What Forgiveness is
In reading some recent blogs that focus on forgiveness, I have seen a particular theme, that of the necessity of the the offender making amends before someone can or should forgive. This requirement on the part of the offender seems incorrect to me for three reasons.
First, if the offender must–must–make amends before the offended person can forgive, then he or she is trapped in unforgiveness until the other decides that it is time to make amends. This is not fair to the one in pain from the offense.
Second, why cannot one forgive and seek justice at the same time, forgive and help the person toward amendment? Waiting for the offender to make amends seems to be confusing the mercy of forgiveness with justice itself. Once the other makes his or her behavior right, what is there left to forgive? Surely, there may be issues from the past, but to now offer forgiveness for good behavior confuses mercy and justice.
Third, there is no other moral virtue (such as justice or patience or kindness) that requires a special response from someone else before it is given. Why should forgiveness be the one extraordinary case of all of the moral virtues?
Must the offender make amends before a person can forgive? It does not appear to be the case.
When others are unfair to us, we respond in part with emotional pain. After all, we do not expect others to treat us with disrespect or to withdraw love from us. When this happens, it hurts.
An important question, then, is this: What do we do with all of this pain? If we are not careful, we could too easily toss that pain onto others or conclude that we ourselves are not worth too much if we have this much pain. Good people, we might falsely reason, are pain free and since I am filled with pain, therefore I am not a very good person.
The meaning of suffering in the above two scenarios is quite negative. What does it mean to suffer? It means that I will be mean to others and to myself.
Yet, there is a better way if we shift our focus. With some effort, we may grow into seeing that our suffering is an opportunity. It is that opportunity to not let the pain and suffering defeat us, but instead to become motivated to reach for a higher good. Our pain can be a motivator to give back good where we received unfairness. That good can extend not only to the one who caused our pain but also to anyone else now who needs a little good to come their way. We can learn to be a conduit of good to others as we become more sensitive to their pain precisely because of the pain that we now carry. Because of our pain, and now our motivation to leave good in the world, someone else may be a little less pained, suffer a little less because we now desire for them a better way than we have had.
Suffering, put into service to others, gives meaning to the suffering. It gives meaning to life. As others benefit from this, the paradox is that we ourselves find that our suffering is reduced.
Forgiving others is one such path of taking our pain and putting it into service to others, particularly those who have created the suffering in us.
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.
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.