Can we truly forgive?

Barney Zwartz asks whether the Christian idea of forgiveness is relevant, or even possible, today.

No gift so enriches the giver as forgiveness. Yet, especially among Christians, the expectation, even demand, that one must forgive can also be crippling.

Corrie ten Boom is famous in Christian circles for a superhuman act of grace. Caught sheltering Jews in World War II, the Dutch woman and her sister Betsie were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp where Betsie died after being starved and beaten.

Speaking about forgiveness in Germany in 1947, she encountered one of the concentration camp guards. “It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the centre of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man … Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out.”

Ten Boom fumbled with her pocket book rather than take his hand, her blood seemingly frozen. He told her he had become a Christian after the war. He said: “I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein (again the hand came out), will you forgive me?”

Ten Boom recalled: “And I stood there – I whose sins had every day to be forgiven – and could not. Betsie had died in that place – could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

“I had to do it – I knew that … And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion – I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling’.”

Mechanically, she thrust out her hand, and something incredible happened. “The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart’.”

As Ten Boom’s story shows, forgiveness sits in a special category. No gift so enriches the giver – as much or more than the recipient – as forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness frees the giver from hatred, resentment, the ache for revenge, all burdens that can be intolerable. Yet, especially among Christians, the expectation, even demand, that one must forgive can also be crippling, leading to terrible pressure on people who find they cannot.

At Christmas, Christians remember the teaching that they received this unimaginable gift thanks to God’s direct intervention in human affairs. The birth of Christ that they celebrate made divine forgiveness possible through his life and death.

Yet today, among many thinking people, Ten Boom’s story does not meet with approval. Psychiatrist Louise Newman, who has worked extensively with victims of torture and other trauma, suggests it may make light of the harm done, while writer Robert Dessaix believes the Christian view has become anachronistic.

Such forgiveness, Dessaix believes, works only for the fast-diminishing group of devout believers because they are confident that God will eventually fix the account. God tells Moses, whose words are repeated by the Apostle Paul: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.”

Forgiveness is a problem in a society that has a weak concept of God.

Is Ten Boom right? Is forgiveness simply a decision that we can force ourselves to make despite our emotional state?  In the Christian tradition, love is an exercise of the will rather than an emotion – for example, they are told to turn the other cheek, repay evil with good and forgive their brother “70 times seven”. Such behaviour surely does not spring from natural emotions.

Dessaix suggests forgiveness is a problem in a society that has a weak concept of God, like the modern West.

“The reason Christians feel they can do this is because God is taking care of the accounts, and forgiveness is part of an accounting system – ‘you owe me this, an apology, obeisance, so many pieces of silver’.

“Jesus, who obviously thought he was announcing something special when he talked about forgiving 70 times seven – something that wasn’t happening in the society around him – is saying, ‘actually you don’t keep accounts, you forgive 490 times because God is keeping accounts’.”

In a society with a slight and primitive notion of a deity there is no one keeping accounts, so people take it on themselves to do the accounting and the paying back, Dessaix says. “And I don’t see why they shouldn’t.”

That’s why, he says, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised immediate vengeance on Turkey after a Russian warplane was shot down in November.

“He has no confidence whatever that God will wreak vengeance; it is up to Mr Putin. And I think most of us are in Mr Putin’s position – we don’t feel anyone is keeping accounts, and to just let people off is asking too much of most people in our sort of society. In once-Christian societies we have this sort of residual notion that forgiveness is a good thing, but we’ve forgotten why.”

Literary critic Terry Eagleton summed up the dilemma about forgiveness, saying it must not be allowed to make a mockery of justice. “Mercy or forgiveness breaks the vicious circle of vengeance, overriding its tit-for-tat or exchange value in an act of creative superfluity.” As Portia remarks in The Merchant of Venice, its quality is not ‘strained’ (constrained). But this gratuitousness also risks devaluing its object, just like the commodity form.

“Mercy must not become a form of blithe indifference; it must pay for its lavishness by reckoning the cost and feeling the pain of the injury it has endured. And there are always those like the psychopathic Barnadine in Shakespeare’s play (Measure for Measure) who cannot be redeemed not because they are too wicked, but because they cannot see any meaning in moral language at all.”

Louise Newman, professor of psychiatry at Melbourne University, suggests modern psychology and Christian teaching are at odds on this subject. “Forgiveness is a moral reference in the religious tradition, a positive, a virtue. We are supposed to accept frailty and fragility in others, though even in that tradition it must have its limits.

“But in psychology, for those who have been harmed by others or suffered atrocities, it’s a relative concept, and sometimes people can’t forgive. We try more for acceptance.”

That’s how Newman interprets the Ten Boom story – as coming to acceptance. “She’s someone who can self-reflect, understand what has happened and free herself from the ties of negative emotion. She can call that forgiveness, but I would call it recovery, not being overburdened with negative emotions.”

Newman says people can accept that other people harm them, but that doesn’t mean giving them absolution. Holding on to anger or bitterness for a long time is not healthy – especially for those with a strong moralistic stance who find such feelings intolerable – but the answer is not to require the removal of anger by forgiveness but to accept that they can still feel that anger.

“From a psychological perspective it’s working out how we can live with that. I actually say to people I don’t expect you to forgive. I do want to help you accept what’s happened, so you can live with it, but not forgive the perpetrators because they should not be forgiven.”

Melbourne University philosopher Christopher Cordner was impressed by a couple on a television program about victims of crime. One couple’s daughter had been murdered by her boyfriend, and the wife said she had forgiven the murderer though the husband could not.

“My first thought was ‘that’s easy to say’,” Cordner says. “But the more she spoke the clearer it was that it was true. She’d visited him in prison once and he had not been remorseful, so repentance had nothing to do with the forgiveness.”

The husband said he could not forgive, though he wished with all his heart that he could, and did not doubt his wife’s sincerity. The wife said she had to forgive the murderer or she could not go on.

“That raises an interesting question about the genuineness of something you do for an instrumental reason – is there something self-deceptive here?” Cordner asks.

But there’s no reason to suppose you can manufacture forgiveness just to make yourself feel better. The couple demonstrate that having a deep psychological need to forgive does not mean one can do so. “In religious terms, she had received the grace to be able to forgive, and he hadn’t.”

If the Christian view of forgiveness has become unfashionable today, surely its high aspiration is a good thing.

Cordner agrees with French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who said absolute forgiveness, independent of any remorse by the offender, is the only true forgiveness. Far more often, it is conditioned by the contrition of the offender.

The absolute form acts as a light, Cordner believes, in which we see our own incapacity to respond that way. “But the woman I saw on TV, I was disposed to say this was an example of it, and it was quite miraculous. In Simone Weil’s term, it’s grace bearing on gravity.”

In his view, this couple disprove the idea that forgiveness is merely an act of will. “The husband would give his right arm to be able to forgive. It’s just not in the scope of his will. So I would say it’s not in the scope of her will either – something else has come into play.”

Nevertheless, if the Christian view of forgiveness has become unfashionable today, surely its high aspiration is a good thing. As poet Robert Browning asked, should not our reach exceed our grasp? Otherwise what’s a heaven for?

And that aspiration is one all Christians know. When they recite the Lord’s Prayer, an essential part of church services around the world for centuries, they say “forgive us our sins (or trespasses) as we forgive those who sin (trespass) against us”.

What sort of “as” is that? Does it mean “to the extent that”, so that we are forgiven only as much as we forgive others? Not according to Melbourne Anglican theologian Peter Adam. Rather, it’s a recognition that if God is our Father then our forgiving others will reflect God’s forgiveness of us. He quotes English author C.S. Lewis: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

According to the Genesis account, humanity is made in the image of God. “So part of human dignity and destiny is to be godlike, in the right sense – and God’s character is to forgive,” Adam says. “When human beings forgive, that’s an echo of God’s forgiveness.”

Adam concedes that forgiveness is the most difficult command Jesus makes, but it was also the most difficult action for God because it required the incarnation and death of his son, he says.  And forgiveness cannot be glib – it cannot downplay the cost.

“We must accept the seriousness of what must be forgiven, but we must move on from acceptance to forgiveness. Humanly speaking, unforgiveness damages the unforgiver much more than it damages the person who has committed the offence. I meet lots of people who are consumed with unforgiveness, while the people who offended them are quite happy.”

Adam says forgiveness is just a particular expression of love. To love is to serve people, and forgiveness is to serve people in circumstances where you have been hurt. It’s very hard to forgive if you haven’t been forgiven yourself (by God), he says.

So for Christians, forgiveness is a moral imperative, even though they may fall short in that command as they do in others. But for believer and non-believer alike, forgiveness carries the psychological benefit of liberating the victim from negative emotions.

And even for those who reject forgiveness as a virtue at all, it remains so in one possibility that Oscar Wilde identified. “Always forgive your enemies,” he wrote, “nothing annoys them so much.”

This article first appeared at The Age.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, and a former Fairfax journalist.