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How Not To Forgive

Wendell O’Brien is unforgiving about forgiveness.

I’m not going to argue for forgiveness over resentment and revenge here. I’ll just assume that forgiveness is better, and go from there.

Suppose I want to respond in the true spirit of forgiveness – whatever exactly it is – to someone I judge to have wronged me. There are, I believe, a couple of stances I cannot take, although they are commonly taken by those who think of themselves as forgiving people.

I once heard the first of these stances described and endorsed by a man at a philosophical meeting. He said something to this effect: “We must always be willing to forgive the offender, but we may do so only if he apologizes and shows signs of genuine sorrow for what he has done, as well as signs of resolve not to repeat the offense in the future.”

I’ve forgotten what reason, if any, the man gave for that restriction. But surely it is not the stance someone who has the Christian forgiving spirit would take. Recall Jesus’s teaching about forgiving your brother not just seven times, but seventy times seven times. It’s hard to imagine how anyone forgiving the brother for, say, the three hundred and ninetieth time for the same darn thing could take anything he says as evidence of sincere sorrow and resolution to change. And yet the Christian is supposed to forgive him anyway – and a hundred times more, if necessary.

Consider, too, how little you would ever actually forgive if you took the stance of the man at the meeting. The only people you can ordinarily extract a real apology from are decent fellows it’s easy to forgive because they obviously feel bad about what they’ve done to you, and it wasn’t really very bad after all. Most people, by contrast, have an irritating tendency to persist in the belief that they haven’t done anything wrong. If they did something bad to you, they think you deserve it. This is particularly true of the vilest characters, who generally apologize only under advice from their attorneys, in order to avoid the gallows – in which case, you tend to doubt their sincerity. If you forgave only the genuinely sorry, you would rarely exercise your forgiving organ, and when you did, you wouldn’t give it much of a workout.

The second stance I can’t take if I have a true forgiving spirit might be expressed like this: “We ought to forgive, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t punish. To forgive is to cease to resent and hate, and to wish the offender well; but you can do that and still punish him. The thing to do is to forgive and punish at the same time, giving the culprit the punishment he deserves, not out of resentment, but out of a cool, reasonable sense of justice, wishing him well all the while.”

This position strikes me as highly suspect. It sounds like an ingenious way of allowing you to think of yourself as a forgiving person at the very time you’re sticking it to your enemy with the best of them; a way of claiming you feel no resentment while in fact gratifying it; a way of having your revenge-cake and eating it too. However, as my response borders on being an argumentum ad hominem [ie a personal challenge, Ed] and confuses the abuse of something with the thing itself, it turns out that what I’ve just said, however much I like it, isn’t really a good argument against the forgive-and-punish stance.

But there is an argument against it that is good enough to satisfy me. If I have the spirit of forgiveness, I will operate in accordance with the Golden Rule if not something even more demanding: I won’t do to others what I wouldn’t want done to me, and I will do what I would want. Now suppose some angry young chap thinks I’ve done something so bad to him I deserve a generous dose of punishment, which he himself is ready to administer, to save others the trouble. He’s ready to hang me, for instance (although he might also have ‘forgiven’ me).

What would I want in this unpleasant circumstance? Well, it would be nice if the young chap were to stop feeling anger toward me, but what I would be most interested in is saving my neck. If I consider the question, “Would I rather the young man hang me without resentment, or spare me, though he’s still resentful?” the answer is easy: I’d take resentment over execution any day. I can live with the one, but not with the other. So I figure that if I have aught against my brother, and wish to respond to him in the spirit of forgiveness, while I should overcome my resentment toward him if I can, above all else I should refrain from making him pay for what he has done (and to close a loophole, I might add, refrain from getting others to make him pay on my behalf, or on behalf of the state). That’s what I would want him to do if he had aught against me, after all. So if I truly forgive, I must not punish.

What if God understood forgiveness in the forgive-and-punish manner I’m rejecting here? “I forgive you, and I’m not angry with you,” he would say, “and I wish you well; but since you’ve sinned, you still have to go to Hell.” That wouldn’t give me much comfort. I know there’s the idea in some circles that the penalty for sin must be paid, but since Christ has paid it for us, we don’t have to pay it ourselves: God’s forgiveness means he punishes himself (or his son) rather than us. This is the ultimate in forgiveness, it is thought: therefore it is something sinners like us should try to imitate, forgiving others as we’ve been forgiven by God. If we did that, though, wouldn’t we still refrain from punishing those who have wronged us, and punish ourselves or our own poor children instead?

I’m in over my head in these dark theological waters, no doubt, so let me get out of them.

How Not To Forgive At All

Although I prefer it to resentment and retaliation, forgiveness is not my favorite thing. In fact, I rather dislike it. I don’t like to forgive people, and I really don’t think people like to be forgiven. That is, I hate to say “I forgive you” to people. It’s hard to do it without a certain amount of posturing: to say it is to exude a sense of moral superiority, as though one were saying, “Look at big-hearted me, a marvel of magnanimity!” To forgive feels like you’re putting someone in debt, or trying to; and those on the receiving end tend to feel as though they owe you something, or anyway, to think you think they do. I don’t want any of that. Instead of saying, “I forgive you,” I’d rather say, “Forget about it, it’s nothing” and mean it; or better still, say nothing at all. If you think people actually like to be forgiven, go up to someone you’re at odds with, say “I forgive you,” and see what happens. He’s likely to poke you in the snoot. Unless he actually wants to apologize, and desires your forgiveness (and what are the odds of that?), he will probably feel doubly offended: first, because you of all people think he is the one who has done something wrong; and second, because you have the nerve to compound the injury by mounting your high horse and ‘forgiving’ him. He will think you are a hypocritical, sanctimonious something or other best described by a bad compound word. What would make him happy here, is for you not to think he’s done anything wrong. Even if, improbably, he admits he has wronged you and says he’s sorry, he would doubtless rather hear something like, “It’s all right, forget it,” than “I forgive you,” which sounds like you’re rubbing it in.

To forgive, I take it, is to cease to resent or seek vengeance for something done to you that you judge to have been wrong. Forgiveness, then, presupposes a feeling of resentment, as well as a negative judgment to the effect that someone has wronged you. A person who rarely, or never, resented, or judged, would, then, rarely or never satisfy the preconditions of forgiveness. Two consequences of this are worth pointing out, which I will do in closing.

First, there may be a contradiction, or anyway some kind of incoherence, in the Sermon on the Mount, for in the Sermon we find both the commandment ‘Do not judge’ and the commandment ‘Forgive’. Yet it would be impossible to simultaneously obey both, since you can forgive only if you have judged.

Second, if it is morally permissible to be someone who doesn’t judge, then it must be permissible to be someone who doesn’t forgive. That would be a welcome consequence for me. For I want to be as good as the next man, and although I would certainly rather receive forgiveness than resentment and punishment, and although I think I like the spirit of Jesus, the Buddha, and others who teach forgiveness, all in all I really don’t care much for it myself.

© Dr Wendell O’Brien, 2012

Wendell O’Brien studied philosophy at Harvard and Johns Hopkins, and is now Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehead State University, Morehead, Kentucky.


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