In his contribution to a recent volume on forgiveness, edited by Everett L. Worthington Jr., Martin Marty hazards the opinion that if there were a single word that expressed the very heart of the Christian message, it might well be “forgiveness.” Christians, he says, are called to experience both forgiveness from God and forgiveness among fellow human beings inspired by that divine forgiveness. Marty goes on to observe that forgiveness is not an exclusively Christian concept. It figures prominently in many other religions and, indeed, functions beyond every religious context.
Pope John Paul II has made forgiveness one of the pillars of his program for the church and the world. In an encyclical of 1980 on divine mercy, he wrote: “The church rightly considers it her duty to guard the authenticity of forgiveness, both in life and behavior and in educational and pastoral work. She protects it simply by guarding its source, which is the mystery of the mercy of God himself as revealed in Jesus Christ.”
In his pastoral care for the church, this pope has spared no effort to revivify the sacrament of penance and reconciliation as the ordinary means by which sin is forgiven in the church. Forgiveness is also a cornerstone of his strategy for ecumenism and interreligious relations. During the Great Jubilee of 2000 he pleaded with some success for the forgiveness of international debts. Finally, he regards forgiveness as a necessary means for achieving and preserving civil peace within and between nations. The supreme instance of forgiveness, for Christians, is the redemption. Sin has alienated the whole human race from God. We are worthy of condemnation. But in Jesus Christ God shows forth his mercy; he forgives our debts to him. This act of forgiveness, like all such acts, is costly. The cross of Christ teaches us that God does not forgive unexpiated sin. Forgiveness does not mean pretending that evil does not exist or forgetting it, but remembering it, facing its full malice, regretting it and atoning for it.
While regularly praising forgiveness, Christians are generally confused about its meaning and application. In the title of this article I ask: when to forgive? The question, in its full extension, might be rephrased by asking who should forgive, who should be forgiven and under what circumstances. The answer has to be somewhat complex because of the variety of concepts contained under the rubric of forgiveness. The dictionaries generally recognize two dimensions. Forgiveness, they tell us, means the renunciation both of resentment and of claims to requital. Each of the two terms, “resentment” and “requital,” calls for distinctions.
The necessary distinctions were lucidly set forth by the Anglican Bishop Joseph Butler in his sermons on resentment and forgiveness delivered early in the 18th century. In my analysis I shall be guided in part by his. The first term, “resentment,” applies to three kinds of emotional reaction in the presence of evil: impulsive anger, deliberate malice and moral indignation.
The sudden passion of anger is, in itself, morally neutral. God has implanted in human nature an instinct to react adversely to threats of harm or destruction. This impulse is spontaneous and is beneficial for self-preservation and self-defense. But it is dangerous because, unless controlled, it is capable of turning into malice.
The second form of resentment, deliberate malice, is morally wrong. Christ in the Gospels requires us to overcome the temptation to return evil for evil. He exhorts us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt. 5:44). He gave an example of love of enemies in praying to his Father to forgive those who were crucifying him (Lk. 23:34). Forgiveness, in the sense of renouncing hatred and overcoming personal anger, is a Christian imperative.
Resentment of a third type can be morally good. We ought to be indignant when we witness unjust and cruel behavior. Although Jesus was never malicious toward his enemies, he displayed righteous anger toward the Pharisees because they were distorting God’s law and misleading their followers. He also showed indignation when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and drove out the merchants with a whip. By his example he made it clear that forgiveness should not be automatic.
In addition to the forswearing of resentment, forgiveness has a second aspect, the renunciation of requital. This aspect concerns not the sentiments of the forgiver but the behavior of the other party. The renunciation takes either of two forms. In its first form it means the remission, in whole or in part, of a claim to reparations for an injustice or to payment of a debt. Although borrowing is not a sin, Jesus in the Gospels frequently uses it as an analogy for guilt, which is a kind of debt toward God. He says that unless we treat our debtors generously, God will not forgive our debts, our sins. In its second form the forswearing of requital may be the act of an authority mitigating or canceling due punishment. Parents, while exercising authority over their children, should always be available to them with tender love and compassion. They must be disposed to forgive, but not to dispense with repentance. When punishment is exacted, it should be administered as an act of love, so that the children, making amends for their misdeeds, may learn to behave better in the future.
The state, which is responsible for public order, is obliged to punish criminals for the sake of redressing offenses against the common good, rehabilitating the criminal and protecting society against new violence. The pardoning of criminals, therefore, is the exception, not the rule. Normally it presupposes that the purposes of punishment have already been fulfilled and that clemency will bring tangible social benefits. In relatively rare cases, heads of state grant pardon and amnesty because it would simply be too expensive or impractical to administer due punishment.
When public authority fails to act, people are sometimes tempted to take the law into their own hands and inflict what they regard as due punishment. This system of vigilante justice has often led to grave social disorders. It is not a proper substitute for the rule of law.
On the basis of this analysis we may distinguish at least four types of forgiveness. As a matter of sentiment, it can mean either the suspension of personal animosity or of moral indignation; as a matter of conduct, it can mean the cancellation of indebtedness or of due punishment. General statements about forgiveness must take account of all these dimensions. If forgiveness were simply the opposite of malice or vengefulness, the theory would be relatively simple. Since these attitudes are always forbidden, forgiveness would always be required. But the problem is more complex. It involves questions about when to renounce moral indignation, forceful resistance, the exaction of just compensation and the imposition of just penalties.
With these distinctions in mind we may turn to the central questions: who may forgive, who may be forgiven, and under what conditions?
In most cases the party who forgives is the one who has suffered injury, or the one to whom a debt is due. In cases where the injured party is deceased or unable to act, another party, such as a family member, may represent the victim or creditor whether in foreswearing resentment or in remitting a debt. Feodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov raises the question whether a mother can forgive an angry landowner who has thrown her son to be devoured by dogs. Ivan tells his brother Alyosha that the mother dare not forgive the oppressor. Although we have many Ivans in the world today, their attitude is deficient by the standards of the Gospel.
Where an offense is made against public order, the bearers of public office are the proper persons to impose or remit a just penalty. For the time being, I pass over the question of forgiveness between social groups, because I intend to touch on it later.
The recipient of forgiveness is the person who has committed an offense or incurred a debt. Forgiveness may also be needed by those who encouraged or culpably failed to prevent the injuries. Relatives or compatriots are likely to share the moral attitudes of the offenders, imitating and defending their conduct. The Old Testament vividly expresses the idea of solidarity in guilt when it speaks of the iniquities of the fathers being visited on the children (Ex. 20:5 and elsewhere).
No one has a strict right to forgiveness. The prospect of easy or automatic forgiveness could in fact give aid and comfort to aggressors and thus promote injustice. Well-ordered love may require that aggressors be resisted and punished rather than appeased. In particular cases, to be sure, a seemingly uncalled-for act of forgiveness, as a dramatic demonstration of love, may anticipate and bring about the adversary’s conversion. But apart from these exceptions, forgiveness ordinarily presupposes certain conditions in the person being forgiven.
The usual conditions of forgiveness are three: that the person receiving it be sorry for any wrong committed, be resolved to desist from continuing or repeating the evil action and be prepared to make satisfaction, as far as possible. To be disposed for forgiveness one need not expect to avoid future misdeeds, but one must be resolved to take effective measures to prevent such acts. A habitual sex offender, for example, ought not to receive absolution without intending to avoid situations in which the recurrence of such sins is likely.
So far as we can judge from Holy Scripture, God himself requires these conditions. When Israel experiences God’s wrath, she stands in fear of divine punishment. The people confess their sins, beg for mercy, do penance and resolve to keep God’s law in the future. By these means they seek to dispose themselves for God’s forgiveness, should he be pleased to grant it.
It is sometimes thought that these conditions were swept away by the great revelation of God’s mercy in the New Testament. If so, Christianity could be a source of danger to morality and justice. W. H. Auden, in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, places this objection on the lips of the tyrant Herod. After the visit of the Magi, Herod voices the fear:
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue: “I like committing crime. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”
The idea that Christianity enthrones forgiveness in place of justice and teaches universal forgiveness is a gross misunderstanding. Jesus, like John the Baptist, in fact warns his hearers to take measures to escape the punishment they deserve. They must pray for pardon, as we regularly do in the Lord’s Prayer. But prayer is only one of several prerequisites. Even while insisting on the imperative to forgive, Jesus mentions admonition and repentance: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Lk. 17:3-4).
In his parables Jesus alludes to reparation as well as repentance. In the parable of the prodigal son, for instance, the younger son resolves to tell his father: “I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (Lk. 15:19). Again, in the parable of the unforgiving servant, the servant pleads with his master: “Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything” (Mt. 18:26).
The story of Zaccheus in Luke’s Gospel provides the present pope with material for a very timely instruction on the sacrament of penance in his Holy Thursday letter to priests this year. Zaccheus is moved to exclaim: “Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” At that Jesus replies: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Lk. 19:8-9). Zaccheus does not receive forgiveness until he has resolved to compensate those he had defrauded and to be generous toward the poor.
Jesus frequently mentions one additional condition: that persons who seek forgiveness from God must forgive those who have offended them, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” says Jesus, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt. 6:15; cf. 18:35 and elsewhere).
Neither in the Old Testament nor in the New, therefore, is it taught that forgiveness takes the place of justice, or that God always forgives sins or that we ought to forgive everyone all the time. Pope John Paul II insists on these objective requirements. “In no passage of the Gospel message,” he writes, “does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence toward evil, toward scandals, toward injury or insult. In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness.”
An objection can be raised from the New Testament itself against the doctrine of forgiveness here proposed. Jesus is reported as pleading from the cross for his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Although this verse is lacking in many ancient codices, we may accept it as probably authentic. Since Jesus here speaks of forgiveness, we must assume that he is judging his executioners to be guilty, even though partly excusable. Yet he makes no reference to remorse or reparation as prerequisites. Is it significant that, instead of directly forgiving his enemies, he appeals to the Father to do so? Jesus may well be supposing that the process of forgiveness that he is initiating will not become complete until the malefactors have repented. If so, the text poses no difficulty against the theory of forgiveness for which I am arguing.
Christ passed on to the church the mission to forgive sins in his name. After his resurrection he tells the Apostles: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” (Jn. 20:23). In his final appearance to the Eleven, as recounted by Luke, he sends them forth with the commission “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations” (Lk. 24:47). They are not to proclaim forgiveness to the unrepentant, but are to call their hearers to repentance with a view to the remission of sins.
The church has taken this commission seriously. She understands the forgiveness of sins to be a sacred rite, a sacrament, an encounter with the living Christ, who uses the church as an instrument of reconciliation. As conditions for the worthy reception of the sacrament by the baptized, the church specifies these four: sorrow for past sin, integral confession, a firm purpose of amendment and willingness to make satisfaction. Satisfaction, in the case of injustice toward others, includes restitution. These conditions seem to me to be in perfect accord with the teaching of Jesus as we know it from the Gospels.
Before taking up the social and political aspects of forgiveness, we should consider, even though briefly, the burdens and benefits. Forgiveness is obviously burdensome to the person who forgives, because it involves a renunciation of feelings of resentment, warranted or unwarranted, and of claims to compensation, which is or is thought to be due. It is by no means easy to give up feelings of hostility toward those who have offended us, or to exact less by way of satisfaction than we are entitled to receive.
Forgiveness can also be burdensome to those who receive it. They may find it humiliating to acknowledge their indebtedness, to accept pardon from their former enemies and to be dispensed from the ordinary requirements of just behavior. Perhaps they do not want to enjoy benefits they did not earn. In Paradise Lost Satan positively resists reconciliation. Acknowledging that he has been defeated in battle, he still clings to his hostile passions: “th’unconquerable will and study of revenge, immortal hate, and courage never to submit or yield.” Such dispositions, harbored in the soul, arm it against accepting pardon, even though it be tendered.
The burdens of forgiveness, however, are generally outweighed by its benefits. The recipient is liberated from the hostility of the person offended and from a burden of debt or punishment. According to the type of forgiveness in question, the enemy may be restored to friendship, the guilty to innocence, the debtor to solvency and the prisoner to freedom.
What is less obvious, but no less real, is the benefit accruing to the person who forgives. As Shakespeare profoundly observed in Portia’s famous speech, mercy brings blessings upon “him that gives and him that takes.” The giver is relieved of the burdens of simmering anger and preoccupation with obtaining redress. These benefits, however, are elusive because, as I have said, forgiveness is difficult. An outward profession of forgiveness without sincere good will accomplishes nothing for the person who bestows it. Likewise unavailing is the repression of angry feelings. Driven underground, resentment asserts itself in depression and in psychosomatic illnesses.
Jesus in the Gospels calls for “forgiveness from your heart” (Mt. 18:35). To achieve genuine good will toward those who have hurt us demands great spiritual strength, inner freedom and, in some cases, religious faith. To be able to say in all sincerity to the repentant murderer of a loved one, “I forgive you,” would be almost impossible without religious motivation. But Christians, believing as they do that God sacrificed his own Son to forgive them, sometimes find the strength to say, “I forgive you because I am a Christian.”
Beyond the proximate benefits just mentioned, forgiveness may lead to reconciliation. Where grievances exist on both sides, reconciliation presupposes mutual offerings of pardon mutually accepted. Once reconciled, enemies become friends and fellow members of a new and larger community.
St. Paul sums up the whole mission of Christ under the heading of reconciliation. Through Christ, he says, God “reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). Christ died, he says, in order to reconcile the world to God, “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). Through Christ people who have been divided by enmity receive the hope of being joined in friendship. In asserting this, Paul is thinking especially of the endemic hostility between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14-16).
These reflections of Paul raise our final question. What are the social and political implications of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness? Without prejudice to other religions, which may be able to find motivations for forgiveness in their own traditions, I am convinced that Christianity, put into practice, provides extraordinarily valuable medicine for the conflicts that plague the world today. Clans, nations and ethnic or religious groups are often separated by a deep-seated collective animosity that defies merely juridical, political or military solutions. Vendettas go on from generation to generation, erupting in ever new acts of violence. Recent outbursts of terrorism are glaring evidence of this disease.
A modern secular Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt, recognizes the essential role of forgiveness in enabling societies to overcome the heritage of past injustices. “The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility—of being unable to undo what one has done, though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing—is the faculty of forgiving.” She goes on to say: “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.”
In his message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1 of this year, Pope John Paul II is deeply convinced that societies as well as individuals stand in need of forgiveness:
Families, groups, societies, states and the international community itself need forgiveness in order to renew ties that have been sundered, go beyond sterile situations of mutual condemnation and overcome the temptation to discriminate against others without appeal. The ability to forgive lies at the very basis of the idea of a future society marked by justice and solidarity.
Pope John Paul II emphatically declares in the same message that there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without forgiveness. A politics of forgiveness is both a moral imperative and a practical necessity.
Many books have recently been written on forgiveness in politics and international affairs—the aftermath of the Civil War, the Japanese peace treaty, the “Truth and Reconciliation” process in South Africa and the efforts to end the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Much has been written about tensions between Catholics and Orthodox, between Jews and Arabs, and between Hindus and Muslims. These questions are too complex for adequate treatment here. But all these conflicts would seem to require what the present pope calls the healing of memories. Each party must listen sympathetically to the stories of the other, overcome misunderstandings and exaggerations, recognize its own misdeeds and begin to forge a common fund of shared memories.
The spirit of forgiveness is essential for the preservation of human community, whether in the home, the neighborhood, the nation or the world. It is no less necessary for disposing individual persons to receive forgiveness from God. By itself forgiveness will not solve all personal and social problems, but these problems cannot be solved without it. The strongest motive is the realization of our own great need of forgiveness and of the extremes to which God has gone in order to bring us the forgiveness we need.