)
How did that exercise go for you? Did you feel a shift in your attitude toward this particular person? I really find this practice powerful. To me, it is the flip side of the idea presented above that we are to respond to our brother's insanity with a blessing. When we bless him, we see him as a Son of God rather than a sinful criminal; then, in return, this Son of God turns around and blesses us. Through seeing him with Christ's vision, we behold his sinlessness; then, the Christ in him shows us that we too are sinless. Through forgiving the sins of our brother, we too are forgiven, for as we saw above, it is our sins we see in him.
The Course's "extreme example" of forgiveness: Jesus' response to the crucifixion.
We may well wonder if the kind of radical forgiveness advocated by the Course is truly possible. Can we really forgive everything, even criminal acts like murder, rape, and child molestation? Jesus' answer is an unequivocal "Yes," but he doesn't just ask us to take his word for it. In the Course, he reminds us that he also offered us his own "extreme example" (T-6.I.2:1) of it: his loving, forgiving response to his own crucifixion. He discusses this example at length in the Text section entitled "The Message of the Crucifixion" (T-6.I; the Introduction to Chapter 6 is also relevant to his discussion). His response to his crucifixion is the perfect answer to the question that we are discussing in this Q and A: How do we forgive people who commit horrible crimes? His short answer: Recognize that, because the "crime" is only an illusion that causes no real injury and has no effect on reality at all, it doesn't really matter:
I elected, for your sake and mine, to demonstrate that the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego, does not matter. As the world judges these things, but not as God knows them, I was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, torn, and finally killed. (T-6.I.9:1-2)
I included the second line of this passage because it tells us just how horrific the assault on Jesus was in worldly terms — his example was extreme indeed. Robert Perry recently wrote a commentary on this line that, to me, perfectly captures the vicious nature of the attack on Jesus and the radical nature of his response:
When you think about the intensity of the attack (as we would judge it), this [the fact that the attack didn't matter to Jesus] is virtually beyond belief. It wasn't just a physical attack. He was betrayed by a close friend. He was abandoned by his closest followers. He was rejected by the people he came to save. He was publicly judged to be a criminal, worthy of the most humiliating from of death available. He was subjected to all the hatred of an angry mob. It looked like his mission had failed, his purpose had come to naught. It looked like God had abandoned him. Even by conventional standards, the whole episode was totally unjust, since he had harmed no one and helped many. On top of all that, he was subjected to an excruciating and torturous death that we simply cannot imagine.
This is what, in his eyes, did not matter.
The Course doesn't deny that Jesus was attacked, in worldly terms. It acknowledges that he was viciously assaulted by brothers who were deeply and profoundly mistaken in their perception of him. But he didn't see their mistakes as sins, because he recognized that their attack wasn't real. He allowed the Holy Spirit's judgment to come through him, looking past the acts of his brothers' bodies to the Christ in them, which is forever unaffected by their mistakes. Later in the section, we are told that the message of the crucifixion is "Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13:2). In the context of this section, that well-known line means: "No matter how horrible and unjustified other people's attacks on you seem to be, respond with love rather than counterattack, because that is the way you ultimately learn that you are love."
Responding like this when we are brutally attacked may sound like too tall an order for us, and indeed it probably is at our present level of development. Fortunately, Jesus tells us that we aren't expected to be able to do this right away in the kind of extreme circumstances that he faced. All we are asked to do is "to follow my example in the face of much less extreme temptations to misperceive" (T-6.I.6:7). We can start small, with the things that are right in front of us. We probably won't be ready to forgive the person who is coming at us with a knife. But perhaps we can forgive the next-door neighbor who's blasting his AC/DC tapes at midnight again. Perhaps we can forgive the girlfriend who just broke up with us because she fell in love with our best friend. Perhaps we can forgive the boss who fired us for no apparent reason. And perhaps we can forgive the mass murderer we read about in the paper, who's now on Death Row at the State Pen.
And who knows? Perhaps we may surprise ourselves. We might find that with time and practice, we are able to forgive far more than we ever imagined. It is said that Gandhi had a prayer on his lips for his attacker when he was shot. I have seen well-documented accounts of ordinary people who in time have been able to forgive the murderers of their children. I have read of Jews who were able to forgive Hitler for the Holocaust. Such extraordinary forgiveness is relatively uncommon, but it happens frequently enough to give us real hope that we can follow Jesus' example.
Personally, I think that forgiving seemingly "unforgivable" acts is at the heart of Jesus' teaching, both in his earthly life and in the Course. In the Gospels, he spoke of loving our enemies and blessing those that persecute us; in the Course, he tells us that we have no enemies and we cannot really be persecuted in truth. Central to his teaching is the radical idea that when someone attacks you, not only do you not attack him back, you respond by giving him a gift — a gift of love, which demonstrates that attack is nothing and love is everything. Forgiving our seeming "attackers" is, in Jesus' view, the central way in which this saving message is taught and learned.
Such profound forgiveness may sound difficult, but learning how to forgive the seemingly "unforgivable" is exactly what the Course's program is for. It will take time and practice. It will likely take most of us a long time to reach the level of forgiveness exemplified by Jesus' response to the crucifixion. But all we have to do is start moving in the right direction. Let's simply roll up our sleeves and get to work on the program, trusting that if we will do the work, we will make progress. If we do our part, then slowly but surely the day will come when we "will see the love beyond the hate, the constancy in change, the pure in sin, and only Heaven's blessing on the world" (W-pI.151.11:3).