There is a profound and puzzling moment in Werner Herzog’s film ‘Into the Abyss’ that has had me thinking for days in the wake of my viewing. The sister/daughter of two victims of the senseless crime (triple homicide in order to steal a car and gate clicker control) depicted in the film is left without a family, and comes face to face with the execution of one of the two perpetrators. She watches him as he is killed by lethal injection.
She feels like a huge weight has been lifted.
…Another life is taken.
The film poses searching questions about the inscrutable simplicity of the human soul (we are staring deep into the abyss of it). How can such mindless, nihilistic crimes be committed? Why does God let capital punishment take place? Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel.
It’s a moving, harrowing and quite astonishing film. Herzog had no more than an hour with each interviewee – the sister, the two perpetrators, the brother of the third victim, the pastor from the death house, a death house captain, death-row junkie (who is now married to one of the perpetrators) and others.
One of the two perpetrators was sentenced to death, the other was given life in prison (different trial, different jury). We hear about how before his death the one who would receive the lethal injection had told the sister/daughter of the victims that he had forgiven her.
He had forgiven HER.
She didn’t get this, and frankly I’m not surprised. What did he mean? Surely forgiveness was out of his control – it was hers to give, she was the victim. How could he forgive her, she hadn’t done anything?
I was thinking about this – obviously I don’t know what he had meant (his intentions etc). Perhaps he had convinced himself that he had not committed the crime that he HAD indisputably committed. There were strong hints towards this; the whole process had clearly psychologically affected him in dark and perculiar ways.
But whatever he had meant was kind of irrelevant.
What it did do though was open up a potentially amazing encounter with freedom for her in the future. That he had forgiven her meant that she would not have that burden of guilt, whether she ever experienced it or not, for witnessing his life being taken (or anything else involving him). She had been forgiven, she didn’t know for what and she didn’t feel it justified, in that moment she felt nothing she had to be forgiven for – to the extent the she was understandably angry with the notion.
“I forgive you”
That is the ultimate gift. You can’t reject it. It doesn’t justify what was done, it doesn’t mean she has to ever forgive him for what he did. But she can’t get away from the fact that she is forgiven. It might mean nothing to her, it might come to mean everything.
Often we think of forgiveness in terms of something WE give to people who ‘wrong us’. Or something we buy from God in exchange for repentance.
It’s easy TO forgive.
It’s much harder to BE forgiven
Our egos won’t allow it, our guilt rejects it, and our rational mind searches for the economic transaction we are surely involved with.
The truth is, forgiveness – true forgiveness, can’t be bought, it can’t be sold, it is the ultimate gift. Forgiveness comes BEFORE and not dependent upon repentance. To truly forgive is to do so before any apology has come, before any admission of guilt and before any understanding of what we need forgiving for.
That is the gift.
It makes both zero and absolute complete sense at the same time.
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