: a culture of blame
Today, in almost all cultures and
societies, people are increasingly taking refuge in finding somebody else to blame.
Interviewers and programmers in journalism and the media regale us with stories and
tenacious innuendo about who is really 'to blame'.
w r o n g s
|The pressures to do this are
complex, and include 3-word headline, sound-bite labelling in the communications industry,
ease of access to litigation, and the scope for error in increasingly complex roles and
technologies in large organisations. They all encourage us to point out other
people's faults and failings, and to conceal our own. They also encourage us to give
undue importance to the kinds of wrongs and errors which are easy to identify - for
example in health care, which has experienced much of the increase in client litigation -
and ignore more subtle and insidious failings and activities. Blaming is a major
Many of us want to oppose this trend,
but are unsure of how to do more than complain about it, which would actually perpetuate
the trend. (See the article Good judgement and bad judgement #7
or the story Success, blame
and a sinner.) A ready example in
the UK, where I live, is the tendency to blame all these developments on 'American'
culture. We need the power of forgiveness more and more. That means that we
need to seek it more for ourselves, in small or large matters. And even more it
means taking the initiative and bringing the power of forgiveness into the lives of other
2 Initiating as
well as reacting
|What does initiating
forgiveness mean? Forgiveness has a much larger scale than we usually realise.
Forgiveness is not a single level activity - it has different levels and
forms. The further we travel into it, the higher we realise we can go. The
foothills of forgiveness involve 'inner activities' like letting go of a hurt or a
condemnation of a wrongdoer. The assistance to forgive may come from experiencing
release, inner healing or love.
These foothills may also include talking things through,
expressing one's hurt and 'settling' the matter so that wronged and wrongdoer can work and
live together or achieve a workable compromise. There is a recognition that it is
going to be better and healthier for oneself as well as for the wrongdoer to break the
cycle of blame and resentment, and to show a merciful face.
Foothill aspects are what most spiritual
books about forgiveness help us with. They are ways of responding and
reacting. But the higher slopes of forgiveness involve 'setting the
captives free,' releasing people from the punishments and consequences of a wrong, or an
economic or moral debt. They include giving undeserved gifts and invitations,
entrusting, re-empowering, delegating decision-taking responsibilities (not merely
In these higher slopes of forgiveness, the
one who forgives need not be a wronged party. He or she sees the many burdens, needs
and wounds affecting the one who owes the debt, and compassionately desires to release him
or her from them.
|This is about
redeeming someone from a pit, or from a pawn shop. In the US, the word 'redemption'
is used for re-cycling soiled goods. We can turn the word 'for-give' around in
order to get the sense of this. It is about 'giving-for' someone when they are
powerless to give by themselves - transforming the condition and situation of people and
organisations who have lost power or been denied it. (Link to the articles The power to initiate
forgiveness or Good judgement
and bad judgement #6.) Here
forgiveness has become creative and pro-active.
The forgiveness which empowers is a
central - perhaps the central - feature of Jesus' approach to people (see the next
section), and of the more inspiring forms of Christian faith, though we have to
acknowledge that it has not been a great feature of the formal institutions of
Christianity. (Link to the articles You are forgiven or How Christ delivers reconciliation
if you want to explore this further.)
But Christianity has no monopoly on forgiveness, and you will find updated examples
throughout this site from many other connected sources of inspiration as well.
The issue of initiating forgiveness, rather
than simply reacting to wrongdoing, has also come to the fore politically, as economic
debt forgiveness has become a major issue for long-term international stability. In
October 1999 Bill Clinton
announced to the IMF and World Bank, "I am directing my administration to make it possible to forgive 100%
of the debt these countries owe to the United States, when needed to help them finance
basic needs and when the money will be used to do so. Simply put, unsustainable debt
is helping to keep too many poor countries and poor people in poverty." In
September 2000, the U2 lead singer Bono presented the UN Millennium Summit with a petition
from 21.2 million people calling for Third World debt to be forgiven - that is erased..
Forgiveness has also come to be seen as an organisational activity - the way in which a
business or task-based enterprise can set its workers free from the past - habits, heroes,
myths and fears - and be empowered by change and to handle change. (See for example Charles Handy or Scott Arbuthnot.)
3 The power of
What does this mean in practice? Some
of society's institutions were at least created with the capacity to do this 'higher
slopes' forgiveness - rehabilitation of prisoners, homeless people and addicts, some
aspects of medicine and counselling, empowerment programmes for women and for racially
disadvantaged peoples, jobs programmes, and so on.
Sometimes commercial industry can lead the way, adding investment to the
above list. At the beginning of June 2000, Shorts, the Belfast-based aerospace
company, announced it would be taking on substantial numbers of Catholics to fill 1,200
new jobs at its regional jet manufacturing business. The company, once regarded as a
bastion of Protestant East Belfast, expects to overcome the "chill factor" which
traditionally prevented Catholics crossing the city when it begins recruiting new staff.
Many of the people reading this will have discovered or rediscovered the
astonishing power and importance of forgiveness, yet be surprised and occasionally
embarrassed that Jesus and the Christian legacy should receive a 'special mention'!
Paradoxically, we often have to be reminded that, among world religions, the Christian
church initially began and grew out of a larger version of this purpose to announce
forgiveness and social transformation, since in its role as an institution (rather than as
a 'people') it has tended to show so little capacity for creative and pro-active
[Lest this critical tone towards "church" be misunderstood, let me
emphasise that the critical note is addressed towards what the institutionalising aspects
of 'church' do to its people, but not towards the people, who are almost always admirable.
Early Christian writing meant, by "church," the people, not the
institutional structures. (Link to Communities, institutions and
belonging #3-4.) Most of us are very aware of the differences between
spirituality and religion, but just as the healthiest form of religion is always seeking a
living spirituality, so the healthiest form of spirituality seeks living or deepening
religious forms. Spiritual people, at their best, sorrow at the abiding pettinesses
of organised religion, but still hope and even work for its transformation and
renewal. One of the important levels of forgiveness is that it provides a core
spiritual touchstone for evaluating and for re-directing religious organisations.]
So often well-intentioned church preachers and leaders have domesticated
forgiveness, presenting it as solely a reaction to being personally wronged. (Link to Preaching
moral conversion.) By doing so they
can easily, if unwittingly, allow their communities to minimise or bypass any concern
about the extensive power and authority the religious organisations have been given ... to
restore, to transform, to re-unite. (It is - by definition
- all but impossible for individuals to forgive the institutional side of the church; it
should be possible for the church to provide a transforming forgiveness to individuals,
though there are not many instances of either.)
Yet what of its founders, its 'instituters'? Active, initiated forgiveness
is summarised in that most-quoted of all Bible verses, John 3.16 ("God so loved the
world that he sent his only-begotten Son ..."). Most human wrongdoing was not
directed personally to God; yet God initiated extraordinary mercy to help people in a
mess. Jesus did not view forgiveness domestically. He exercised a transforming power
of forgiveness, which he applied with or without reference to personal injury. (Link to The power to initiate forgiveness #3.) And Paul told the believers at Corinth to "re-affirm
your love" (2 Corinthians 2.8) for a publicly
excluded member (who had apparently wronged Paul himself). This expression,
"re-affirm," was a legal term referring to a formal, public pronouncement and
loving re-integration ... a public restoration to show how large-scale and fundamental
|One of the simplest and yet
most powerful examples of 'active forgiveness' - of initiating undeserved gifts and grace
- is choosing to find or to give someone a job. (This is very
different from the many caring professionals who just provide career advice). A
moving episode of the Montel Williams talk show allowed rescuers to meet up again with the
people they had helped. The climax of the show was the account by a man who,
drug-dependent and hopeless, was about to throw himself off a bridge into a freezing
river. (Yes, It's a Wonderful Life for real!)
Just then 'Clarence', in the guise
of a businessman, came along, persuaded the suicidal man to step back, took him for a meal
and offered him a job. When they met up again, the businessman found that the other
man was now more 'together', and undergoing counselling, but still jobless. His
final words had extraordinary depth: "And I want to say to you, the job is still
there for you whenever you need it."
The depth of this kind of example is celebrated in Ivan Reitman's wonderful movie Dave,
a Capra-esque romantic comedy written by Pleasantville writer-director Gary
Ross. (Creative movies are our modern myths, today's much-needed equivalent of the
community's tales round the camp fire, the flickering light of the cinema or TV
screen. They give us shared stories to find our bearings. They are
increasingly used in psychotherapy - see for example Reel Therapy by Gary
Solomon, an Oregon psychotherapist. Creative movies are very important.)
movie, Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) is an all-round good guy who runs a temp agency
and personally goes to employers and persuades them to hire his clients. On the side
he impersonates US President Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline again) at functions,
parties etc. When he is asked to impersonate the corrupt President for real by an
even more corrupt administration, to conceal the President's terminal stroke and their own
power-seeking intrigues, the President's estranged wife Ellen Mitchell (Sigourney
Weaver) falls in love with him anew. She also realises he is in a position to do an
extraordinary amount of good! As they sit and look over the powerful beauty of
Washington at night, she smiles and says to him, "You find people jobs?"
Dave responds, "Yeah. Is that funny?" Ellen explains, "It's
just more than anyone else does around here!" They go on to prepare a national
4 Giving by
|Giving forgiveness to others
gives them freedom. Yet to be able to initiate forgiveness we need a degree of
personal freedom ourselves. And that will mean that if we want to bring forgiveness,
we need to be in at least some relationships where we can receive forgiveness as well as
seek to give it, and where we are helped to realise our need of it. (Link to the article You are forgiven to go further into this.)
This would be easy if we were all
'free'. But we have very limited freedoms, and all of us carry much baggage,
prejudice, unresolved memories and fears. If we want to forgive, we need to be set
free, and that means being ready and willing to receive forgiveness from others.
Self-righteousness and pride don't always make it easy for us to see this and to act on
it. Being ready to stand in solidarity with sinners, and
to acknowledge our own wrongs rather than highlight someone else's, are essential steps in
beginning to forgive.
Worthington has many years of counselling experience, and also recently became able to
forgive his mother's murderer. He said, "I think that in order to really have a
forgiving sense, you need to go beyond empathy. You need to recognise in a humble way that
you, too, have hurt people, and you've been forgiven for some of those hurts ... You say,
'I deserved condemnation for this nasty thing I did, but I got forgiveness, and I'm
grateful - and I really would like to give that gift of freedom to the person who hurt
me'." (Look through the
entries under 'solidarity with sinners' in the Index of main themes.)
People are complex, not one-dimensional
Forgiveness is a gift for us to receive,
wherever we are coming from. But most of us are probably less aware that forgiveness
is at the same time what Martin Luther King emphasised is a power
which people with power should be using far more freely. And every one of us has
power in some respect, in some context, or in some relationship. Palestinian human
rights lawyer Raja
Shehadeh said, "The act of forgiveness carries a lot of power. It is an
assertion of one's dignity to have the means and ability to forgive."
|Forgiveness is the 'great transformer'
of human relationships personal, social, institutional or economic. And
because it is so central to improved relationships, we need to seek it and approach
it with awareness of the richness of all relationships a complex blend of
giving and receiving, active and passive, doing and being-done-to, future and past.
means condemning someone
to be only
of who they have
with a type of
forgiveness can be a 'soft' option, a way of avoiding confrontation which Dale Wolery
calls pseudo-forgiveness (see Wanting to calm my fears),
when it is stronger it requires that we wear spectacles with a type of bi-focal
lens. One the one hand, we can focus on the scale of the wrong that someone, or we,
have done. There is clear judgement. Yet - at the same time - we can see and
contribute to the loveliness, life and wellbeing of the wrongdoer(s), as well as on any
victims other than ourselves.
It's a mistake to assume that forgiveness involves 'not judging' It
involves better, more creative and life-giving judging. (See the
longer article Good judgement and bad judgement.) Judging without a
bi-focal perspective is merely labelling - an easier option, involving treating someone as
a pariah or criminal constricted in medieval village stocks, to be jeered at, ignored, or
The pressures produced by the social disease of 'labelling' (link also to the article The 'no-name' game) means that many of us
believe we can have only a one-dimensional view of ourselves and others. We equate
the wrong deed and the person who did it. We are not helping each other to discover
the bi-focal perspective. In other words, we condemn ourselves or label ourselves
(in our own eyes) to be only one part of who we are - usually the most vulnerable or least
successful part. In turn we then view other people as only one part of who they are,
labelling and often condemning them to a limited role in their lives. (You might
recognise something of this behaviour in the article On not excluding others.)
So it is challenging but good news to realise that, from the perspective of becoming
better at forgiving, every human being is complex. Our
whole personality and identity does not have to be structured by one or several past
relationships or experiences, though the influence of popular forms of psychology leads
many to see other people and themselves in those terms. (There are
different 'psychologies.' Some contribute to greater forgiving, others do
Every relationship we have has a different blend of possibilities, and has a different
aspect of 'me' in it. If we are stuck or belittled in some relationships,
still everyone of us can do something positive in other relationships and situations
and doing so will often have a 'trickle-through' effect and help to keep hope alive
in the other parts. While each one of us almost certainly needs to receive
forgiveness from some source and in some area of our lives, at the same time there are
positive things we can do about working towards initiating forgiveness, usually in other
areas of our lives.
6 A framework for working at better forgiving
In order to understand the scale and heights of forgiveness better, the chart below
displays the areas and levels of work which I can undertake in order to forgive, for a
simplified situation where someone called X has wronged me. (Therapists and human resource trainers may find
the quadrant-form suggests some similarity with the Johari window [Ingham/Luft's
disclosure-feedback model]. Both models are concerned with both inner and external
growth and change; but whereas the Johari model is concerned with what is known and
unknown, our model charts a specific growth in the ability to initiate new forms of action
with and for others.)
Notice that, since we may sometimes be affected by someone's wrong even it it was not
done to us, the chart also applies to a simplified situation where 'X' has been condemned
by someone else for a wrong, although I will have less work to do at the Internal-Passive
area and level: X may have disappointed or confused me, but has not wounded me, and I
should be in a position to move into active areas of work quite quickly.
Notice that like many forms of organic growth the
chart forms an N-curve, indicating the growth in the amount of positive change
that is involved in each area or level. This approach is explored in much greater
detail in the article The power to initiate forgiveness.
Area of work
|I can cope with
I am willing to co-exist with X on a day-to-day basis. I
wont run away if I meet him/her. If X is a work colleague I am able to work
well with him/her.
|I initiate improvement
I make a special visit or visits to X and
'give-for' him/her. That is, I present him/her with the gift of positive, creative
opportunities, either for restoration or for new relationships and roles for both of us.
|I am working it through
X has wounded me I have to work on my
feelings about him/her and about myself, and try to let go of negative emotions, thoughts
and resentments , and think positively.
|I desire better things
I want either a restoration of the past relationship, or a
positive new beginning for both of us. I plan for this, and wish or pray for
Xs well-being as well as my own, and see him/her in a larger context.
ActiveLevel of activity
7 Active and
As the above framework indicates,
forgiveness in its full scope is both active and passive. It is both a reaction to
what has happened, and also a planned and generous initiative. Most of us will find
that we are in various different modes and places, with different proportions of active
and passive opportunity in relation to many other people, whenever forgiveness becomes an
issue for us.
||In its active
dimension, forgiveness needs to be a willed, chosen action.
It is a moral issue. It is a free and undeserved generosity towards a wrongdoer for
the sake of his or her growth and wellbeing. While there will be growth and
betterment for the one forgiving, the focus is on the freedom, benefit and encouragement
of the wrongdoer.
When someone wrongs another, there is a distinction between
relationships that continue despite someones sin, cruelty, thoughtlessness,
blindness, etc., and relationships that are severely changed whether they are
disfigured and poisoned, or (as so often) terminated. Even when, in the former
kind of relationship, forgiveness is given at once say between a couple in love
it still has to be chosen. Very many people don't know this, and can feel out
of their depth with it. To choose to initiate forgiveness is a mature response,
meaning that to choose a path like this requires some degree of personal freedom, and some
degree of power and authority, whether these are intrinsic to
the person or bestowed as an office and then integrated by the person.
As I noted above, some examples of what can be involved in active forgiveness include -
voluntarily finding people jobs, helping in someone's rehabilitation, or a public act of
pardon and re-empowerment.
|In its passive
dimension, forgiveness needs to be a longing to let go of the past hurt
and to find a more positive future. It is largely a healing issue. While
there may be some help and encouragement for the wrongdoer, the main freedom and healing
come to the one starting to forgive.
Often victims of a wrong, as well as people who
have been punished for a wrong, will long for restoration of
what was so in the past of a marriage, a respect or social acceptance.
Although this restoration and reconciliation are wonderful if and when they can be
established, it's important to help people see clearly that the need for forgiveness is
larger than the horizon of the past. Good counselling may help someone to lift their
longing for forgiveness beyond the immediate confines of the past. It helps them
move from the Passive-Internal area of work to the Active-Internal one. Forgiveness
may then actually come in the form of freedom and goodness in new relationships a
general freedom, ease and grace in the way one relates to others.
Getting a balanced view of where I am
So 'letting-go' and surrendering pride
and hurt are only a part of forgiveness, a passive part. There is a much greater
maturity and personal freedom required to initiate forgiveness. But, like all
matters of growth, many of us are not there yet. We can't invent powers, wisdoms and
strengths that we don't yet have. It takes time for these compassionate strengths to
be built up inside us. Or, to return to the image of foothills and heights, it takes
time to learn to breathe the rarefied air of compassion.
So it's not wise to make forgiveness a matter of duty when we don't yet have the
personal power to carry it through. (Have a look at the story No problem or the feature articles The power to initiate forgiveness #11 and Should forgiveness be unconditional? ##3-5.) And it's good for us to realise, too, that
each one of us has to tackle forgiveness in many different contexts and relationships,
with differing senses in each relationship of the power to initiate or the need to be
accepted. Forgiveness has a different texture and feel in each different
relationship, and in different attempts to enable organisational change.
However, the overall move towards greater forgiveness -
whether active or passive - is vital and essential. It is at the heart of what some
religious traditions call 'repentance'. That word may have a negative tone for many
of us, perhaps because we have thought of it as a remorseful reaction to one's own wrong
action. Or perhaps, even worse, we have thought of it as a necessary conditional
requirement we make before we will forgive another, the popular idea of the catholic
sacrament of penance. (Jump to I am far too just,
or to the entries under 'repentance' in the Index of main themes.)
|But repentance is more constructively and comprehensively understood as one
aspect or 'face' of growing towards greater forgiveness - a direction and a vocation which
apply equally to the person who has caused wrong, and to people affected by the wrong, to
the 'sinner' and to the 'righteous', to the powerless and the powerful.
for the 'sinner'
and the 'righteous'
puts it like this: "Some people are struggling with their own guilt; others
have a sinful propensity to blame others and withhold forgiveness for wrongs done; and
many people struggle with both guilt and blame." (See also, for example, Two types of people.)
To move further into forgiveness realistically and
from where each one of us actually is we need to ask ourselves, about any human
issue we brush against or are deeply enmeshed in:
- "Do I have the ability to initiate
some restoration of past goodnesses here, or at least help the other person towards a
future of new acceptances and loves?
- "Or am I in need of forgiveness
myself (which, when unacknowledged, is so often the cause of apathy towards initiating
forgiveness), and am I able to acknowledge my sin and long, even ask, for mercy?"
Getting clearer and more open about where
I am brings the freedom to take one step into greater forgiveness. The step of
initiating restoration for another is not 'stronger' than asking for forgiveness for
myself. Acknowledging my need of forgiveness is not a weak thing to do. Taking
the appropriate step forward is the strong thing to do.
We will have few relationships where one or other, or both, of these do
not apply to us. We can celebrate the fact that both
aspects are equally vital and life-giving components of the mystery of forgiveness
that can occur when we do something, and astonishingly someone elses
attitude changes before our eyes, and/or my own sense of myself is transformed.
Go on to explore some of the Stories,
Longer articles, Insights and other links, and be
encouraged to move further into forgiveness, for yourself and for many others.