But more recent thinking among contemporary scholars of forgiveness maintains that to truly forgive someone, two elements are essential: You have to have someone to blame, and they have to want to be forgiven.
Only then do you experience the mutually healthful benefits of forgiveness – a newly rinsed past, a clear conscience, a fresh start.
Without a shared recognition of what has happened, of who did what to whom and why, without some kind of repentance and forgiveness, there is no progress. Without the possibility of progress, there is no hope. Without hope, there is no point. What other solace could there be for the parents of the children who died at Adam Lanza’s hand in Connecticut?
Forgiveness is actually a fairly new concept. It’s hard to find ancient, pre-Christian societies that thought forgiveness was a good idea at all. The ancients were skeptical that human beings could change – they preferred moral re-education techniques such as beheading.
The Judeo-Christian tradition began to change that, as did the New Testament notion that a man named Jesus died to atone for our sins. But Christian forgiveness is still highly conditional, and often confusing.
One morning, mired in philosophy – you have not experienced stroke-like incomprehension until you have tried to read a Danish intellectual analyzing Jacques Derrida’s On Forgiveness – I decided to call the Most Rev. Colin Johnson, the Anglican Archbishop of Toronto.
“All people stand in need of forgiveness,” Archbishop Johnson stated, right off the bat. The idea seemed to give him a bit of a lift.
A sinner who wants to be forgiven by someone he has slighted has to do at least three things, the Archbishop said: acknowledge his misdeeds, be contrite, and promise to amend his ways. “Until he does, the sinner is controlled by the sin. Similarly, the offended party needs to learn to forgive, as much as is possible. Sometimes it never happens, and that moment or event dominates the person’s life, and limits their capacity for fullness of life.”
The church’s rules are strict, but at least they are dependable. For many of us though, in our increasingly secular lives, without God to wield his judgment that passeth all understanding, postmodern men and women have to sort out whom and what we can forgive, and how, on our own.
Even small affronts are complicated: Your boyfriend sleeps with your best friend, you gossip treacherously about a pal behind his back, your supervisor sells you down the river to further her own career – the first reaction is rage and resentment.
“Resentment is a perfectly natural thing to feel when someone hurts you,” says Charles Griswold, a philosophy professor at Boston University and one of the world’s foremost authorities on forgiveness. He is the author of Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration , and has a new paper coming out on the ethics of revenge.
Rage and resentment can lead to more of the same, Prof. Griswold says – hence the need to break the cycle by forgiving.
“Forgiving is, first of all, forgoing revenge,” he says. “And in my view forgiveness also involves giving up vengeful anger.”
But we need a reason to do that, and so we look to the perpetrator.
According to Prof. Griswold, he or she has to take responsibility (“yes, I slept with Sally”); repudiate the wrongful deed (“what I said about Giorgio was just nonsense – I have no idea if he snorted coke at that office party”); and express regret (“I’m sorry I wasted three days of your life by making you work on that crappy project just so I could look good to old Squirrel Paws”).
Finally, the person has to commit to learning from their mistakes, to a change of self.
None of this has anything to do with the law; as Prof. Griswold says, “interpersonal forgiveness and matters of judicial punishment are entirely different.” You can forgive a thief and also want him to do time.
Here’s the hard-to-believe news: If these conditions are met, Prof. Griswold insists, there is no such thing as an unforgivable person. Archbishop Johnson agrees. Adam Lanza, Marc Lépine, even Osama bin Laden, if they had lived and repented – publicly taken responsibility, repudiated their actions and committed to changing their ways – were all potentially forgivable.
Whether they would be forgiven by their victims, which is the other half of the equation, is a different story.
“I do think that there are cases when forgiveness is very, very difficult, and may take a tremendous amount of time,” Prof. Griswold notes.
“The victim has to come to terms with anger, and the perp has to repent, and that can take too long” – during which one party can slip back into the revenge cycle, as the Middle East proves almost daily.