September 19th, 2010
Rev. Douglas Taylor

About a year and a half ago, Elwin Hope Wilson of Rock Hill, South Carolina became a small celebrity for being repentant. At the age of 72 and in deteriorating health, Wilson repented from a lifetime of racist rhetoric and activity; he had a change of heart.

An article in the associated press from April, 2009 reads:

“The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father’s service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961.”

Wilson had threatened a real estate agent who had sold a nearby home to a black family, and he vehemently protested the desegregation of the local cemetery where his parents were interred. Racial epithets rang out regularly from his lips in restaurants and other public places.

But last year Wilson had a change of heart. He saw his earlier behavior as misguided and sinful. He began to seek forgiveness. He traveled to Congressman John Lewis’ Washington DC office to personally apologize for attacking the former Freedom Rider in 1961. Wilson has visited black churches and offered public declarations of repentance. He has sought reconciliation with black citizens in his community.

Now, there are many who applaud Mr. Wilson’s attempts at seek forgiveness and some have offered their forgiveness. Others are more surprised and even skeptical. As one Freedom Rider put it: “In the back of my mind I just keep thinking, ‘Why now?’” A question of motive arises, is this change of heart a true repentance or is Edwin Hope Wilson only scared for his eternal soul. “I’m going to hell,” he despairingly told a friend, to which his friend replied: “The Bible says that ‘If you truly ask forgiveness and you mean it in your heart, you can be saved.’” (Ibid)

I am not going to judge this man’s motives; that is not a useful avenue to pursue. Perhaps it is fear of punishment in an afterlife that led him to do the right thing, to seek forgiveness, to break his old pattern. Whatever the motivation was, what interests me is the break that happened in the cycle.

Something changed for the man and he shifted his efforts from trying to destroy and tear down others to trying to repair and build up what had been lost. “You gifts, whatever you may discover them to be, can be used to bless or curse the world.” (Rebecca Parker) For all that the human evils and horrors of our world seem immeasurably large and intractable the world goes mad one person at a time. The story of how we got to where we now are in terms of institutional racism, corporate greed, terrorism, and countless other marks of systemic evil in our world – the story of how we got here is actually a myriad of billions of individual stories large and small. The world goes mad one person at a time, and the world is saved in exactly the same way.

Elwin Wilson had a change of heart. He decided to become one of those who work to repair the world. He “cast [his] lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” (Adrienne rich) Elwin broke his old pattern, interrupted the cycle, and sought forgiveness.

And yet, for all that he is now doing the right thing, Mr. Wilson is still viewed with skepticism by some. And I get it. It seems cheap to live by a theology that seems to say you can cheat, lie, curse, hoard, hate and hurt others throughout your life and then in the eleventh hour repent and seek forgiveness – and presto your sins are absolved: you can die knowing your place in heaven is secure. It seems cheap to let mean people off on a technicality. But I will tell you this: if we are going to build a better world we’ll need to bring mean people along somehow.

And to be fair, the thin and cheap version of forgiveness that rankles is poor theology and does not hold up to the deep reality of suffering and joy and life. True forgiveness is a deep and powerful thing. Reinhold Niebuhr called forgiveness the final form of love: allowing us to see beyond our own virtuousness to standpoint of another. If we are about the work of repairing the world, then we must also be about the work of forgiveness.

A fascinating study in the role of forgiveness that I found this year comes from the world of sociobiology and game theory. In studying the human decision-making process, researchers explored the distinction between self-interest, altruism, and cooperation through a generations-old scenario called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Briefly the dilemma goes like this:

Police arrest two men on suspicion of a serious crime. They lack, however, the evidence to convict. At most, they have enough information to prove them guilty of a lesser offence. The aim of the police, therefore, is to get at least one to inform on the other. They put them in separate rooms with no possibility of communication. They then offer each of the suspects a deal. If one informs and the other stays silent, the informant will go free and the other will receive a jail sentence of ten years. If they both inform on the other, each will receive five years. If they both stay silent, they will be found guilty only of the lesser offence, and each will face a year in prison.

It does not take long to work out that for each, the optimal decision is to inform. The result, though, is that each receives a five-year jail sentence, whereas if they had both stayed silent they would only have been imprisoned for a year. The reason neither opts for this strategy is that they cannot be sure that the other will do likewise. … It shows that two people, both acing rationally, produce a result that is bad for both of them.
(Sacks, Jonathan; The Dignity of Difference, p 145-6)

So, recognizing this is a game, not an actual criminal investigation, researchers looked for a way to broaden that scenario to allow repeated attempts at the game. What is lacking for self-interest to become ‘enlightened self-interest’ is trust. Trust is built. Thus, if there were a repetition of the scenario and the participants could discuss with each other before hand, then they could build trust – thus allowing for the best outcome for both players of this game.

How does this have anything to do with forgiveness? We’re getting there. The next step was the development of this Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma game into computer games. The basic formula the programmers used to simulate human response was called “Tit-for-Tat.” ‘What you did to me, I will do to you.’ This reciprocal version was defense enough against an aggressive player but would also reward am altruistic player. One analysis put it this way, “The more aggressive programs did well in the short run but lost out in the end by provoking retaliation.” (Sack, ibid)

This reminds me of that song by Sweet Honey in the Rock (called “Prayer” on their Sacred Ground CD,)

Lord, must I do unto others before they do unto me?
Must I arm myself, to protect myself, from harm and injury?
Oh no, that is not the lesson that I learned on my mother’s knee
When she told me to “do unto others only what I’d have them do unto me.”
-Ysaye Barnwell

And isn’t that something of what is wrong with the world today? When we hear about a ‘cycle of violence’ it is this reciprocal retaliation, measure for measure, response that leads to a bad result for both sides of the conflict. The fatal weakness of a measure for measure, tit-for-tat approach is found in a spiteful opponent that leads into the spiral of retaliation.

Certainly the aggressive player hits hard and does well in the short run, but eventually everyone loses with that tactic. “What Tit-for-Tat [really] showed was the survival value of reciprocal altruism,” the long-term value of cooperation. (Sacks, ibid)

Then, in the 80’s a mathematician named Nowak devised a small modification to the original program.

Randomly, but on average once every three or so moves, it overlooked the last move of its opponent. It had to do so randomly because if its behavior was predictable it could be taken into account by a ruthless predator. None the less the strategy was effective in remedying the great defect of its predecessor, namely the trap of retaliation, while retaining its immunity to exploitation by defectors. Nowak called his program Generous. What he had done was essentially to create a computer simulation of reconciliation. Forgetting is as close as a computer gets to forgiving. (Ibid p181)

I want to come back to that point about forgetting in a minute; but first, notice this: forgiveness is the element added to the mix that makes the building of a better world possible. It breaks the cycle. It forgoes the logical choice of ‘tit-for-tat,’ of giving back as good as you got.

Forgiveness is not logical, at least not in the immediate sense. “Randomly, but on average once every three or so moves, it overlooked the last move of its opponent.” To forgive is to overlook the offense. Not to overlook it in the sense of ignoring it – as the computer must do because the computer lacks the nuanced ability to actually forgive – but instead to overlook it in the sense of looking beyond that immediate offense to a higher view. To forgive is to overlook the offense by looking at the broadest view that yet still includes the reality of the offense!

This is not about forgetting. John F. Kennedy said, “Forgive your enemies but never forget their names.” Forgiveness is not about denial or pretending the hurt never happened. Forgiveness is a powerful process of turning toward the good despite the particulars of what is wrong. Forgiveness is a moral response to injustice that does not linger in the realm of legalism and fairness – laudable though the goal of fairness is in our world! Forgiveness moves into the realm of righteousness, the realm in which we ask – how can we make right this broken relationship among us. Though I have caused you an injury, how can we look toward a better world?

Forgiveness is not an excusing or condoning, glossing over or forgetting of an injustice. Were it so, forgiveness would indeed be cheap and of little worth. But no, forgiveness is real – extraordinary and paradoxical – but entirely possible. I believe that at our best we strive for fairness in an unfair world. We strive to bring justice where there are colossal levels of injustice. Yet all too often life is not fair and people are not just. There is suffering, there is hate, there is violence and war and abuse. And so there is also kindness, and so there is also mercy, and so there is also forgiveness. And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. (Julian of Norwich) For so, there is also love.

On the global stage today there are countless examples of the tit-for-tat game being played out with real lives. There is no trust and so weighing the odds, both sides decide to attack and then count-attack. This game is played with words and with legislation and with bullets and with bombs. But when we add what the computer programmer called ‘generosity,’ when every so often someone chooses to overlook their opponent’s last move, then something else begins. Another possibility opens, one that leads to repairing the damage, one that leads to forgiveness, one that builds a better world.

Consider the situations in your own life in which you find yourself injured in some way and considering your response. Consider the situations in which you have caused injury to another and, in fairness, the other could offer you measure for measure. But every so often someone chooses to overlook their opponent’s last move, and something else can begin: something that can lead to forgiveness. It really does happen; I am sure of it. I have experienced it. After all, the world goes mad one person at a time, and the world is saved in exactly the same way.

In a world without end,
may it be so