Whose Responsibility is Forgiveness?

There is a strong narrative in many religions–in fact, as far as I can tell, it is every religion with a conscious God–that God is the only thing that can forgive us for our behaviour. In the Abrahamic religions, the narrative is clear: the Creator expects us to be perfect, but the Creator does not create us perfect and then the Creator blames us for how It created us; It then demands our love and servitude (and a human sacrifice, if you are Christian) so that It doesn’t hold us accountable for Its failure to make us perfectly.

“Created sick and commanded to be well”


There are no prizes for guessing whether I accept that narrative; I don’t. That narrative is not compatible with a loving God for many reasons: the narrative depends on a God without introspection and who is capricious enough to blame us for Its actions; God must be completely incapable of creating an improved human to whom the expectation God has is more realistic; God clearly isn’t capable of managing his own expectations and is comfortable defaulting to blaming us.

There is another reason I don’t accept this narrative as being compatible with a loving and moral God: it’s not Its job to forgive. The freedom to forgive a person, or not, is granted upon you when you become a victim. There is nothing just about an assailant asking God for forgiveness after stabbing a child; the forgiveness that person should seek is that of the child and family. Instead, the idea of the God has allowed institutions to set up based around the promise of something which appears, to an outsider, indistinguishable from self-excusal: religion.

When I was about 10 I was in a grading class for Kung fu. My friend Simon was there with his step dad. There were some youths (16 years old, maybe) outside making a lot of noise. Simon’s stepdad went outside to ask them to keep it down or move along so that we could concentrate. He was consequently and immediately stabbed in the kidney multiple times. I would find no peace in knowing the knife wielder has found forgiveness from God. The person he should seek forgiveness from is Simon’s stepdad. It’s not God’s kidney, and God is not the primary victim.

In 1260 AD Pope Alexander IV gave his Inquisitors the right to absolve each other of any “irregularities” that occurs during their investigations. That is what it looks like to ask the wrong person for forgiveness.


Something I find continually astounding is that there are people who genuinely would prefer it if the questions of morality were easy but horrifying, like that supposed by an objective dictated morality from God (where forgiveness is about saying sorry to the wrong people), instead of a complicated answer where the results can be about love and health and societal and personal wellbeing. Although the religious are often very quick to accuse the atheists of constructing a world where all things are permissible, think about the consequences of really believing the right thing is completely divorced from the world of human experience and that, in a complete role reversal, all things are permissible so long as you seek forgiveness from a Being that always forgives if you ask nicely.



22 thoughts on “Whose Responsibility is Forgiveness?”

  1. Very well said, my good man. The concept of unconcerned forgiveness, and its uglier cousin, vicarious redemption, is abhorrent and immoral. It fosters a displacement of responsibility which can only ever serve to create noise, deflecting attention from what Harris calls “better conversations.”

    1. But better conversations are difficult, and I am a child who needs simple answers.
      I’m glad I am not the only person who remembers the “better conversations” remark.

    1. Ponder for a moment how rights are granted. Rights are granted by the recognition by other people of their responsibility to grant or protect a right. If no one recognises your right, and thus no one acts to realise your right, you don’t have a right.
      And so it is for forgiveness; it is not granted by a who, but by a circumstance and people’s recognition of that circumstance.

      1. I’ve pondered that the better part of a day now and the inability to directly answer the question is duly noted. Thus I can’t accept it.
        This, unfortunately, is also an unwanted evasion and at many points equivocation by simply inflating explanations of rights and the circumstances whereby we forgive (which is irrelevant to my question) and transferring the onus of a “who” onto a “whatever the hell you’re talking about?” Community, I think. Which is ironically the very thing your article attempts (and fails thereby) to criticize religions for: Misappropriation of forgiveness responsibility. Unfortunately the 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. Now it could just be you’re using sloppy language and that’s fine. However, the result is no less vague and mystifying. 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.
        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. Sure, you’ve ground the tail of human morality here into a fine rhetorical paste of legalistic platitudes, but what 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. Is not talk of “responsibility” at such times is rather more like salt on wounds, bordering on the inhuman? 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 persectuion? To be fair, that may be case where forgiveness will never occur.
        Moral rhetoric often grows into a bloated behemoth; it’s best simply not to feed the horrid thing at times. The cultural stigma we tend to apply to both victimhood and effigy of public figures are direct enough proof of that.
        Better questions consist of:
        1. Why should I forgive anybody for anything ever, who roundly don’t deserve it?
        2. Conversely, why should anybody forgive me for anything ever, since I never deserve it?
        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?
        4. Where does forgiveness actually ever at any point acquire 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?
        6. In conjunction with number 6, 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.
        7. I’m still wanting to know by what authority, anyway, I am to offer forgiveness at all?

        1. For me to reply to this properly, could you help me understand the term “forgiveness typically comes as anterior to damned near posterior to morality as possible”.
          My assumption at this point is that you mean that forgiveness is broader than morality. If I am correct, it would help if I better understood your definition of morality.

  2. “the Creator expects us to be perfect”

    Interesting but I never heard this narrative, may I request a quotation from Bible, Quran or Torah. (Where ever you take the quote).

      1. People who are unaware of God’s message don’t go to hell?


        Statement quote – an action [bad or good] are not counted and not being punished, neither sin nor reward before he being informed or being send the message. (1997, latif, university malaya, usul fiqh, pg 16. Language- malay)

  3. From above…

    No, I wouldn’t say broader than morality. Actually “anterior” was poor writing on my part, meaning something different than I thought. I should have cut that out for “posterior to post-moral,” meaning simply tending to happen later down the chain of occurrences. I mentioned this 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. I hope that suffices not to have to bore anybody with my definition of morality. Sorry for the error.

    Similarly, I don’t know where I got into my head that they are “Palestinian Christians” when they are clearly Iraqi. I must have bungled so many headlines in my head. Embarrassing mistake.

    Finally, thanks for taking the time to answer and take your time, of course. It’s quite an obnoxious load to answer. I didn’t mean them in the form of a gauntlet dropped down but rather that this post got them going in my head.

    1. There’s nothing wrong with making a few mistakes. With the way the headlines have been going up recently, you’d think the issues in Ukraine were about Malaysian Airlines, not Russia.
      Your clarification does change my interpretation quite a lot. My internet is patchy at the moment, but I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Your second comment has given me a lot more to ruminate over. I can share with you my immediate thoughts now, but hopefully I will expand on this as I sit down to address it fully: in the US you can refuse to press charges against your assailant because the US recognizes that you are the victim (i.e. the dispute is between you and the assailant); in the UK you cannot because the government sees itself as the victim (i.e. the dispute is between the assailant and the government)…

  4. Ah. Another problem, if you’ll permit me. I realize it’s semi-obnoxious at this point to heap more onto pile and plate. I vaguely hinted at it in the excruciating blocks above, don’t feel I articulated it very well there, and so forgot to properly finish the matter off. This:

    I would find no peace in knowing the knife wielder has found forgiveness from God. The person he should seek forgiveness from is Simon’s stepdad. It’s not God’s kidney, and God is not the primary victim.

    Does not this rather betray itself by revealing a soft implicit yet glaring truth? To spell out the self-evident: It’s not your kidney either. Right enough, yes, you’re not the party in search of forgiveness. But oddly, your “sense of peace in the knowledge of” is in a remarkably similar category as in connection to “God’s forgiveness to the assailant for the act of violence.” Now it’s rather crass to say that your sense of peace in that knowledge is irrelevant; but in another bare sense it is irrelevant. I hope Simon’s stepdad made it ok (kidneys being a vitally serious matter!) for me to ask: Would you gain much peace from knowing he forgave his assailant? I wouldn’t, personally, to my demerit. I would say “good on him,” think highly of him and still privately ruminate over what a horrible thing done. Perhaps a nightmare here or there, the knife wielder not thoroughly de-bogeyed from my thoughts, unless of course I got to the point of forgetting the matter altogether. In addition, though: what if Simon’s stepdad were Christian (hypothetically) and forgave his assailant in the hope of God also forgiving him? Such a case would be awe-inspiring and beautiful to me beyond words.

    Now I’m not going to try to argue that God is the primary victim. He’s not. You’re right about that. Rather I’m unfortunately (sorry) going to echo a certain stodgy Narnian apologist here by arguing that God is the party chiefly offended in all human offenses, His “laws broken” in all of them. Like Lewis notices when Christ comes on the scene announcing forgiveness for things He directly has nothing to do with, said forgiveness is “asinine fatuity” unless He is who He claims to be and can claim the actual power of forgiveness. “Wounded in every sin,” I think is the phrase used. Otherwise, Christ makes no sense claiming a vicarious and universal forgiveness. Now I’ve argued this merely on the order of broadcasting it (for I’m sure you seem well-read enough to know) in connection with the next material: Your funny observation about “self-excusal.” Your right for lampooning that Pope, of course; hopefully Pope Francis currently sees it the same way. I don’t know about other religions, but I agree with you: Self-excusal is an unacceptable rationale in Christianity. Such Christians are to be reviled and even more vigorously corrected. The only acceptable rationale to forgiveness in Christianity is not self-excusal but this: “Go and sin no more.” “Technically impossible!” some “brethren” will claim (I grow less and less fond of these types as the years accrue) and, while inevitably they may prove to keep their little technical point intact, I see no other way of moving forward with them except through that forgiveness through whom all things become possible. Perfection is that thing we are never to give up on, though not forgetting to apply by turns compassion along the way.

    If I had to guess, I’d bet that last paragraph is an eyesore to you, however I obviously hope not. Of forgiveness, I have lastly to say, I’m wanting something well beyond the scope of my various emotional states–and not just for myself either but others, too, as many as possible–I am always wanting something capable of an actual lasting permanent renewal and refreshing. Someone, preferably.

  5. Having known you (sort of) for several months now, it occurred to me I’ve probably missed your birthday. Since I have absolutely no idea when it is (or was…) Happy Birthday!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s