It seems at times that revenge fuels our culture. What’s more satisfying than a film in which victims exact (or extract) a pound or two of bloody flesh from perpetrators? Or to see your political foes humiliated? Or your cheating friends exposed, or your bully classmates embarrassed? Revenge is the full flower of anger; it’s justice, it’s everything that’s right in the world! Whew, that felt good.
Forgiveness has none of revenge’s jazzy appeal. It sounds wimpy and wrong. You want the “quality of mercy”? Here’s your “quality of mercy” — on the point of a spear.
Dean Seal is fighting this thirst for revenge and arguing that forgiveness makes more sense. Seal is executive director of Spirit in the House, a nonprofit organization that uses performing arts to explore spiritual issues. This weekend and next, the group is putting on “Forgiveness 360,” a symposium of theater, spoken word, films and workshops in collaboration with Concordia University in St. Paul.
Seal, along with others involved in what might be called the forgiveness movement, refute the notion that forgiveness is for the weak. In fact, they contend, it requires more courage and discipline than revenge.
“Forgiveness does not grant absolution,” Seal said. “It is about letting go of anger so you can get on with your life. It’s not about forgetting. It’s about not letting the pain overwhelm you.”
This is the second year of “Forgiveness 360,” which uses several performance styles to convey its message. The highlight of last year’s symposium was a play based on the experience of Marietta Jaeger, a Montana woman who forgave the kidnapper and murderer of her daughter.
“She wanted to kill him and she wondered what that was doing to her,” Seal said. “The play was about how she came to forgive him. Her message was, ‘I can’t do this myself. I had to ask for help every day.’ ”
TPT-TV recorded a post-show discussion between the audience and Jaeger. The result of that has been played more than 20 times on TPT MN.
Seal said performance helps audiences identify with their own stories.
“When we hear someone else tell their story, it gives us a handle on how to organize our own,” he said. “Especially with trauma, we gain some control over it, instead of it having control over us.”
This year, the symposium will feature Mark Rosenwinkel’s play “Stone Hearts,” about a Muslim teenager who comes of age during the Bosnian War and confronts issues of revenge and forgiveness. Rosenwinkel heads the theater department at Concordia. Storyteller Nancy Donoval’s “No Silence, No Shame” is her account of how she dealt with date rape. Two films, Patrick Coyle’s “Into Temptation” and “The Final Gift” by Terese Bartholomew, focus on confession and forgiveness. The keynote speaker is Marina Cantacuzino, who founded the Forgiveness Project, an initiative started in Britain, and is a Huffington Post correspondent.
Spirit in the House’s focus on forgiveness has also caught the attention of Krista Tippett, creator of the public radio show “On Being.”
“I’m a big fan,” Tippett said of Seal. “He’s doing something that’s speaking to a void in the world. People are interested in this, but they are unable to get their hands around it.”
Theater and spirituality
Seal, 58, established Spirit in the House after several years as a theatrical promoter — first at Bryant-Lake Bowl and then as executive producer of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, which he expanded to the largest nonjuried Fringe in the United States.
After leaving the Fringe in 2001, Seal pursued a master of arts degree in theology and the arts at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton. He also earned a master of divinity in 2005 and spent three years as a part-time youth minister for a Presbyterian church in Burnsville. He left to found Spirit in the House and to become an adjunct instructor at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
Forgiveness, Seal points out, is a common thread of every religious tradition. It is intended to cleanse a person of anger and resentment and to set relationships right.
“The Buddha said that holding on to anger is like holding a hot coal in your hand so you can throw it at someone else,” Seal said. “But even outside of religion, there are nearly 100 cardio studies that show the benefits.”
In particular, he cites Dr. Frederic Luskin of Stanford University (who spoke at Augsburg last year), who has researched the role of forgiveness in reducing stress, increasing physical vitality and optimism.
“Fred stands up there and says, ‘Look, I’m a secular Jew, but I’m telling you that this is science; it’s good for your heart,’ ” Seal said. “Forgiveness can save marriages, bring peace to warring nations and create an environment of cooperation and compromise that can untangle the mess in Washington.”
Tippett, while not formally involved with Spirit in the House’s efforts, endorsed the symposium for animating the concept of forgiveness with “three-dimensional lives.”
“Forgiveness is muscular; it’s not flaky,” Tippett said. “It’s not about forgetting but facing reality and making a choice of who you want to be. It’s the work of many years and an incredible inner discipline.”
Tippett cites the work of University of Miami researcher Michael McCullough, who proposes that revenge and the instinct for forgiveness are both hard-wired in the human mind.
“But we get a lot more support in our culture for revenge and not forgiveness,” she said. “If you use the word in conversation, you think of forgiving, having a hug, an exchange and some absolution. It is more complicated than that.”