In Defense of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a central tenet of Christian faith and practice. But what exactly is it? Is it an emotional process by which people are supposed to overcome hurt feelings — or is it something much deeper, much more radical and revolutionary? At least one person online thinks it’s all about the emotions; I’d like to make the case for something much more powerful and spiritually healing.

But first: today’s blog post has a back story.

Since I write about Christian mysticism, I’ve set up Google alerts so that when someone publishes a blog post or article online in which they mention “Christian mysticism,” I get a notification. Most of the time, the notifications just point to news about someone teaching a class somewhere on Teresa of Ávila, or a new book from Bernard McGinn — that sort of thing. But every now and then I find someone talking about Christian mysticism in odd or unusual ways. Today, I got one such notification.

On the Good Men Project website, a post published Saturday carried the eye-opening headline, “Forgiveness is a Toxic Practice.” The author, Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda, teaches religious studies at the University of Houston, so I’m surprised that he would make this claim:

Yet cultural values, rooted in Christian mysticism—such as ‘Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven’—command that victims of personal tragedies forgive.

In this one sentence he demonstrates not only that he doesn’t understand Christian mysticism, especially in relation to Christian doctrine, but also that he doesn’t understand forgiveness either.

Forgiveness, Misunderstood

In the quote above, Dr. Pegoda alludes to Luke 6:37 — not the words of a Christian mystic, but of Jesus himself. It’s a shame he sees these words so narrowly — only as a demand placed on victims. But before we get to that, let’s see what else he has to say.

To make his case that forgiveness is “toxic,” Dr. Pegoda defines forgiveness in a purely emotional way:

Forgive means to “stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw or mistake.”

He then goes on to argue that “when we hear ‘forgive,’ our brains automatically hear ‘forget’ next.” (The idiom “forgive and forget” has nothing to do with Christian mysticism or doctrine — it comes from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in 1605; in other words, it is a secular idea, not a Christian teaching).

Dr. Pegoda quite sensibly points out that it’s one thing to forgive somebody for a social faux pas and something else entirely to forgive a victimizing crime such as rape or murder. Which leads to what I suppose is his main point:

Pressures to forgive are unfairly placed on victims and quickly becomes a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ Victims are supposed to forgive and forget and are told, ‘you must forgive in order to fight depression,’ ‘if you don’t forgive, you’ll never move on,’ ‘bitterness will only eat away at you – forgive and all will be better.’

If he had made the point of his post something like “It’s Wrong To Pressure Victims to Forgive” I suspect he and I might be in broad agreement. But to take an example of how forgiveness can be abused, and then try to make the case that all forgiveness is therefore toxic, is both irrational (it’s an example of “all-or-nothing” thinking) and spiritually misguided.

Dr. Pegoda goes on to complain about how unforgiving society as a whole is (no argument there). But then he reveals just how deep his misunderstanding of forgiveness — at least, Christian forgiveness — really is. He conflates self-forgiveness (an important practice when someone has done something for which they feel genuine remorse) with, once again, the experience of being victimized. “What in the world does a victim need to ever forgive themselves for? Nothing!” he insists. And anyone who understands the Christian teaching on forgiveness will agree with him there. But that’s because self-forgiveness is not an obligation for those who have been victimized, but a path to healing for those who are dealing with contrition or compunction.

Toward a Christian Understanding of Forgiveness

Why is forgiveness so important to Christians? To begin with, it’s important because it’s a core teaching of Christ (notice I said teaching — this falls under “doctrine,” not “mysticism”). But it also has to do with our understanding of who God is. God is a God of infinite justice, and simultaneously a God of infinite mercy. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

Christians believe forgiveness is the right thing to do because we have been forgiven. Granted, most people never commit murder or rape or other deeply hurtful and traumatizing acts — thanks be to God. But everyone is capable of hurting others (and themselves) in small and large ways. We all are capable of creating suffering — in our lives, the lives of those we love, and even strangers. And sometimes, even if our actions are not criminal, they can still lead to horrific pain. A divorce gets nasty; a family fights over an inheritance; a person lost in the illness of alcoholism continually behaves in hurtful ways.

As Dr. Pegoda points out in his article, our society doesn’t know how to forgive. That’s because forgiveness is a spiritual process that requires a grounding in the Spirit of Love and Mercy in order to manifest. “To give a love, you gotta live a love,” as Neil Young once sang. In other words: to manifest the grace of forgiveness, first one needs to know what it means to have been forgiven — recognizing that forgiveness is related to love.

You can forgive someone who’s dead, or who has hurt you even though you’ve never met them. One of my longest “forgiveness journeys” has been forgiving the person who burglarized my house — in 2008! That person might live just down the street from me, who knows? I’ve never seen them, and to the best of my knowledge they’ve never been brought to justice. But I’ve still worked hard on forgiving them.

Why?

Because forgiveness is not just some mechanism for stopping angry or resentful feelings. Rather, it is a process of inner healing in which I refuse to let someone’s harmful behavior diminish my life and my ability to be a kind and caring person.

Forgiveness, at its most radical and revolutionary, is a spiritual power that can restore relationships that have been damaged or even destroyed by harmful behavior. But in order for that to happen, there has to be good will and sincere commitment to restoring the relationship on the part of both parties. We all know that the world doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the other person refuses to take responsibility for their harmful actions or simply couldn’t be bothered for forgiveness. But even then, forgiveness can be a healing process for the person doing the forgiving (the “forgiver”). Such healing can take place with or without the cooperation of the person who is being forgiven.

Forgiveness is not about letting someone get away with something. If I had good evidence of who burglarized my house, I’d go to the police. Love is not just some warm fuzzy feeling, but rather an act of will. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to take steps to stop someone from engaging in harmful behavior.

And while spiritual forgiveness can include abandoning any claim for restitution or punishment on the part of the perpetrator, one can forgive while still endorsing appropriate measures of punishment or recompense. An example of this would be the family of Botham Jean, who was murdered by an off-duty policewoman. The family forgave the murderer, but still she went to jail.

There’s a difference between authentic justice which is grounded in love, and an ersatz “justice” which is grounded in revenge. This is why I, like many Christians, oppose the death penalty. Removing a violent person from society is just. Killing them for their crimes is revenge. There’s a difference.

Nowhere does the Bible say “forgive and forget.” Nowhere does the Bible insist that all acts of forgiveness are the same — or even that all injuries are forgivable. I think any reasonable Christian will acknowledge that forgiving an act of violence or trauma, especially when willfully perpetrated, is profoundly difficulty, perhaps nearly impossible. And — the one point where I agree with Dr. Pegoda — it’s counterproductive to try to pressure a person to forgive. And Christians have sometimes been guilty of this — a particularly horrible example being pastors counseling women to “forgive” their abusive husbands, and go back to them, which too often could lead to further abuse (some women have died after following advice like this).

If revenge is a distortion of justice, then acquiescing to another person’s violence is an abuse of forgiveness. Such acquiescence can truly be harmful. But that’s not authentic forgiveness, and it’s wrong to blame forgiveness for how it has been sometimes used as a way to further victimize the survivors of trauma.

Jesus teaches us to forgive because, well, forgiveness is good. There’s science to back this up — see articles by Rubin Khoddam PhD and Everett L. Worthington, Jr. for just two examples of science-based approaches to forgiveness. While I agree that there’s no use in pressuring people to forgiveness (and that sometimes that can lead to harm), I’m also convinced that, in the long run, anyone who has ever been victimized or harmed by another person’s actions (or even their own actions) ultimately faces two choices: to begin, sooner or later, the process of forgiveness, or to continue to grasp onto a sense of being victimized, with the slow-burning anger and resentment that such a sense entails. Most people don’t need an advanced degree in psychology to recognize which of these choices will eventually lead to greater peace and healing.

Notice that I describe forgiveness as a process. Like grief or healing after a serious injury or illness, forgiveness (particularly for serious offenses) cannot happen overnight. Perhaps that is part of what motivated Dr. Pegoda’s crusade against forgiveness: perhaps he has been told that forgiveness should be instantaneous. That’s simply unrealistic. But once again, just because we sometimes get forgiveness wrong is no reason to dismiss it as “toxic.”

In the second season of the Netflix drama The Crown, there’s a fascinating scene in which a young Queen Elizabeth II has a conversation with the American evangelist Billy Graham. Elizabeth is angry at her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, for engaging in actions that could cause harm to the Royal Family. She confesses to Billy Graham that is impossible for her to forgive him. But, as the head of the Church of England, she realizes it is her duty to forgive. So she turns to the evangelist for advice.

Graham points out that, for Christians, forgiveness is not an optional exercise. God is a forgiving God; who are we to reject God’s example? Elizabeth replies that we are mere mortals. Graham pauses, but then offers this perspective: “The solution for being unable to forgive: one asks for forgiveness oneself. Humbly and sincerely, and one prays for those that one cannot forgive.”

For someone who is unwilling or unable to see the grace in forgiveness, this bit of advice might seem horrific. But to those who recognize that a world shaped by forgiveness is far superior to a world without it, this bit of advice from a fictionalized Billy Graham offers a simple, baby-step way to begin the process. And that one step just might make all the difference in allowing one’s life to be shaped by something other than another person’s evil.

Forgiveness and Christian Mysticism

I’m still rather bemused by the fact that Dr. Pegoda saw the pressure for victims to forgive as arising from “Christian mysticism.” I think he’s using the word mysticism in a pejorative and hostile sense: in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, mysticism as a term of reproach “implies self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought.” This has nothing to do with the wisdom tradition in Christianity that is grounded in contemplative prayer, radical silence, and the cultivation of both an embodied sense of Divine Presence and a life oriented toward living the teachings of Jesus. But, unfortunately, mysticism is a vague word and sometimes is used in ways that undermine, rather than celebrate, the inner tradition of Christianity.

Mind you, Christian mysticism — the heart of Christian spirituality — certainly is aligned with the grace and healing power of forgiveness, because that’s what Christianity teaches. Mysticism is spirituality, teaching is doctrine. It is a doctrine of Christianity that forgiveness brings healing — if not to the relationship between the forgiver and the forgiven, then at least to the forgiver.

But while the doctrine of forgiveness comes from the wisdom teachings of Jesus himself, the practice of forgiveness is something that authentic mysticism very much supports. Mysticism, after all, is the spirituality of responding to Divine Love and Divine Presence in our lives. Put another way, mysticism “plugs us in” to the source of all love — and, by extension, all forgiveness.

A Christianity that is all doctrine and no mysticism sounds frightful to me. That would be very much like reducing forgiveness to an abstract rule (“you must forgive other people, even if they’ve victimized you”), but without providing any support to live into that rule. I am only capable of loving others to the extent that I am loved; likewise, I am only capable of forgiving others to the extent that I receive forgiveness (even for the smallest of sins). Because we live in a society that is so illiterate when it comes to basic spirituality, most people have never experienced forgiveness all the way down to the foundation of their souls. Such people are probably incapable of truly forgiving others. And any Christian (or any person in general) who tells such a person that they “should” or “must” forgive others is truly doing them a disservice.

Again, the solution to that problem is not to jettison forgiveness, but rather to do the work to understand it properly — which means to enter into the spiritual mystery of relating to the God who is ultimate forgiveness. In that sense, mysticism really is the foundation of forgiveness: not forgiveness-as-obligation, but rather true forgiveness-as-deep-inner-healing.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.