Compassion, once distilled, makes forgiveness a foregone conclusion. We must begin with an important concept: you and I are no better or worse than any other soul that has ever lived. We are all subject to tradition and ritual from the day we are born. Every one of us victims of some form of abuse at various points in our lives. There are no exceptions. And by this logic, I assert that even the most monstrous and infamous characters come with their own set of pain and traumas. Not even Hitler escaped this inevitable part of the human experience.
There is a difficult distinction that must be understood here, forgiveness is not approval. Recognizing the humanity of Hitler does not mean that the choices he made can be considered acceptable behavior. Forgiveness does not mean absolution, there must be consequences for our actions for without consequences there is no relational balance.
Compassion’s primary drive focuses on balance in the tensions between individuals. If you were born in Germany in 1889, grew up with a dream to become a celebrated artist, what would you have had to go through to become the fascist dictator that Hitler became? I believe we are all capable of the very worst of humanity, so that means that, under the right circumstances, you too are capable of becoming exactly like the man that Hitler was.
What kind of abuse and conditioning do you imagine you would have to suffer in order to allow such hate to shape your worldview? Why should we assume that Hitler himself didn’t go through that exact torture we imagine necessary to cause any one of us to make the same choices he made? If we are all capable of the very worst of humanity, then we are all the same. Once we see the potential brokenness that may drive others to overcompensate in their search for some relief, we find it easier to forgive them for acting out of that pain. We can have sympathy and empathy for a broken man lost to his own self-loathing and hateful view of the world. Compassion furthermore provides direction and correction in order to foster healing with equity. Some of the most effective correctional systems in the world, for example, focus not on punishment but on unlearning unproductive patterns of thought that lead to harmful behavior. Instead we seek to build new constructive thought patterns; ultimately addressing the brokenness within and replacing it with a realistic productive solution. When children are small they must be taught to share, and grown men should now better, but if not for compassion, how can you expect them to learn? Recognizing that individuals are often driven by deep pain and social conditioning, we see ultimately that fault lies not with those individuals, but with the systems of abuse that pull on us all. So, what shall we make of Hitler's role in WWII? If not him then it could easily have been someone else. I would argue that we must vehemently condemn the systems that help shape men like him and that he himself contributed to, while seeking to offer understanding and compassion for those impacted.
However, because compassion operates between individuals, we must be able to separate individuals from the systems that they participate in. Compassion seeks equity, and without forgiveness there can be no equity. With compassion, forgiveness becomes a matter of releasing the need to cast blame. Instead we seek to offer healing to the broken, in that delicate balance of tension in each of our relationships. Once we are willing to concede that the only differences between us are the ones of our circumstances, we can begin to imagine a reality where we celebrate our individuality while identifying as one humanity. No, I'm not suggesting we celebrate ruthless harmful individuals and their misguided decisions. I am speaking of mutual respect, support, equity and care. We are all different expressions of humanity, in all its beauty and horror. Compassion drives us to live as one global body, connected by our relationships, each serving a function within the body. No part more or less important than the other. We cannot afford to support a system that prevents compassion from thriving. So, I am hereby choosing to take the very unique stance with its accompanying repercussions that while we may condemn the actions, and the systems that build broken hateful men, I still believe compassion requires we forgive those who would do harm. It is in light of our shared human brokenness that I endeavor to offer forgiveness with compassionate understanding. With future articles I intend to explore how this understanding of compassion also approaches government from the bottom up instead of the top down.