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Malcolm Gladwell tells of the power of forgiveness

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5 2013 11:55 p.m. MST

MG: We were immigrants to southern Ontario. We came from England. My father came out of the Brethren tradition in England, and my mother was an Anglican, a Jamaican Anglican, which by the way, is a very different kind of thing from an English Anglican, as you can imagine. So we went to the Presbyterian church in town. What has happened over the last 10 years is that every other member of my family has gravitated to the Mennonite church. My brother married a Mennonite pastor, and my parents finally gave in to peer pressure, and started going to the Mennonite church. So they've all become Mennonites, and my brother hangs out with all these Mennonite pastors: it's his world now.

DN: The sense in the book is that the pacifism strain in the Mennonite tradition is one thing that really attracts you.

MG: Yeah, it does. The final chapter in the book is about the Huguenots, and their role in France during the second world war, when they were willing to take the enormous risk of harboring Jews in occupied France. And the Huguenots, of course, do not fight. They are pacifists. They won't tell lies, and they live according to an extraordinarily strict moral code.

Now you could have long arguments about whether pacifism is the correct course, when you are faced with something like the Nazi threat. I don't necessarily take one side or the other. I understand and appreciate and have enormous sympathy for the logic of their position. And they did fight Nazis, but in their own way. Their way of fighting it was to stand up and say to any Jewish refugee in France, "come to our town, and we will treat you as if you are our own brother." And they put their lives on the line for the Jewish people in a way that very few French people actually did.

Pacifism does not mean a reluctance to take on evil. It means, in the best sense, that you take on evil in a different form.

DN: So you find it attractive, but you are not necessarily a wholesale pacifist?

MG: I’ve never been called on to fight a war, so I don't know how I'd feel. I also have tremendous respect for those who fought the Germans in the Second World War, or who fought to defend this country in numerous wars.

I have been extraordinarily privileged to never have to make a decision for myself. But I do know that I don't judge people who hold the position of pacifism, because I believe that to be as brave and this principled a position as they are those who risk their lives in a traditional way to fight for their country.

DN: Your book deals a lot with forgiveness, but also deals with opposition, especially the emotional and physical trauma that can produce very strong people. Have you thought of this in the context of the problem of evil and the possibility that God might use that kind of opposition for his purposes?

MG: You mean does God test us?

DN: I mean to help us grow.

MG: In the book I talk about Dr. Emil Freireich who undertakes this bold experiment in oncology, and find the strength to do that and to defy the opinion of everyone about him. He finds the strength in his own childhood, which was about as bleak and miserable childhood you can have.

Without the suffering he underwent as a child, and without the lessons he learned from that suffering, he would tell you that he would never have found the strength that he did to pursue the ideas that resulted in curing childhood leukemia.

Can you look at that and come to the conclusion that there was something providential about what he went through as a child? I think you can. Not everyone will draw that same conclusion, but he comes to the conclusion and I find his arguments pretty convincing. And I think things in the world happen for a reason.

And when you see repeated examples of the extraordinary things that are possible in the face of adversity, it's not hard to draw conclusion that there is a reason we have to fight these fights. This is not a masochistic impulse on the part of the Creator.

DN: One of the most poignant parts of your book centers on a photo that is reproduced in the book that was taken in Birmingham, Alabama.

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