By Selwyn Duke
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us . . .”
Few topics are as misunderstood as forgiveness. Bits and pieces about it are imbibed during sermons as wandering minds vacillate between spiritual prescriptions and worldly concerns, but such cogitations are usually left at the church-house door. It is one of those quaint virtues that are only practicable in moderation, it is felt, as their preeminence cannot possibly extend past the walls of a few seminaries to the rough-hewn world beyond.
When accurately comprehended, forgiveness is often difficult because it is so contrary to the instincts of the flesh which, when violated, wants to extract a pound of flesh. When errantly comprehended, forgiveness is often impossible, as it becomes a caricature of a virtue, the practice of which renders one a caricature of a virtuous man.
There are two common misconceptions with respect to forgiveness. One is to believe that forgiveness obviates punishment. The other is to assume that forgiveness is conditional. For instance, one will forgive, but not when transgressed against to an extent that one finds intolerable, or not without the exhibition of an emotionally satisfying degree of contrition.
The first error is quite characteristic of our age. When crusading for leniency, criminal-rights advocates may admonish that the imperative of forgiveness dictates that we not administer what we know to be merely proportionate punishment. And the same holds true with respect to punishing children. Why would I be cross with little Johnny? Should I not forgive my own son?
So strong is this linkage between forgiveness and leniency, punishment and vengeance, that it renders forgiveness as unpalatable to the just as it does punishment to the forgiving. For, there is frequently the feeling that a concomitant of forgiveness is kid-gloves treatment. But nothing could be further from the truth.
It is not just that forgiveness fails to make punishment unnecessary, nay, it is that it has no direct relation to punishment whatsoever. The opposite of forgiveness is not punishment, but vindictiveness, and the opposite of punishment is exoneration.
To embrace the premise that forgiveness and punishment are mutually exclusive would leave us with three alternatives. One is to dispense with forgiveness altogether so as to allow for the across-the-board punishment of transgressors. Another is to forgive them across-the-board, but then we would have to empty out the prisons. Of course, neither of these options seems very reasonable, so there is a tendency to embrace number three. To whit: we assume that when a transgression goes beyond a certain threshold, forgiveness becomes impossible and punishment necessary.
Which part of this equation will be the harder pill to swallow will depend on one’s perspective. Those imbued with the permissive spirit of our age may find the juxtaposition of forgiveness and punishment to be anathema, whereas those imbued with the vengeful spirit of the ages may find unconditional forgiveness equally objectionable. But let us start with punishment.
Obviously, punishment can be motivated by a desire for vengeance, and a strong motivator it is. But as much as it is strong, it is ignoble. Punishment should be administered in a spirit of justice, with the understanding that an immoral action should often have an equal and opposite punitive reaction. We should also bear in mind that we punish for the good of society and often for that of the individual. It is this realization, that punishment can be a manifestation of love, that makes it palatable to the forgiving heart.
After all, when punishment is lacking so is the necessary deterrent to criminality, and then crime proliferates and more people than would otherwise be the case are hurt and killed. And being so remiss does not reflect love, but indifference, the father of sins of omission.
Now, what of the individual who is punished? Well, punishment can have transformative qualities. You see, one learns by doing. And since punishment can enforce good behavior, and repeated good behavior can become a good habit, a virtue, it can and does make certain individuals more virtuous.
The second part of the equation – understanding why forgiveness must not be conditional – is for most, I’m afraid, going to be a much tougher pill to swallow. But let us forge on ahead.
Where lies the virtue in forgiveness if we only forgive when it is easy? That is much like taking pride in victory in the athletic arena despite the fact that one limits his competition to only the weakest of opponents. Sure, one can forgive Mary Jo Banton for stealing his pencil in second grade, that is easy enough. But finding nobility in forgiveness is only possible when we forgive the impossible. It is only a practice in the best of virtues when we forgive the worst of vices. Only when we forgive despite a savage heart that cries out for vengeance, eyes that see nothing but red, and the abiding pain of the unkindest of cuts, are we transcending the flesh. Only then do we imitate God.
I remember hearing a woman on a radio show say, with evident passion and conviction, that her hatred kept her going. Of course, such a sentiment is easy to condemn, but is she really that different from many of us? If we are to be honest, this example is reflective of our “conditional” forgiveness. There are just those nemeses, those thorns in our side, those bêtes noire whom we just love to hate. Undeniably, the desire to hold grudges is most tempting. But why? Why does it feel so sublimely, deliciously, viscerally satisfying?
The answer is that when we wallow in hatred of another we are doing what could be called “psychological violence” to him. It is much the same as how sexual thoughts can be pleasing to the flesh. Sure, a lustful man would much prefer the reality over the fantasy, but absent the former he will indulge the latter. Likewise, the vengeful would much prefer to visit real-life pain upon their enemies, but absent the opportunity to do so they will settle for the dark-hooded man in the dungeon of their minds.
It doesn’t make sense, say you? Well, remember that emotions are not constrained by logic and reason. The heart’s imprudent governance tells us that this is our only recourse, the one way we can exact a measure of vengeance and enjoy a degree of satisfaction.
You see, in a perverse way we relish placing these transgressors on the racks of our psyches and perpetually tearing them asunder. We want to consign those infernal beasts whom we deem most damnable to a little hell in the recesses of our minds, where they must burn in the fires of our ire for a temporal eternity. Oh, avenging ourselves upon them may be beyond our grasp, justice may be elusive, and misfortune that we can revel in may be kept at bay by a smiling Lady Luck. But your hell, tailor-made just for them, is of your own design. You are the gatekeeper, and your netherworld is a realm from which there is no escape.
This brings us to a burning [no pun intended] question, the one that is central to this piece: why should we forgive? Leaving aside divine enjoinments, the answer involves rectitude: doing right by one’s fellow man and by oneself.
Obviously, before we can rightly assess whether or not someone has willfully done injury to us, the egregiousness of that injury, and what a proportionate response (justice) would be, we must have sound judgement. But there is the rub. Even when in an objective, rational state of mind our judgment is subject to human limitations. Mind-reading is not within our capacity.
But how much more questionable is judgment when a mind is clouded by emotion? As I have said before, anger is like darkness: the more there is, the less you can see.
The vengeful person will most always view the object of his hostility through the prism of his antipathy. He sees every act of his hated foe as being animated by a desire to do him ill. Good turns become bad turns, and accidental bad turns become purposeful attempts to undermine him. After all, he knows that his hatred is justified and that the object of it, this demonic creature and bane of his existence, richly deserves to be relegated to that psychic hell.
And herein lies part of the value of forgiveness. Upon forgiving, the darkness of that toxic emotion is lifted and supplanted by the light of a more ethereal perception. Then, sometimes, what had been unthinkable becomes apparent. We may see that the one we bore a grudge against for so long did us no wrong, or that he had only good or neutral intentions, or that the injury we fancied to be so severe is just so much spilled milk. Sometimes even, dare I say, we may find out that the fault lies with us.
Of course, on occasion our harsh assessment may be vindicated, as we find that the light of truth reveals the person to be the embodiment of our darkest suspicions. Regardless, we can only be sure that our powers of discernment are unclouded when that miasma of malevolence has lifted.
And this wisdom, which reaches back through the ages, was never expressed more succinctly than two millennia ago when Jesus said,
“Take the log out of your own eye before you worry about the speck in your brother’s. When the log is gone from your eye, you will more easily be able to see the speck in your brother’s.”
Yes, ‘twas ever so: forgiveness is an impediment to the exacting of vengeance, but it also may be a prerequisite for the administration of justice.
So, while they say that revenge is a dish that is best served cold, the truth is that it is a dish best not served at all. It is the junk food of retribution. It makes the animalistic mouth water but causes the worst sort of heart disease: it darkens the heart. Justice is a better cut and is infinitely more pleasing to the divine palate.
Then there is the matter of doing right by oneself, and this hearkens back to that place of internal damnation. It may be true that it is a realm where we can reign supreme, but equally true is that anyone who has dominion over a hell is a devil. And this hell exists within the confines of our own heads, making it a curious sort of netherworld. For, it is not those within it who suffer torment, but those whom it is within.
After all, while that noxious bile courses through our minds and corrodes our souls, the occupant of our hell, in reality, is living his life unscathed by it. Undoubtedly, hatred for another hurts most the one who feels it.
Needless to say, nothing is easier said than done than what is at issue here. When the hurt pains us to the depth of our souls, counsel to forgive often seems laughable at best and offensive at worst. But also true is that holding on to anger and bitterness can turn a cut into a festering sore, as we throw salt in our own wound with every malevolent thought. But there is a salve, and it is called forgiveness. It is ironic, but the more you forgive, the less a person has hurt you.
God’s centeredness is so often the world’s radicalism. And as with so many truths, that of proper forgiveness so often seems a paradox. It means striking vengeance from your heart while leaving the justice residing next to it unmolested. It means forgiving the unforgivable while punishing the pitiable. It means making love and hate bedfellows, as you shower your fellow man with the former and his misdeeds with the latter. It means forging on ahead with the knowledge that it may be necessary to occasionally flog or execute someone, but never to hate him. And lastly, it means knowing that the gates of that microcosmic hell do not have to prevail against the temple of your soul. For clad we can be in that beatific armor of angels. That divine quality called forgiveness.