The Personalist Project

Jay Nordlinger makes a key personalist point—one that ties into more than one of our ongoing discussions—in a post this morning at the Corner: [my emphasis]

P.S. When President Ford, at the encouragement of Secretary Kissinger, refused to meet with Solzhenitsyn, conservatives thought this was a pretty rotten move and posture. I hope these same conservatives, and their heirs, see what President Obama’s snubbing of the Dalai Lama means today.
P.P.S. When President Obama does something — even a small something — like turn off the “news ticker” outside the American interests section in Havana, he tries to make nice with oppressors. Sometimes in life you have to choose: whether to make nice with the oppressors or with the oppressed. It’s hard to do both.

Writ large on the stage of international politics, it’s easy (at least I hope for most of us) to see the wrong of this. But this same dynamic is constantly at work among us in smaller, subtler ways much closer to home, where it is often disguised in pious garments. For instance, when those who have been abused or mistreated bring their charges forward and receive from those in a position of responsibility not justice (or even an honest investigation of the matter involved), but homilies on forgiveness and the need to avoid bitterness and vindictiveness.

It reminds me of that marvelous scene in The Winslow Boy, where Sir Robert calls on parliament to allow the boy’s case to be heard by reminding them of some the deepest principles of Christian justice: “You shall not stand with the powerful against the weak!” and “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

Comments (1)

Scott Johnston

#1, Oct 5, 2009 10:17pm

Mercy and forgiveness, it seems, are often conflated. They are not the same. And the fullness of forgiveness—forgiveness completed—requires more than the desire to forgive in the heart of the one offended. And this does pertain, in my mind at least, to the issue of our nation’s stance toward other nations.

I may forgive someone, but still have a right to expect payment for an offense against me (“I forgive you for crashing my car.” But, I will still accept your payment for the repair.)

Isn’t it true that perfect forgiveness and mercy before they can be offered to an offender, require that the offender ask for forgiveness—while not expecting mercy with it—and that he be genuinely sorrowful and repentant. A repentant offender knows he does not deserve mercy. He may desire it; he also knows he has no right to expect it even when forgiven.

Please note the modifier, perfect. If my offender does not want or ask for forgiveness I may forgive him in my heart, but I cannot complete the act of forgiveness unless I also give it as a gift to his person. And he must desire it and communicate this desire for me to be able to truly give it to his person. So, I envision that there are two stages making for complete forgiveness. The first is in your heart (partial), and the completion that makes it full is the exchange of asking and receiving between offender and offended. The first is oriented to, wants to be completed by, the second.

But even if mercy is offered—an additional move beyond forgiveness—I think the offender needs to volunteer, without being asked, some penance. Depending on the offense this may be public or private, but some voluntary penance originating in the sorrowful heart of the one forgiven is required. And I think if the offense is serious, the penance should be known at least by those offended.

So, an example. When St. Maria Goretti’s murderer Alessandro was released from prison, he went to the Saint’s mother and begged forgiveness—which she gave. But he spent the rest of his adult life secluded with a Franciscan community as a lay brother. I think he was doing voluntary penance out of deep sorrow and desire to repent in a very concrete way.

So often what seems to be missing in contemporary situations where forgiveness and mercy are almost demanded, is there seems to be little evidence of genuine, personal, heartfelt sorrow and voluntary desire for penance on the part of the offenders.

There is an analogy for nations. A nation cannot forgive another fully without sincere apology and desire for such. And further, an absence of any expectation of escaping negative consequences would be a sign of authentic remorse.

“Making nice” with rogue states or dictators demeans the full dignity of human persons as represented collectively in the heads of state.  It reduces human beings to creatures who neither can offend to the degree requiring forgiveness, nor may offer it when offended. It shrinks the gravity of the human moral sphere down almost to that of the animal world, where there is no repentance or giving of forgiveness or mercy. It looks upon this with indifference. (Or, at the least it regards superficial pleasantries as being on a higher plane of importance than the moral sphere.)

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