Should We Always Forgive? Are We Obliged to Forgive?
By Nigel Sinnott
(Talk given to the Melbourne Group of SoFiA on 19 July 2012.)
Thank you all for coming to hear me this evening. This talk will be fairly short, because I am giving it mainly in the hope of encouraging a discussion about forgiveness. I do not feel confident about telling you exactly how you should deal with or approach forgiveness; and in fact I hope to learn something from what you have to say during the discussion afterwards.
I am not a professional philosopher or psychologist or even an experienced student of philosophy and psychology. I speak as someone who, more by chance than anything else, has had to make decisions about forgiveness and has therefore acquired an interest in the subject.
First I would like to explain why I am talking on this subject today. On 28 October 2007 the “Faith” column in the Sunday Age (Melbourne) carried a contribution by Christopher Bantick. I no longer have this item on file, but it stimulated me to write something of my own, which appeared as “Are We Obliged to Forgive?” in the December 2007 issue of the SoFiA Bulletin. Some interesting comments on my article, by Dmitri Pernod, appeared in the April 2008 SoFiA Bulletin, and I responded to them in the June issue. Three years later, on 7 June 2011, I went to a meeting of David Miller’s Existentialist Society in East Melbourne. The speaker was Craig Coulson on “Torture, Forgiveness and the Writings of Miroslav Volf”. Craig was a Christian, which I am not, but I found his talk stimulating and, after giving the matter some thought, I offered to expand my 2007 article into a talk.
What I have to say this evening can be summarised very quickly. I regard forgiveness as a valuable and worthwhile human practice in general, but I strongly suspect that harm can be done if forgiveness is prohibited at one extreme or made compulsory at the other.
Before I go any further, do I need to define forgiveness? I think there is a general consensus that it means the overlooking or pardoning of an offence or wrong, or ceasing to be angry or resentful about an offence or an offender; and it can also mean an offer of mercy, or the remission of a debt. There may be some disagreement among us about whether forgiveness can be given to institutions, or only to people.
Forgiveness, as far I am aware, can occur in two ways, though there may be others. It can occur gradually, without needing much thought, as time and new experiences lessen the pain of a former wrong, and the formerly aggrieved person feels or finds he or she can let go of or simply shrug off the past. I call this spontaneous forgiveness. Or it can be the result of careful thought and deliberation about the wrong or offence and the motives and character of the offender, in other words considered forgiveness. Professor Kevin Hart of the Australian Catholic University uses a similar division but employs different names, lyrical and narrative. Lyrical forgiveness happens spontaneously and is immediate, personal and without reason. The narrative form involves thought and reflection.
As spontaneous or lyrical forgiveness is apparently involuntary, or “a gift” as Professor Hart terms it, I am interested mainly in considered or narrative forgiveness, though I do not wish to give the impression that spontaneous forgiveness is unimportant: it may be very beneficial.
My opinion, for what it is worth, is that a decision about forgiveness requires insight and sincerity, sometimes courage, and — if possible and available — time and experience. Forgiveness, I maintain, may be freely and willingly given, but a decision to forgive should never be dictated by dogma.
Insisting 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. I strongly disapprove, for example, of the notion of inherited guilt, that the children of, say, mass murderers are guilty of their parents’ crimes. They are not, although they are guilty of something else if they try to justify or unreasonably deny what their parents did.
Similarly, insisting that forgiveness must always be offered, and that it is “sinful” not to forgive, also perpetuates injustice and abuse. There is, I maintain, sometimes a dark side to the Christian dogma of forgiveness, namely that it is or can be, at least in part, cynical exploitation. Institutional official Christianity has abused, and sometimes grossly abused, millions of people over the centuries, and in such cases the insistence on forgiveness is or was a blatant way — but one of many — of hampering the victims’ resistance and their ability to retaliate or complain. Indeed, it is rather ironic that many, but certainly not all, of the preachers of forgiveness can themselves be very punitive and vindictive.
Let us consider some other examples, not necessarily religious, of vengeance and forgiveness.
The Treaty of Versailles, which concluded the First World War, involved terms often drafted and dictated by short-sighted and vindictive politicians wanting to impose a punitive, unforgiving peace. The Treaty brought scant comfort to nations needing reparations, and helped create the unhealthy conditions that enabled Nazism to rise to power. If I am right about this, then mean-spiritedness and lack of forgiveness helped lead to the deaths of somewhere between 50 and 60 million people 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 state-sanctioned inequality for former slaves and their descendants. My grasp of this period of North American history may be naïve and flawed, but I get the distinct impression that “forgiveness” towards the southern states, combined with indifference in the north, caused or permitted— perhaps unwittingly — a lot of damnable evil.
Advocating forgiveness for humane motives can be a tiresome and thankless task. In about 1793, 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. Paine is said to have escaped execution only because a chalk mark was, by mistake, put on the inside of his cell door instead of the outside. 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.
As I mentioned at the start of this talk, forgiveness and its appropriateness have concerned me for a number of years, mainly because of personal involvement. In early 1969, just before my 25th birthday and 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, adolescent and young adult. I was satisfied that they were in no way remorseful, and in fact regarded me as a conceited, disloyal, wayward, 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. I was even told my attitude was “not very Christian”. Well, I had been staunchly un-Christian since 1955! I was told I 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 special pleading, hearsay, anger, and verbal and emotional abuse, but not physical abuse.
After my SoFiA Bulletin article was published, one relative told me “it’s time you stopped turning your parents into monsters in order to defend your ‘unforgiveness’.”
None of my critics had been a regular first-hand witness of my day-to-day treatment as a child by my parents. They were not interested in truth or fairness, but in middle-class conformity and appearances, or, if you prefer, whitewashing. And I suspect that, to them, maintaining my parents’ reputations mattered far more than my feelings or best interests. My father died in 1996, and my mother in 2000. They were both in England, and I was in Australia. Would they have wanted to see me again? In my father’s case I can be confident that the answer would have been a very firm no. My mother might have wanted to see me again but, if so, I suspect only very briefly, for the sake of appearances. If I had allowed myself to be persuaded to see my parents or just my mother again, they or she would have claimed this vindicated them; and I would have known I was a moral coward. Looking back on it all, I have seen, in the conduct of the dogmatic advocates of forgiveness, human nature sinking rather low.
At the beginning of the talk, I mentioned Dmiti Pernod’s comments on my article. Unlike me, he did not deliberately break with his parents and was with them when they died. But, as he says, “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 those of old age, disappear. What surprised me, however, was how little I actually felt at their passing. There were no tears, no sense of regret or loss, and perhaps even a slight sense of relief that their struggles were at last over.”
He continues: “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 [were] 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 ultimately 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?”
Dmitri Pernod then tried to examine what it is that we are supposed to forgive or feel gratitude for. He referred to the Bible.
“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!”
He then added something that resonated with me: “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 it 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 is looking from, and so it is with so many labels we insist on attaching to things.”
As part of my response to this I wrote: “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 an 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).”
Dmitri Pernod concluded with a folk tale. “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 realise there was nothing to forgive.”
I was a bit doubtful about this one, and replied as follows. “The legend of Peer Gynt’s bride somehow does not have the ring of emotional authenticity, even allowing for poetic or dramatic licence.” Looking back on it I think that, if anything, I understated the case against it.
I added: “Another point worth considering is that, while some people are undoubtedly over-judgemental, 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.” In fact Dmitri Pernod’s conclusions at the end of the story about the cheetah and her cubs required a degree of knowledge about the animal world but also some ethical judgement.
Not long after my article was published, The Age (Melbourne) of 28 March 2008 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 2008 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation 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 ground 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 indeed. After all, I have a friend, 14 years older than me, who survived the Łódź ghetto and the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Stutthof, and I have read her memoirs of the period. She has also seen drafts of this talk.
Anyway, in view of her opinions, the lady in the television documentary was invited to meet some Palestinian representatives and hear some of their criticisms of the Israelis. 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.
There is clearly a case for considering forgiveness for someone who admits that he or she has done something wrong, and regrets it. But if a person is still proud of some cruel, oppressive or dishonest action, I think forgiveness should be withheld unless insanity or diminished responsibility is involved.
A few years ago a man with a gun entered an Amish school in the north-eastern United States and shot dead several children. The bereaved Amish forgave him, perhaps because the gunman’s sanity was doubtful. I found this touching and see no reason to criticise it; but others might question whether the bereaved were entitled to forgive on behalf of those killed. All I can say is that this is not a problem as I see it.
I have heard of people criticising Simon Wiesenthal and other Nazi hunters for continuing to track down elderly war criminals. The critics argued that this all happened a long time ago, and we should forgive and forget. I find this sickeningly immoral. I reckon we owe it to the victims of Nazism to track down elderly war criminals and bring them to justice if they are still capable of understanding court proceedings. And I think the same applies to those who have committed more modern crimes against humanity.
At the beginning of this talk I mentioned institutions. As a general rule I do not think we should forgive institutions for deliberate wrongs, unless the institution, such as a government, has radically changed and clearly repudiated harm that was done in its name in the past. Should we seriously forgive the Inquisition, the Nazi S.S. and Gestapo, and various communist parties for oppression, cruelty and killing on a large scale? Should we forgive the Catholic Church’s Christian Brothers and a few other orders for brutal treatment and other abuse of children and young women, for example the Magdalene laundries in Ireland and the hell-hole for boys at Bindoon in Western Australia? I think not, otherwise we may subtly condone or may seem to condone what was done.
I am certainly not against forgiveness in general. I think there are many situations where forgiveness makes for trust, reconciliation and better human and social relations. It may also, where no duress is involved, allow someone who feels he or she has been wronged to cease dwelling on the past offence. Furthermore, in circumstances where you cannot reasonably forgive or feel unable to forgive, it is often better to go for disengagement, that is, amnesty or separation, rather than to advocate reparations or revenge. My Holocaust survivor friend made the point that one may understand the cause or reason for an evil action, and so not hate or seek revenge, “but that need not amount to forgiveness”. She added: “We need to deem some matters as unforgivable and accept that they are a part of life.”
She, like me, strongly disapproves of the notion of inherited guilt, and she is wary of the concept of collective responsibility for crimes against humanity, such as ethnic cleaning and persecution of minorities, where people who know what is happening keep quiet and do nothing. She makes the point that “True, silence means acquiescence, but in a police state I would allow for timidity or fear of repercussions for protest, and I’d forgive for silence.”
The point I emphasised in my article and wish to repeat today is that dogmatically making forgiveness either compulsory or forbidden is almost always a recipe for injustice, exploitation, dissembling, hypocrisy and toxic emotions.
What, if anything, have I learnt from all this? Mainly, I think, to trust my own judgement as, over the years, amid many difficulties, it has served me reasonably well most of the time. I have concluded that 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 where to forgive would, I strongly argue, be collusion in wrongdoing or even downright cowardice. There may even be times when one cannot be sure which course is the better; and in all or most of these cases, wisdom is knowing or carefully working out the difference!
28 & 29 October 2007; amended 30 Oct. & 4 Nov. 2007;
Published as “Are We Obliged to Forgive” in the SoFiA Bulletin (Wellington Point, Qld.), Dec. 2007: 3 – 4. (SoFiA is the Sea of Faith Network in Australia.)
Revised and expanded as a talk, June & July 2011; revised Feb., June & July 2012.
Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Sabina Apel and Halina Strnad for reading and commenting on various drafts of this talk.
3408 words. Reading time: 26 minutes.
N.H.S., Sunshine West, Vic.