Forgiven, Not Forgotten: Irish Wisdom for Americans
This is not the post I had planned to share today. I had prepared a light-hearted piece on Irish folk heroes, how they’re portrayed in song versus who they were in reality. While a distracting bit of fun is helpful, especially in times of crisis, I don’t feel comfortable publishing it today after Wednesday’s attack on the U.S. Capitol Building, a coup attempt instigated by the current U.S. President which left four people dead. Thankfully, once the building was secured, the Congress returned to doing its duty and verified the election of Joe Biden as the next President. I take encouragement from the fact that our republic still stands and that this country’s democratic electoral process has withstood the numerous attempts, since the November election, to thwart it. That said, anger among Americans has reached a boiling point and the potential for further violence is all too real. So I’ve decided today to share a reflection on a piece of wisdom—small but powerful—that Americans need to learn from the Irish.
The Deadly Spiral
As a second-generation Irish-American Catholic, born in 1960, I grew up praying for peace in Ireland. My understanding, as a small child, was that the Irish were fighting because they disagreed about religion. I prayed for them but I also shook my head at them. I had lots of Protestant friends plus a number of Jewish ones. I couldn’t understand why the Irish couldn’t be religiously tolerant and just get along. As I said, I was a child and didn’t realize the reason for the violence was complicated. Then again, by the time I was in my late twenties and actively involved in peace and justice movements, I met many adults who dismissed The Troubles as nothing more than religious intolerance. In our prayer meetings, my peace and justice friends would pray for an end to wars on the African continent as well as for peace in Central America. When I offered a prayer for an end to the violence in Northern Ireland, my companions rolled their eyes. I asked them why they had no compassion for the Irish and was told—I’m paraphrasing here—that the Irish are a bunch of stupid white people who need to get over their petty intolerance. Intuitively, I felt sure there was more to it than that, so I began to study Irish history.
What I discovered was an 800-year history of invasions, land seizures, oppression, injustice, and even attempted genocide. I learned that the violence had more to do with the efforts of the natives to reclaim their lands, dignity, human rights, and cultural identity than it did with religion. But since both groups involved in the conflict were white, religion was a way to tell one side from the other (the Gaelic-Irish tend to be Catholic and the Anglo-Irish, i.e., the invaders, tend to be Protestant). While I am deeply opposed to violence, I could, upon examining the history and the reasons for the violence, understand why the Irish reacted violently to having their freedom and human rights taken away. Irish history is a series of violent uprising after violent uprising, a centuries-long response to the injustices perpetrated upon the natives. The problem is that the rebellions resulted in a violent response from the British. So it a deadly, apparently never-ending cycle developed.
Until the Irish said, “Enough!” Both sides declared, “This has got to stop!”
A Different Tact
In the history books, the end to the violence was brought about by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, but it really started with the regular people deciding they were through with all the death and destruction. Violence may have seemed a necessary tool but they had used it for centuries and the only result was death. You may argue that the fighting bore some fruit. After all, The Easter Rising of 1916 led to the War for Irish Independence which ultimately resulted in the establishment of The Republic of Ireland. But I’d argue back that the creation of The Republic didn’t stop the violence. It continued in the six counties in the north, aka, Northern Ireland and didn’t end even with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It didn’t end until the people stood up and said, “All this is getting us is dead,” and they decided to try a different tact.
That brings me to my favorite piece of Irish wisdom: “Forgiven, Not Forgotten.” When Americans think about the Troubles, they tend to think exclusively about the IRA bombing people and places. The terrorist group was nationalist (they wanted a united Ireland) and was associated with the Catholics. What most Americans don’t know is that there were Protestant terrorist groups, as well, who were Unionists (they wanted Northern Ireland to remain a part of the UK). Both organizations killed a lot of people, innocent people who had taken no part in the terrorist activities. Both sides—nationalist and unionist, Protestant and Catholic—suffered a lot of hurt. Healing those wounds seemed a nearly impossible task. But the people who had had enough of the bombings and the killings and the other kinds of violence were determined to find a way. And they did. They realized the only way to heal and the only path to a viable future was to forgive each other.
In my spiritual journey, I have learned that forgiveness doesn’t mean acting as if the harm that was done to you was insignificant. It also doesn’t mean you have to feel warm and fuzzy towards the other person. Forgiveness is an act of the will. You choose to let go of any desire for retribution or vengeance. Instead, you genuinely wish the person well. Forgiveness really isn’t so much about the other person. It helps for you; it gives peace. Continually simmering anger, bitterness, and resentment eat away at you. The Irish made the decision to forgive so they could let go of the energy-consuming anger towards the other side, stop the cycle of violence, and get on with their lives.
Some people say, “I forgive you but I will never forget.” They mean they are going to hold onto resentment and, many times in the future, they’re going to remind you of what you did to them. That’s not true forgiveness since the injured person never gets past the hurt. It also is not what the Irish “Forgiven, Not Forgotten” means. As I said above, the forgiveness part allows the injured person to let go of grievances and move forward in peace. The “Not Forgotten” part doesn’t mean staying stuck in the pain, never allowing the wound to heal. The lesson from the Irish is this: let go of the anger, let the past stay in the past, but never forget what happened. That may seem contradictory but it’s not. The Irish decided to let go of the centuries of anger and pain but they vowed never to forget what happened or why. They wanted to remember in order to keep it—the injustice, the seething rage, the violence, and the resulting pain and loss—from ever happening again.
What has any of this got to do with what is going on in the U.S.? For the past decade or so, anger, division, and resentment from grievances (real and perceived) has been growing. Concurrently, there has been an increasing lack of respect and civility. American society has begun to splinter into tribes and the mindset of “if you’re not one of us, you’re one of them—and they are our enemy” has taken root. The result is violence. Now people attack each other verbally and sometimes physically over issues such as whether or not to use a mail-in ballot to vote and whether or not to wear a mask during a pandemic of a highly contagious, deadly virus. This festering hostility in U.S. society manifested itself on Wednesday in the form of domestic terrorism and an attempted coup. I’m not saying the assault on the U.S. Capital Building was due to justifiable anger. It wasn’t. I vehemently condemn it just as I would a bombing by the IRA. However, the rest of us non-terrorist Americans need to take that heinous attack as a wake up call.
We have a choice. We can stop the divisiveness, the name-calling, and the tribalism. We can stop grouping people into them and us, and return to being we. We can have our differences of perspective and politics and still treat each other with the civility and human dignity each of us deserves. We can even discuss our differing points of view and grow from that experience.
We need to learn from the hard-earned wisdom of the Irish. Hatred and violence don’t help; they only hurt. If the Irish could reconcile and build a peaceful society together after centuries of violence, surely we Americans can forgive one another our differences and work together to build a better future.
Or we can kill one other.
I pray we follow the way of Irish wisdom.
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