The argument against forgiveness

What does it mean to forgive? The way I see it, it doesn’t mean anything. In fact, I find the concept of forgiveness something extraneous, confusing and downright meaningless.

The widely used notion of forgiveness comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here we have a god of great wrathfulness and vengeance. The law tells you do x, and don’t do y. If you don’t do x, or you do y, you have sinned. Sinning against this god puts you in line for horrible punishment. So what do you do? You ask forgiveness. Asking forgiveness means asking the all-powerful god to let you off the hook, wiping your slate clean and freeing you from your impending punishment.

It seems to me that secular society borrrows the same model, but replaces the god-figure with the other. I do wrong to you; you judge me as bad and evil and horrible. You may even seek vengeance. Therefore I ask forgiveness. You can now judge me clean and good again, and my errors are washed away from both of us. You don’t have to be nasty to me, and I can once again return to being good to you.

Alternatively, what happens is a kind of mushed-up version of the god-as-judge and other-as-judge. I ask forgiveness because I want you AND god to let me off the hook. What a mess.

I know I am oversimplifying the tradition of forgiveness, to the point of caricature, but for me it is all located in a false dichotomy of good judgement/bad judgement. I do not ever feel like I have the power to forgive any more than I have the power to judge or punish or reward anyone, or to take responsibility for defining them as ok or not ok by so doing.

I sincerely believe forgiveness is an utterly meaningless concept, but pointing this out repeatedly draws objections along the lines of: “But if you don’t forgive, you can never let go.” I disagree. If you don’t let go, you don’t let go. If you don’t accept things as they are, perhaps you can not let go. Before I talk about alternatives, though, I need to clarify that I’m not advocating NOT-forgiving as an action either. When I reject forgiveness, I am not suggesting we holding tightly to anger and judgement, or bearing grudges. It’s not forgiveness (positive judgement) versus grudge-bearing (negative judgement). No. I am saying this either-or judgement model is flawed. There is an alternative.

I far prefer the model of acceptance and detachment. If I have hurt you, I must accept my own actions and their consequences. I must also accept what they have shown about me, what I am capable of. You too must accept what has happened, because it cannot be changed, and you probably have to live with some of the consequences of my actions.

Ideally, where there is real contrition, real engagement with reality past and present, we can acknowledge each other, acknowledge what has happened, acknowledge hurts caused and suffered. Perhaps, if we are to go forward with love and compassion we can learn from past errors and use them to strengthen our intentions to do no further harm.

But in many cases, this does not happen. Someone can inflict enormous harm, and then go forward blithely continuing to behave with the same mindlessness. An empty apology may land at your feet with a hollow thud, sometimes thrown at you with more viciousness than the original violation. What should you do with it? What happens when you find yourself going forward knowing that the mindless apologiser will, in all likelihood, continue to bring small-mindedness and pain into your life in the future? What role has forgiveness to play here? None, I think. Acceptance, compassion and constant attention to what is happening as it happens – these yield far more I think.


About Lisa

I live in South Africa with my husband and two small children, doing things, thinking about things and sometimes writing about them.
This entry was posted in awareness, observations, relationships, religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The argument against forgiveness

  1. Adam says:

    This is probably a minority view in this world of self-help books, but you don’t have to forgive to let go. Not in the sense of accepting that you need not be compensated for what has been done to you. Letting go just does not happen when we have to accept something (an insincere apology, a failure to recognise we were hurt, the repair of a harm done us) less than what we feel we are due. In fact it makes it worse: your hurt is no better, in fact added to by being diminished – and you are made to feel bad about not being forgiving. But is magically easy when we are offered something that we can accept as being our due (a genuine apology, a recognition that our hurt is an important thing, errr flowers). You move on when you have restored the balance. That is what apologies and other acts of obeisance are designed to do – they give us something against which we can weigh our hurt and allow us to even the scale. You harmed me, I humble you – all is well again. But there are other ways of righting the balance which we know perfectly well are just as satisfying, and quite probably much more so: vengeance, where we even the score by harming the person who harmed us; schadenfreude, where we take pleasure in another’s having come to harm and are compensated by their having been debased, even if not by us; withholding confirmation of forgiveness, where we refuse to let the other off the hook well beyond the point where there was a hook for him to be let off. And why are those wrong? If we must forgive because we must let go, and if we must selfishly let go for us not others, and if we can let go as effectively by forgiving as by the other means – why not employ them? This is why we should not just for forgiveness – we should make amends. We should take our punishment on the chin if it is inflicted; or genuinely compensate the person, perhaps by abasing ourselves in apology.

  2. Lisa says:

    Agreed – it is indeed magically easy to move along when the balance is restored. First prize is, surely, making amends. But making amends requires a sincere effort from both parties.
    The traditional act of forgiveness smacks horribly of unilateral condescension – it’s the magic bullet that is supposed to restore the balance without actually requiring anything from the forgiven. It even allows you to forgive me magnanimously for something I don’t necessarily concede to have inflicted.
    I recall an ex-partner of mine receiving a message out of the blue from an ex-girlfriend of his, which read, dramatically “I forgive you.” I wondered whether she had any idea how little he had ever cared about her hurt, and whether her forgiveness had any real meaning outside of her own imagination.
    As for schadenfreude and vengeance, I find they spring up as strong instinctive reactions, but are not all that satisfying – certainly nowhere near as satisfying as conciliation. Have you ever had the wheel turn full circle, and seen those who have injured you in the past sustain injuries of their own? There is seldom satisfaction to be found in the experience, I find.

  3. Adam says:

    The traditional act _is_ an act of condescension. It asserts one’s superiority over the forgivee, it even debases the forgivee. It is a brutal act of the forgiver, an act of patronage implying suzereinty. But that is how it works.

    Amends don’t have to be made by the forgivee. They can be exacted of the forgivee, perhaps by another person even. So with schadenfreude. I must be a bad person! I have had schadenfreude that has allowed me to let go of a slight from someone. Vengeance I have never attempted because I think it is degrading, and there is the risk of escalation.

    But more often than not the hurt that we have felt softens with the passage of time – perhaps goes entirely – leaving nothing in the balance needing redress. The hurt has gone. ‘Time heals’, they say.

  4. Pingback: The argument against forgiveness « Relentless abundance | Manifest My Desire

  5. Lisa says:

    Time does not heal all wounds. That’s a lie. Forgiveness as a practice is a lie too. No one has to forgive, ever, and no one should be chastised for not forgiving. It depends on how deep the wound is whether someone would even want to forgive. It can have life long consequences. The perpetrator rarely apologizes, intended to inflict the harm they inflicted, and doesn’t care about harmful effects.

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