Spirit Quest


By The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan

The Reverend Doctor Hanns F. Skoutajan

When recently it was mooted that one of the conspirators for the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre might be released from Guantanamo when it is closed later this year, there was anger especially among those who had lost a friend, or a loved one in the Manhattan Holocaust. The wife of a fireman who died in the wreckage spoke out strongly, that she was being denied "closure."

Last year In a village a few miles from Kandahar, a family was grieving the loss of their two children, a daughter 4 and a son 2. They were killed by Canadian military personnel who feared that the fast moving vehicle they saw was an insurgent bomber.

The situation is precarious. Many Canadian soldiers have been wounded and killed by the insurgency and these soldiers had their finger poised over the trigger of their weapon. However, according to Pashtun tradition it is more than permissible for the next of kin to seek retribution. The father of the children has indeed sworn vengeance.

"An eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth," the Old testamental "Lex Talionis" is very much in force in primitive societies throughout the world. It is a way of finding "closure:" for their grieving. The Canadian compensation of $2 — $9,000 to those who have suffered loss may be welcome but by no way assuages the injury suffered. It is understandable.

"Closure" — I am trying to remember when I first heard this word used to describe a way of putting the past behind, writing an end to suffering and getting on with life. There is no doubt that closure is an important experience. Unfortunately it has often involved vengeance, getting even by making someone pay. Thus it is that relatives of a murder victim in the United States come to Huntsville, Texas to witness the execution of the perpetrator. Seeing the murderer die, they believe, gives them closure, an end to their unrequited sense of justice, to select an extreme example.

I believe in the importance of closure, but is it the "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" balancing act that satisfies the sense of hurt or deprivation? The loss of a loved one and the terrible wounding of another by a drunken driver that so often are recorded in our press, can it really be compensated for in any way? Surely that loss is too great to be balanced off by anything that can be done to the perpetrator.

Jesus of Nazareth, the wise rabbi, prophet or "son of God", if you will, inveighed against the Lex Talionis. He called on people to forgive, to come to a reconciliation, a peace treaty between the offender and the offended. I cannot see how any follower of this Jesus could possibly support capital punishment which in fact makes reconciliation impossible.

The missionary couple who had been working with orphans in Kenya when they were brutally attacked, slashed by machetes, raped and left for dead, had a better way. They prayed and forgave their attackers and intended to stay and continue the mission to which they believed they were called by God. It was only on the insistence of their family that they returned to Canada. They hope someday to return to Africa to continue their work. Though their bodies were severely wounded, their spirits bear no malice.

Closure can only be achieved within our psyches. Closure based on revenge simply pastes over the pain, palliates for a time but never heals the wound. The laceration festers on.

True closure requires a process of spiritual healing. It isn’t easy and often very painful. I have been amazed at the peace of mind and sense of compassion demonstrated by those who have managed to overcome hatred and the hunger for revenge. They are those who have turned their loss into a means of dealing with other’s suffering, have dedicated their lives to working for peace and justice. They have looked beyond the crime and have recognized that the criminal also is a victim.

But then I’m a softy, a bleeding heart, one who fortunately has never been a victim of any consequence, and I thank God for that. But I have heard about great changes brought about by Healing Circles as practiced by some of our First Nations people to deal with offenders, or the changes brought about by Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I hope that that same means will bring about closure to the pain and suffering caused by the Residential Schools operated by churches in this country. I attend a church in Ottawa that has Circles of Support that help those who have come out of prisons to become reintegrated with society.

Unfortunately our criminal justice system often fails to bring about "corrections." Building super jails to warehouse offenders for a prescribed period of time does little to change and reform criminals unless that time is used in creative ways. It is counter productive to "lock them up and throw the key away, to let them rot in jail." Most inmates will some day walk our streets again. What kind of persons will they be? And what kind of persons are we who bask in revenge?

Was the divine teacher completely unrealistic when he encouraged people to love one another, even those who have wronged us? Or did he know that reconciliation is the only road to closure? His spirit is much in need in our time, in Afghanistan, in Gaza, the United States as well as Canada.

I believe there is a spirit of forgiveness a ’movin’ in our midst. I see its embodiment often.

6 February 2009

Hanns Skoutajan is author of Uprooted and Transplanted, and The Road to Peace, both available at Canada Books on Line. A documentary film: Hitler's German Foes is based on his first book. He is currently Ecumenical Associate at The Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist, Ottawa. — Mike Heenan, Literary Editor