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The values implied by forgiveness

© Andrew Knock   (2000)


A family of values

Forgiveness is not simply an isolated response to someone else's action.  It is at the centre of a network or family of values, and giving priority to one will involve being committed to living out all of them. 

Whenever we domesticate forgiveness and see it as merely a reaction to a personal hurt, then we also tend to isolate it.  This domesticated reaction is the standard ingredient of soap operas, of course, since by definition they domesticate everything - and tabloid newspapers and chat shows follow the same route.  But unfortunately so do many religious sermons, study courses and books.

We need to move on to see that there is a whole ethic - a network of priorities and values, a perspective and depth to life which people and organisations can live out in practice.  This takes us much further into understanding what is possible in human life than relying on domesticated values or superficial religiosity.


Domesticated religion

Because world religions are historically the main sources of teaching about forgiveness, it would seem sensible to look to their adherents for insight and good practice in forgiveness.  But domestication wreaks havoc with spirituality! 

In many religious congregations we can meet people who, when asked to think about forgiveness, will say something like, "Oh I have no problem with forgiveness"!  Doesn't that sound great!  As religious people, they know it's sort of 'expected' of them - after all, forgiveness is a defining aspect of the message in most world religions, and certainly of Jesus' message.  But they usually have a pretty superficial view of this activity.   They may be able to ‘forgive’ little faults – by which I mean they could set their negative reactions down pretty quickly and ‘move on’.  But with more public faults most religious groups fall silent, ignore people (both those at fault and victims) and move on to something else.

To view forgiveness as a primary issue in life is invariably to present an uncomfortable challenge to this domesticated or bourgeois life-style.  If you view forgiveness as a priority, as a really important, vital, central dimension of human life, then you will find that it is at the centre of a cluster of other human activities and priorities, and you will discover that you want to give a lot of weight and attention to these other ones as well.  You will value what other people show of these qualities, and you will want to give your own energies and aims to them as well.  Otherwise, your commitment to forgiveness will be relatively shallow - the domesticated version which popular media and religious sermons so often portray.


Related priority values

There probably isn't a single, unifying characteristic which these related values all have - the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein spoke of ‘family resemblances’ to help us understand how a large variety of things can still be seen to be unified, even when there is no one characteristic that everyone of them shares.  What we need to note is that they all need one another, borrow from and are enriched by one another.

The values or qualities most strongly affiliated to forgiveness are:

  • people are more important than their actions or the organisations and  institutions they belong to (and often cling on to)
  • freedom – your own and others’
  • creative initiative and courage
  • finding your own distinctive voice, and affirming others' voices
  • passionate and 'large-scale living' rather than domestic neatness or gossip
  • permanent and complex relationships rather than convenient or polite ones
  • grace, compassion and giving helpful, unmerited gifts
  • building and constructing rather than putting-down or destroying
  • restorative rather than retributive justice
  • risky investment in 'people with a history' (e.g. business investment in Northern Ireland)
  • a care and concern not to label people or to drive them out
  • the rehabilitation of offenders

Giving value to forgiveness means always seeking to unlock people from their past actions or disabilities.  For example, from a strong commitment to forgiveness it is not possible to advocate the death penalty for particular crimes.  And even if criminal behaviour is believed to be psychologically or genetically fixed, for example for some paedophiles, for us to have a commitment to forgiveness involves working alongside the offender to establish and to enjoy new and safe relationships and employment.  In other words, to help her or him to manage life more creatively among other people.


The ethic of forgiveness

Giving priority to forgiveness not only centres us on a network of related values, but it also means that these values will turn out to define what we hold to be 'good' in human life and therefore what we help others to aim for, as well as aiming there ourselves.  An ethic is an integrated view of what 'goodness' involves, and forgiveness points us to an ethic, an 'ethic of good judgement.'  (See the article Good judgement and bad judgement §7.) 

It may help here to see that there is a fundamental difference between 'ethics' and 'morality.'   Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, morality is about rules for good and bad behaviour … that’s how the word is used when the army or a school wants to uphold moral standards, for example.  The Oxford Dictionary defines 'moral' as:

1a) concerned with goodness or badness of human character or behaviour, or with the distinction between right and wrong. 1b) concerned with accepted rules and standards of human behaviour.  2a) conforming to accepted standards of general conduct. 2b) capable of moral action (man is a moral agent).

Morality takes the view that each person is a ‘moral agent,’ fully responsible for his or her actions.  It therefore adopts a legal attitude towards behaviour.  The blame for wrongdoing resides in the moral agent.  Moral character is entirely a matter of choosing or willing what are deemed to be good or bad actions.

In the history of human thought, this assumption of a free moral agent as normal, as the starting point for discussing behaviour and values, came to a kind of climax in the period of the Enlightenment.  It echoes throughout the systematic thinking of Immanuel Kant.  It remained decisive even in the 20th century, for existentialists like Sartre.  But we now need to ask, Is this ideal the most valuable starting-point for understanding behaviour and values, or is it rather a goal or end-point: one possible aim for human and spiritual growth?

The contrasting position to that of assuming we are all free, mature agents is what is often meant by 'ethics.'   (An ethic is defined as 'a moral philosophy,' and this should mean rather more than a university course of study!)  In such ethical views, human beings are not particularly free agents, but immersed in complex situations and histories, acting and reacting with a complexity of motives and needs.  We can help one another grow towards better behaviour and better judgement, and towards greater freedom, but we are very seldom there already.  (See for example Peter Winch, More than morality.)

This 'process-view' of growth in humanity and spirituality certainly reflects the impact of the human developmental sciences in the 20th century, particularly Darwinism and anthropology, psychology and sociology.  But it has also been implicit in religions which emphasise grace and transformation, and particularly in original Christianity.   Rowan Williams observes:

We are all of us, in some measure, shot off from each other: our own individual options for violence fade into a world where there is already a history of oppression and victimisation: our moral and spiritual growth does not occur in a vacuum ... It is this 'already' which theology (sometimes unhelpfully) refers to as original sin - the sense of primordial 'diminution' from which we all suffer before ever we are capable of understanding or choice.  (Resurrection p 24)

Clearly forgiveness is a very uncomfortable dimension for people who primarily cleave to a particular morality.  Forgiveness works towards seeing that the wrongdoer was acting wrongly, but out of his or her own need and confusion, and is someone who needs our help.   This is not to say that forgiveness excuses everything and has no idea of blame. When we forgive, we sees people as imperfect – ‘would-be’ free moral agents rather than perfected ones.  We recognise the blame which must attach to the wrongdoer – though we do not demand a confession of culpability first.  But we see another person’s blame as a motive for helping, rather than a motive for excluding or punishing.  Our primary concern is with our own relationships to him or her.

Forgiveness, then, is better understood as an ethic, rather than a morality.  An ethic - a philosophy of morality - should interpret and integrate different human behaviours and activities, with the aim of inspiring others towards a particular world-view.  It is a network of values and standards about the good and the bad in human life, which is not primarily tied to behaviour or even intentions.  (Intentions are really shadow-versions of moral action, and therefore also feature in legal assessments of people's actions.  Trying to assess and judge people by their intentions still assumes that we are all ‘really’ mature moral agents, only on this particular occasion someone's behaviour was perhaps a mistake.)


Letting go and moving on

In the above list of 'forgiveness-values', the area of valuing complexity in relationships is a good illustration to take a little further.  ‘Letting go and moving on’ is a phrase which people often use in connection with forgiveness.    But it can be used in two ways - on a creative scale or on a domestic one.   To let go and move on can be a real act of value – by which I mean demonstrating the cluster of values around forgiveness and freedom.  Or it can be a self-preserving reaction – "I can’t cope with the pain / rejection / complexity and will ‘move on’."

Moving on can sometimes seem to be an example of transformation - an idea which has great attraction for today's spiritual seekers.  But in this sense it restricts transformation, keeping an individual person intact and discarding other people instead.   To understand this better, we can make the further distinction:

  • To let go and move on within a relationship is a good and even wonderful human action.   You don’t abandon the relationship, just some of the problems, misunderstandings, wrongs and half-rights that have cropped up, but keep affirming and working at the relationship and its new future.
  • Whereas to let go and move on by abandoning another person - because of problems, misunderstandings, wrongs and half-rights - is extraordinarily cruel.  It is a regular feature of ‘institutional values’ – the cluster of values around maintaining and preserving one’s institution – which are the chief and most insidious opposition to forgiveness.

A phrase which is often used in institutional thinking is, "No one is indispensable."  (This is the more polite version of the expression made famous by the Godfather movies: "It's business, not personal.")  People can be 'moved on,' 'released,' have the 'plug pulled' on them, and so on, for the sake of an institution or for some other people in it.  From the perspective of forgiveness, however, everyone is indispensable!   A business or organisation which is committed to people-centred values will - of course - need to revise its members' roles, retrain and discipline them, and move them to alternative or new positions to improve overall performance.  Letting them go and moving on is a last resort, which also calls into question the genuineness of the organisation's values.


Transformation - always new

In the positive approach to letting go, we find ourselves committed to affirming people regardless of what they have done.  This means focussing on what is new - what has transformative potential for growth and enrichment in the future.  Martin Buber gave a name to the valuing of relationship – the ‘between’ or betweenness:

What is peculiarly characteristic of the human world ... is rooted in one being turning to another as another, as this particular other being, in order to communicate in a sphere which is common to both of them but which reaches out beyond the special sphere of each.   I call this sphere the sphere of 'between.'  (Between Man and Man, p 202)

And he borrowed a wonderful image from Plato:

Plato hinted at effective reality in manifold togetherness and living with one another, as a light is kindled from leaping fire.  Leaping fire is indeed the right image for the dynamic between persons in 'We'. (The Knowledge of Man, p 107)

Perhaps this image of leaping fire can convey the real meaning of 'moving on': the complexity, power, unpredictability, fresh 'always-new' quality associated with active forgiveness. 

Indeed the image which comes closest to unifying all the various values around forgiveness is that of "transformation within relationships."  It reflects what the Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx wonderfully said when asked to summarise how he now thought of God: "God is new every moment."  (This is also the title of a book of interviews with him by John Drury.)  Within such fundamental relationships - with God or with human persons - everything is transformation.  But the love endures.


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