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.
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.
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.
I just read an article from an online forum. The authors said that forgiveness is essentially selfish. They said this because one of the *consequences* of forgiveness is emotional improvement. They are confusing *what forgiveness is* and *one consequence* of practicing forgiving. A consequence is not the same as the essence of a thing. Forgiveness in its essence is focused on goodness toward someone who has been unjust to the forgiver. This is hardly an essentially selfish activity. This confusion of essence and consequence is one reason why we need to have clarity far and wide on this issue of forgiveness. Well-meaning people get confused on what the essence of forgiveness is and is not.
In January, 2012, Mr. Haley Barbour, former Republican Governor of Mississippi, granted legal pardon to over 200 prisoners as he left office. His rationale for the pardons was to show mercy in a *spirit of forgiveness* and to give each prisoner a second chance. Yahoo.com news reported on Sunday, March 11, 2012 that the final group of prisoners will be released this week following the state highest court’s ruling that they can be released.
The pardons set off a firestorm of controversy. Yahoo.com news describes an “outcry” from victims and their families. The state’s Attorney General challenged some of the pardons and there has been talk of trying to amend the governor’s power to grant such pardons.
The actions by the former governor raise the important question: What is the relationship between legal pardon and forgiveness, especially given that a spirit of forgiveness motivated the pardons? Legal pardon is always conducted by a third-party authority who is not a victim or someone connected to the victims. In other words, legal pardon is an attempt to be impartial. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is anything but impartial. It is a virtue, centered in goodness, precisely because it is the victim or someone who cares deeply for the victim who reduces resentment and offers compassion through his or her pain. It is not a detached action, as legal pardon must be to retain its objectivity.
Thus, the governor’s act of pardon actually cannot be in a spirit of forgiveness, which would imply that he is somehow a victim and therefore would have had to recuse himself in the decision.
We can see why the victims and their families are perplexed. Only they are the ones who can forgive. And, when we realize that legal pardon is no protection against recidivism, we can understand victims? fear of further injustice from at least some who have been pardoned.
An important lesson here is for people to realize how legal pardon and forgiveness differ. The former belongs to authorities and the latter to victims. Also, when an authority is contemplating legal pardon, it would be prudent, where possible, to discuss this with victims to ascertain their sense of safety. In other words, the issue of recidivism and the possibility of re-victimization need to be considered.