What is Forgiveness?

What is
Anthony Bash
Durham University
1. The Place to Start
Letting someone off / Excusing?
Overlooking something to get on with people?
Forgetting about the past?
Restoring relationships?
Letting go?
‘Forswearing resentment’ (Butler)
• Forgiveness is one type of moral response to
• It has to be a moral response
• There has to be recognition of wrongdoing
• Compare forgiveness with other less obvious moral
responses to wrongdoing.
• For example, see revenge / vengeance: J G
Murphy ‘two cheers’ for vindictiveness (Getting
Even, 2003). Revenge and vindictiveness promote
‘self-respect, self-defence and respect for the moral
order’ (in Worthington, Forgiveness Handbook,
2. The ‘origin’ of
• Hannah Arendt, ‘The discoverer of the role of
forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus
of Nazareth’ (The Human Condition, 1958).
• Charles Griswold, Forgiveness (2007). Known in
Greek culture. Not a ‘virtue’ in Greek ethics.
• Forgiveness as a cultural universal
o Chinese culture (Christoph Harbsmeier in The Ethics of Forgiveness, ed. C.
Fricke (2011).
o Mahayana Buddhism
o Some higher primates engage in ‘forgiving’ behaviour (Frans de Waal).
• The most obvious starting place to understand
forgiveness in the western tradition is from the
Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).
• God is forgiving – sweeping away, burying,
removing, washing away human sin.
• Human repentance always precedes God’s
• Forgiveness is seen as being about restoring
humanity’s relationship with God.
• Next to nothing about person-to-person forgiveness
in the Hebrew Scriptures – perhaps one example in
Genesis 50:17.
• The achievement of the New Testament is to
establish forgiveness as (i) a pattern of person-toperson behaviour; and (ii) as a moral virtue.
• Jesus:
• Forgiveness is a pattern of person-to-person (not
corporate) behaviour.
• He applied (Jewish) divine forgiveness as a model
for person-to-person forgiveness.
• As with divine forgiveness, person-to-person
forgiveness is about restoring relationships.
• “Jesus’ achievement is to distil out of a range of
behaviours a new, discrete category of human
behaviour (person-to-person forgiveness) that
people had not hitherto separately identified. It is
also to give that category of behaviour its own
characteristic features and identity markers. So, for
example, those who seek forgiveness should be
repentant and those whose forgiveness is sought
should be unstinting in their efforts to forgive.
Forgiveness seen this way is new in Jewish [and
Greek] thought.”
Forgiveness is a moral virtue.
Forgiveness is grace in action.
Forgiveness is a dispositional quality, referring to a
spectrum of virtues all driven and inspired by grace,
e.g. kindness, patience, long-suffering.
• (Paul seems to have been influenced by Greek
patterns of philosophical thought. If Jesus’s
forgiveness is ‘Jewish-style forgiveness’, Paul’s is
‘Greek-style forgiveness’.)
• “What matters to Paul is that forgiveness is an
expression of grace, and one of many different
expressions of grace. We can put it this way: Paul is
not so much concerned with identifying forgiving
behaviour as a genus of person-to-person relations
as interested in exploring all kinds of virtuous
behaviour that are the outworking of the grace of
God among human beings in their social and
personal relations. Forgiveness is an important
aspect of what it means to be gracious – but the
primary emphasis in Paul is on grace, not
3. A Critical Reflection
• Christianity has ‘won the argument’ about
• But what has it won, and was it worth winning?
• The ‘Augustinian Dilemma’ – a conflict between
divine justice and divine love.
• The idea of sparing wrongdoers because of love is
in tension with the idea of justice.
• If we forgive we usually forswear the right to justice.
• One of the central problems of forgiveness … it
depends where we start! Do we start with love or
do we start with justice?
• The idea of justice is deeply embedded in human
• Another way of looking at this is to think of the
problem as being about conflicting moral goods:
o Love
o Justice
o Mercy
• ‘The predicament of irreversibility’ (Hannah Arendt)
– how do we undo what has been done?
• We cannot atone for our wrongdoing and so we
cannot resolve the predicament of irreversibility.
• However, we can strive to model / practise God’s
forgiveness and so seek to bring about the same
goal as divine forgiveness, namely, the restoration
of relationships.
• Before we move on, we need to explore five
commonly held views about person-to-person
• How would you respond to the following
Jesus is a great example of someone who forgave the unrepentant
We should forgive even the unrepentant
It is morally virtuous to forgive
Forgiveness is a moral good
It is better to forgive than not to forgive
• Did Jesus forgive the unrepentant?
o Luke 23:34 (‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’)
• Should we forgive the unrepentant?
o The Lord’s Prayer (‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against
us’). Does it mean that if we are not forgiving, God will not forgive us?
o The interpretation hinges on the word ‘as’.
• (i) God will forgive us only if we forgive others in the
same way as and to the same extent that God
forgives us.
• (ii) If we forgive, it is because we ourselves have
experienced the lavish grace of God’s forgiveness.
Being a forgiver means we have received – and
been transformed by – the grace of God; it is this
evidence of having received God’s grace that is
the ground of assurance that God will go on
forgiving us.
o See Matthew 18:23-35.
o Receiving the grace of forgiveness precedes the grace of giving
• http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/politics_sh
Is it always morally virtuous to forgive?
Is forgiveness always a moral good?
Is it better to forgive than not forgive?
4. Some Solutions
• Ways out of the maze ….
• We have identified at least six constituents of
Letting go (Jesus)
A gift (Paul)
An appropriate measure of restored relationships
• ‘Thick’ and ‘thin’ forgiveness – i.e. actions that we
regard as forgiving and that have the six elements
to a greater or lesser extent.
• Forgiveness is therefore variegated / has
gradations. Many variables go into a response that
we call ‘forgiving’.
• ‘Forgivenesses’.
• Forgiveness is
o a spectrum of responses that have the six elements present to a greater or
lesser extent
o an alloy
o a process
o situation-dependent and has to be seen in the context of the life-history
and personalities of the protagonists
o not necessarily the only way to respond to wrongdoing
o at best, an impossible marriage of justice and love
• [email protected]

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