Guest forum host Alan Jones welcomes acclaimed writer, producer, and director Helen Whitney for a conversation about forgiveness. This forum includes clips from her new PBS film Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate, which explores the concept and practice of forgiveness through a compelling range of stories, from personal betrayal to global reconciliation after genocide. The film was aired on PBS on April 17 and 24, 2011.
Whitney did not choose forgiveness—a vast, terrifying topic, in her words—as the subject for a film. “A mysterious stranger out of the blue offered me this film, fully funded, which is so rare for a filmmaker,” she says, “and I resisted it.” Whitney saw danger not only in the size and amorphousness of the topic (which her daughter described as a “loose, baggy sock”), but also the sentimentality and “New Age pieties” associated with the idea of forgiveness.
The prologue from the film asserts that for eons forgiveness belonged to religions, but that it has now escaped the pulpit.
Now the idea of forgiveness is everywhere. It has emerged as the counterpart of universal shaming made possible by technology. Twelve-step programs worldwide include the imperative to seek forgiveness. The post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began its many years of work in the 1990s, enabled the people of South Africa to move beyond decades of the worst kind of evil and trauma. In the United States, following the murder of Amish children in a school in 2006, the Amish community forgave swiftly and completely; many news consumers were baffled as well as moved.
It is easy to see the trivialization of forgiveness in coverage of any celebrity apology tour; but Whitney also perceives danger in the process. It can take years or even generations for great wrongs to be forgiven. “There is an intricate choreography that needs to be gone through,” Whitney asserts. She holds up as the gold standard for a national apology a period in Australia, during which the government slowly admitted wrongful treatment of the aboriginal people. It took a decade for the country to move from public pressure and government denials to a nationwide ceremony, including a powerful apology by the prime minister, broadcast live on television in 2008.
Although it cannot be forced, “sometimes forgiveness is born out of a pragmatism,” Whitney believes. With 150,000 men in jail in Rwanda following the genocide of 1994, the courts could not try them all. The necessity to balance forgiveness and justice was ultimately placed on villages where massacres had taken place—where victims, survivors, and the guilty lived side by side.
Forgiveness may be hard to bring about, but Whitney finds it indispensible. “Who of us in this room has not injured someone? Who has not been injured? Who has not carried with them resentment and anger and understood at a deep and visceral level how corrosive those can be?” she asks.
About Helen Whitney
Helen Whitney is an award-winning producer, director and writer of documentaries. Her features have aired on PBS, HBO and ABC and include a portrait of a Trappist monastery and the impact of Pope John Paul II on contemporary culture.