In the Buffy episode “I Only Have Eyes For You” (season 2, episode 19), Sunnydale High has a poltergeist. The ghost of a student from four decades previous, James, possesses various people to work out an unresolved issue by playing out over and over again the night he shot and killed his teacher and lover, Miss Newman, then turned the gun on himself. Angry and tormented, James does this in pursuit of forgiveness and experiencing a new, happy ending to his tragic story. To which Giles concludes, after thinking all of this out loud, “Forgiveness is impossible.”
“Good,” Buffy says. “He doesn’t deserve it.” Buffy’s harsh reply reminded me of a conversation I had not too long ago, in which a friend of mine railed at length against certain figures in the media who profess to be Christian. My friend refuses to validate these people and call them Christian, because he insists they haven’t “earned” it.
Well, my friend is right about the latter bit: they haven’t “earned” it at all. If salvation was something any of us could earn, then Jesus as we know him, from a basic, mainstream, Pauline Christianity standpoint, died in vain. Jesus died and rose again so that we may have salvation: something we need but cannot achieve on our own strength. Like the apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2.8 (NIV): “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift from God.” Or, as Giles explained, “To forgive is an act of compassion, Buffy. It’s not done because people deserve it. It’s done because they need it.”
Giles described James’s situation as a purgatory, but to my untrained eye, with all of James’s unquenchable rage and strife, it really looks more like a hell. If James could get out of his hell by himself, this Buffy episode would not exist, because this cycle James is in wouldn’t have begun in the first place. James is far too lost in his own anger and sadness to forgive himself; he needs the outside help of Miss Newman’s forgiveness to save him. What’s more, James’s hell is in turn making hell for other people when he possesses them, in one case causing the janitor to shoot a faculty member.
So in that context of how James cannot get out of his hell without forgiveness he does not deserve and cannot earn, and how that lack of forgiveness, in extension, hurts others, why is it still hard for Buffy to understand why James should be forgiven? Even after she herself is possessed by James, experiences the whole thing from his eyes, and can, in retrospect, see herself in James, Buffy admits, “A part of me just doesn’t understand why she should forgive him.” Why is this so difficult for Buffy?
As the old saying goes, “To forgive is divine.” Forgiveness requires transcendence. It might mean transcendence from (letting go of) our own, old understandings of justice. Or transcendence from emotional ties to opportunities lost. Transcendence from any way we’ve centered our identity on how we’ve been wronged or done wrong to others...
What do you think? Why is it so hard to forgive? What else might one have to transcend to get there?