Criticisms of Forgiveness–3rd in a series: “Forgiveness Obscures for the Forgiver What Is Just or Unjust”
J. Safer (1999) presented a case of family dysfunction in which “forgiveness” plays a major role in perpetuating deep injustice: Two middle-aged parents ask their adult daughter to “forgive and forget” her brother’s sexual abuse toward her. The daughter, of course, is aghast at the parents’ apparent attempts to downplay and deny the offense. The parents in this case study do not seem aware of the enormity of the offense. Their quest for forgiveness is an attempt at distortion of reality, a cover-up for their son, and oppression of their daughter.
If J. Safer (1999) had shown this as a case of pseudo-forgiveness in which people are deliberately distorting the meaning of forgiveness for some unspecified gain, we would have no problem with the case or the analysis. Safer, however, used the case as an illustration of the dangers of actual forgiveness.
In our experience, true forgiveness helps people see the injustice more clearly, not more opaquely. As a person breaks denial, examines what happened, and allows for a period of anger, he or she begins to label the other’s behavior as “wrong” or “unfair.”
The parents in the case described here, however, have minimized what is wrong with their son’s behavior. They are using pseudo-forgiveness as a weapon. Certainly, therapists should be aware of such distorted thinking in a client or patient. The therapist, however, need not condemn genuine forgiveness because a client twists its meaning.
In sum, forgiveness is no obstacle to justice. Forgiving acts do not perpetuate injustice or prevent social justice from occurring. Forgiveness may thwart attempts at extracting punishment for emotional pain, but this usually turns into a gift for the offender and a release of potentially hurtful anger for the forgiver.
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5161-5175). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
Safer, J. Forgiving and Not Forgiving. New York, NY: Avon Books.
What is your opinion of children who observe their parents fighting all the time. Do you think this observing child might become a bully in school or a difficult partner when an adult?
This depends on what the child, who now is an adult, has learned from what was observed about the parents. It is possible that the person might gain wisdom from the parents’ fighting and realize that such a pattern is not healthy. Thus, the person may deliberately commit to not following the parents’ behavior. In contrast, if the person does not reflect on the potentially destructive pattern, then, yes, the person may grow up to show bullying behaviors in school and to repeat the pattern of a conflictual relationship with a partner. In other words, insight along with a commitment to not imitate the conflictual behavior might spare the person from repeating the parents’ behavioral pattern.
Learn more at Family Forgiveness Guidelines.
I am feeling hopeless. I know people forgive to restore peace in a relationship, but that is not possible for me. What do you suggest?
Reasons for forgiveness go beyond only a restored relationship. You can forgive because it is good in and of itself. You can forgive to rid yourself of resentment. You can forgive to pass the insights on how to forgive to your children. Thus, even if a restored relationship is not possible, you still may forgive if you choose to do this. Our research shows that as people forgive, their sense of hope increases in a statistically-significant way. You need not remain with a sense of hopelessness.
Learn more at 8 Reasons to Forgive.
I have reconciled with my partner and I think I have forgiven him. Yet, at times, I think about his original unfaithfulness and it makes me angry all over again. Am I only fooling myself in thinking that I truly have forgiven?
The late Lewis Smedes wrote that forgiveness is an imperfect process for imperfect people. Feeling anger again does not necessarily mean that you have not forgiven. People can forgive and still have anger that rises and falls depending on the situation. If you are in control of the anger and are willing to forgive now on a deeper level, then you have forgiven.
Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.
I have noticed that some of my friends just are angrier than others. They do not seem to show this anger only when recently treated unfairly by others. They are just angry people. Why do you think this would be?
Without knowing the person’s history, it is not possible to know for certain why one of your friends is consistently showing anger. I suspect two issues. First, the display of anger in the home, when your friend was growing up, might have been high. In other words, angry behavior was demonstrated in the home and implicitly approved as a norm. In other words, the friend learned anger by observing it being modeled in the home. Second, the friend may have been hurt by the anger displays in the home and so there is resentment from the past that is affecting the person now, in the present. If this second scenario is correct, then the friend might benefit from forgiving one of the parents who might have displaced the anger onto your friend while growing up.
Learn more at Family Forgiveness Guidelines.