“Is it impossible to multiply the exceptions so as to make them the rule? Must man always be brute first, and man after, if at all?” – MK Gandhi (1926)
I have a soft spot for stories that showcase the better parts of humanity. This isn’t to ignore all of the horrible things that people often do to one another. In fact, I think I’ve done a decent job at describing the ways that humans can alternate between being completely horrible or wonderful to each other (ex., see “Genocidal Altruists”). Overall, I think that focusing exclusively on either the good or the bad cannot accurately do justice to describing our complexity.
With that said, here are three stories of forgiveness or reconciliation that fall on the courageous and hopeful end of human behavior. As amazing as they are, perhaps consolidating them in one place will help make them seem not so unattainable for the rest of us.
(1) The first story is that of Eva Mozes Kor, an Auschwitz survivor who confronted Oskar Groening, a former Nazi guard, at his trial last month. The two shook hands, and Groening even gave her a kiss on the cheek (about which Kor said: “I probably wouldn’t have gone that far, but I guess it is better than what he would have done to me 70 years ago.” What seven decades can do!). More importantly, Kor felt that Groening might be able to make a difference today by explaining to young people who are filled with hate what he learned since his days as a Nazi. As she wrote so eloquently:
“I know many people will criticize me for this photo, but so be it. It was two human beings seventy years after it happened. For the life of me I will never understand why anger is preferable to a goodwill gesture. Nothing good ever comes from anger. Any goodwill gesture in my book will win over anger any time. The energy that anger creates is a violent energy.
I am asking a question: What do we want in the future? Do we want to keep pointing fingers and the accused stay in one corner and the accuser stay in the other corner and they never connect? How will that work out? Look at the world – it doesn’t work out. All we have is people who are feeling angry, people who are running around doing crazy things.”
(2) Story number two comes from Galway Ireland, where Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein (the former political wing of the IRA) and Prince Charles unexpectedly were photographed shaking hands yesterday. This is probably the least dramatic of the three stories, and is surely political in nature. Friend of this blog, Robert Cooper has written about the behind the scenes machinations that take place with photo-op scenarios like this. Still, the IRA claimed responsibility for killing Charles’ great uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1979, so the handshake – which lasted several seconds – must have had some tension. In The Irish Times, Mary Minihan wrote that the meeting could help “promote the process of resolving past injustices and promoting reconciliation and healing” between former enemies.
(3) This is the oldest story of the three, but I only learned about it recently. It is also the most powerful. In 2011, NPR described the tragic, yet uplifting, story of Rais Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant living in Dallas. Bhuiyan was working at a gas station when Mark Stroman entered the store ten days after September 11th, 2001, and robbed him. After specifically asking Bhuiyan where he was from, Stroman fired a shotgun at his face in some malicious and misguided attempt to take ‘revenge’ against Muslims, Arabs, or anyone he thought looked Middle Eastern, for the events that occurred two weeks prior.
Fortunately, Bhuiyan survived, though he endured severe pain and multiple surgeries to remove the pellets from his face. He ultimately lost vision in one eye, and his father had a stroke upon learning that his son had been so severely injured. Stroman was later arrested and sentenced to death not only for shooting Bhuiyan, but for killing two other men as well, one from Pakistan and another from India.
The uplifting turn in the story comes from Bhuiyan, however, who argued that Stroman’s life should be spared. As he said:
“I strongly believe executing him is not a solution. We will just simply lose a human life without dealing with the root cause, which is hate crime. In Islam it says that saving one human life is the same as saving the entire mankind. Since I forgave him, all those principles encouraged me to go even further, and stop his execution and save another human life.”
It is perhaps one of the most magnanimous things that a person can do, to not only waive the chance for revenge and to forgive, but to also advocate for someone who has severely hurt us. In a telephone call between the two men, Bhuiyan told Stroman that “I forgive you and I do not hate you.” To which Stroman replied, “Thank you from my heart. I love you.” (Their story is worth reading in its entirety).
Perhaps these stories stand out because they are fairly rare and because the level of compassion or understanding displayed by the individuals in these stories is so difficult to do. It is clear that humanity has a real pattern of cruel and violent behavior, and if those did not exist then forgiveness and reconciliation would not be necessary in the first place.
But does it automatically follow that the pattern must continue inexorably into the future? As Gandhi asked, can the noble exceptions be multiplied so as to make them the rule?