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What motivates us to forgive?

© Andrew Knock   (1999)


An extraordinary human activity

What motivates a person to forgive?  Forgiveness is an extraordinary human activity, which non-religious people can work at as much as religious people.  Most religions certainly help a lot to centre and motivate people in forgiveness, and in theory Christianity, with its core doctrine of atonement, should do this more than other religions.  Yet there is no need to maintain an exclusivity about religion here.  There is a centring which religion and the Christian focus should provide, whether or not specific organisations actually do so.  But there is also much forgiveness available and acted upon in secular, 'ordinary' life and relationships.  

I want to ask here:  What motivates people to forgive, if they have some kind of religious faith; and what motivates people if they do not have such a faith?


In world religions

Christianity   More than any other world religion, Christianity actually defines itself around forgiveness, by giving central place to the cross of Christ and to his act of atonement for people's sins.   Motivation in the early Christian tradition is clear: forgive because you have been forgiven.  Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18) defines a dynamic of grace, initiated by God, in which it is only possible to live in God’s blessing, the kingdom, by living out a lifestyle of forgiveness to others.   ‘We love because God first loved us.’ (1 John 4.19) 

However, the history of Christianity has often moved away from this dynamic of grace.  Medieval piety gave a different slant by portraying personal holiness as a path to perfection:  for example, in his Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis wrote that people can achieve grace by trying to imitate the spirit and the actions of Jesus Christ.  (A contemporary version of this in the USA is the WWJD - 'What Would Jesus Do?' - movement.)  The Reformation's protest against this ethos and spirituality sought to return Christianity to the primacy of God's initiative and action in forgiving and making new.  Movements of renewal and reformation regularly continue to seek to move the 'earthly' church away from self-improvement and self-righteousness.

Judaism   Despite some common over-simplifications of Judaism as a religion of righteousness achieved through following rules, the Old Testament presents faith as arising from the grace of a merciful God, whose greatest gift to his people was the Law (torah) itself.  Judaism reflects many subtle tensions between a graceful heart and legal complexity, with many insights into 'hard-heartedness.'   The great 12th century Judaic thinker Maimonides said in "The Laws of Repentance" that forgiving is commanded of the righteous man.   If you have wronged someone, you must repent, and if you have asked the injured for forgiveness and he has refused to forgive, you must ask him again and again.  Ask him three times and if he has not forgiven you then he is to be regarded as cruel.   "It is forbidden to be obdurate and not to allow yourself to be appeased."  

This emphasis reflects that of the Mishna (Ramb'am in Hil. Teshuvah 2:9-10):  "Even if a man only spoke badly about another, he must appease and beseech until he is forgiven.  If his fellow refuses to forgive him then he must bring a group of three of his friends and go to him and ask him for forgiveness. If he still does not forgive him he must go to him a second and third time. If he still refuses to forgive him he may cease and the other is the sinner."

Hinduism   Hinduism strongly encourages forgiveness as a core value in the path of spiritual improvement.  All people are imperfect and must extend forgiveness to others, even if an offender has not repented, if they are to be forgiven themselves.  In the Mahabharata, Vana Parva, Section XXVIII, King Yudhishthira said in reply to Draupadi, "Forgiveness is virtue; forgiveness is sacrifice, forgiveness is the Vedas, forgiveness is the Sruti. He that knows this is capable of forgiving everything. Forgiveness is Brahma; forgiveness is truth; forgiveness is stored ascetic merit; forgiveness protects the ascetic merit of the future; forgiveness is asceticism; forgiveness is holiness; and by forgiveness is it that the universe is held together." 

In the world-view of reincarnation, karma (people's good and bad deeds) determine their future destinies in this world, in heaven, or in hell.   Good deeds lead to rebirth in a higher state, perhaps as a wealthy person. Evil deeds may lead to rebirth as a slave or even as an animal.  Hindus, and also Buddhists who share this world-view see the highest religious goal as being to end all attachments to worldly things and so free oneself from the effects of karma.   Forgiveness or compassion is one of the major ways of doing this, and Vishnu is the most powerful deity of great compassion..

Islam    Islam teaches that life on earth is a period of testing and preparation for the life to come. The angels in heaven record a person's good and bad deeds. People should therefore try their best to be good and help others, and then trust in God's justice and mercy for their reward. Death is the gate to eternal life. Muslims believe in a last, or judgement, day when everyone will receive the record of his or her deeds on earth. The record book is placed in the right hand of the good, who then go to heaven. It is placed in the left hand of the wicked, who go to hell.   The Koran says, "If anyone does evil or wrong to his soul but afterward seeks Allah’s forgiveness, he will find Allah often forgiving and most merciful." (S.39, A.53)

Buddhism    Forgiveness is an aspect of personal relationships, and is naturally most emphasised in religions which portray divinity in personal terms.  The earliest form of Buddhism, Theravada, does not readily allow for the same interpersonal model as these other religions, although 'non-attachment' to painful memories is a central part of the path to enlightenment.  However, as Buddhism developed it increasingly thought in terms of personal relationships between Buddhas and other people.   Mahayana Buddhism emphasises the existence of many Buddhas who are able to save people through grace and compassion. The Mahayanists encourage everyone to follow the ideal of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is a person who vows to become a Buddha by leading a life of virtue and wisdom. At the highest level, a bodhisattva is one who postpones entering into nirvana in order to work to relieve the suffering of others through acts of love and compassion, a 'giving-for' which almost embodies forgiveness.

Confucianism    Confucianism, though suppressed in China until recently, still exerts a powerful influence on Chinese culture. The most important early Confucian philosopher, Mencius (4th BC), believed people were born good. He stressed the need to preserve "the natural compassion of the heart" that makes people human.


Outwith religion   

What, though, of the non-religious person?   What motivates him or her to forgive? 

And I ask this question for religious people as well as non-religious:  Are there non-religious motivators to forgive which can co-operate with and add to religious ones?   Many of us will recognise the tendency of religious people to leave their humanity - bodies, hobbies, vulnerabilities, complexities, identities - at the door of church or temple.  So the first paragraphs of this section are written for the hyper-religious. 

It’s important to recognise that even the most ‘religious’ person is still a human being, and lives and loves with a mixture of godly and human motives, values and desires.  As Martin Buber puts it, people who "serve their lord and master in the midst of simple, unexalted, unselected reality." (Paths in Utopia p 135)  Saints have always been much better than lukewarm religious people - or those who have a vested interest in maintaining a given religious system - at recognising their human frailty:

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, we learn that Abbot John the Dwarf once said to his elder brother: "I want to live in the same security as the angels have, doing no work, but serving God without intermission."  And casting off everything he had on, he started out into the desert.

When a week had gone by he returned to his brother.  While he was knocking on the door, his brother called out before opening, and asked:  "Who are you?"   He replied:  "I am John."  His brother answered: "John has become an angel and is no longer among men."  But John kept on knocking and said:  "It is I."  Still the brother did not open, but kept him waiting.

Finally, opening the door, he said:  "If you are a man, you are going to have to start working again in order to live.  But if you are an angel, why do you want to come into a cell?"  So John did penance and said:  "Forgive me, brother, for I have sinned."

So let's move into the world of our humanity - all of us.  What seems to give greater urgency to forgiveness?

In the passive aspect of forgiveness, the need for and longing for 'inner healing' is a key ingredient in seeking to forgive.  Most people don’t want to stay trapped in bitterness, resentment, fear, or avoidance of a wrongdoer.  If I perceive the wrongdoer to be more powerful than I am, then I will in time want to be free of resentment towards him or her.  If I perceive him or her to be weakened or less powerful, then I will eventually realise that my unforgiveness is a cruelty towards him or her, as the Spanish thinker Maimonides noted, which I invariably if unconsciously or half-consciously deliver to him or her by sins of omission, the withholding of love or kindness.  I will want to stop being cruel for the sake of my own self-image and sense of integrity as much as for his or her betterment.

In the active aspect, forgiveness is a deliberate moral choice, the gift which is undeserved.  I will need to have a certain degree of self-confidence and power to exercise this choice.  There is an illuminating moment in the movie Dangerous Minds, scripted by Ronald Bass, based on the true story of Louanne Johnson discovering how to provide  empowerment in the US urban educational jungle.  Michelle Pfeiffer first makes real contact with the class of disadvantaged teenagers she is charged to teach by asking them:  What is the most powerful word in the English language.  Answer: ‘choose.’

Why should I choose to put the wellbeing of a wrongdoer first?  Why should I want to restore him or her to my fellowship and network of relationships?  Why should I want to promote his or her new beginnings elsewhere?  I want to consider at least three aspects of the motivation to forgive:

  • the power of the concept of freedom
  • a sense of our own common finitude and ridiculousness
  • and a longing for intimacy


1   The 'value' of freedom, above happiness

Firstly, the attractiveness of freedom and creativity – that is to say, finding attractive some of the values which are implied in forgiveness.  In the Wachowski brothers’ remarkable movie The Matrix, the seer Morpheus says, "As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free," and "Free your mind, Neo."   He is expressing the most basic value for our own society - perhaps for any.  From Braveheart to Liberation Theology, from Cry Freedom to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, creating freedom is our instinctive standard for evaluating all plans and activities.

In fact one of the theses underlying the film is that freedom is far more important than happiness.  The main ‘Agent Smith’ delivers a concise speech to Morpheus:

"The first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where everyone would be happy.  It was a disaster.  No one would accept the programme.  Entire crops were lost.  Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.  The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from."

He interprets as suffering what Morpheus interprets as freedom.  That is a resonant contemporary script: a moot question for ‘liberated peoples’ everywhere, whether in South Africa or the former East Germany.   Does the pursuit of freedom lead to increased political and economic instability?  The energy inside the concept of freedom is unmistakable.


2   Solidarity through fragility 

Are there other motivators to forgive?  William Willimon hints at a secular sense of judgement in Camus’ novel The Fall (it might be better to say, an implicit or unacknowledged sense of a more Biblical kind of judgement):

Have you known a moment when, in the words of Jean-Baptiste, "The whole universe then began to laugh at me?  I'll tell you a big secret, mon cher.  Don't wait for the Last Judgement.  It takes place every day."  We won't admit to the reality of judgement?  The laugh, the cul-de-sac of the superego, the harsh mirror in which we see ourselves cruelly but truthfully reflected?  Then, says Jean-Baptiste, at least admit, "that today you feel less pleased with yourself than you felt five days ago."

My late friend, Carlyle Marney, told of grabbing his coat and suitcase to go board a train for a preaching tour in the Midwest.  As his wife, Elizabeth, stood at the door, handing him his hat, she laughed and muttered, "You aren't doing all that you do because you love Jesus."  "If you're so smart," says Marney, "tell me why I'm doing it then."  She said, "Because you're insecure, vain, ambitious, and driven."  Marney got on the train and had his first nervous breakdown before he got to Louisville.

Some dark December evening - walking home to suburbia from a day doing good in academia - were I to hear behind me a laugh, mocking laugh of judgement, what crisis might be provoked in my polished self-image?  (Sermon in Advent 1994)

This is particularly apposite for a media-conscious culture and the middle-class/bourgeois value of "keeping up appearances," something which existed just as strongly before the centrality of TV image, but which has been re-invented for Generation X young people.  There is a fine moment of dialogue in Mimi Leder's movie Deep Impact, written by Michael Tolkin (The Player) and Bruce Joel Rubin.  Before the launch of the space mission he will have such a key role in, veteran astronaut Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) points to the groups of young astronauts he will be flying with, shakes his head and says, "I've never flown with a better-trained crew.   They're not scared of dying.  They're more scared of looking bad on TV."

The popular and radical psychiatrist Thomas Szasz makes the same point: "When a person can no longer laugh at himself, it is time for others to laugh at him."   What the cosmic echo of my own foolishness, the ‘pricked bubble of pride,’ conveys is a version of solidarity with the sinner.  What right, what self-deception, do I have which leads me to withhold forgiveness from a wrongdoer, when I am so laughable, so proud and pathetic, myself?   It is an aspect of our ‘normal paranoia’ which Douglas Adams taps into so brilliantly in his Hitchhiker’s novels, and which in them makes Marvin, the 'paranoid android,' such a human and affecting character.


3   Solidarity through the longing for intimacy    

The pricked bubble of pride is a motivator which arises out of a sense of comparison of myself with others, which ‘cosmic laughter’ affects.  There is another and inverse version of solidarity which contemporary society has celebrated, particularly thanks to feminism and the ‘real male’ movement: a longing for intimacy and presence, for ‘being there.’

I don’t think we can simply say all people have this longing.  The modernist tendency to seek a ‘theory of the human condition’ and of some fundamental emptiness or incompleteness – whether in philosophy, psychology or religion – has been superseded by a much more flexible view of human complexities, and we should be grateful to the insights of post-structuralism for celebrating the uniqueness and creativity in each human being.  But such a longing for intimacy is at least one powerful motivator towards forgiving.

Martin Luther is perhaps the greatest figure since St Paul for deepening our understanding of 'solidarity with sinners.'   He effectively challenged the medieval spirituality of personal purity and the 'path of perfection', a version of Israel's Wisdom tradition which in some forms still lingers in Western middle-class church-going and its clergy. 

However, a more recent influence on our culture, and perhaps a more immediately resonant one, has been Martin Buber.  The great Jewish thinker found in Hasidism - the mystical traditions in European Judaism - the power to overcome the separation between the sacred and the profane – the separation which has formed part of the foundation of every religion.  In Hasidic traditions the command is to be "humanly holy."  For example, when one Hasid is asked by another, "What is the most holy thing that your rabbi does?" he answers, "Whatever the rabbi is doing at that moment."

Buber tells of a key moment in his life, when as a young professor he was visited by an unknown young man. Buber was friendly and attentive but without ‘being there’ in spirit. After the conversation, Buber later learned that the young man who had come to see him had died.  Buber was deeply affected by this news and asked of himself, "What do we expect when we are in despair and yet we go to a man?  Surely we can expect a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning."   It led him to delineate and celebrate the "I-thou" relationship, an authentic encounter with mutuality, a recognition of the uniqueness of this and every meeting, which calls for wholeness, for attention. n

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