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.
Quest for Justice Instead Leads to Forgiveness
“I was angry, livid. . .” Murakami admitted. “I said to myself, ‘Let me find the punk, I’m gonna take care of him.’”
When Cabezas was not initially charged with causing the crash, Murakami’s life went into a tailspin of depression.
“I was a walking zombie. I sold my business, sat on the beach every day. I put my Bible down. I didn’t want anything to do with God. Nothing”
Three years later, Cabezas was finally charged with 2 counts of vehicular manslaughter. But something happened when Murakami finally saw Cabezas in court. He wasn’t the monster Murakami had envisioned. That’s when this father’s fight for justice turned into a father’s fight to forgive.
“I started preaching to myself on forgiveness. Even though I never met this kid, I started forgiving him for what he did,” Murakami says. “After we met, I knew he was suffering as much as I was.”
Cabezas was facing up to 30 years in prison if convicted. Murakami shocked the court, however, by asking the judge not to send Cabezas to jail.
“If he goes to prison for 30 years, everyone’s going to forget about him. Everyone’s going to forget about Cindy and Chelsea,” Murakami said to the judge. “What if he and I went out to schools and talked to young people?”
With the court’s consent, the two men went to hundreds of schools across the country, speaking to more than a half-million kids about the dangers of speeding. But Murakami also used those presentations to help kids understand that even after tragic mistakes, they too could find redemption like Cabezas.
“I didn’t want to waste his life. He came from a good family. We’ve all made mistakes,” Murakami added.
Murakami and Cabezas also founded a not-for-profit organization called Safe Teen Driver that includes a unique driver education program offered free to teens who learn by driving actual professional go-karts on a professional track while practicing skills that could save their lives. Parents are required to participate and learn the importance of their role in developing a safe teen driver.
Cabezas went on to become a successful real estate agent in Texas before dying of cancer last summer. Murakami went to the funeral and spoke from the pulpit about the importance of forgiveness.
Read the full story: Tampa man’s quest for justice instead becomes lesson in forgiveness
Watch a short video from WPST-TV 10News, Tampa, FL about Bruce Murakami’s life-changing decision to forgive.
My son recently was divorced. He did the best that he could and now he is angry and refuses to forgive his ex-wife. Can I forgive her for what she did to my son? If I do this, am I being disloyal to my son, who refuses to forgive?
You are free to choose forgiveness in this case. Even though your son’s ex-spouse did not hurt you directly, she did hurt you in a secondary sense in that she hurt your loved one. Forgiving in this context is appropriate. You are not being disloyal to your son if you choose to forgive to rid yourself of resentment. You need not, then, go to your son and proclaim your forgiveness and then pressure him now to do the same. You can forgive without discussing this with your son. If and when he is ready to forgive, then you can share your insights about the forgiveness process with him.
Learn more at 8 Reasons to Forgive.
Forgiveness Education: Example of the Second-Grade (Primary 4 in Belfast) Curriculum
A 17-lesson curriculum guide was written by a licensed psychologist and a developmental psychologist for the teachers’ use. Each lesson takes approximately 45 minutes or less and each occurs approximately once per week for the entire class. Additional activities in the guide are provided if a teacher wishes to extend the learning.
In the early years of the program, the teachers were introduced to the ideas of forgiveness and the curricular materials in a workshop directed by the authors of the curriculum or others associated with the project. We envision other methods as the work expands. Audios of the workshop, for example, may become available for download.
Forgiveness is taught by the classroom teachers primarily through the medium of story. Through stories such as Disney’s The Fox and the Hound, Cinderella, Dumbo, and Snow White, the children learn that conflicts arise and that we have a wide range of options to unfair treatment.
The curriculum guide is divided into three parts:
- First, the teacher introduces certain concepts that underlie forgiveness (the inherent worth of all people, kindness, respect, generosity, and moral love), without mentioning the word forgiveness.
- In Part Two, the children hear stories in which the story characters display instances of inherent worth, kindness, respect, generosity, and moral love (or their opposites of unkindness, disrespect, and stinginess), toward another story character who was unjust.
- In Part Three, the teacher helps the children, if they choose, to apply the five principles toward a person who has hurt them.
Throughout the implementation of this program, teachers make the important distinction between learning about forgiveness and choosing to practice it in certain contexts. The program is careful to emphasize the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. A child does not reconcile with someone who is potentially harmful, for example. The teachers impress upon the children that the exercises in Part Three of forgiving are not mandatory, but completely optional.
The first-grade curriculum is similar to this one with the exception of the choice of stories. In first grade, the centerpiece stories are from Dr. Seuss.
From Enright, R.D., Knutson, J, & Holter, A. (2006). “Turning from hatred to community friendship: Forgiveness education in post-accord Belfast” – Presented at the 20th Anniversary Conference of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, November 7, 2006.
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.