Forgiveness, both giving and receiving, has always been a serious challenge for me — as opposed to forgetting which comes so naturally. It also is a complex global problem particularly for those dealing with loans and debts, and for judges, philosophers, politicians, psychologists, and religious leaders.
For me, forgiveness has always been a most personal, one-to-one process which can only succeed if one can confront the whole truth. However, it also has always seemed paradoxical in its application. Were there acts which were unforgivable? For example, is it even conceivable that the horrendous infringements on human morality by the Daesh terrorists could ever be forgiven? In the New Testament, Christ was supposed to have said while he appealed to God from the cross: “Forgive them for they do not know what they do.”1 This pronouncement has made me think again: Are ignorance or stupidity valid reasons for forgiving crimes? And how is one to reconcile with absolutes of evil?
I noted that the word forgiveness itself is indeed different in subtle ways from atonement, amnesty, clemency, pardon, and reconciliation. Its relationship to apology, excuse, or saying “sorry” also is complex. As a concept, it does not encompass deluded avoidance, clever evasion, or resigned acceptance.2 Ultimately, forgiving aspires to an impossibility: knowingly to undo what has been done. As Arendt described it: “the possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility.”3
Beyond such philosophical obstacles, the subject varies according to whether it concerns the religious or the secular.4 Different religions have been at the forefront of advancing forgiveness, but before looking at the historical development, it is crucial to observe that without forgiveness, human lives can be burdened by endless cycles of resentment, retribution, revenge and retaliation as we see currently evolving in the Middle East. For most of us, the familiar words of The Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” are engraved in our minds and often affect our actions. However asking forgiveness from the divine is a one-way transaction and as such, some philosophers contend it cannot be regarded as a genuine form of forgiveness.
In The Bible, Forgiveness is a prominent theme but it is not uncommon for both Jews and Christians to have questions about it: Is forgiveness a feeling, a conscious choice, or an instinctive emotional reaction? In Judaism the response to harm done is strictly spelled out: if you have harmed someone, you must reach out to that person in order to be entitled to forgiveness. It is essential that you sincerely and truthfully apologize to those you have wronged. Those wronged are encouraged to grant forgiveness. To be hard-hearted in refusing to grant forgiveness is discouraged.
In Judaism an individual cannot obtain forgiveness from God for wrongs done to another person. Part of your responsibility as a human being is to forgive and be forgiven. As Sir Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, explained: “It is not that God forgives, while human beings do not. To the contrary, we believe that just as only God can forgive sins against God, so only human beings can forgive sins against human beings.” This means that murder is unforgivable in Judaism unless the victim forgave the perpetrator before he died.
On the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) Jews fast and pray for God’s forgiveness for transgressions they made against God in the past year. In the Tefila Zaka meditation (recited before the rituals of the day of Atonement begin) the text reads: “Know that there is no one so righteous that they have not wronged another, financially or physically, through deed or speech. This pains us because wrongs between humans and their fellows are not atoned by Yom Kippur until the wronged one is appeased… even death does not atone for such sins.”
In Christianity, which adopted most of Judaism’s positions on forgiveness, one must forgive to be a Christian. As Matthew declared: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”5 This was a command for humans to forgive. Jesus, however, went against Judaic tradition by specifically asking for God’s forgiveness of those who were about to crucify him. Some philosophers have contended that by saying this, Jesus became the first to ask God for forgiveness on behalf of third parties.
Human forgiveness in Islam in many ways followed the Judaeo-Christian positions: “He who forgives and is reconciled with his enemy, shall receive his reward from God,” reads The Koran.6 Many of the verses of the Koran and sayings of the Prophet emphasize Allah’s capacity for forgiveness. In one of the prayers he taught: “Oh, Allah, the most Forgiving One, you love to forgive, so forgive me.”7 Muslims believe it is wrong ever to assume that one can find salvation without the forgiveness of Allah. So it is necessary to base human relations on forgiveness, even forgiving one’s enemies. In The Koran Allah described Believers as “those who avoid major sins and indecent acts, and when angry, who forgive.”8 How can contemporary members of Daesh, who declare themselves Believers, reconcile their acts with the words of Allah?
Buddhists see forgiveness as a way to prevent destructive emotions like hatred and revenge from upsetting one’s mental balance. In focusing on karma, Buddhists seek to achieve a wholesome effect which overcomes most negative feelings, including remorse. Forgiveness is considered one of the six cardinal virtues in Hinduism. It can be strengthened by compassion, tenderness, kindness, as well as meditative introspection, fasting, purification and acts of charity. In Hinduism, forgiveness has both feminine and masculine forms. Lakshmi, the feminine form, is forgiving even when the wrongdoer does not repent. Vishnu, the masculine, forgives only when there is a full repentance from the wrongdoer – but this is regarded as a less noble form of forgiveness than the feminine which incorporates renewal.
Although up to the 20th century discussion on forgiveness was focused on the religious aspects, since then a deeper understanding of forgiveness has steadily advanced with the studies of hundreds of psychologists and the stream of books they are publishing. A leader in this field, Dr. Robert Enright at the University of Wisconsin has founded the International Forgiveness Institute where he developed a “20 Step Process Model of Forgiveness.” The overarching consensus in the field of interventionists is that the purpose of forgiveness is to decrease overall negative affect and increase the individual’s positive attitude towards resolution. Those who compulsively express contrition are not likely to be credible subjects for forgiveness, but Enright’s research also revealed that some people are more likely to be forgiving. Those who are angrier, more hostile, or neurotic in everyday life are less likely to forgive. They are also more likely to avoid their transgressor and to enact revenge years later.
For psychologists, forgiveness is essentially a matter of the inner self, of the heart overcoming the intensely negative attitudes that occur when we have been wronged by another. Forgiveness is thus seen as a way to cure the spirit of the anger, resentment and the passion for revenge and retaliation which may otherwise haunt us. Individuals who have forgiven will most likely have overcome their vindictive desires and have been moved by repentance. For those hurt, it is crucial for them to understand the situation of the offender at the time when they committed the injury.
Most of us need to forgive and to be forgiven, because if we don’t we cannot successfully move ahead. It is not easy. It takes honesty, a degree of open-mindedness, and courage. Often one may try to forgive someone, but just cannot manage to do so. Or the person one forgave did not show remorse or change their behavior or own up to their actions — with the result that one again ends up being unforgiving. But until we are able to forgive, we remain locked out of being at peace. Forgiveness can also have forward-looking benefits because of the way it can transfigure the past, altering the ethical significance of a wrongdoer’s deeds by altering the perspective in which they are held. Forgetfulness ultimately plays an important role here.
Forgiveness is also becoming touted as crucial to reconciliation when it comes to international conflict or civil strife. Some would contend that apology and its acceptance would be more appropriate words. The lines between apology and forgiveness are blurred inasmuch as forgiveness is the prerogative or right of the victim of the wrongdoer. Bishop Desmond Tutu, who headed the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the mid 1990s, probably has given us the best known example of reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of collective wrongs. “Forgiveness is not dependent on the action of others,” Tutu said. “Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way… We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self interest.”
Understanding forgiveness as being almost synonymous with reconciliation supports the notion that international collective endeavors are becoming institutionalized forms of forgiveness. From a broader perspective on both a personal as well as a collective basis it would seem that our capacity to forgive and to be forgiven has become a central characteristic defining us as human beings.
2President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974 on the basis that the US needed to move beyond the disruptive criminal transgressions of the ex-President. A clear difference between forgiving and a pardon is that the latter is exercised by third parties as opposed to the victims of wrongdoing. Forgiveness as the right or prerogative of the victim is impossible when it encompasses the population of an entire nation. A pardon seemed like the only path open to the US at that time.
3Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958) p.237.
4It is important to note that although modern philosophers have written widely on forgiveness, the impact of the Judaic-Christian religions (on the already somewhat blurred meanings of the Greek and Latin expressions for forgiveness) historically caused philosophers such hesitation that few broached the subject.
6The Koran, XLII c.625 AD
7Reported by al-Trimidhi and Ibn Majah.