Jul. 24 at 3:24pm
I gather that Cath2u's question (in a comment under Janet Smith's latest post), "What's my forgiveness got to do with the other person's contrition?" is meant to be rhetorical, (the answer, of course, being "nothing at all.") But I propose to take it seriously as a question, because it touches on an issue central to the topic of repentance and forgiveness (and to personalism generally), namely, our profound dependence on one another.
To give a good idea of what I mean by this dependence, and to indicate how deep it goes, let me quote from John Crosby's great book The Selfhood of the Human Person:
The unconditional acceptance of me by another person, or by the entire social milieu in which I live, is all-important in enabling me to accept myself. If all the significant others in my life refuse to accept me as the self that I am, then I will be crippled in relation to myself. There is more here than an empirical psychological need for the confirmation of others. It seems rather that I exist from the roots of my personal being towards others and with others; this is why they play this large role in mediating me to myself. I cannot simply say to those who do not accept the self which I am, ‘You are wrong, I have in reality a self worthy of acceptance,’ and then proceed to live, unimpeded, a full self-acceptance—as if they were in error about the date of my birth and I were holding fast to what I know to be the true date. It is rather the case that I exist in such solidarity with them that their rejection of me is a real assault on me, it creates a serious (even if not an absolutely insuperable) obstacle for my relation to myself.
The crucial point in this passage is that "their rejection of me is a real assault on me". It is a real assault even when no physical violence is involved, or material harm done. The assault lies principally in their perception of me, their attitude towards me, and in the message they thereby convey: namely, that I am worthless, or, of "less worth" than I am in truth.
Now, I claim* that moral injuries also contain such messages. They are, as Jeffrey Murphy puts it, "symbolic communications. They are ways a wrongdoer has of saying to us, 'I count but you do not,' 'I can use you for my purposes,' or 'I am here up high and you are down there below'." It is these messages, even more perhaps than the material injuries inflicted upon him, that the victim rightly resents. And just like in the case described by Crosby, those messages may be serious and effective enough to constitute a real threat to or assault on the victim. They make it very hard for the victim to recover from from his injuries, and they leave him vulnerable to further injuries.
This makes clear why a sincere apology is normally so important in facilitating forgiveness. The material injury inflicted by wrongdoing may be such that it cannot be undone. But the moral message implied in it can always be repudiated or "taken back". If it is, then, though the victim still has to deal with the consequences of the wrong done to him, he no longer needs to protest the message, or protect himself against further assaults. He is now united with the culprit in condemning the past act as wrong and unworthy of him.
What about the role of the larger community in all this? (For that, as Kate rightly points out, was the focus of Katie's original post on this topic.) The role of the community is always important, but especially so when the wrongdoer is unrepentant. In that case, it is incumbant on the larger community to clearly repudiate the act as wrong and offensive. In doing so, they support the victim by letting him know and feel that he is not alone in protesting against it. Such support from the larger community will go a long way towards neutralizing the implied threat in the wrong done to the victim. It will enable him to recover sooner, and, who knows, reach a place where he can forgive the culprit from his heart, even though the latter remains unrepentant.
If, instead of supporting the victim in this way, the larger community begins by "encouraging" the victim to give up his resentment and forgive his wrongdoer, they almost inevitably make matters worse. Instead of neutralizing the demeaning moral message communicated to the victim, they amplify it. They (perhaps unwittingly) join in the assault on the victim by implying that what happened to him wasn't such a big deal. And the likely result is that the victim will protest all the louder since he seems to be the only one on his side.
To return, then, to Cath2u's question: "What's my forgiveness got to do with the other person's contrition?". In short my answer is this: normally (but not absolutely) speaking, the other person's contrition enables me to forgive freely and responsibly, i.e. without betraying my own moral integrity or recklessly exposing myself to the corrosive assaults of others.
* I am certainly not the first to make this claim. I rely heavily on Pamela Hieronymi's article "Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness", and Jeffrey Murphy and Jean Hampton's book Forgiveness and Mercy.