Forgiveness …

What does it really mean to forgive? Is it like saying (and meaning it): “OK, you tortured me for eight hours yesterday, cut off my one arm and one leg, burned my house down and raped my daughter, but that’s cool. I’m not cross with you. I forgive you. Let’s pretend it never happened. We are friends now. Do you take your whisky with ice?”

Apparently society, or at least some members of society, thinks that such behaviour is exemplary. TV programmes like Forgive and Forget propagate this thinking. When a murderer is apprehended and appears in court for the first time, journalists rush up to the bereaved family and want to know if they have forgiven the accused. If they say no, then they are the cruel culprits. There have even been cases where the victims refused to testify and rather prayed with the offender. And of course there is the lament that, whatever the sentence is, “it won’t bring Daisy back”, as though the criminal justice system is useless because it cannot resurrect the dead.

Then there is the belief that a third party can do the forgiving. It was not the victim that suffered: it was God (they believe), so if the offender prays to God, confesses his transgression, and expresses sorrow, then God can forgive on behalf of the victim. Would it not be unethical of a god to do this without even consulting the victim (or the victim’s immortal soul)? We never hear of any reported cases where a deity consulted the victim, so we must assume that the god in question acted unilaterally.

Bearing a grudge against someone for a trivial transgression for too long can leave one embittered and unhappy. In the aftermath of a traumatic experience there also comes a time to focus on the future rather than to dwell in the past. Such behaviour is a far cry from instant forgiveness like something you dissolve in water, ready for consumption.

There are people who are unscrupulous and will exploit others if they have the opportunity. The only way to deter such behaviour is by punishing crime and selfishness. Seeking retribution is innate and often a necessity for the ordered functioning of a society. Dishing out forgiveness with gay abandon is not virtuous behaviour - it erodes ethics.

I think forgiveness is, above all else, two things. First, it’s almost always a PR exercise for painting the victim in a virtuous light (chiefly selflessness, tolerance and magnanimity) because forgiveness is invariably a public display. A victim who forgives a transgressor but keeps completely and forever silent about such forgiveness is a rare self-assured beast indeed who gains nothing by that silence. Second, there’s usually some reverse psychology in play à la “You did me ill but I forgive you” with the unstated subtext “(And I hope I make you feel really guilty about it, you monster!)”

People forgive to make themselves feel better by trying to create a positive impression in others.

Please forgive me my cynicism… 0:)


PS: Congrats on your 1,000!

I don’t understand forgiveness, but maybe that’s because I’m an inveterate grudge-holder with a memory that makes an elephant look like an 110 year-old Alzheimers victim.

What makes me want to puke is politicians who go around ‘apologising’ for acts for which they were not responsible, to people who weren’t the victims of the act. Like Tony Blair apologising to Africans for the slave trading that happened in the 18th century, or Bill Clinton apologising to the ‘native Americans’ on behalf of General Custer. I think I’m going to sue the Italian government because the Romans were nasty to my Celtic ancestors 2000 years ago. Bah!

Forgiveness is the act of putting a grudge on ice so that a relationship will be restored.

In its purest and sincerest form, it’s a mental bargaining exercise. For instance, if A is the victim and B the transgressor, A’s forgiveness will only be meaningful if the dynamic goes like this:

  • A and B had a relationship prior to the transgression.

  • Both A and B agree that A is the victim and B the transgressor.

  • At least A thinks that the transgression will change the relationship.

  • Neither A nor B want the relationship changed.

  • A thinks the value of the relationship outweighs the transgression.

  • B thinks the value of the relationship outweighs the humiliation of being forgiven.

Most of the “selfish motives” for both apologising and forgiving are thus removed. I think non-commercial forgiveness still holds a valuable place in society.


I agree, but personally I don’t get that positive impression from people who make a scene of public forgiveness. I thought the way Amy Biehl’s mother carried on with the murderers of her daughter was sickening.

Thanks :wink:

Yes, that’s the other side of the same coin. These politicians imply that the current population is somehow collectively culpable for something that their ancestors did. Guilt by association is nonsense and, in the same way that forgiving on behalf of an unrelated party is invalid, so is apologising.

I am amused by the concept of “putting it on ice”. That way you can thaw it again when you need it. >:D
In all fairness, burying the hatchet has a role to play in relationships and even in politics. The drivers here target common interests such as wanting peace, stability or sex, which do not portray forgiveness as supremely virtuous, but rather as a means to an end.

Certainly. The idea that we can “forgive and forget” is not really practical. Repeatedly granting forgiveness is like trying to wipe a slate clean with a duster that progressively becomes saturated with chalk. At some point you’ll have to send the duster outside with a kid and a ruler, although I’m not sure how to make that fit the metaphor.

which do not portray forgiveness as supremely virtuous, but rather as a means to an end.
Well [i]ja[/i], but that goes for anything that we do, doesn't it? Self interest - or wanting to manipulate the outcome to suit us - will [i]always[/i] be the motivator for any act (counter examples are invited). People just do what they want.


For those who can read Afrikaans, here is another opinion on the matter, admittedly from a generally highly unreliable source. :slight_smile:

I’m not so sure about RooiMier’s just-put-it-behind-you-for-the sake-of-your-own-happiness take on forgiveness as a universal rule, or even as one that would increase general harmony if commonly applied. It strikes me as too fatalistic, and the motivation for it — i.e., that the victim finds happiness again and preserves it — as a bit smarmy and contrived.

Strong indications from game-theoretic models and analyses are that for society to remain cohesive and functioning, only a certain maximum threshold of villainy can be tolerated within it, and any misdeeds must be harshly punished (perhaps more harshly than the harm caused by the misdeeds themselves). While such punishment can be delegated to the authorities, the victims usually have to be the drivers behind it. With forgiveness, that motivation can vanish.

All of this also ignores the obvious fact that some slights are minor and thus easy to forgive, whereas others not so much. Moreover, most people find it easier to forgive offences done against themselves than against their nearest and dearest, most particularly their children. A mother who might be inclined to forgive her own captor/abuser/rapist will no doubt be much more reluctant to forgive her daughter’s.


RooiMier’s view that the forgiver is the sole beneficiary of forgiveness does not hold true where an on-going relationship is at stake, but in the case of crime committed by a stranger, that certainly may be the case. The only benefit to the perpetrator would then be relief from a guilty conscience. It is of course possible that the offender may not feel the least remorse and could not care a fuck about your forgiveness. In such a case RooiMier would be right: forgiving would be entirely self-centred and lose all its magnanimous glitter. The only possible benefit to the offender would then come from an obstruction of criminal justice.

The God character has a more sensible approach: before you get any forgiveness, you must first grovel on your knees and beg for it, failing which you won’t get any and burn in hell for all eternity. This ensures that forgiveness is not forcibly imposed on unreceptive sinners and also holds promise for a better hereafter. It further puts God in the position that he can smugly deny forgiving in self-interest.

It is interesting how the religious forgivers console themselves with prospects of a judgement day or karma that will eventually get to their transgressors posthumously. It implies that their forgiveness is perhaps not as entire as they would like one to believe.

The other side of the forgiveness coin is to “truly repent”…how this is determined is a mystery to me though. Virtually the whole power base of the churches and especially the Catholics is the power of forgiveness that they have allocated themselves. This makes people feel good about themselves, no doubt and the priests virtuous.

I often find an almost naive expectation among our less developed communities, that when they say “SORRY” you are expected to understand and forgive…thus punishment should be withheld or at least minimised. This even manifests itself in criminal cases. I personally hold the politicians and church leaders responsible for creating a monstrous misunderstanding in this context that has lead to a failure to grasp the importance of accountability and responsibility.