Our Forgiveness Blog

Is Forgiveness Dangerous?

In a March 15, 2012 editorial in the Athens (Georgia) Banner-Herald Newspaper, a writer, the Rev. Thomas Tom Camp, said this, “Is our development beyond revenge into forgiveness and reconciliation dangerous? Yes! But staying where we are is unacceptable and even more dangerous.”

The idea of “dangerous” challenged me. Is forgiveness dangerous and if so, for whom? There are two ancient stories that suggest a certain danger for those who see others forgive. Take, for example, Joseph in Hebrew scripture, who forgave his 10 half-brothers and one brother in Genesis 37-45. When Jacob, Joseph’s father, heard of Joseph’s forgiveness toward the half-brothers/brother—and that he was alive—he fainted. The Christian story of the Prodigal Son tells us that when the father forgave the prodigal son for his wanton living in a distant land, the older brother got upset. He could not understand how the father could be so generous to the rebellious son. Forgiveness can be upsetting to those who observe it because the mercy underlying it is so shocking and because the observers are not yet ready to embrace it for themselves.

Perhaps forgiveness is dangerous for the forgiver, who is now faced with an identity change. Upon forgiving, he or she is no longer a victim but a survivor and perhaps even someone who is now thriving.

Forgiveness can be dangerous for the unjust one who now must come to grips with the reality that, indeed, he or she did act unjustly.

Yet, in all of these examples, is there really danger, in the true sense of that word? There is upset, there is challenge, there is development, and there is the facing of reality. I do not see any real danger here.

Is there danger in acting justly? There was for Socrates. His standing in the truth cost him his life, as it did Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas More and others who were killed for acting justly.

Can you think of anyone who was actually killed for standing in the truth of forgiveness? I cannot, but I am open to correction on this.


Too Much Forgiveness?

In my recently published book, The Forgiving Life, I make the point that it is healthy to clear the slate of resentment by forgiving all people who have made you resentful. This has led to a question: “But, might there be such a thing as too much forgiveness”  Might such constant forgiving be seen as weakness from the perspective of those who are unjust?

Forgiveness is a virtue, as justice is, so let us ask the same question of justice: Can a person practice fairness too much? It should be obvious that the answer is “no” because whenever the situation calls for justice it is best to respond with this virtue.

Yet, there is a difference. Justice is required of us whereas forgiveness is not. Forgiveness, as a part of mercy, shares features with such virtues as altruism. Surely it is the case, one might argue, that a person can overdo altruism. For example, suppose a kind-hearted person works 18 hours a day at the local soup-kitchen, ignoring his family. Is this not an example of overdoing a virtue? Yes, it is, but an important lesson follows from the example. Aristotle told us over 3,000 years ago that it is a distortion of a virtue if we practice it in isolation from all the other virtues. Altruism needs wisdom and temperance to balance it against excess and, in essence, from being an unjust act because of the excess. After all, if someone neglects family and other responsibilities for the sake of the soup-kitchen, the virtue in its excess becomes a vice of self-indulgence.

Could forgiveness degenerate into something like this? I think there are two answers. First, forgiveness is an action that begins in the heart, deep inside the emotions of the forgiver as he or she practices love and compassion. One can do that without taking the time to go to offenders and sitting down with them for long periods of time, thus depriving the family of one’s presence. Forgiveness, of course, can be expressed in a behavioral way, but it can be delivered with a smile or some other small gesture rather than hours and hours as in the case of our altruistic person.

Second, I think that forgiveness could become excessive if the forgiver dwells on offenders and forgives at the expense of other virtues such as responsibility and justice. One can forgive from the arm chair rather than from the soup-kitchen and so the same Aristotelian warning holds here as well: Never practice forgiveness in isolation from such other virtues as wisdom and temperance. Otherwise, an inordinate focus on forgiveness can degenerate into self-indulgence, just as the altruistic service to the poor can.

We should realize, however, that when forgiveness or altruism degenerate into self-indulgence, they cease to be the true virtues that they were meant to be. It is no longer forgiveness per se that is being practiced any more than our soup-kitchen friend is practicing pure altruism.

Can there be too much forgiveness? Only if there is too little of the other important virtues which balance it. Otherwise, no, there cannot be too much forgiveness any more than there can be too much justice.

Why Forgive?

Let us start with a different question to better frame the one above. Why be just or fair? At the very least, we obey laws so we are not punished. At higher levels, we strive for fairness because we have come to be fair people and to deny justice is to deny whom we are as persons.

When it comes to forgiveness, we cannot fall back on laws and punishments because no society ever has had a law requiring forgiveness because it is centered in mercy, not on a quest for fairness.

I would like to suggest that there are at least four good reasons to forgive:

1) As we forgive, we begin to feel better emotionally. Forgiveness is not centered in the self, but instead on goodness toward those who have injured us. A *consequence* of forgiving is emotional release from resentment. This by no means implies that a person is necessarily selfish if he or she forgives for this reason. Grasping a life preserver in a stormy sea is a wise move.

2) As in our justice example above, as we practice forgiveness over and over, we actually become forgiving persons. To forgive becomes a part of who we are as persons and to not forgive is to deny our very personhood.

3) When we practice forgiveness long enough, we begin to see that we have a choice in life regarding the legacy we will leave in this world. We can leave a legacy of woundedness and anger or a legacy of love. Forgiveness helps us to leave a legacy of love as we honor each person as having inherent worth, even those who have hurt us. We do not honor the unjust for what they have done, but in spite of that.

4) Finally, as we forgive, we are showing others how to live a life of moral goodness in the face of unjust treatment. When we forgive, we are helping to create a community of forgiveness for others, in the home, school, place of employment, place of worship, and wherever people come together for mutual support and growth.

Do We Have Choices or Are They Illusions?

An article on forgiveness in The Times of India appeared today. I base this blog post on the following quotation from the author of this piece:

“Everything we do, while we are identified with body and mind is the result of conditioning and the choices we make are also influenced by this. Also, we don’t choose our parents nor siblings. Or the environment you lived in as a child or teachers at school.

Yet all these elements conditioned you into the person you are today. And they impact your choices. To know this is the beginning of awareness and compassion. The paradox is that real choice happens when we realize that there is never any real choice. So forgive and let go.”

We just had a materialist bomb drop on us. A “materialist bomb” is this: A person reduces human psychology to one and only one narrow area to such an extent that it looks like we have no free will. If we take neurobiology to an extreme, we could say that our brains make us think and behave in certain ways with no flexibility built in for our own innovation, creativity, or choice.

Or, rather than looking within for a material cause of our actions (the brain is an interior material cause), we can look to social conditioning such as positive reinforcement or punishment to explain why we behave as we do. After all, if someone bops you on your head every time you say the words “free will,” for example, you will probably end up cringing whenever you hear those two little words. You have been materially conditioned to cringe at the words “free will.” It is not your choice to cringe. Something in the material world is making you do this.

All well and good until we practice reductionism and make the rather difficult-to-make claim that none of us really has any choices at all. It is our brains and social conditioning that make us who and what we are.

Is that all there is to us as persons? If so, then there is no true right and wrong, no injustices against you because, well, the person’s brain is wired in a certain way and the social conditions of his or her environment have made the person this way.

There is nothing to forgive because no one chooses to hurt you. The person could not help it. Forgiveness is rendered useless. More dramatically, forgiveness is an illusion.

But, is it true that there is nothing but brain structure and social reinforcements to explain who we are? Whoever says “yes” to this, then I have the following thought-experiment for you. It comes with a warning label because the thought is violent.

Imagine that you are a parent. Your daughter was raped in Central Park. You are fuming. At the trial, the defense lawyer says this, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We all know that our society has perpetuated the idea that women are men’s property. This has fostered an unintended sense of aggression in my client toward women. We all know that our society reinforces men to exploit women, not that they want to do so, but they are taught that. There is nothing my client could do but rape the one woman who happened to be jogging by that day. And let us not forget testosterone. That, combined with negative norms about women and the social reinforcements all ganged up on my client. He could not help himself. Therefore, I strongly request the dismissal of all charges against him.”

A show of hands, please, from anyone who agrees with this lawyer. We all know why we disagree with the request. It is because no matter what the norms are in society and no matter what the accused man’s social conditioning or testosterone levels were on that day, he had hundreds of choices of how to act. To say that he had to act in this and only this way is to deny reality. It is to deny the raped woman justice. It is to deny her the possibility of forgiving because forgiveness is an illusion that we need to guard against, not embrace.

There are no choices? I choose not to believe it.

Forgiveness is alive and well because injustices do happen by people’s freely chosen actions, and sometimes those actions are wrong and punishable, not dismissed for the illusion of an exclusively-materialist cause to our behavior.

Forgiveness as an illusion? No. When someone harms you, he or she could have behaved in many other ways, including choosing—choosing—to be respectful and kind.


Just Checking in Regarding Your Unfolding Love Story

On January 19, we posted a reflection on our blog site in which we encouraged readers to grow in love as their legacy of 2012. We said this:

“Give love away as your legacy of 2012.

How can you start? I recommend starting by looking backward at one incident of 2011. Please think of one incident with one person in which you were loved unconditionally, perhaps even surprised by a partner or a parent or a caring colleague. Think of your reaction when you felt love coming from the other and you felt love in your heart and the other saw it in your eyes. What was said? How were you affirmed for whom you are, not necessarily for something you did? What was the other’s heart like, and yours?

It is now about a month-and-a-half later. Can you list some specific, concrete ways in which you have chosen love over indifference? Love over annoyance? If so, what are those specifics and how are they loving? We ask because 2012 will be 25% over at the end of March. Have you engaged in 25% of all the loving responses that you will leave in this world this year?

Tempus fugit. If you have not yet deliberately left love in the world this year, there is time…..and the clock is ticking.

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