The Personalist Project

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More on Unprincipled Forgiveness

Janet Smith, Jul 22, 2012

Katie van Shaijik understands us to have very different positions on the relationship between forgiveness and justice.  I am still not clear what the nature of those differences are (and hope the discussion below will smoke those out). 

Proper Focus

Katie also thinks that I have shifted the focus from what she wanted to focus on.  I think it fair to say that what she wants to focus on is the incompatibility of “unprincipled forgiveness” with Christianity.  She says I have shifted the conversation to “the subjectivity of the offended party and the need for her to forgive, or "stay in friendly relations", etc.”  Katie, of course, is not saying that such is not an important topic but for her it seems that to shift the focus to such is to steer too close to the shore of promoting unprincipled forgiveness and focusing on what the victim needs to do in respect to the movements of her own heart rather than what the victim must demand from the wrongdoer.  

Katie expressed earlier some chagrin at seeking a definition of various terms (for that is not quite a personalist concern).  I, as a good Aristotelian/Thomist, am thrilled at the attempt to find tight and clear definitions, yet I also appreciate the personalist project of trying to focus on the subjectivity of agents.  Personalists are extremely interested in subjectivity and in the interior state of agents.  And that is what makes personalism such a great fit for Christianity.  Christians are to be much more concerned about the quality of our interior states than about the exterior actions (these are not unimportant, of course) or even the interior actions of others (I am not saying Katie disagrees with this.)   If any subject merits attention to the subjectivity of the agent, surely forgiveness does.  “To forgive in an unprincipled way” is what an agent does; we need to probe the agent’s subjectivity to determine the right way to forgive.  One cannot understand the privation without understand the reality itself.  I don’t think it is taking the conversation too far afield to focus on what should be the subjective state of a victim (I am not saying there is only one correct subjective state but there is likely a feature or several that are true of all of those who truly forgive – for instance, banishing all anger from one’s heart directed towards the wrongdoer, praying for the conversion of the wrongdoer, and being willing to be reconciled at least to some extent should the wrongdoer fully repent).  I think that will lead us a long way to understanding what true forgiveness is and what unprincipled forgiveness is.

Original Text

I will take Katie up on her invitation to back up a little on this conversation.  At the beginning of this discussion Katie cited a text by Kevin Myers and said it is plainly true.

Now contrary to what those creepy moral apologists for the IRA insist, Christian teaching does not demand that one forgives one’s uncontrite assailant as one forgives the repentant ones. The entire sacrament of absolution depends on unconditional repentance and a “firm purpose of amendment”, namely, an intent never to repeat the sin. It is clearly absurd to treat the unrepentant and the repentant equally. To forgive all unconditionally is to indulge an unprincipled sanctimony that liberates offenders from whatever remains of their consciences. Such “forgiveness” — whatever that term may actually mean — thereby makes more murder more possible. Why would anyone cease to kill if the bereaved repeatedly exonerate those who bereave? 

I think the above is plainly contrary to Christianity, so maybe there are great differences between Katie and myself.  (Still, Katie and I may not be disagreeing because we may be understanding Myers’ claims differently or emphasizing different portions.) 

Myers, like Katie, seems to have encountered many Christians who think forgiveness is easy and that it means abandoning all attempts at seeking justice and means that the victim needs immediately to resume prior or some kind of “normal” relationships with the wrongdoer.  These people press the victim to extend forgiveness, to ignore their own hurt, to accept blame where there is none  and to “move on” without having really processed the experience.  I agree that those who think forgiveness involves the above are wrong to think so.  What happened in the Legion as reported by Katie seems to be a good example of such false thinking. The Legion was sadly very bad at helping those who belonged to become full human beings and to some extent that was because they focused on externals rather than on interiority.  Its pressure on members to “forgive” does seem to be driven by a desire to restore the Legion rather than to minister to the members of the Legion and affiliates.  Yet, I suspect the flaw in the Legion’s practice had little enough to do with a faulty understanding of the dynamics of true forgiveness.  It was more a matter of being willing to sacrifice individuals’ spiritual and moral maturation to the ambitions of the order.

Yet while he may be right about some wrong ways of practicing forgiveness, the way that Myers expresses his contempt for such thinking utilizes false principles that can be as dangerous as or more so than the unprincipled forgiveness he disdains.

Certainly there is a sense in which one does not forgive one’s uncontrite assailants AS one forgives the repentant ones. It depends a lot on the meaning of “as.” Certainly it is easier to forgive the contrite and wrongdoers should certainly be contrite and make things easier for the wronged.  But we must forgive whether or not contrition exists. I think that has been established many times in this discussion.  As has been established as well, contrition does not remove the need for making restitution, for justice being sought and done. 

I will argue more fully below that sometimes it is right to “reconcile” when there has been no contrition and no restitution.  (By “reconcile” I mean the willingness to be in some kind of harmonious relationship with the wrongdoer, which may not mean being in any kind of close contact.) The contrition and restitution may follow or may not follow but the reasons for “reconciliation” trump the need for immediate contrition and restitution.  Many horrible feuds and wars have been put to an end without contrition being expressed or restitution being made.  Many family troubles have been overcome by putting aside the need for contrition and restitution. (Though there are certainly times when it is not right to reconcile without contrition and restitution.)  Sometimes contrition and restitution have followed but sometimes not but the peace that was purchased by the reconciliation was worth suspending the need for contrition and restitution.  (I put “reconciliation” in quotation marks because I do not think “reconcilations” without contrition and restitution are equivalent to those with contrition and restitution but there are commonalities, such as the willingness to be in relationship of some kind.)

Back to Myer’s text.  I don’t think the principles as articulated above are even considered to be the right principles for the confessional let alone for personal relationships.  I think priests rightly look for some sign of some repentance and some sign of intention to amend. They do not require, nor should they, that the penitent manifest “unconditional repentance”.   Just as parents accept a “sooooorry” from a misbehaving child, I think God does pretty much the same for us.  He is looking for some sign of repentance and is ready to jump in to help us experience his loving embrace as soon as we give him the slightest opening.  This does not mean we don’t need to work towards fuller contrition or do penance or make restitution. It doesn’t mean we have been fully reconciled. But any sign of change of heart goes a long way.

As far as the “intent” never to repeat the sin, most of us have moral certitude that we will sin again and often in pretty much exactly the same way as before.  Yes, we can have a firm intent not to sin and the desire not to sin but we almost certainly will. Kevin Meyers may agree with this but the way he states his views makes God seem fierce and exacting.  I don’t think that is compatible with Jesus’ “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.” Perhaps Jesus saw into the adulterous woman’s heart and saw full contrition and firm resolve, but I don’t think his words were conditional on those realities.  I am not suggesting that God the Father or Jesus are indifferent to justice; Jesus' death paid the price for all and justice is done.  To what extent we continue to need to pay the price is a terrific theological question, one beyond this discussion, I hope…

I think it is absurd to say that “To forgive all unconditionally is to indulge an unprincipled sanctimony that liberates offenders from whatever remains of their consciences.”  Or that forgiving unconditionally makes crime more possible.  Certainly it depends upon what “unconditionally” means.  If it means that one does not seek justice it is often wrong to forgive “unconditionally” but if it means “I will hold no anger against you in my heart; I will pray for your conversion”, one should always forgive unconditionally.  This in no way will liberate offenders from whatever remains of their consciences.  Myers seems to judge the value of the forgiveness of the victim by whether or not it prevents the wrongdoer from continuing doing wrong. That is surely a false measure. 

Again, there is a difference between an interior act and reconciliation, as many have noted.  I can’t keep all the former posts in mind, but again, interior acts of forgiveness do not lead to crimes by others because they are not in the least incompatible with seeking that the wrongdoer face the full consequences of his/her actions.

At the conclusion of his article, Myers reports on a dying man who forgave the individuals who killed his daughter, dying beside him.  He believes that act did little good because the atrocities continued.  He puts the blame in part on priests and others who called for “unprincipled forgiveness” and accuses them of “psychologically enabling” perpetrators of injustice.  I personally find such an assessment implausible.  If priests and others called for “unprincipled forgiveness” I suspect it harmed those who prematurely offered forgiveness (by prematurely, I mean without sufficient understanding of what forgiveness entails and means) but I doubt it did little to encourage wrongdoing.   And it may have had the salutary effect of keeping those who prematurely forgave from engaging in retaliatory acts (that doesn’t justify advancing a false view, of course). 

I wonder what those who have counseled unprincipled forgiveness would need to do to merit Myer’s forgiveness.  He is terribly hard on those who are likely not subjectively guilty of having a false view of forgiveness.  (I forgive Myers for his harshness, J)

The Cheating Husband

Now let me turn to Katie’s latest example of her thinking, the example of the cheating husband. She states:

Your sense of justice in this context is different from mine. 

Take a concrete case.  Suppose my husband cheats on me and lies about it. I find proof and confront him with it.

He owes me, in justice, first, the truth ("yes, I did it; I wronged you profoundly"), then sincere contrition, firm purpose never to do it again, and amends, i.e. real efforts toward reestablishing the love and trust he lost.

In requiring these of my husband, I am in no way setting myself up as his "formator".  I'm not "punishing" him; I'm not "making him pay" (in the "eye for an eye" sense); I'm not being harsh or self-righteous.  I am loving him truly; I am being faithful to marriage; and I am defending my own dignity.

I'm also probably just trying to come to terms with the painful and overwhelming earthquake that has just occured in my life.  

If he withholds these things from me, say, by lying or downplaying what he did, then it's not my "unforgiveness", but his unrepented act that ruin the marriage.

Katie states that she thinks this example will show that my sense of justice is different from hers.  I am not certain that it shows that.  I am not saying that Katie would disagree with what I am about to write. I am not attributing any views to her. I am setting out my own.

When a Christian wife discovers that her husband has cheated on her, just as any wife, she will suffer terribly from the wrong of having been betrayed, from anger at the hurt and confusion that she feels; if there are children involved, she will suffer at the thought of their emotional pain and the effects it will have on them as well as on extended family, friends, etc. She will fear that she may lose her husband; she will fear that she is incapable of forgiving and living with him.  She will be tempted to make her hurt and her sense of injustice the center of the conversations between them and to demand that he grovel and beg for forgiveness.  She may be tempted to think he was unfaithful with the intent to hurt her.  She may think he must have known how much it would hurt her and that he didn’t care about that hurt.  That fact that what he has done is objectively wrong may seem to her to be sufficient to show that he is completely in the wrong and that he is the one who must make amends.  She may be unwilling to consider whether she contributed in any way to the conditions that prompted the infidelity; she may be unwilling to understand what other things in his life led him to be unfaithful.  (I am not saying that anything can excuse infidelity but much might explain it.)

A good Christian man will likely be very confused about what he did and terribly ashamed and likely even very remorseful.  Reconciliation there may not be so difficult, preserving his self-esteem and dignity might.  

Even if the wife is totally innocent and the husband is just a horrible person who thinks only of himself, a complete narcissist, for her to make her hurt the focus of the initial conversations may not be wise and may not advance the ultimate goal of reconciliation.  The narcissist will, by definition, have a hard time understanding that his actions impact another. A woman married to a narcissist will find it difficult if not impossible to get him to make admissions of wrongdoing or strive to make amends.  She will have much praying and sacrificing to do for him.  She may decide it best to remain married to him for the sake of others.  No one would consider that a true reconciliation but some might admire her sacrifice, especially if she could retain her dignity in doing so (I think it possible to do so.)

Among the many responses of the mature Christian wife will be sorrow for her husband and worry about him. 

She knows that responding with anger and a demand for restitution is not likely to advance the cause of reconciliation. Rather she will pray to understand what happened and what she can do to advance the cause of reconciliation.  Her foremost goal will not be justice (though justice is important and will be part of what she seeks); rather her goal is reconciliation and yes true reconciliation (which involves contrition and amends on the part of the husband) but seeking justice will likely not be her first concern.   

She will try to learn what has happened that has led her husband to cheat.  He is now in a serious state of sin and has endangered his salvation, his happiness, and the well-being of his family.  What led him to do so?  Is he unhappy in the marriage?  Why?  Can she do something? It may be that the wife is not at all at fault but the husband is immature and selfish and at a point in his life where he wanted to prove his masculinity and attractiveness.  Whether his wife is quite guilty for contributing to his reasons for betrayal or not at all, she will still want the same thing: reconciliation.  If she is able to respond with forgiveness (I will not be angry at you.  I will pray for your conversion and ((in this case)) I will do everything I can to facilitate reconciliation.),  she will have a good start for achieving reconciliation.  "Doing everything" will surely not include downplaying the seriousness of what has happened, her hurt, fears, etc.  But it does mean that since the wife has made a pledge to love this man for better or worse, she needs to dig down and ponder what it means to truly love him when he has been unfaithful (prayerfully reading the book of Hosea may help; mediating on the crucifixion of Christ surely will).  Again, she should certainly not overlook his infidelity nor be willing to tolerate his continuing infidelity (though there may be future infidelities and none need lead to a complete break) but should work towards reconciliation while fully retaining her dignity.  She may have to settle for less than full satisfaction about the truth and about amends but may be willing to do so for the sake of the children, etc.  

I agree with Katie, that the wife who wants the truth and her husband to assure her of future fidelity is not her husband’s “formator” nor is she being self-righteous or harsh to want the truth and amends to be made.  Nor do I think that what she is doing is rightly portrayed as punishment (but his needing to sleep in a separate room or bed for a while will certainly be perceived as such, J).   

I don’t know if Katie agrees that forgiveness should not be contingent on his being truthful, on his contrition and firm purpose not to do it again or on his attempting to make amends. Reconciliation may require some or all of those but forgiveness should not.  I don’t know if Kate agrees that a reconciliation without full justice is sometimes (perhaps often) a good and worthy goal and that it does not necessarily demean the victim to be satisfied with less than full justice.

We need to explore further the priority that should be given to demanding contrition and amends before reconciliation.  Consider this situation (a real one and not so unusual).  Someone stole a considerable amount of money from a grandmother.  A family member approached with great sensitivity (“I have no reason to suspect your children) the parents of grandchildren (from several families) who had access to the money during the time it was stolen with the request that the parents ask their children if they had any knowledge of the whereabouts of the money.  One family member took huge offense at the implication that one of the children might have stolen the money and said very unkind and unfair things to the person trying to learn who stole the money.  Later it was discovered that two of the children are in fact guilty of serious theft, but the person who took offense has not acknowledged to the investigating family member that his concerns were legitimate.  At this point to press the person who took offense to recognize the truth, to show contrition and make amends would not be conducive to harmonious family relationships. The investigating person is willing to shrug off the injustice.  True, those two individuals will not have a close relationship but for the sake of the family, seeking justice is not wise.

Complete Honesty from Friends

Finally, this statement needs a response and some elaboration: Katie says: “I demand honesty from my friends--not because I think it's my job to make them honest, but because I think there can't be real friendship without honesty.  I don't trust people who prove dishonest.”

The phenomenologist would want to explore the many kinds of honesty there are and which of them must be demanded in friendship.  “Demanding honesty” is not a phrase I would use in respect to my friendships.  I very much appreciate it when my friends tell me honestly what they think about my behavior when it is bad especially when they do so lovingly and kindly (which they generally do). I also appreciate it when they don’t speak bluntly or honestly to me about their views of some of my bad behavior, especially if they think such speech would do no good and might harm the friendship.  Those are the truths and silences about truth that are most important in friendship, I would guess.

I had one friend who was a habitual liar; about why she was late, about why she forgot an appointment and about all sorts of things if she thought it would get her out of trouble or get me to do something she wanted me to do.  I called her gently several times on her lies but largely learned to live with them.  She was very kind and cared a great deal about me but wasn’t corrigible in this respect, at least under my “direction.”  Yes, the friendship did not have the ultimately secure foundation that true friendships should have, but I discovered that settling for something less than the ultimate is often still pretty darn good.