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Video Review: Being with the energy of forgiveness: Lessons from former enemies in restorative dialogue

Nov 11, 2014

Being with the energy of forgiveness: Lessons from former enemies in restorative dialogue; Producer: Mark Umbreit; 2013; 27 Minutes

reviewed by Dan Van Ness:

In these days, mentioning of the word ‘forgiveness’ in a support group of severe-crime victims can set off an electrical charge that fills the air. But there are some victims, with the help of restorative justice facilitators, who choose to meet with their offenders in order to find greater peace within themselves. What is it that drives such victims forward?

Drawing from over three decades of experience with facilitating dialogue for victims and offenders, Dr. Mark Umbreit has produced this very helpful documentary that explores the meaning of, the possibilities for, and the processes that allow forgiveness to happen even if the words are never spoken. This is especially true for victims of serious offenses. In many ways, he says, forgiveness often operates like a positive source of energy that can overcome the negative energies stemming from a tragic crime.

The documentary begins by introducing restorative dialogue as an opportunity for those most affected by a crime to come face-to-face – after preparation – to develop ways to deal with the crime. It then tells four stories of conflict, the people and communities who were involved in the conflict, and how their experience in restorative dialogue connects to their understanding of forgiveness.

As Umbreit points out, there are many definitions of forgiveness and just as wide a range of feelings about the concept. For some in the victim community it is the “F” word, he says. For others it is something that can be extended through force of will alone. For some it is an imperative; for others it is unlikely to ever be extended. What is clear, however, is that when victims and offenders have a safe space for uninterrupted, heart-to-heart conversation, some sort of positive shift happens for them. 

Around 10 minutes into the video, Umbreit offers his definition of what he calls authentic forgiveness: “It is a gift of awakening, a freeing of one’s spirit, a release of long-held toxic energy. Forgiveness is more of a direction than a destination; a way of life grounded in a spirit of humility and compassion.”

This is not a hard, precise definition. Watching the four stories, one can see why Umbreit is hesitant to be more definitive. We meet Mary, the mother of a young man who was murdered, and Oshea, the man who killed him as a young man. After attempting to forgive Oshea, Mary discovered that she was filled with bitterness, hatred and anger. Twelve years after the crime, the two met together in a facilitated restorative dialogue, and each tells a very compelling and moving story of the process that led Mary to extend what certainly appears to be authentic forgiveness.

Then we meet Pam, whose father was murdered. Twenty years later she met the man who killed him in a restorative dialogue. She is not ready to forgive him, but felt that in the context of sorrow and anger she was given a moment of grace. She now does not bear anger and hostility toward the offender to the degree that she once did. 

Then we listen to two people who participated in a circle on the topic of sexual abuse by clergy. One is the mother of a boy who was abused by a priest and who at age 18 committed suicide. The other is a clergyman who participated in an investigation of how the church responded to the allegations. Although the abusing priest was not part of the circle, both the mother and the clergyman spoke of the healing power of the circle. For the mother it was the opportunity to tell her story calmly in a setting where she was heard. For the priest, it was hearing victims and survivors tell their stories to people who listened respectfully and did not – as he felt the church had done – dismiss them.

Finally we meet two participants of the Native American/Somali Friendship Committee that organized in response to rising tensions in a changing neighborhood. Somali refugees moved into a neighborhood that had been predominantly Native American, and hostility and violence began to build. When the documentary was filmed, members of both groups had been meeting monthly for two-and-a-half years. At the beginning the conversation was angry and negative, but over time they developed respect and understanding for each other.

Umbreit makes clear that he does not have answers to the hard questions about forgiveness. But, he argues, when people engage in restorative dialogue in safe places, they begin to connect with the humanity of the other, and that is the beginning of forgiveness. The real paradox of forgiveness is that the deepest experiences of being unburdened by past pain -- for both the victim and the offender -- occur more often for participants when forgiveness language is not prescribed or even spoken.

The video has been showing on PBS stations in numerous states and is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8OUnOpbmb7g.

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