By: Paul Murano – March, 2015
As the third in a series “What is?” columns, it is fitting for the month of March that we go beneath the surface on the question, “What is Forgiveness?” Traditionally March inspires spring clean-up and getting one’s house in order, both literally and spiritually. Christians around the world fittingly celebrate the season of Lent, which centers on forgiveness and penance. At its heart are the words proclaimed on Ash Wednesday when a person receives ashes: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This statement isn’t exactly a pep-talk for self esteem, but a stark reminder of our littleness and insignificance without God’s love.
The entirety of the Christian religion is based on this foundation: mankind collectively and individually needs forgiveness – vertically (from God) and horizontally (from each other). This is not only a religious concept; all people understand this need since guilt and bitterness are universal phenomena. There can be no peace without forgiveness. But what is it? What does it mean to forgive?
With the assistance of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) located on the grounds of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (www.internationalforgiveness.com), let us examine this question more closely. First, forgiveness is a response to an injustice. If there is no injustice there is no need for forgiveness. Secondly, it requires merciful restraint on the part of the forgiver not to harbor resentment or seek revenge. Forgiveness wills the good of the other even though their actions indicate they do not deserve it. In short, forgiveness is the overcoming of wrongdoing with good; and as we give this free gift to others we ourselves are healed.
Let us now look at what forgiveness is not. It is not an emotion, nor is it a weakness. Forgiveness is a strength. It does not ignore, deny, condone, or excuse wrongdoing. It fully recognizes it. Forgiveness does not exclude punishment. Since penalty or punishment seeks to redress the disorder caused by the action, punishment can go hand in hand with forgiveness. For example, after he was shot, John Paul II visited his assassin in prison to forgive him, but he never asked the authorities to free the man from his punishment. Forgiveness also does not mean reconciliation. Although restoration of the relationship is ideal, forgiveness may be practiced from a distance, depending on the other’s psychological and emotional health. Protecting one’s self from harm is justice and can be part of the equation.
There are two immediate problems with the notion of forgiveness, however, that must be addressed. First, it may seem unjust to forgive: If someone has seriously hurt you, you may want revenge. Second, it may feel impossible:
How can we possibly forgive in the midst of such pain and anger toward the perpetrator? These two criticisms of forgiveness deserve an honest assessment.
At first glance, forgiveness does seem unreasonable. One’s inner being demands justice, which seems incompatible with forgiveness. Things don’t seem right until revenge is exacted. From a non-Christian perspective this argument not to forgive seems reasonable, especially if the offender is not held accountable. From a Christian perspective, however, faith enables understanding of a bigger picture. Although it doesn’t negate reparation by the offender, God has already exacted the justice we rightly seek in our hearts. The crucifixion of Christ is God vicariously taking that hit. The vengeance that is rightly sought after a grave injustice is satisfied in this. It is true that the price of justice must be paid, but by replacing the moral criminal on the cross He takes that justice while we gain the mercy.
The second problem is that forgiveness may seem impossible since we feel too hurt and angry to forgive. There are two responses to this. The first is that forgiveness is not an emotion, but an act of the will. It is a decision, despite the hurt and anger that remains. Following the choice of forgive, anger and pain gradually dissipate. The second point is that the decision to forgive amidst the remaining resentment may be possible only with supernatural help. Only with grace, supernatural life that God offers resulting from Christ’s sacrifice, is it possible to rise above our woundedness to truly forgive. “You have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:54). This may not be possible on our own, but He offers both the way and the means.
The need for forgiveness is just as real on the communal level. Hatred and animosity can be passed down from generation to generation when forgiveness does not occur. Within the Middle East, for example, there is a cauldron of unforgiven animosity that traces back to the Middle Ages. Can the violent anger that spurs terrorism ever be conquered without forgiveness? Likewise, can the nihilistic self-destruction of western secular humanism be conquered without it? It is this homicidal-suicidal tendency which is fostered by unforgiveness that unites terrorism and secularism in spirit. They both need each other to defeat their cure, like the cancer patient determined to kill the doctor that can save him.
To conclude, forgiveness is necessary for peace on both the individual and socio-political levels, but it requires faith, humility, and openness to grace. Without it, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.”