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.