When we properly understand what it means to forgive someone, much of the criticism leveled against forgiveness vanishes. For example, if someone thinks that forgiveness is to find an excuse for an offender’s unfair behavior, we have to correct that misconception. We have to realize that when we forgive we never distort reality by falsely claiming that the injustice was not an injustice. As another example, if someone thinks that, upon forgiving, the forgiver has an obligation to reconcile, we need to understand that the moral virtue of forgiveness is distinct from reconciling (in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust).
Yet, what of this situation: Suppose that Alice forgives Allen, her boss, for several inappropriate advances at work. He is not remorseful, does not intend to change, and dismisses her concerns. Suppose further that in forgiving, Alice sees the inherent worth of Allen, concluding that he is a person worthy of respect, not because of what he did, but in spite of this. Seeing Allen’s inherent worth motivates Alice to stay in this particular job and wait in the hope that Allen will change. After all, if he has inherent worth, then he may be capable of altering his unwanted behavior.
She is clear that forgiving and reconciling are not the same thing. At the same time, she is now staying where she is, waiting in the hope of his changing, waiting in the hope of a healthy reconciliation.
Of course, none of us can look into the future with certainty. No one knows for sure that Allen will not change. Perhaps he will have insight into his inappropriate behavior, have remorse, repent, and ask for a genuine reconciliation with Alice.
How long should she wait? How do we know, given that we cannot predict Allen’s future behavior? A key, I think, is Allen’s current insights into his actions. Does he see them as highly inappropriate or as an “I cannot help myself” story? Does he see the behavior or continually rationalize it?
Does Allen show any remorse at all? Has he made even the slightest overture to repent? Does he have any insight whatsoever into his inappropriateness? If the answers are “no,” “no,” and “no,” then Alice’s waiting in the hope of reconciliation may not be wise if she has given this sufficient time.
When we forgive, we have to realize that sometimes our offenders choose to be willfully ignorant of their injustices and to the damage it is doing. When we forgive, we have to realize that some of our offenders choose not to change at all. Under these circumstances, we should not let our forgiveness set up a false hope. If we do, we are distorting the power of forgiveness and need to re-think our position. Forgiveness is not so powerful that it can always get the other to develop remorse, to repent, and to reconcile well.
In a recent column in the Long Island (New York) Newsday newspaper, Rabbi Marc Gellman reflected on the moral appropriateness of forgiving the Boston bomber. I applaud Rabbi Gellman’s efforts in discussing the topic of forgiveness but want to clarify some of the points made by him and two readers who responded to his query of “Should we forgive the Boston bomber?” Let us examine six points from that article.
1. J, one of the readers who responded to Rabbi Gellman, implies that forgiveness means the same as pardon.
Forgiveness is not the same as pardon, as implied by J. Pardon involves letting one off the hook as well as the justice system; it does not center on interpersonal relations. Forgiveness is an inner personal release and pardon can be thought of as a public behavioral release. An example of pardon would be if the judge suspended or reduced punishment of the Boston bomber. The judge reducing the sentence was not the one personally hurt. We can forgive someone who is dead but we cannot pardon someone who is dead. Forgiving someone who did us wrong does not mean that we tolerate the wrong he did.
2. Readers are asked to share their opinions regarding whether “We should forgive the surviving Boston bomber.”
Not everyone is in the position to forgive the Boston bomber as we can only forgive for the pain and hurt that wounds us personally. As Lewis B. Smedes (1996), the author of The Art of Forgiving, states, “Sometimes our lives are so bounded to the victim, that the injuries they suffer wound us too.” Example – wrong my kids, wrong me. And my hurt qualifies me to forgive you–but only for the pain I experienced. My children alone are qualified to forgive you for what you did to them. Thus, only the individuals personally affected, such as those who experienced an injury or had a loved one who experienced an injury, and/or were not able to finish the marathon because of the bombing have the right to forgive the bombers.
So, one not personally affected can forgive the bombers for the way he or she has been hurt, such as being afraid to go in large crowds because of the bombing, but they cannot forgive on behalf of another person. A response from another reader, R, talks about not forgiving the Boston bomber unless we also forgive other mass murderers. As stated before, we can only forgive for the way we were personally affected. Thus, individuals may be able to consider forgiving the Boston bomber if they were hurt by the Boston bomber, but not Adam Lanza (who killed 20 children and six adult staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., along with his own mother), if they were not personally affected by his actions.
3. The question of forgiveness one month after the bombing is premature.
Forgiveness takes time. If it occurs too quickly, pseudo forgiveness may result. Robert Enright’s (2001) interpersonal Process Model of Forgiveness has 20 units. Although we are often told to forgive right away, forgiveness is not something that occurs overnight and is usually not one’s first instinct after being deeply injured. A hurt individual needs time to deal with his or her injury and negative feelings resulting from the injury. This usually involves feelings of shock, disbelief, anger and even hatred toward the offender. All of these feelings are normal and thus, it is wise to wait awhile after experiencing a deep hurt before considering the idea of forgiveness. J also mentions that God can be helpful when one forgives. This is true but one can also forgive if they are not religious and/or do not attend religious services.
4. As illustrated in this column, forgiveness appears to be equated with excusing the act and anger is not recognized as an important part of the forgiveness process.
R mentions how “forgiving any of these human monsters would devalue the lives of the innocent, decent people they killed and maimed.” Rabbi Gellman goes on to state how “muting our outrage at those who bring carnage to our country may end up weakening our resolve to seek justice because it humanizes the killers.” When we forgive we recognize the deep injustice for what it is and forgiving does not excuse or minimize the situation or experience of deep hurt.
Anger is also a very important part of the forgiveness process. Before one can forgive, he or she has to express his or her anger about being hurt. Holding onto and living with long-term anger can affect one physically and emotionally. Individuals criticize forgiveness because they do not realize the role anger has in the forgiveness process and why one needs to get angry before forgiving.
Thus, one does not mute their outrage when forgiving. They recognize the injury as deep, personal, and unfair and offer forgiveness nevertheless. It is also the case that a bit of anger may remain even after one has forgiven. The anger may not be as intense as before forgiving or as frequent but some may still be there when thinking about the injury and what happened. A decrease in anger is one of the first steps in the forgiveness process. As Lewis B. Smedes states, “When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it” (Famousquotesabout.com).
5. In the Newsday article it is implied that those who commit evil should not be viewed as human beings.
It is true that our need to be forgiven is most likely not on the same scale as the Boston bombers act of evil. However, one of the foundational themes of forgiveness is the idea of “Inherent Equality” meaning that “A person is a person now matter how small.” The idea behind inherent equality is that regardless of what someone does, he or she is still a human being, which is very difficult to accept for offenders of horrific acts of evil, such as the Boston bombings. However, because all people are human beings and part of the human community, all people have worth. As Smedes (1996) states, when we forgive, “We rediscover the humanity of the person who hurt us.” This includes changing our view of the offender if it includes only seeing the offender as a monster. With forgiveness we see the offender as a person who shares our humanity, although to come to this place is one of the hardest parts of forgiveness.
6. Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive and one can forgive even if the offender does not apologize.
As stated in the article, we must seek justice for evil acts. However, this justice can occur alongside personal forgiveness, if the individuals personally hurt by the bombers choose to forgive. Forgiveness is a choice one makes for him- or herself. It cannot and should not be forced upon anyone. An individual should only offer forgiveness as a deliberate, conscious, and meaningful choice. This is true whether or not the person who has committed the wrong repents, asks for the forgiveness and/or even accepts it. Thus, Rabbi Gellman mentions his personal difficulty with forgiving a repentant killer. An apology certainly makes forgiveness easier but it is not necessary to receive one to be able to forgive. Making an apology a requirement before one can personally forgive is like reinjuring the victim as he or she is trapped in an unforgiving state unable to heal and move on until he or she receives something from the injurer. In contrast, an apology would be an important requirement before one chooses to reconcile with an offender.
Thus, can one forgive the Boston bombers? The answer is yes; individuals personally affected by the bombing can forgive as one way to heal. But one needs to personally choose to forgive while realizing that one has a right to anger, that forgiveness takes time, and that justice can occur alongside personal forgiveness. J is correct when he states that forgiveness is not easy. In fact, it is one of the hardest things to do in life as forgiving requires a great deal of effort, hard work, and courage. But the physical and psychological benefits that are associated with forgiving make the effort and hard work well worth it.
Suzanne Freedman, Professor, University of Northern Iowa
Guest Blog by Stacy Parker Le Melle
I know that forgiveness is crucial to human harmony. I know I’m supposed to forgive my trespassers. But when called upon to actually forgive, I may be good at “letting go” and “moving on” but does anyone’s name ever leave that ledger inside my mind, the one that keeps track of those who have hurt me? I’m not sure. Though I know that forgiveness is the path to peace, the operative word–still– is know. Action is something else altogether.
Then I read a poem by Massoma, a writer in the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. I am floored. I have read this poem multiple times, and each time I am struck not just by what she has been through, but her generosity–the depth of which seems hard for me to even comprehend:
Forgiveness: A Prose Poem
My head exploded, full of their talking, talking. They talked and talked and sold me. They laughed, happy. I was sad and crying, had no power over this. I played, the child I was. I played, but had to go toward the life that would be mine. My head exploded, full of new talking. They talked and talked. I was not a good bride. I was not a perfect woman, because I was thirteen. My head exploded, full of their talking. They talked and talked and beat me. Filled with pain, I was a mother, but had nothing. I had forgiven, all of my life, move now toward my future, happy. My head exploded. My head exploded. I love my infant, my family. I have forgiven all–parents, husband, the government. I am happy. My baby laughs and I laugh. Life laughs, and I am happy.
Her baby laughs and she laughs. Life laughs, and she is happy. The beauty and hard-won hope in those lines fill me with awe. I am reminded of the greatness that humans have within them–because for me, this is greatness. If Massoma can forgive those who forced her to marry as a child, who treated her as chattel, who beat her when she disobeyed, I call on all of us to look at pains we carry, at the anger we can’t let go, and challenge ourselves to seek healing–to call on our reserves of love. And release.
Stacy Parker Le Melle is Workshop Director for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and Author of “Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House.”
The Afghan Women’s Writing Project is a California-based organization whose mission is to support the voices of women with the belief that to tell one’s story is a human right. The Campaign for Love and Forgiveness is sponsored by the Fetzer Institute.
This blog is a shortened version of the original blog that was posted on June 13, 2013, in the Global Motherhood section of The Huffington Post.
When someone asks about you, do you state your career or perhaps where you are in school? You are more than your career.
Do you state your age or where you live? You are more than these.
If someone asks you how you are doing and you are in emotional pain, do you make the mistake of defining yourself by that pain?
You are more than your career or your age or where you live or the amount of pain you are in.
Who are you? Yes, all of the above characteristics are part of who you are, but who are you really?
You are a person who is special, unique, and irreplaceable. There is no one just like you on the planet. You have inherent (built-in) worth because you are a person.
You have the capacity to love and to overcome emotional pain through love and forgiveness.
You are much more than your pain….and so is the one who has caused you the pain.
We just received this beautifully-stated image from someone recovering from abuse through practicing forgiveness:
“I have always viewed my recovery work like studying a tapestry. In the beginning, I stood up close, with all of my attention on the threads of abuse, which prevented me from seeing the full beauty of the tapestry. I thought with an up close view, I would be able to unravel the pain that it caused me. With each step in recovery, I am able to step back from the threads of abuse, and see a grander view of the tapestry that is my life. Each time I make progress, I allow the abuse to fade into the background of the tapestry. The abuse is becoming a fiber in the background, which is how everyone, but me, has viewed my life.”
This person is more than each strand of abuse suffered. There is a beautiful tapestry of this life to be seen and appreciated.
Thank you for the email. Thank you for the courage to heal through forgiveness.