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Malcolm Gladwell tells of the power of forgiveness

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Malcom Gladwell was in Salt Lake Tuesday night, speaking at the inaugural Sam Rich Lecture Series, hosted by the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Gladwell is the author of several international best sellers, "The Tipping Point", "Blink" and "Outliers". His brand new book is "David and Goliath," which deals with the surprising powers of underdogs and the way in which opposition and trauma can often produce stronger human beings.

The main event Tuesday was at a sold out lecture Abravanel Hall, but Gladwell visited with the Deseret News prior to the event.

DN: You have said in the run-up to this book that writing it has reaffirmed or rekindled your own faith, and you have pointed specifically to the Anabaptist tradition, which does feature prominently in the book. Could you tell us in a little more detail the impact that this had on your faith?

MG: I was raised in a very religious family in a part of Ontario that is one of the strongholds of the Mennonite church. So that was all around me growing up. My family has remained very much in the religious tradition, and I moved away and drifted away. But it's true, doing this book, I had this chapter about this woman, Wilma Derksen, whose daughter was murdered by a sexual predator, and who forgives her daughter's murderer.

And I thought that story was so extraordinary, and what she did was so incredible. Her reason was very simple. The Mennonite tradition takes forgiveness very seriously, and their response to the persecution that they suffered­­ — they were in Russia for many years, where they were profoundly persecuted, and subject to some of the same pogroms as the Jews were — their response was that they would always forgive their tormentors and move on with their lives.

And she drew strength from that tradition, and from her own faith, to do something that I thought was impossible, that for most of us would be impossible. I don't know how anyone can turn their back on that story, on that example of the power of faith.

DN: It's almost actually identical to the story of the Amish community in Pennsylvania in 2006, where five girls were killed and five others injured, and the response was the same.

MG: There are numerous stories in the Anabaptist tradition of these extraordinary acts of forgiveness. But it's one thing to read about them, and it's another thing to sit across the table from a woman telling you about her own story and her own daughter.

DN: Did you catch that the courts have overturned the conviction, and there will probably be a new trial?

MG: She emailed me. She said, you know, that the beautiful thing about forgiveness that her peace of mind is not contingent on the legal system disposing of the case in a way that is fair and just. She has made her peace with herself and with God.

In the book I compare the way she dealt with her tragedy with an almost identical case of a family losing a teenage daughter, where the response of the family was profoundly different, it was to start a crusade in their state to dramatically toughen criminal penalties.

I happen to disagree with that policy, but that's not the real issue. The real issue was the way that that family in California reacted to tragedy was not ultimately successful, in the sense that it did not bring peace and closure to their lives. If you pin your hopes on the way the world out there is going to go about its business, you're taking an enormous risk. The outcome of the extraordinarily courageous act that Wilma Derksen took was that she found some measure of peace in the midst of all of this horror.

DN: You have said that the Mennonite tradition is your family's tradition "now." Could you clarify the now?

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.

MG: This is a chapter about the civil rights movement, and it's about Birmingham, which may be the pivotal moment in the history of the civil rights movement. It's the fight that turns the tide for King, and in general for those who are fighting for equal rights for African-Americans. It's the story of how you fight a fight if you've got nothing because King had nothing in Birmingham. Things were going terribly for him. And he was up against the most implacable foe that he faced in all of his time in the South. And the answer is when you got nothing, what do you do? You play tricks. You use your wits.

King had this deputy named Wyatt Walker who was one of the cleverest men in the movement, who outwitted not just Bull Connor, a white supremacist leader in Birmingham, Alabama, but also a lot of the news media down there who were covering it.

It's uplifting, it's hilarious, and it's a little bit uncomfortable story. I don't want to give it away. Here's where I say, you're just going to have to read the book. But it comes down to a very, very famous photograph that is not what it seems.

There was a famous black preacher in Birmingham named Fred Shuttlesworth, who we spent a lot of time with my book. He's about 5’ 2”, and about 100 pounds sopping wet, and he is the most indomitable, unshakable force in the civil rights movement. And when people were coming down on Martin Luther King for sending the children in the march against Bull Connor, and Fred Shuttlesworth just shrugged and said, "you use what you've got." And that's a beautiful way of summing up what the underdog does.

The underdog is someone who doesn't have a lot, and that means they have to do things that are a little bit out there. And that's King in Birmingham.

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com