The dimensions of forgiveness
Forgiveness is a defining human activity, for religious and non-religious people alike.
It contains the power to transform, a power which is 'humanly holy'.
This introduction summarises many of the insights explored elsewhere on the site.
Today, in almost all cultures and societies, people are increasingly taking refuge in finding somebody else to blame. Interviewers and programmers in journalism and the media regale us with stories and tenacious innuendo about who is really 'to blame'.
Many of us want to oppose this trend, but are unsure of how to do more than complain about it, which would actually perpetuate the trend. (See the article Good judgement and bad judgement #7 or the story Success, blame and a sinner.) A ready example in the UK, where I live, is the tendency to blame all these developments on 'American' culture. We need the power of forgiveness more and more. That means that we need to seek it more for ourselves, in small or large matters. And even more it means taking the initiative and bringing the power of forgiveness into the lives of other people.
These foothills may also include talking things through, expressing one's hurt and 'settling' the matter so that wronged and wrongdoer can work and live together or achieve a workable compromise. There is a recognition that it is going to be better and healthier for oneself as well as for the wrongdoer to break the cycle of blame and resentment, and to show a merciful face.
Foothill aspects are what most spiritual books about forgiveness help us with. They are ways of responding and reacting. But the higher slopes of forgiveness involve 'setting the captives free,' releasing people from the punishments and consequences of a wrong, or an economic or moral debt. They include giving undeserved gifts and invitations, entrusting, re-empowering, delegating decision-taking responsibilities (not merely work).
In these higher slopes of forgiveness, the one who forgives need not be a wronged party. He or she sees the many burdens, needs and wounds affecting the one who owes the debt, and compassionately desires to release him or her from them.
The forgiveness which empowers is a central - perhaps the central - feature of Jesus' approach to people (see the next section), and of the more inspiring forms of Christian faith, though we have to acknowledge that it has not been a great feature of the formal institutions of Christianity. (Link to the articles You are forgiven or How Christ delivers reconciliation if you want to explore this further.) But Christianity has no monopoly on forgiveness, and you will find updated examples throughout this site from many other connected sources of inspiration as well.
The issue of initiating forgiveness, rather than simply reacting to wrongdoing, has also come to the fore politically, as economic debt forgiveness has become a major issue for long-term international stability. In October 1999 Bill Clinton announced to the IMF and World Bank, "I am directing my administration to make it possible to forgive 100% of the debt these countries owe to the United States, when needed to help them finance basic needs and when the money will be used to do so. Simply put, unsustainable debt is helping to keep too many poor countries and poor people in poverty." In September 2000, the U2 lead singer Bono presented the UN Millennium Summit with a petition from 21.2 million people calling for Third World debt to be forgiven - that is erased..
Forgiveness has also come to be seen as an organisational activity - the way in which a business or task-based enterprise can set its workers free from the past - habits, heroes, myths and fears - and be empowered by change and to handle change. (See for example Charles Handy or Scott Arbuthnot.)
What does this mean in practice? Some of society's institutions were at least created with the capacity to do this 'higher slopes' forgiveness - rehabilitation of prisoners, homeless people and addicts, some aspects of medicine and counselling, empowerment programmes for women and for racially disadvantaged peoples, jobs programmes, and so on.
Sometimes commercial industry can lead the way, adding investment to the above list. At the beginning of June 2000, Shorts, the Belfast-based aerospace company, announced it would be taking on substantial numbers of Catholics to fill 1,200 new jobs at its regional jet manufacturing business. The company, once regarded as a bastion of Protestant East Belfast, expects to overcome the "chill factor" which traditionally prevented Catholics crossing the city when it begins recruiting new staff.
Many of the people reading this will have discovered or rediscovered the astonishing power and importance of forgiveness, yet be surprised and occasionally embarrassed that Jesus and the Christian legacy should receive a 'special mention'! Paradoxically, we often have to be reminded that, among world religions, the Christian church initially began and grew out of a larger version of this purpose to announce forgiveness and social transformation, since in its role as an institution (rather than as a 'people') it has tended to show so little capacity for creative and pro-active forgiveness.
[Lest this critical tone towards "church" be misunderstood, let me emphasise that the critical note is addressed towards what the institutionalising aspects of 'church' do to its people, but not towards the people, who are almost always admirable. Early Christian writing meant, by "church," the people, not the institutional structures. (Link to Communities, institutions and belonging #3-4.) Most of us are very aware of the differences between spirituality and religion, but just as the healthiest form of religion is always seeking a living spirituality, so the healthiest form of spirituality seeks living or deepening religious forms. Spiritual people, at their best, sorrow at the abiding pettinesses of organised religion, but still hope and even work for its transformation and renewal. One of the important levels of forgiveness is that it provides a core spiritual touchstone for evaluating and for re-directing religious organisations.]
So often well-intentioned church preachers and leaders have domesticated forgiveness, presenting it as solely a reaction to being personally wronged. (Link to Preaching moral conversion.) By doing so they can easily, if unwittingly, allow their communities to minimise or bypass any concern about the extensive power and authority the religious organisations have been given ... to restore, to transform, to re-unite. (It is - by definition - all but impossible for individuals to forgive the institutional side of the church; it should be possible for the church to provide a transforming forgiveness to individuals, though there are not many instances of either.)
Yet what of its founders, its 'instituters'? Active, initiated forgiveness is summarised in that most-quoted of all Bible verses, John 3.16 ("God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son ..."). Most human wrongdoing was not directed personally to God; yet God initiated extraordinary mercy to help people in a mess. Jesus did not view forgiveness domestically. He exercised a transforming power of forgiveness, which he applied with or without reference to personal injury. (Link to The power to initiate forgiveness #3.) And Paul told the believers at Corinth to "re-affirm your love" (2 Corinthians 2.8) for a publicly excluded member (who had apparently wronged Paul himself). This expression, "re-affirm," was a legal term referring to a formal, public pronouncement and loving re-integration ... a public restoration to show how large-scale and fundamental forgiveness is.
Just then 'Clarence', in the guise of a businessman, came along, persuaded the suicidal man to step back, took him for a meal and offered him a job. When they met up again, the businessman found that the other man was now more 'together', and undergoing counselling, but still jobless. His final words had extraordinary depth: "And I want to say to you, the job is still there for you whenever you need it."
The depth of this kind of example is celebrated in Ivan Reitman's wonderful movie Dave, a Capra-esque romantic comedy written by Pleasantville writer-director Gary Ross. (Creative movies are our modern myths, today's much-needed equivalent of the community's tales round the camp fire, the flickering light of the cinema or TV screen. They give us shared stories to find our bearings. They are increasingly used in psychotherapy - see for example Reel Therapy by Gary Solomon, an Oregon psychotherapist. Creative movies are very important.)In the movie, Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) is an all-round good guy who runs a temp agency and personally goes to employers and persuades them to hire his clients. On the side he impersonates US President Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline again) at functions, parties etc. When he is asked to impersonate the corrupt President for real by an even more corrupt administration, to conceal the President's terminal stroke and their own power-seeking intrigues, the President's estranged wife Ellen Mitchell (Sigourney Weaver) falls in love with him anew. She also realises he is in a position to do an extraordinary amount of good! As they sit and look over the powerful beauty of Washington at night, she smiles and says to him, "You find people jobs?" Dave responds, "Yeah. Is that funny?" Ellen explains, "It's just more than anyone else does around here!" They go on to prepare a national jobs programme.
This would be easy if we were all 'free'. But we have very limited freedoms, and all of us carry much baggage, prejudice, unresolved memories and fears. If we want to forgive, we need to be set free, and that means being ready and willing to receive forgiveness from others. Self-righteousness and pride don't always make it easy for us to see this and to act on it. Being ready to stand in solidarity with sinners, and to acknowledge our own wrongs rather than highlight someone else's, are essential steps in beginning to forgive.
Clinical psychologist Everett Worthington has many years of counselling experience, and also recently became able to forgive his mother's murderer. He said, "I think that in order to really have a forgiving sense, you need to go beyond empathy. You need to recognise in a humble way that you, too, have hurt people, and you've been forgiven for some of those hurts ... You say, 'I deserved condemnation for this nasty thing I did, but I got forgiveness, and I'm grateful - and I really would like to give that gift of freedom to the person who hurt me'." (Look through the entries under 'solidarity with sinners' in the Index of main themes.)
Forgiveness is a gift for us to receive, wherever we are coming from. But most of us are probably less aware that forgiveness is at the same time what Martin Luther King emphasised is a power which people with power should be using far more freely. And every one of us has power in some respect, in some context, or in some relationship. Palestinian human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh said, "The act of forgiveness carries a lot of power. It is an assertion of one's dignity to have the means and ability to forgive."
It's a mistake to assume that forgiveness involves 'not judging' It involves better, more creative and life-giving judging. (See the longer article Good judgement and bad judgement.) Judging without a bi-focal perspective is merely labelling - an easier option, involving treating someone as a pariah or criminal constricted in medieval village stocks, to be jeered at, ignored, or gossiped about.
The pressures produced by the social disease of 'labelling'(link also to the article The 'no-name' game) means that many of us believe we can have only a one-dimensional view of ourselves and others. We equate the wrong deed and the person who did it. We are not helping each other to discover the bi-focal perspective. In other words, we condemn ourselves or label ourselves (in our own eyes) to be only one part of who we are - usually the most vulnerable or least successful part. In turn we then view other people as only one part of who they are, labelling and often condemning them to a limited role in their lives. (You might recognise something of this behaviour in the article On not excluding others.)
So it is challenging but good news to realise that, from the perspective of becoming better at forgiving, every human being is complex. Our whole personality and identity does not have to be structured by one or several past relationships or experiences, though the influence of popular forms of psychology leads many to see other people and themselves in those terms. (There are different 'psychologies.' Some contribute to greater forgiving, others do not.)
Every relationship we have has a different blend of possibilities, and has a different aspect of 'me' in it. If we are stuck or belittled in some relationships, still everyone of us can do something positive in other relationships and situations – and doing so will often have a 'trickle-through' effect and help to keep hope alive in the other parts. While each one of us almost certainly needs to receive forgiveness from some source and in some area of our lives, at the same time there are positive things we can do about working towards initiating forgiveness, usually in other areas of our lives.
In order to understand the scale and heights of forgiveness better, the chart below displays the areas and levels of work which I can undertake in order to forgive, for a simplified situation where someone called ‘X’ has wronged me. (Therapists and human resource trainers may find the quadrant-form suggests some similarity with the Johari window [Ingham/Luft's disclosure-feedback model]. Both models are concerned with both inner and external growth and change; but whereas the Johari model is concerned with what is known and unknown, our model charts a specific growth in the ability to initiate new forms of action with and for others.)
Notice that, since we may sometimes be affected by someone's wrong even it it was not done to us, the chart also applies to a simplified situation where 'X' has been condemned by someone else for a wrong, although I will have less work to do at the Internal-Passive area and level: X may have disappointed or confused me, but has not wounded me, and I should be in a position to move into active areas of work quite quickly.
Notice that like many forms of organic growth the chart forms an ‘N-curve’, indicating the growth in the amount of positive change that is involved in each area or level. This approach is explored in much greater detail in the article The power to initiate forgiveness.
As the above framework indicates, forgiveness in its full scope is both active and passive. It is both a reaction to what has happened, and also a planned and generous initiative. Most of us will find that we are in various different modes and places, with different proportions of active and passive opportunity in relation to many other people, whenever forgiveness becomes an issue for us.
So 'letting-go' and surrendering pride and hurt are only a part of forgiveness, a passive part. There is a much greater maturity and personal freedom required to initiate forgiveness. But, like all matters of growth, many of us are not there yet. We can't invent powers, wisdoms and strengths that we don't yet have. It takes time for these compassionate strengths to be built up inside us. Or, to return to the image of foothills and heights, it takes time to learn to breathe the rarefied air of compassion.
So it's not wise to make forgiveness a matter of duty when we don't yet have the personal power to carry it through. (Have a look at the story No problem or the feature articles The power to initiate forgiveness #11 and Should forgiveness be unconditional? ##3-5.) And it's good for us to realise, too, that each one of us has to tackle forgiveness in many different contexts and relationships, with differing senses in each relationship of the power to initiate or the need to be accepted. Forgiveness has a different texture and feel in each different relationship, and in different attempts to enable organisational change.
However, the overall move towards greater forgiveness - whether active or passive - is vital and essential. It is at the heart of what some religious traditions call 'repentance'. That word may have a negative tone for many of us, perhaps because we have thought of it as a remorseful reaction to one's own wrong action. Or perhaps, even worse, we have thought of it as a necessary conditional requirement we make before we will forgive another, the popular idea of the catholic sacrament of penance. (Jump to I am far too just, or to the entries under 'repentance' in the Index of main themes.)
John MacArthur puts it like this: "Some people are struggling with their own guilt; others have a sinful propensity to blame others and withhold forgiveness for wrongs done; and many people struggle with both guilt and blame." (See also, for example, Two types of people.)
To move further into forgiveness – realistically and from where each one of us actually is – we need to ask ourselves, about any human issue we brush against or are deeply enmeshed in:
Getting clearer and more open about where I am brings the freedom to take one step into greater forgiveness. The step of initiating restoration for another is not 'stronger' than asking for forgiveness for myself. Acknowledging my need of forgiveness is not a weak thing to do. Taking the appropriate step forward is the strong thing to do.
We will have few relationships where one or other, or both, of these do not apply to us. We can celebrate the fact that both aspects are equally vital and life-giving components of the mystery of forgiveness that can occur when we do something, and – astonishingly – someone else’s attitude changes before our eyes, and/or my own sense of myself is transformed.