Monday, August 13, 2018


"We still claim to think well of forgiveness, but it has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight by having been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of personal release it gives us.” So writes Wilfred McClay in a recent essay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” To forgive, he argues, is to have a just claim and abandon it in the name of love. But when we pardon those who trespass against us because we have been told that it’s good for our physical or mental health, we’re doing something different. We are acting not for the benefit of the offender, but for our own sake. We confuse a freely offered, transcendent act of love with the psychological equivalent of a laxative.

Self-regarding release from resentment is not always a bad thing. Forgiveness or no forgiveness, why remain the psychological hostage of an abusive person? It is neither healthy nor reasonable to allow such a person power over our thoughts. All the same, relinquishing angry feelings is an act of pardon, not forgiveness, because it is not done out of concern for the offender. “I no longer resent you because you are not worth resenting” may be justified as a strategy of self-defense. The offender may deserve to be diminished in our eyes. But rather than ennobling the forgiver, this approach merely relieves his pain. ....

If we take seriously the transgression and transgressor, we want the offender to apologize, attempt restitution, and otherwise repent. This enables us to treat him or her respectfully, as an adult. Conjoined with repentance, forgiveness no longer seems ungrounded and arbitrary. “You have injured me, but you have admitted your guilt, you have demonstrated a change of heart, and therefore I forgive you.” This is a response that safeguards the dignity of the offended person, who should not be expected to “play the doormat.” It recognizes the presumed gravity of the offense, and does not disrespect the person of the offender. In this scenario, forgiveness is earned, and the act of forgiving comes close to becoming a straightforward moral obligation. “He has shown contrition, therefore I owe him conciliation.”  .... [more]

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