Should forgiveness be unconditional? (January 19, 2011)

There was an interesting article recently in the New York Times titled “On Forgiveness,” in which Charles Griswold explores the “what,” “when,” and “why” of forgiveness. In the article, he makes two points I want to address.

The first is that the contemporary literature on forgiveness tends to make it all about “lifting the burden of toxic resentment,” yet he claims it’s about much more than that. It’s really about a relationship between you and the person who wronged you. “Forgiveness,” he says, “retains the bilateral or social character of the situation to which it seeks to respond.” In other words, just as the original wrong against you was an interpersonal act, so your forgiveness is, too. 

I was quite happy to see this point being made as it’s one I have long made myself. In the Course, forgiveness is not just about me getting rid of my resentment. In its fullest sense, it is a relational action. I extend to you my forgiveness in order to relieve you of your burden of guilt. As Course students, I feel we have lost this fuller sense of forgiveness. As a result, it becomes something that happens inside our minds for our minds; the other person’s relevance is only as a trigger for our original resentment. That same role could have been fulfilled by a rock on which I stubbed my toe.

Second, Griswold claims that unconditional forgiveness is inappropriate and merely excuses and even condones the original wrong. He believes that instead, forgiveness should be withheld until certain conditions are met by the offender. “The ideal,” he says, “is bilateral, one in which both sides take steps.” What steps does the other person need to take before we can forgive? The minimum, he believes, is “an assumption of responsibility by the offender.” And then the ideal is where the offender takes “a series of steps that include admission of responsibility, contrition, a resolve to mend his or her ways and recognition of what the wrong-doing felt like from your perspective.” 

To ears that have been tuned by A Course in Miracles, this notion of forgiveness seems startlingly conditional, even stingy. Indeed, in Tikkun magazine in 2009, William Meninger, a Trappist monk, responded to Griswold’s views in an article titled, “Why Unconditional Forgiveness IS Needed.” He argues that, even if the offender is unwilling or unable to fulfill Griswold’s conditions, we still need the benefits that come with forgiveness: 

Unconditional or unilateral forgiveness is necessary for the same reasons that Professor Griswold gives for reciprocal forgiveness. Without it, how can the victim avoid becoming the source of vengefulness, resentment, moral hatred, and clouded judgment if the perpetrator of his wounds is unknown, absent, or dead?

Griswold is approaching it from an entirely different angle. Just as we have a reason to feel angry, so likewise we need a reason to forgive: “The moral anger one feels in this case is a reaction that is answerable to reason; and this would hold too with respect to giving up one’s anger.” Our emotions, in other words, need to mirror reality. As long as there are valid reasons for anger, then giving up that anger makes no sense. 

We may automatically assume that the Course agrees with Meninger’s position: Yes, of course we should forgive unconditionally, because of the priceless benefits involved. Yet strangely, the Course agrees with Griswold in that it holds that our emotions need to mirror reality. Therefore, if there is valid cause for anger, then forgiveness makes no sense. Note these two quotes from the Course: 

If sin is real, then punishment is just and cannot be escaped. (W-pI.101.2:1) 

Guilt cannot be forgiven. If you sin, your guilt is everlasting. (W-pI.134.5:3-4) 

Where the Course differs with both Griswold and Meninger is in adopting a radically different view of reality, a reality that calls for a different emotional response. In this view of reality, the attack on us is powerless to truly hurt us, since we are in reality invulnerable. That attack is powerless as well to compromise the attacker’s innocence and worth, as his identity is also invulnerable. 

Once we set the act, and the two participants, in this very different metaphysical framework, new emotions make sense and old ones no longer fit. Now, anger is not a reasonable response under any circumstances. And forgiveness is always fully justified. Not because it carries benefits. Not because it feels better. But because it mirrors reality. 

Thus, in the Course’s view, unconditional forgiveness only makes sense if we are prepared to turn upside-down our view of reality and adopt a radically different view. Without that, we are left with the dilemma expressed by Meninger and Griswold, in which we desperately need the benefits of unconditional forgiveness but are constrained from giving it by the nature of reality.

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