wingedbeast ([personal profile] wingedbeast) wrote2017-05-12 11:15 pm
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The Place of Forgiveness

I thought about making this one of my Evangelizing Advice from an Atheist tips. Then, I searched my memory and found that, while this is a problem in general, it's not, to my experience, so much of a problem in the Evangelizing and Apologetics fields. It needs to be stated (though, I won't be the first), but it gets nebulous in terms of category.

I don't know where the problem with our attitude regarding forgiveness starts. But, I do know one place that typifies the problem, best, and that's in the words of Jesus in the Bible. It's the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor.

Here's the text, copied from, from the New Living Translation.

Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor
21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone[a] who sins against me? Seven times?”

22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven![b]

23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.[c] 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars.[d] He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters[e] from your heart.”

Let's break this down. A very wealthy King forgives the debt of a servant, one that the servant would never be able to pay, no matter how much torture is involved (torture, in general, not being useful in getting money from the flat-broke, anyway). This same servant goes to another servant, who owes this first servant, according to the NLT Bible, a few thousand dollars (I assume this is adjusted to modern, American currency values). The first servant has the second arrested.

This isn't inherently bad, but there's something missing. There's no discussion of why the first servant was less forgiving than the King. There's a complete absence of acknowledgement that there are legitimate reasons to be so unforgiving.

Potential Reason 1. Despite being forgiven of this very larger debt, the first servant still needs money in order to survive, and needs it quickly.

Potential Reason 2. The second servant has a repeated pattern of seeking this forgiveness, only to borrow or steal money again, avoiding punishment with promise to repay and then with seeking forgiveness.

The text of this parable takes the very concept of legitimate reasons not to forgive as impossible. That's an unstated premise, but one that can't be ignored. Any acknowledgment of that possibility means that the King needs to be shown to be aware of the possible legitimate reasons not to forgive the debt and aware of their not being the case.

The intended moral is that you should forgive. The moral I get is that you have no right to refrain from forgiving. A great and powerful force has deemed that you have no right to consider, for yourself, whether or not to forgive. Oh, and if you just say it, but don't mean it, that's just as bad as not saying it.

In the documentary, "Bully", there's a scene in which the bullied child is confronted by the school's vice-principal. The child had responded to an offer of a handshake, by the child who had repeatedly threatened his life, by rebuffing the offer. The vice-principal told him, repeatedly, that by rebuffing that handshake, by not forgiving, he was just as bad as the one who had threatened his life.

Nowadays, that obligation is reframed. Rarely, today, is the obligation put in terms of "forgive or God will punish you". Today, we have a new, entirely disingenous and self-serving statement of obligation. "You have to forgive for yourself."

Here, the parable changes to something closer to King Chicken of "Duckman" fame. King Chicken was a recurring villain of the mad science genius variety. He had an amazing capacity for chemical engineering, robotics, social engineering, just plain everything. And, with a couple exceptions, his appearances in the show were always an expansive, evil plot with just one motivation. King Chicken wanted revenge upon Duckman for making fun of him in school.

This is often presented as the alternative to forgiveness. Either you forgive, thus letting go of the pain, or you make it your defining characteristic. I want to make clear that this is a false dilemma. But, I also want to make clear that the counter to this claim is also false.

The counter is that forgiveness will release you from your pain and scars. And, I'll use a story of my own, instead.

When I was in Junior High School, I had a number of bullies. One particular one got a grip on a pair of scissors that, by agreement were supposed to be handed over to me. Of course, he did not honor the agreement. I made a stupid mistake and thought to just grip the scissors by the blade end. He smiled as he opened and closed the scissors, cutting a slice of skin from my pinky finger. He saw it bleed and showed no hint of caring.

This is a small scar to have, not one that I normally think about. But, it's there and, on an infrequent basis, it twinges. It's not painful, it's just a reminder that it's there. If you were to see my left pinky finger, you'd have to look close to see the irregularity of the lines, where they bunch up just so.

Does anyone propose that this physical scar will disappear the moment I forgive the one who gave it to me? Anybody at all?

Like most school friends, when I graduated on, I mainly lost touch. I didn't see him until some time later. Searching my memory, searching relevant markers around that, I think it was when I was still in High School. I saw him in a Driving Safety Class that I'd taken for the sake of my driving record.

I made brief contact as we were leaving. I told him that I remembered him from the time in Junior High and he said that he remembered me. I said that he was an asshole back then. That was the word I used. It might have been a confrontational choice, but my tone must not have conveyed that confrontation. His response was only "kids are allowed to do that."

Am I still required to forgive? Am I doomed to, forever, think on nothing but my own grievance until I utter that spell of forgiveness? Will the basic biology of that scar go away because, now that it makes no difference to that bully what I do, I forgive him?

I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong. I do see value in forgiveness as a concept. And, I'm not going to tell anybody that they have an obligation not to forgive.

I will, however, say that how we treat forgiveness is a part of the problem of how we treat abuse, in general. We expect it. Back when I was doing the "Stuff Done Right" series, I even did an episode wherein I focused on that expectation as being one of the ways of forgiveness done wrong. We demand it. We require it. We give people the option to ask for it, sometimes long after they're no longer in any kind of power to continue the wrong for which they're now asking to be forgiven, as though this is something they are due for having completed the monumental task of not-doing-that-thing-anymore.

We do this thinking we're dong some good. Whether that good is in the form of the moral improvement of either the forgiver or the forgiven, the mental and spiritual health of the forgiver, or just putting someone in better position with regards to one religious belief or another, we think we're doing good. We aren't. We are taking part in the victimization of someone who was already victimized.

Forgiveness has a place and that place is in the uncoerced choice of the one who has been wronged. Anything else isn't forgiveness, it's lowering the cost of being abusive.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)

[personal profile] packbat 2017-05-15 04:07 pm (UTC)(link)
Further, in many sources, "forgiveness" is defined as a letting-go of negative feelings associated with some harm done ... which is not synonymous with relieving the perpetrator of guilt and/or re-establishing one's prior relationship with them.

Given that the latter two things are what abusers would want, it's interesting that the "forgiveness" our culture demands of victims includes them.
packbat: One-quarter view of the back of my head. (Default)

[personal profile] packbat 2017-05-15 04:46 pm (UTC)(link)
I don't disagree that even the most minimal definition of "forgiveness" can be a fraught thing - I mean, here's a tumblr post pointing out that "anger" in some cases is straight-up a reflection of gained self-respect. It just struck me as a reinforcement of your point that the definition of "forgiveness" our culture demands is the definition that pressures people as much as possible to make their abusers comfortable.