The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 1:09:01

Forgiveness and dysfunction

Katie van Schaijik, Jul 08, 2012

My post on “unprincipled forgiveness” led to a lively exchange with Mike Healy that has further persuaded me of the confusion surrounding the mystery of forgiveness, and the great difficulty many Christians have not only in realizing it in practice, but understanding it in theory.  And since I believe that understanding it rightly is crucial to the task of achieving it and helping others achieve it, I’m going to keep pressing.

To be clearer and more complete about what I have in mind with the problem of "unprincipled forgiveness" let me say the following:

When it comes to the social act of reconciliation (which is the natural aim and consummation of forgiveness), to treat an unrepentant assailant the same way we treat someone who has 1) ceased offending, 2) sincerely repented, and 3) made amends, is not Christlike, but dysfunctional.

To equate a call for justice with a desire for revenge is not Christlike, but dysfunctional.

To disregard the objective reality of a serious wrong done, in the name of restoring peace between persons, is not Christlike, but dysfunctional.

For third parties in a given conflict to exert moral pressure to "forgive" on the one who has (objectively) been wronged without also (and even more fundamentally) calling on the offender to repent his wrong and make amends—in other words showing concern that justice be done—is not Christlike, but dysfunctional, even abusive.

Consider the timely example of Joe Paterno's role in the continuation of Sandusky's depredations. When Sandusky was caught for a second time sexually abusing a young boy, and higher ups wanted to report the matter to Child Welfare Services, Paterno allegedly urged "a more humane course", viz. that Sandusky not be reported. It appears that no one involved ever did anything to find the boy in question, never mind see to it that he received what justice can be received after such a hideous crime. Sandusky went on to commit more crimes against more innocents. Note that Paterno didn't condone or deny the evil Sandusky had done. What he did was show "mercy" and "forgiveness" to the wrongdoer, while showing no practical concern for the offended child, or for justice. This is an unambiguous instance of "unprincipled forgiveness." 

The same pattern can be seen in the clerical abuse scandals. Victims and their families were pressured to "forgive" and to drop efforts toward justice and redress lest they "cause scandal." Often the victims were accused of "bitterness", perversity, "attacking the Church", and irreligion for even making what had happened to them known. In Philadelphia, the Archdiocese under the late Cardinal Bevilaqua allegedly had a deliberate policy of not investigating accusations of clerical abuse. That way, unless the priest admitted to it, the charges could be officially deemed "not credible". 

Somehow many Christians seem to imagine that there is something especially admirable in leaving disputes unsettled and wrongs uninvestigated—as if uncertainty about the truth of what happened is part of remaining impartial and showing mercy to all concerned.  In fact, this is a manner of abetting wrong and “enabling” injustice.

I observed a similar pattern (involving much lesser evils) in the Covenant Communities in the '80s. Those who raised concerns and objections to certain practices were treated as persecutors who were "attacking a work of God."  Meanwhile, all manner of excuses and explanations and mitigating considerations were found for the abusive practices and for those who instituted them. Until the bishops finally intervened, calls for reform were rejected out of hand, while “whistleblowers” were dismissed as bitter, vindictive people with "issues”—defective in Christian mercy and charity.

I have experienced the phenomenon in large and small matters in my own life. I have had "unforgiveness", "hypocrisy", "bitterness", "fascism", “viciousness” and "sickness" imputed to me because I asked for justice and insisted on truth, by fellow Christians who know next to nothing of my objective case, never mind my interior disposition.  When I stood up for myself and defended what is mine, I was charged with “causing scandal,” of “attacking”, and even of “inviting Satan into the neighborhood.”  I have seen the same thing happen to friends whose Christian faith and personal virtue far outstrip my own, and who are “guilty” only of defending themselves and their children against far worse blows than I have ever received.  Their defense of themselves and their children is held against them as a grievance—a lamentable failure of Christian charity.

I come across it often in my reading. I have mentioned before a book on forgiveness by a priest I know (but prefer not to name, because I think he's generally a good priest, doing faithful service to the Body of Christ, for which I'm grateful.) He says right out that when it comes to forgiving, whether you have actually been offended makes no difference. All that matters is that you feel like you were offended. He has a chapter on the need to forgive God. While he clearly distinguishes between forgiveness (a Christian obligation) and reconciliation (which may be impossible), he practically identifies concern for justice as vindictiveness in disguise. We don't need to be concerned with justice, because Jesus took care of that on the cross, once and for all.

This is not the gospel.

Its pastoral effect is that evil is not taken seriously.  Persons are not taken seriously.  Objective reality is not taken seriously.  Justice is neglected. Real forgiveness doesn’t happen.

The misleading and reductive, but depressingly commonplace assertion, "forgiveness is an act of the will," leads in practice to serious misjudgments and more dysfunction. If an offended person asking for justice resists the formulation and the illegitimate moral pressure of its implied demand, very quickly the sympathetic attention of the surrounding community shifts to the unrepentant offender, who comes to be seen as the victim of "unforgiveness", while the offended party is unjustly held responsible for the alienation between them. The question of the wrong done and how to repair it is ignored completely. Immaculée Ilibagiza will be referenced, with the implication: "If she can forgive the mass murderers of her family and people, surely you can forgive whatever comparatively insignificant wrong (may have) happened to you."  (Whether something actually happened to you is unimportant.  Whether it’s acknowledged is unimportant.  All Christian attention and concern is bent on the problem of your deplorable refusal to make this simple and straight forward “act of the will.”)

My point is not that Immaculée's story is not inspiring and exemplary. Of course it is. My point is rather that it is not apropos in every case. Unforgiveness is not the “theme” (to use a von Hildebrandian term) in all broken relationships. Sometimes, as Kevin pointed out in the earlier thread, the problem is vice, or denial, or illusion on the offender’s part. Haven’t we all read moving and admirable “tough love” stories? The parents of a young adult who repeatedly lies to them and steals from them to buy drugs are not being hardhearted or self-righteous or unloving (though he will accuse them of such) when they tell him he’s not welcome in their home until he gets himself straightened out.

When the Church refrains from offering the Eucharist to non-Catholics, or to Catholics who have committed a mortal sin, she isn’t motivated by self-righteousness or mercilessness.  She is—out of love and fidelity—establishing and defending the terms of authentic Communion.

That’s what seeking justice means.  It means establishing the terms and conditions in which real love and real communion can flourish.

In Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, Nora walks out on her husband not because he was brutal or unfaithful, but because a crisis had exposed his thoroughgoing egocentrism and his deep-seated, long-standing habit of treating her like a child and a plaything rather than a woman and a wife. He implicitly demands that she act his subordinate, his featherbrained inferior. Her walking away has nothing to do with revenge or vindictiveness. It isn’t a refusal to forgive. She isn’t punishing him. Rather, she is coming to the realization that their way of relating was destructive to them both.  She is taking responsibility for herself and her own “interior terrain” for the first time in her life.  She hopes he will do the same. 

Now, imagine third parties coming in on the scene and preaching to Nora that her Christian duty is to forgive her husband and stay with him.  Not only would they have been thoroughly ineffective; they (like Job's friends) would have been making the situation worse by their interfering misinterpretations of the situation and the characters involved.  Nora's newly awakened (and true) sense of having been profoundly wronged would have deepened, and her husband's illusions of irreproachable rectitude would have been exacerbated.  He would have been confirmed in his ingrained egotism—the very thing that had driven her away.  

Better friends would have encouraged him to face the truth about himself, as Nora did.

I do not for a moment dispute the fact that Nora ought to find a way eventually to forgive her husband for the damage he did to her, whether or not he ever owns up to it.  I don’t by any means suggest she was without fault in her own behavior and without any responsibility for the dependent condition she was in.  But to me it is plain that the best chance for her healing and for their eventual reconciliation, and the only real hope for her husband, lies in his coming to recognize the truth about himself.

Now, someone might say, “Well, she should stay with him and steadily model heroic Christian patience and mercy, like Blessed Elizabeth Leseur did with her atheist husband, eventually winning his conversion.”

My response would be that that is hopelessly unreal.  Nora is in no condition to model Christian perfection, and she knows it.  All she can do, and what she must not fail to do in this particular moral moment, is defend her own dignity and put a stop to the abuse.  Since she clearly sees that her husband is incapable, at least for now, of admiting and amending his habit of demeaning her, she is right to walk away. 

One of the great, personalistic lessons that stays with me from Liechtenstein came in (I think) an ethics class with John Crosby.  It was about the way the saints are and are not models for us.  He read a long passage from chapter 2 of Jacques Maritain’s Essence and the Existent, the gist of which was that because each person and “ethical situation” is unique, the particular acts of the saints are “admirable, but not imitable.”  A Catholic mother may admire the radical generosity of St. Jane Frances de Chantal’s entering a convent over the cries and pleas of her children without taking it as "God's plan" that she do the same thing herself.  It would be altogether wrong for me to press Catholic widows I know to “imitate the example of St. Jane Frances” and enter a convent, regardless of what their children want or claim to need. 

Likewise, St. Francis’ renunciation of his father and embrace of Lady Poverty challenges all of us to a greater and more generous life of faith, but it doesn’t impose on us an obligation to give away everything we possess and become beggars.  Much less does it justify others in taking what isn’t theirs on the grounds that “the saints didn’t cling to their possessions.”

There is a way of looking to the example of the saints, or of holding them up to others, that is not inspirational, but dysfunctional, just as there is a way of studying and “learning from” Aquinas that is not philosophical but anti-intellectual, or of quoting Scripture that isn’t a religious, but heretical.

We don’t become philosophers by memorizing Aquinas and slavishly adhering to whatever he said.  We don’t become saints by copying Saints’ acts.  We become philosophers by pursuit of truth, wherever we find it.  We become saints by living (under grace) according to our own “best lights” and the mysterious promptings of the Holy Spirit in the unique situations we find ourselves in.  Sometimes that will mean generous acts of self-denial; sometimes it may call for courageous acts of self-assertion.  One moment the verse, “better to gouge out your eye than be cast in gehenna” smites our conscience; at another we are intimately consoled by the promise of vindication.  Some moral circumstances call for us to give way; some for us to hold firm.  “There is a time for sowing and a time for reaping what we sow.  There is a time for war, and a time for peace…”

All of us, always, are called to "forgive trespasses against us".  All of us, always, are called to love justice and seek what is right.

None of us, ever, should presume to know what another should do in questions that are addressed to his or her unique subjectivity. 

In his encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict, reminds the faithful that the grace of redemption is inseparable from justice:

Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value…Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.

“Unprincipled forgiveness” calls for reconciliation between persons to take place exactly “as though nothing had happened.”  Those who have been wronged are pressured to drop their call for justice.  Those who do wrong are encouraged to think themselves aggrieved unless the case against them is dropped. The question of the truth of the matter is disregarded as unknown, unknowable, and unimportant. 

This is not Christian forgiveness.  It is, at best, appeasement and détente, at worst abuse and dysfunction.  It is the master/slave hermeneutic of the Fall masquerading as an angel of peace.

True Christian forgiveness is something much higher, much holier, and much harder to attain.  It is not only compatible with a commitment to justice; it depends on it, as our Redemption depends on the cross of Christ, and our reception of grace depends on our repenting our sins.