A reader has taken particular issue with one of the sentences in my earlier post (Whose Responsibility is Forgiveness?). In the post I outline two beliefs: that forgiveness from God is not the forgiveness you should seek for your transgressions against people, and that with God all things are forgivable. To make the former point I used the sentence “The freedom to forgive a person, or not, is granted upon you when you become a victim” (emphasis added by Paul Quixote). Paul (I hope he doesn’t mind the first name address) asked a simple question: granted by whom?
My post never challenges a god’s existence, so the answer “god” could be consistent with the post. All I asked was whether God is the right person from whom we should seek forgiveness; my answer is no. However, that answer would have been evasive, and so I addressed the broader implied question: given that you don’t believe in God, from where is permission to forgive granted? (emphasis mine, to draw the distinction between personal and non-personal causes). Perhaps you can already see that the cause I am going to posit is not personal.
To posit a cause which is not personal, I must first explain an example which is widely agreed upon: rights and responsibilities. I believe we live in a self-entitled society that is ignorant about how rights come about. People seem to implicitly believe in some variety of deontological definition of their rights (which is to say that because their rights are written down, they are true): “I know my rights!” Knowing your own rights is almost entirely useless; you have to know other people’s rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is actually a document outlining the explicit responsibility of the UN: to promote, foster and realise those rights. Rights are entirely meaningless unless people, societies and government recognise their responsibility to give those rights to others. And so it is with forgiveness; you must have a trespass against you before you can forgive. In the example of Simon’s stepdad, you must have the kidney that was stabbed before you can forgive the assailant. What use it is for the doctor or Jesus to forgive the assailant? They weren’t stabbed.
Paul promises me that he “pondered that the better part of a day” and has only really noted “the inability to directly answer the question”. Oddly, I disagree with his evaluation; I think I did directly address the question. I just had to fix the question first, as Paul insisted on asking “by whom?” (emphasis mine) when consciousness and sentience simply aren’t required. Paul is still not convinced:
“[T]he English language itself will flawlessly snuff and stamp out your attempted sophistry: That is, the definition of the verb “grant.” All definitions of the word, more importantly than quibbling about dictionaries, require a sentient self-aware conscious noun to operate them.”
Err… no they don’t. I understand why Paul doesn’t want to quibble about dictionary definitions; if I open a dictionary I will not find reference to the necessity of “a sentient self-aware conscious noun” (sic – if you’re going to get smug about grammar, the actor in a sentence is a subject, a noun refers to the word and no words are self-aware) defining “to grant”. It is not mistaken to say that luck grants you opportunities or that disappointment grants you insight. Luckily, Paul has a second argument.
“I also find what you suggest morally reprehensible: That is, to talk of “freedoms” and “rights” and “responsibilities” as special endowments on the forgiver. I don’t necessarily suspect that you’re an immoral person, but this does strike as having every potential and possibility to lead to the most abject deformed sort of morality.”
Err… did I say that? Perhaps I was unclear. I am happy to clarify. The ability to forgive an assailant is granted upon a victim of transgression. Only the victim can forgive the assailant. Forgiveness is no one else’ business. Solely from the perspective of the word “granted”, there are parallels between this and rights and responsibilities. At no point do I talk of rights and responsibilities being a special endowment. Rights are universal and society obliges all of us to recognize those rights. I don’t know if that defends me from Paul’s accusation, because I have no idea what Paul thinks I mean.
“For one thing, forgiveness typically comes as anterior to damned near posterior to morality as possible. More often than not, I am going to have to make the observation here that, if not the last seal of it, forgiveness is often post-moral.”
Bonus points for using language to obfuscate meaning. Luckily Paul has since clarified what he means: his thoughts would better be expressed as “posterior to post-moral”, meaning forgiveness is “tending to happen later down the chain of occurrences”. My interpretation of that is that forgiveness happens after moral considerations i.e there is a transgression, moral judgments are made and then the right to forgive emerges. Paul brings this up because:
“it seems fair to say there may be an issue for some as to whether forgiveness should be a part of our morality at all. Also, forgiveness in the light of future events. For instance, the young teenager who breaks a parents curfew, punishment, parents forgive, and three weeks later the same curfew is broken yet again. Where we wonder how much forgiveness we are to give and where to draw the line so people don’t mistake our kindness for license to take advantage of us.”
Unfortunately, for a full discussion this will need a working and agreed definition of morality; Paul and I haven’t worked on one yet, so that seems like an unlikely venture. But as a short thought for now: at no point have I knowingly uttered that the freedom to forgive is identical to the obligation to forgive. If I have given that impression, I apologise. It seems plain to me that right or a freedom necessarily extends to the right to abstain. Freedom to forgive necessarily includes freedom from forgiveness. As for forgiveness in the light of future events, no such thing exists; you cannot know what the future holds. Instead, you forgive (or not) based on your best estimates of the future. The only “future” we can work with the light of is the one we imagine to be true; I am unlikely to forgive a person who I believe will trespass against me again, in the same way.
“[W]hat of those for whom the forgiveness of offenses takes place directly in the trespass against said parties very freedoms, rights and responsibilities? Your own examples above being ripe with what I mean: The freedom or right or responsibility of that family to not have their child stabbed being trespassed against. The freedom and right of your friend Simon’s stepdad not to have his kidney punctured having been utterly suspended.”
I am not going to accuse Paul of “attempted sophistry”, like he did me. But you, my fellow reader, just might. I am happy to use the ideas Paul shares here as being definitions: a transgression against another person (for which forgiveness could be given) is when a person, group of people or community has their rights trespassed against. Given my definition of rights and responsibilities, a transgression (i.e. to trespass against the rights of others) can also be seen, definitionally, as failure to adhere to one’s responsibilities. What’s the issue? When an assailant murders a child, the assailant trespasses against the rights of the child and the family: the child had the right to life, and the family had the right to expect their child would not be murdered. Because we as a society recognise those rights, the rights are real. And so the police intervene: arrest the assailant and if the assailant is found guilty he is isolated from society to protect society’s rights and to attempt to teach him the necessity of rights and responsibilities in society (prison has other purposes, not all I agree with).
If you believe in the afterlife, which I do not, then the child has the right (but not the obligation) to forgive the assailant. The child may not. The family is still alive, and it also is able (but not obliged) to forgive the assailant. The family may, understandably, never be able to forgive the assailant. However, the family may also see the guilt the man has been racked with for years and decide that the man is, indeed, redeemable. Or they may not care about the man’s guilt, and think that being a murderer is a stain on a person’s life that can never be undone; the morality of forgiveness is perhaps a conversation for another time.
“Is not talk of “responsibility” at such times is rather more like salt on wounds, bordering on the inhuman?”
I am not suggesting this is a method of counsel.
“Whose responsibility, to take a contemporary example, is it exactly to forgive ISIS in Mosul for its actions? Why, the Palestinian Christians who have lost their rights and freedoms and must flee for their lives in terror and persecution? To be fair, that may be case where forgiveness will never occur.”
NB: Paul has since corrected this as “Iraqi Christians”. It’s a fair mistake; newspaper headlines are a confusing mess of buzzwords.
I accept that forgiveness may never happen in some circumstances. It may be, depending on your personal views about forgiveness, that some circumstances mean that forgiveness cannot be given. The Iraqi Christians having their rights infringed upon may never forgive ISIS. There is no obligation to. But ISIS cannot ask for forgiveness from the international arena: only the Iraqi Christians have been empowered to forgive, or not, ISIS.
1. Why should I forgive anybody for anything ever, who roundly don’t deserve it?
You are never, ever, obliged to offer forgiveness. It may be that a person shows evidence of rehabilitation or reformation, and that may be enough. It may be that nothing will ever allow a person to forgive.
2. Conversely, why should anybody forgive me for anything ever, since I never deserve it?
The power to forgive, or not, is a freedom. If a person has trespassed against you, but is now disproportionately racked with guilt and convinced you of their reformation, then perhaps you can find the strength to forgive.
3. What difference or good does forgiveness make/do? Is it not, more often the case with humanity, enabling further trespasses and offenses? I think so; that’s our general tale of the tape, religion or religionless. The world could probably carry on swimmingly without this worthless platitude of homo sapiens; should it?
The planet will spin after our apocalypse, agreed. But we live in a specific world: one of wellbeing and feelings and emotions; guilt and happiness; loss and reformation. The moral world is entirely mental. That is the world we are looking to keep up by our moral actions. Forgiveness does not just benefit a truly repentant assailant, but also a victim. Being angry in addition to loss and pain, is difficult. Having the strength to forgive helps oneself.
4. Where does forgiveness actually ever at any point acquire efficacy?
If you care what other people think and feel, forgiveness has efficacy.
5. In order to forgive my offenders must they ask for it first and seek me out in penance or can I/should I seek them out and offer it in advance of their request?
I am not sure it makes sense to offer forgiveness to people who don’t want it. If an assailant is not repentant, forgiveness is no good to them. But you can forgive them for your own sake. I am planning another post on the function and morality of forgiveness soon.
6. In conjunction with number 5, what happens if when I do forgive the offender, they explicitly spit in my face and say they’d do it again if they could? And I forgive that as well? Am I immoral for allowing someone to take advantage of me and humiliate me? I am stupid; we can agree to that.
You can forgive but not forget. If you know a person is internally compelled to kleptomania ot to hurt others, you may forgive them because you understand the power and strength of compulsions like that. But you would be foolish not to secure your belongings or protect yourself. Blind, unconditional, irrational forgiveness, even in the face of blatant intent to reoffend does seem mightily silly.
7. I’m still wanting to know by what authority, anyway, I am to offer forgiveness at all?
I’ve answered that.