Our Forgiveness Blog
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.
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.
PsychCentral blog. An interesting post today at this website discusses acceptance and forgiveness, reconciliation and restorative justice. Full blog post here.
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.
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.