Our Forgiveness Blog

Reflection on the Previous Week

It is the weekend, a time for some renewal and reflection. This was a busy week, with forgiveness workshops touching lives in Verona, Wisconsin; Dublin, Ireland; Belfast, Northern Ireland; the Philippines; Italy, and other places.

I am left with a burning question: Will those who hear the message of The Forgiving Communities forget about it as quickly as they heard about it? We are in a sea of noise and each voice, each tone, each loud crash competes for our attention. How does one rise above it all to accomplish something as quiet and gentle and courageous as forgiveness in this context?

Sometimes the message is bound to fall flat, but when it does not, what are the crucial ingredients that have risen above the competition for one’s time and energy? For one and only one of those ingredients, I think it takes at least two very dedicated people to team together and never, ever give up. The teaming up has to involve the message, heard over and over, that forgiveness matters: in the individual heart, in families, and in communities.

As it says in the Hebrew Proverb (18), a brother helped is like a strong city. The key is to be unwavering together, especially when criticisms come or distractions tempt which in the long-run really do not matter.

I think we have found these two brothers, well, sisters actually, in Lynn and Noreen in Dublin. Each has the heart of a lion. Dublin and all of Ireland is collectively in need of forgiving, given the history of that region and the current economic struggles. Forgiveness is one piece to putting all of the pieces back together for a thriving Ireland.

My personal thanks to Lynn and Noreen. May we walk together for a long, long time in service to our brothers and sisters in need of forgiving and being forgiven.

A Critique of the Prologue to PBS’s New Film

In April, a new documentary will be shown on PBS television: “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.” This raises a central question: Is there ever a time to hate? Surely there are times when people hate, but should we set aside a time for hating? The subtitle of the film suggests an affirmative answer, but what good has hatred ever delivered to the world? Do those who crafted this title mean, instead, that there is a time to seek justice? This is self-evidently true because justice is a central virtue, perhaps the central virtue according to Plato. The subtitle, then, is muddled in its meaning if the writers confuse hatred and justice.

The film has a “prologue” for viewing. “Forgiveness is elusive,” the narrator says as the opening statement of this prologue, suggesting that we cannot find its core meaning.

“There is no consensus about what it is,” the narrator of the prologue proclaims with firm confidence. A Socratic dialogue would lead us to ask: “Does this imply that the “meaning” of forgiveness has no consensus?” Further, we need to clarify: “Does this mean that the actual differences are centered in the people, who possess ‘differences of opinion’ about what forgiveness is, or is the ‘meaning’ of forgiveness itself relative and ultimately lacking in any true consensus across the globe?”

“However you define forgiveness….” is yet another statement, bringing home the relativist assumption. There are many “opinions” brought forward in the brief prologue. None are examined. The impression, then, is that forgiveness itself is “elusive.”  An issue not even remotely assumed in the prologue is this: Might the problem of a lack of consensus exist in the people themselves, who may not have thought about and experienced forgiveness deeply and over a long period of time? If Socrates assumed his own ignorance at understanding the objective nature of justice, which he did in The Republic, why do not the speakers in the prologue to “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate” do the same thing? We are in an age in which the individual speaker has the power. Socrates assumed just the opposite.

In our blog post of March 17, 2012 (scroll down to read), we made the point that there are cross-cultural and cross-time meanings of forgiveness that strongly suggest a core meaning to what the narrator calls an “elusive” concept.

In the movie, The Paper Chase, Professor Kingsfield proclaims to his first-year Harvard law students: You come in here with a head full of mush….and you come out thinking like a lawyer. If the prologue is prelude to the rest of this symphony of ideas on forgiveness, we predict this: The viewer who has thought little about forgiveness will come to the film with a head full of mush……and, if he or she absorbs the film’s message without strong rebuttals, will leave with a head full of mush. We shall see.

Respect or Love?

When we forgive, what moral principle should underlie the forgiving response? Would it be better to approach each person with respect or with love or perhaps with some other moral quality? A case can be made for respect because we can more easily offer this to all whereas love is not that easily given through our anger. For example, we can show respect for a hard-driving boss even when we feel no love for him or her at all. Thus, respect covers a variety of circumstances and hurts, whereas love does not.

On the other hand, love is the higher principle because it includes respect and then goes beyond it to serving in mercy. It reaches farther and challenges us more deeply. I think that the response of love goes farther also in its effects. We can give respect at a respectable distance. A hand shake out of respect is not the same as letting someone into our world and caring about him or her.

Other moral responses do not go as far and as deeply as love either. Tolerance can be a rather cold approach, patience by itself can be almost neutral, and a spirit of cooperation can have a “What’s in it for me if I do cooperate?” ring to it. None of these go beyond love as a way to forgive.

Although more difficult than all the rest of these, I opt for love as the underlying response to forgiveness.

Why? Because respect might keep the world safer, but love changes the world for the better.

The Proper Use of Forgiveness

Even goodness can be used for ends to which it was not intended. Forgiveness is no exception to this. Consider the following true story. A woman in her late 30s came to me to discuss the fine points of forgiveness. She was college-educated, a sharp thinker, and seemed quite focused on getting to know what forgiveness is and is not.

Her motive was to forgive her husband for injustices which she did not divulge to me. We spent a while discussing what forgiveness is and what it is not, that it is not excusing or forgetting what happened or reconciling, where two or more people come together again in mutual trust.

“I want to learn to forgive and then put this into practice in my marriage,” she said to me with resolve. I was encouraged.

A few weeks later, we met and I, of course, was curious about how her newly acquired forgiveness skills were faring in the marriage. “Oh, I forgave my husband and then left him.” Surprised by this juxtaposition of forgiving and leaving, I asked for some clarification.

“I never knew that forgiveness and reconciliation were not the same,” she said with some relief, “So, I forgave him and did not reconcile.” And that was the end of her story.

As we talked further, it was obvious to me that she was using this distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation as a kind of excuse to bail out of the marriage without putting the patience of forgiveness to work. She quickly left him without grappling with the issues of true forgiveness and true reconciliation. I was left with the impression of her using this distinction as an excuse rather than as an opportunity. The opportunity would have been to first try reconciliation alongside forgiveness.

Maybe she already tried reconciliation before coming to see me and it failed. I doubt this because when she approached me, she thought that the two terms, forgiveness and reconciliation, were interchangeable. She was originally intent on putting this into practice.

In this context everyone lost, including forgiveness herself.

Ask yourself this question as you consider forgiveness: What is my motive? Is it to do good? Or is it to find a quick and easy way out? An answer of “yes” to this final question should show you that it is only an imitation of forgiveness that is being practiced.

The Missing Piece to the Peace Puzzle