Is forgiveness the same thing in all cultures and times?

We talk about forgiveness as if it has universal meaning, but should we be talking about early 21st Century forgiveness in Western cultures, rather than a generic “forgiveness?” Should we presume that forgiveness is not the same everywhere and across all time of human history?

Although there are wide cultural and religious differences among the Hawaiian family ritual of Ho-O-Pono-Pono, the discipline of forgiveness in the Jewish customs of Yom Kipper, and the sacrament of Penance within Catholicism, this does not mean that each is dissimilar at the core. The behaviors manifested in these three kinds of forgiveness differ, but all three are concerned about confronting injustice with love. All three acknowledge that there is right and wrong; all three acknowledge resentment or some kind of moral response to wrong; and all three see forgiveness as a merciful response of goodness toward the offender(s). At their core, these three seemingly disparate cultures and/or religions share much in common.

Across time, we have ancient stories of forgiveness that do not differ from the present day. In Hebrew writings, there is Joseph forgiving his brothers, and we see an unconditional, merciful response to their injustices against him. In Christian scripture, there is the father of the prodigal son offering him acceptance and love in the face of injustice. In Muslim writings there is a parallel story to Joseph, also showing mercy in the face of wrongdoing. Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and other ancient literature are more alike than different in describing what forgiveness is. The preserved meaning has not changed to this day.

Might we come across a culture that defines forgiveness very differently than those above? Might we come across a culture that condemns forgiveness as unnecessary or unimportant? Perhaps, but it seems just as likely to find a culture that de-values justice and honors cheating and lying and murder. No such culture to date has been found. While it is true that different cultures might give different examples of what constitutes a just action, all cultures honor just action.

Is forgiveness the same thing in all cultures and times? Despite wide cultural nuances, it appears to be so.

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