[Jo] felt so deeply injured that she really couldn’t quite forgive yet. So she winked hard, shook her head, and said gruffly, because Amy was listening: "It was an abominable thing, and she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven."
… Amy was much offended that her overtures of peace had been repulsed, and began to wish she had not humbled herself, to feel more injured than ever, and to plume herself on her superior virtue in a way which was particularly exasperating.
(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women)
In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily Climbs, Emily Starr (formerly of New Moon) goes to live with her strict, respectable, and utterly unimaginative Aunt Ruth Dutton. A measure of Aunt Ruth’s narrow-mindedness is her propensity to "forgive" Emily for a variety of imagined offenses, such as sitting in the corner of the church pew or spilling a pot of ink. "I’ll forgive you this time," she sniffs disdainfully, "but don’t let it happen again."
For an act associated with grace, forgiveness has a reputation for being offered – or demanded – most ungraciously. Today’s roundtable on forgiveness and justice bears witness to how complex, and variously understood, the concept of forgiveness can be. Gwen quotes the Hindu perspective from which forgiveness appears fundamentally cruel, a burden tied to the backs of those who are already stumbling under the weight of suffering and victimization. Jen, on the other hand, talks about the arrogance of forgiveness, the assumption of judgment and superiority that is necessarily involved in the act of granting absolution.
"Ninety percent of the Christian walk is forgiveness," a wise woman once told me. Forgiveness is an essential component to my faith, and as such it is a core value for me. I believe in forgiveness, in its social and spiritual value, but perhaps rather than trying to defend this view, I’ll focus instead on my own personal list of what forgiveness is not.
- Forgiveness does not deny the wrongfulness of the act. On the contrary: it insists upon it. That’s precisely why people like Aunt Ruth Dutton are so annoying – to extend forgiveness to someone who is not aware of wrongdoing will seem obnoxious at best and authoritarian at worst.
- Forgiveness does not always mean full restoration of the relationship. I struggled with this after my split from my ex-husband. Does the doctrine of forgiveness require me to return to my marriage? I concluded that it did not. Christianity requires one to forgive the wrongdoer, but not necessarily to have sex with him.
- Forgiveness is not consequence-free. (Otherwise known as "enabling.") Forgiveness does not require one to go around coddling and protecting the wrongdoer from all natural and/or socially imposed consequences for his wrongful act. But it may help one determine just what consequences are in the wrongdoer’s best interests, as well as those of society as a whole.
- Forgiveness is not risk-free. Sometimes, though not always, forgiveness involves the restoration of trust. As such it involves the willing assumption of risk.
- Forgiveness is not something to which anyone is entitled. After Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, her apology – or, at least, her expectation of forgiveness – is premature. When she begins to "plume herself on her superior virtue," she reveals her shallow understanding of the gravity of her offense. (Jo forgives Amy by the end of the chapter, but I never have.) To be sure, Jo would not be justified in holding a grudge for the rest of her life – to forgive, one must relent before the full pound of flesh has been exacted. But the obligation to forgive is not based on any entitlement on the part of the offender – it has more to do with the mercy one has already received from others than with the behaviour or desires of the offender.
- Forgiveness is not the same thing as letting go of anger. Sometimes we have to let go of anger that is irrational, selfish, or unjustified. This is not the same thing as forgiveness, though it often feels like it. Even when anger is justified, forgiveness doesn’t fully take place until it is both given and received. If the perpetrator denies his guilt or refuses contact with the victim, letting go of anger may be a powerful psychological process for the victim, but forgiveness has not fully taken place.
- Forgiveness is not like an invitation to the all-you-can-eat buffet. To be forgiven, by definition, means to get more than you deserve, but that doesn’t make it fun, or easy. To receive forgiveness graciously requires genuine compunction and humility. In my books, at least, that means it’s harder to be forgiven than to forgive.
Like all of his novels, Alexander McCall Smith’s most recent addition to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, is all about ordinary mercies. Smith is an anatomist of the quotidien, pinpointing the moments of compassion, forgiveness, and self-discipline that grease the wheels of everyday life. This was a review copy, but Smith hardly needs me to puff his book for him, so rather than review the book I’ll close with a small anecdote from it:
"Let me tell you about something that happened at the orphan farm. We had a child who was stealing from the food cupboard. Everybody knew that. The housemother in charge of that cupboard had seen the child do it. The other children knew.
We talked to the child and told him that what he was doing was wrong. But still the stealing went on. And so we tried something different. We put a lock on the cupboard."
Mma Ramotswe laughed. "That seems reasonable enough, Mma."
"You may laugh," said Mma Potokwane. "But then let me tell you what we did next. We gave the key to that child. All the children have little tasks that they must do. We put that boy in charge of the cupboard."
"And that stopped the stealing. Trust did it. We trusted him, and he knew it. So he stopped stealing. That was the end of the stealing."
Forgiveness is risky; it is powerful; but above all, it is surprising. It runs counter to our instincts. What is amazing is that it ever happens at all.