Some things are just plain unforgivable. Everyone knows this and it’s hardly debatable. But the primary reason I hear for this truism from those participating in my prison classes might interest you:

“Unforgivable things can’t be forgiven because that would make them ok.”

I hear this often. Recently, twice in the same week, class participants in two different prisons interrupted me with objections to forgiveness based on the premise that forgiveness means that the awful thing or person we propose to forgive must not be so awful after all.

Child sexual abuse is always — and I mean “always” — top of the list of awful things prison inmates consider unforgivable.

So I show a video in which a woman who was sexually molested by her uncle for three years when she was a child says that she has now forgiven her uncle. Comments? Most of them can’t be reproduced here because it would require too many deleted expletives.

So I engage those who object the strongest: “Do you hear her saying that being raped as a 7-year old by her uncle was ok?” Well, no. “Did you not hear her say how traumatizing it was?” Well, yes. “Did you not hear her say that by not forgiving her uncle she was giving him power over her, and that that was unacceptable?” Well, yes.

How is it that forgiving, in the minds of many people, requires them to revise their opinion that the very awful and painful harm that someone did to them isn’t so awful after all? That the act of forgiveness requires them to accept as ok what truly might have been a despicably evil deed?

For some, unforgiveness seems like a reasonable and justifiable defense mechanism — a way of protecting oneself from further harm. Thus, even if forgiveness is an internal decision that isn’t communicated to the person who did the harm, it still is dangerous because it means that I will inevitably open myself to future harm.

For others, forgiving a serious harm is unthinkable because it would require them to address the anger within them they have allowed to go unresolved for such a long time. It is easier to stay focused on the bad thing someone else did than to look within myself and ask what kind of person I have become because of my own anger and bitterness. If we can make what someone else did the issue then we don’t have to face the uneasy question of whether I have now become the issue.

Forgiveness has probably been presented in many settings as a moral or spiritual obligation that one does unconditionally because God requires it. Under those rules, forgiveness can become a decision that is disconnected from the necessary process of finding healing for our pain, resolution of our anger and an end to our resentment. Any act we do because it is a moral or spiritual ‘ought’ that does not also acknowledge and legitimize our pain, anger and resentment is unhealthy and improper. Too many people see forgiveness, however, as just that kind of act. It isn’t.

There is surely a legitimate question about the message we are sending when we forgive someone for a despicable thing they did. Many worry that the message this sends is, one, that the despicable thing is ok or, two, that permission is thereby granted to the person to do that despicable thing again.

As to the first question, forgiveness, by its nature, is reserved for serious wrongdoing. No one forgives a person for something he has done that is benign or good. The decision to forgive necessarily includes a judgment that wrongdoing took place. Forgiveness never requires us to change our mind about that.

On the second question, I suppose it is possible a person who receives forgiveness could take that as permission to repeat the wrongdoing. Holocaust survivors have long argued that the extermination of six million Jews is unforgivable. A reason often cited is that the refusal to forgive is crucial in communicating the collective judgment of humanity that genocide is unacceptable. Forgiving, it is argued, creates just enough ambiguity to embolden a repeat performance or provide incentive for another observer to do the same.

I have serious doubts that this is true. As I see it, forgiveness is far less likely to embolden repeat offenses than the fact that the offender faces no consequences for his action. Forgiveness neither excuses wrongdoing nor removes the possibility of serious or painful consequences. Repeat offenders are not deterred by unforgiveness nor are they granted permission by being forgiven. Repeated wrongdoing, especially when it comes to criminal behavior, is informed by a different calculus that involves a determination that the risk is ultimately worth it. It may be informed, as well, by deep wounds related to trauma. But that is another blog.





3 thoughts on “Unforgivableness

  1. Actually, you bring the discussion to its natural place for understanding the significance of forgiveness. Much, if not all, of the mental pathology that underlies criminal behavior is social pathology which disconnects a person from others. A person can experience such an overwhelming sense of shame, the person learns to buried the pain beneath anti-social behaviors that only serve to reinforce the overwhelm and dysfunction shame inflicts. People feel ashamed of feeling shame.

    A person who is a victim of crime is at precisely the same point that the criminal might have been when, very early in life, they too were victimized by someone’s else shame. It is a vicious cycle, that can only be broken through the victim’s decision to restore wholeness for themselves by recognizing that what might have caused the criminal behavior in the instigator may originate in the past cycles of incredible abusive shaming dynamics in someone else.

    As you well state, that never absolves the criminal per se from the consequences of their acts. But, for the victim to truly heal they need to absolve themselves of feeling shame for being the recipient of another person’s abuse, criminal or otherwise. Or, risk the shame, through its own reinforcing cycles, begin to hold a person captive to bitterness and self hatred. They need to forgive themselves, and in the fullness of their act of self forgiveness, they may come to see how the criminal too may have once been a victim, and also is in need of forgiveness.

    The concept of Restorative Justice is something worth exploring in this conversation.

    • I came close to adding a comment about how even with restorative justice the offender must still endure sometimes painful consequences for his actions. Even within an environment of mercy, compassion and forgiveness, there is a great need for repentance (often a painful experience) and restitution.

      • True! The interesting thing about your comment is how it encompasses what God requires of us as Micah says in Chapter 6:8. Justice, best understood Biblically, is about restoring within us the balance of Shalom, and that the restorative / reconciling / repenting process is naming and claiming one’s own failures in behavior and thought.

        In others words, learning to get totally humble before the Throne of God. Yet, as we know from the Gospel stories, mercy is also integral to healing, which is why we must love it. The woman caught in adultery or the Samaritan woman at the well are two good cases in point. Both had sinned; both were worthy of punishment; but, then again, so were their accusers, as in truth we all are. So true justice never absolves us of our punishment. Yet, true mercy recognizes we all stand before the Judgement seat, which is why we must learn to love it as Christ loved practicing it. And finally, learning to walk humbly with God, is to learn how He seeks to find the most loving balance between the first two elements He requires of us.

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