Are We Obliged to Forgive?
This article by Nigel Sinnott first appeared in the December 2007 edition of the SoFiA Bulletin. Nigel was born in England in 1944, and has lived in Australia (Victoria) since 1976. He is a member of SoFiA and the Thomas Paine Society, and is a former editor (1972-73) of the British atheist magazine, The Freethinker.
Forgiveness is a subject which I have needed to consider both carefully and regularly for many years.
My opinion, for what it is worth, is that a decision about forgiveness requires insight and sincerity, sometimes courage, and, if possible, time and experience (though the last two are not always available); but the decision should never be dictated by dogma.
Declaring that someone should not and must never forgive a person — or a group of people — is an excellent way to promote malignant hatred, bigotry, the mindless cult of vendetta from one generation to the next, and injustice perpetuated and magnified.
Similarly: insisting that forgiveness must always be offered (and that it is ‘sinful’ not to forgive) also perpetuates injustice and abuse. There is a dark side to the Christian dogma of forgiveness, namely that it is, at least in part, cynical exploitation. Institutional official Christianity has abused (sometimes grossly abused) millions of people over the centuries, and in such cases the insistence on forgiveness is or was a blatant way of hampering the victims’ resistance and their ability to retaliate or complain.
Let us consider some other examples, not necessarily religious, of forgiveness and vengeance.
The Treaty of Versailles was a splendid example of a bunch of often short-sighted and mainly vindictive politicians wanting to impose a punitive, unforgiving peace. It brought scant comfort to nations needing reparations, and helped create the unhealthy conditions that enabled Nazism to rise to power. Mean-spiritedness and lack of forgiveness helped lead to the deaths of millions in the Second World War.
By contrast, after the American Civil War the victorious Union decided to be generous and forgiving to the defeated supporters of the Confederacy. The victors instituted what was called ‘Reconstruction’. The result? Jim Crow laws in the South, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, humiliation, and a further century of degradation, poverty and hell on earth for former slaves and their descendants. Rarely has ‘forgiveness’ caused so much damnable evil.
Advocating forgiveness for humane motives can be a tiresome and thankless task. About 214 years ago, Thomas Paine suggested to the French Assembly that, after deposing Louis XVI, sentencing him to death was unnecessarily vindictive. The French executed Louis anyway, and the ‘incorruptible’, paranoid and vain Maximilien Robespierre had Paine arrested and lined up for the guillotine. (Ironically, just across the Channel, thousands of English Tories would have cheerfully hanged Paine to save Robespierre a job!) At almost the last minute, there was a change of plan: the French guillotined Robespierre and freed Paine.
I also have a very personal involvement in this question. In early 1969, after long deliberation, I made a permanent break with my parents, because I was not prepared to condone the way they had treated me as a child and adolescent. And they were in no way remorseful, regarding me as a disloyal, self-centred and ungrateful brat. Over the years, various people (nearly all relatives) tried to shake me out of my resolve never to see my parents again. My attitude was ‘not very Christian’ (well, I had been staunchly un-Christian since 1955!); I was deluded; I was exaggerating; I had a big ego; and how would I like it if my children disowned me? Attempts at persuasion often degenerated fairly quickly into doubletalk, anger, and verbal and emotional abuse (but not physical abuse). I have seen, in the conduct of the advocates of forgiveness, human nature sinking very low indeed.
I have learnt, if nothing else, to trust my own judgement. And what else? There are times when it is just, sensible and humane to forgive (and unjust and perverse not to forgive); there are times when it is appropriate and just not to forgive (and to forgive would be collusion or even downright cowardice); there may be times when one cannot be sure which course is the better; and wisdom is knowing the difference!
Response by Dmitri Perno of Buderim.
I was intrigued by Nigel Sinnott’s article on Forgiveness (‘Are We Obliged to Forgive’, December SoFiA), as it reminded me of so many questions that I have pondered on for most of my life, particularly as many of them also arose from my own relationship with my parents. Nor do I make any apology for perhaps posing more questions than I attempt to answer as I have long realised (unlike so many of our Fundamentalist friends) that answers that may satisfy some people are not necessarily right for others.
Unlike Nigel I did not deliberately ‘break’ with my parents but was with them at the end, both of them now long dead. Neither of them had an easy death, my mother particularly blaming me, as the only ‘dutiful’ son, for not exercising some magical power to make her problems, mostly that of old age, disappear. What surprised me, however, was how little I actually felt at their passing. There were certainly no tears, no sense of regret or loss, and perhaps even a slight sense of relief that their struggles were at last over. Pondering about this subsequently I have to admit that I never felt any great love or honour for my parents and it would be hypocritical for me to pretend otherwise. They were simply there, and all I knew and had for the first few years of my existence. They also had many faults and problems, physical and psychological, which they no doubt inherited and acquired from their parents and subsequently passed on to me, some of which I am still struggling with to this day. (‘The sins of the fathers…..’,?). Should I blame them for that? Forgive them? Or should I somehow force myself to feel gratitude, love and honour for them as our society and religions tell us I should, even though I don’t!? So perhaps it is appropriate to have a closer look at this whole question of just WHAT it is that we are supposed to forgive and/or feel gratitude for.
The Bible talks much about these issues and one could doubtless find quotes to justify most points of view, but there is another Biblical injunction that is (I feel ) mostly overlooked but can have a profound effect on these issues and even the way we understand the World. “Judge not and ye shall not be judged”. Usually this is interpreted at the personal level but if it is taken in a wider sense it brings into question our whole understanding of morality for it is precisely by judging that we are able to put labels such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘evil’ on things and actions. One could perhaps even go so far as to say that we create ‘evil’ by judging and naming it to be so! But there is no judgement (as we understand it) in nature or Reality. Things simply ‘are’. A Cheetah mother catches a baby antelope in order to feed her cubs. She may even encourage them to tear into while it is still alive in order to develop their hunting instincts. Is this good or bad? It may be good for the Cheetahs but is certainly not so for the baby antelope. It depends on which side one looking from, and so it is with so many of the labels we insist on attaching to things.
I came into this world just on 72 years ago and will soon die. Is this good or bad? (Surely a relevant question if I have to decide whether I should feel gratitude to my parents for my birth or something I have to forgive them for!) Generally a birth is considered cause for celebration, perhaps because it is going to perpetuate the family and even the species, but in an already very overpopulated world, does this still hold? To the extent that life is seen as ‘good’ then death, being it’s antithesis, must be bad, but if we cease attaching labels and simply accept life without judgment then so does death lose much of it’s bad press. Many Eastern religions, mostly those that involve reincarnation, insist that the cycle of birth and rebirth into this world is a burden that must eventually be overcome, implying that this life as we know it is not a very happy affair, or at best, a transitory state to better. More to the point perhaps, I certainly don’t remember, and don’t have any way of finding out, if I ever had any choice (any other option) in the matter, and if that is so, and my existence at this moment is beyond my control, (inevitable?), then what’s the point in trying to decide (judge!) if it is good or bad. It simply, IS.
And talking of forgiveness always reminds me of the story of Peer Gynt, who left his bride- to- be at the altar to travel the world. Returning many years later he finds his abandoned bride, now crippled with age and nearly blind, still faithful and waiting for him. Filled with remorse, he falls to his knees and begs her forgiveness, only to be told- ‘you have made my life a beautiful song, what is there to forgive?’ And perhaps, if we stop judging and trying to decide if we have been sinned against or have sinned against someone, we might suddenly realize that there is nothing to forgive.
Further response by Nigel Sinnott
I am obliged to Dmitri Perno (April SoFiA Bulletin) — and a little flattered that he has used my December article about forgiveness to make a number of interesting observations of his own and to raise several questions in new areas about values, judgement and life in general.
I readily agree that there is not always a one “right” answer to a problem for everyone. Some decisions are a matter of taste and style or of personal priorities. Dmitri’s story about the cheetah, its cubs and the antelope is a telling example of how what is good or bad can be very relative indeed, depending on whose interests we are considering (and they can conflict).
On the other hand, the legend of Peer Gynt’s bride somehow does not have the ring of emotional authenticity to it, even allowing for poetic or dramatic licence.
Another point worth considering is that, while some people are undoubtedly over-judgmental (probably because of insecurity or unresolved aggression), others may sit on the fence too much (because they are confused or shy). Whether we like it or not, life at times almost obliges us to make judgements about what is right or wrong in various circumstances.
Since my article was published, I have spotted a couple of things that have some bearing on the ethics of forgiveness.
On 28 March The Age (Melbourne) carried an obituary of Jacob DeShazer (1912 – 2008), who took part in the Doolittle bombing raid on Japan in April 1942, and was captured afterwards. For 40 months he was a prisoner of the Japanese and was subjected to considerable brutality. After a while, however, his hatred of his captors changed to pity and forgiveness, and in 1949 DeShazer went back to Japan as a Free Methodist Church missionary. Judging just from the obituary, it looks as if forgiveness was an appropriate and very fruitful course of action for DeShazer. On the other hand, there have been plenty of former prisoners of the Japanese who could not forgive their sadistic captors yet bore no animus to young Japanese or to the Japanese people in general.
In about January the A.B.C. carried a television documentary about a former concentration camp inmate. It also dealt with a guard who regretted what was done at the camps and had been cleared by a war-crimes court on the grounds that he had helped save the lives of some of the inmates. The lady who had been an inmate was prepared to forgive not only this guard, but also all the guards whether or not (so it seemed) they were sorry for what they had done. And the lady strongly averred that wholesale forgiveness was the only way to go, to the considerable consternation of many other concentration camp survivors. I could understand forgiving the “good” guard, but blanket forgiveness of all the guards made me wary. In view of her opinions, the lady in question was invited to meet some Palestinian representatives and hear their criticisms of the Israelis (or some of them). She agreed, but the meeting did not last long as the apostle of blanket forgiveness could not cope with some of the things the Palestinians had to say, and I believe they were not Palestinian extremists or hard-liners.
I am certainly not against forgiveness in general. I think there are many situations where forgiveness makes for trust, reconciliation and better human relations. Also, in circumstances where you cannot reasonably forgive, it is often better to go for disengagement (amnesty or separation) rather than to advocate reparations or revenge. The point I wished to stress in my article was that dogmatically making forgiveness either compulsory or forbidden is almost always a recipe for injustice, exploitation, dissembling, hypocrisy and toxic emotions; and I still stand by that opinion.