The Paradox of Forgiveness

From my Psychology Today blog:

After the shooting deaths of nine parishioners during a church service in Charleston, some survivors and relatives of the victims expressed the Christian virtue of mercy: they forgave Dylann Roof, the murderer.

Were they right to forgive him? Or are there some actions that are beyond the pale of civilized behavior that are unworthy of forgiveness?

If ISIS terrorists are captured, for example, should they be forgiven?

Whether to forgive heinous crimes is central in Simon Wiesenthal’s book Sunflower. (Later editions of the book appended the subtitle “On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness.”) In this story, a German soldier on the brink of death calls a Jewish prisoner to his bedside to ask forgiveness for his having shot to death a group of Jews who were called out of their homes. Wiesenthal solicited responses to his story. Philosopher, ministers, rabbis and others wrote back and their comments are found at the end of the book.

There is no agreement by the many thoughtful respondents. My own analysis of the answers in the first edition of the book is that more Christians than Jews favored forgiving the German soldier.

One way to understand this difference is that Jews were touched more personally than Christians during the Holocaust. But there is another salient reason: Christianity places a premium upon mercy while Judaism stresses justice. It isn’t that you can’t find the justice in Christianity or compassion in Judaism but the emphasis is different. One religion focuses on individual salvation, the other on collective redemption.

Jonathan Newton, minister of the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, explained that forgiveness is “not about [the wrongdoers], it’s about you. In order for you to be free, you got to let it out.”

Newton is right: bitterness and anger are ugly and destructive emotions. Hanging on to them often stands in the way of experience the best in life. From a personal perspective, forgiveness may well be a salutary way of dealing with one’s emotional health. As Newton says, “You got to let it out,” otherwise it eats you up alive.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Anger also has its rightful place. For awful hurts, forgiving too soon can undercut the feeling that leads us to hold the miscreant to the bar of justice. Emotions should lead to right social living. To forgive too soon is as harmful as it is to remain angry too long. Here is why:

While forgiveness may work for an individual who is consumed with hate, forgiveness on a social level invites cynicism. Harm isn’t confined to only the victim; a crime is an assault against the community as a whole. When a crime has been committed, the scales of justice can’t be balanced by forgiveness. Punishment needs to be meted as a way for society to express its disapproval.

It is unimaginable to seat a jury in a murder case, for example, where jurors place forgiveness above all else. Could the Nuremberg trials have proceeded if forgiveness, not justice, guided the judges?

Forgiveness may be appropriate for the sake of the person who has been injured, but forgiveness isn’t appropriate for the sake of the community. A fair society is one in which people get what they deserve and the person who has taken from society (a criminal) needs to pay a price.

Just as forgiveness may help bring soothing to an anguished soul, outrage may help bring to society a sense that justice has been done.

Forgiveness and justice play against one another. Forgiveness keeps justice in check so that society doesn’t slide into brutality and anger underscores what society will not tolerate.

So are there some acts that are so awful that they should not be forgiven? Each victim decides alone whether to forgive the wrongdoer. But society cannot forgive those acts that are assaults against its integrity. What may be good for the individual may not be good for society. Such is the paradox of forgiveness.


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