John Coleman on PBS's 'Forgiveness'

Our editor Drew Christiansen, S.J., alerted me to the documentary "Forgiveness," a beautiful two-part series that aired on PBS over the last two Sundays (but which will also be repeated: check local listings).  So I asked John Coleman, Jesuit sociologist, to review what he is calling a "rich and poignant documentary" of "stunning genius."  At the end of his piece he writes, "I will watch and re-watch this thoughtful and deep documentary, which raises new questions about a primordial human ache."  So don't miss it.  (A part of the doc is available online for viewing here.)  Here's Fr. Coleman's review:

When I mentioned to a Belgian Jesuit theologian visiting me during Holy Week that I intended to write a review of the PBS series, “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate,” he issued a stern warning: “Don’t be like so many religious voices who urge reconciliation at the drop of a hat, often enough before they have even acknowledged any real and painful conflict!” 


Forgiveness lies at the heart of almost all of the world religions and is central to Christianity, with its vivid remembrance of Jesus’ haunting cry from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Yet the seminal idea and practice of forgiveness has taken on a new and expanded importance in psychology and therapeutic programs. I found online a list of 26 such secular programs to understand and inculcate forgiveness, among them theForgiveness Project at Stanford University, sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. New research findings, for example, show that cancer patients are more likely to recover if they engage in forgiveness.

But this new penchant for a secular form of forgiveness carries some serious dangers as well as promise. There is no secular (or, perhaps, even religious) consensus on what forgiveness means, what its roots are, and when it can become a kind of cheap grace, too readily and facilely asked for and dispensed. The PBS documentary, produced by Helen Whitney for WETA in Washington, examines a TV reality show,” Forgive or Forget,” crassly displaying to a gawking public, under pressure of the cameras, what more properly belongs to the realm of intimate relations.

The stunning genius of this rich and poignant documentary is its careful probing, through narratives, of the limits, possibilities and reality of forgiveness. One segment recounts the horrific 2006 murder of ten young girls at an Amish school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania by a man, Charles Roberts, angry at God and deranged. The Amish offered almost instant forgiveness, embraced his wife, raised funds for her and her fatherless children. Admirable as such unconditional forgiveness seems, there is evidence that it may have foreclosed a necessary trajectory of grieving, which allows for anger along the sequence of learning to forgive and letting go.

Read the rest here.

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Carolyn Disco
7 years 11 months ago
This is a very important thread, and I look forward to watching the series and rereading Fr. Coleman's article. So much to ponder, prayerfully.

Allen Dulles had an article in America in October 2002, that may be helpful. ''When to Forgive''

“The idea that Christianity enthrones forgiveness in place of justice and teaches universal forgiveness is a gross misunderstanding…
''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…

Katherine Nielsen
7 years 11 months ago
I hope to watch the series; this is a timely discussion. 
I appreciate Greg Popcak's distinction of forgiveness and reconcilliation.
I have been thinking a lot lately about where both of these things fit into the abuse scandals.
How are we as a Christian community called to deal with the aftermath of these awful circumstances?
There have been monetary settlements by dioceses and religious orders. But it occurs to me that there should be an opportunity for some type of personal restitution on the part of perpetrators, if they are still alive and are willing. It would be more of a token, because of course it is impossible to restore what they took. But can we really heal the Church if there isn't some attempt to include the perpetrators in that healing? By this I don't mean they should ever again be given the opportunity to harm others.
I  remember reading in one of Corrie Ten Boom's books about how she ministered to former Nazi prison camp guards. She never excused what they had done, but felt called by Christ to reach out to them.
7 years 11 months ago
Thank you Fr. Jim for bringing our attention to this wonderful PBS program and thank you Fr. Coleman for your review.  The subjects of forgiveness and reconciliation are always extremely important and take on even more importance during our Holy Week prayers and celebrations of the Resurrection.  About 10 yrs ago or so I heard Fr. Robert Schreiter speak and I have read two of his books, both of which I heartily recommend. Fr. Schreiter is internationally recognized for his work in both individual and national reconciliation.  The books are:  ""The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies", 1998, Orbis.  and "Reconciliation:  Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order".

Fr. Shreiter initially found his insights for his thoughts and works from St. Paul:  2Corinthians 5:17-21.  He states that God leads the reconciliation process, not us.  We participate in God's process.  God begins with the victim helping the victim heal from whatever wrong has been done to them.  The victims have to want to be healed. 

His definition of individual reconciliation:  when the harm has been done to an individual, God restores the humanity of the victim that has been taken away from them in the act of wrongdoing.  It is because the victim heals that the victim is in a position to create the space that makes it possible -if it is possible, for the wrong-doer to repent.

Fr. Schreiter has a section on "forgiving and forgetting"  Nowhere in the Bible is the idea of forgetting.  To forget trivializes the harm done to the victimand it should not be recommended.

When one gets older the need for forgiving and being forgiven becomes paramount.  I find Fr. Schreiter's ideas to be very helpful to me in this endeavor.  I'm looking forward to the PBS program. Thank you.
7 years 11 months ago
Fr. Coleman: "It (forgiveness) is never just a fiat."

Were we not commanded by Christ to forgive and love our enemies?

We have free will and it is a very difficult thing to do; however, it certainly was a command.

We must have lost our way here due to ideology...the liberal use of victimhood and revenge for social/political power (from Marx to current forms of identity politics) and has certainly replaced the scapegoating process of old that Christ destroyed.

Did Jesus preach a settling of the books and earthly justice or did he preach a radically new way?

"If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic."

This is not seeking "justice" - this is a pronouncement of the Kingdom of God and displays complete faith in the Father to deal with evil men and their punishment.  This witness/revelation is directly opposed to the modern liberal and "conservative" faith in a political power and "isms" (socialism, materialism, scientism, libertarianism, liberation theology etc. etc.) to attain justice in this world through the creation of equitable human systems.

Eugene Palumbo
7 years 11 months ago
For another look at the question of forgiveness, see Tina Rosenberg’s outstanding article, in the N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine, about Salvadorans who were victims of human rights abuses during the civil war there.  See, in particular, the final section of the article.
7 years 11 months ago
Fr. Keane,  You have given us an inspiring example of the thought of Fr. Schreiter.  During Holy Week I began re-reading his book and I'm glad that you, too have found geat value in them. 
There is an excellent essay in the May 2011 issue of "First Things":  "The Moral Economy of Guilt" by Wilfred M. McClay.  He discusses the various ways that forgiveness is now understood, beginning with the influence of Freud.  In his therapy Freud refrained from giving any judgment as to whether the guilty feelings of the superegos had any moral justification.  This non-judgmental therapeutic worldview can be seen in our modern American way of understanding forgiveness.  Forgiveness is all about the forgiver and his/her well-being.  Rather, forgiveness makes sense only in the presence of a robust sense of justice.  To forgive means suspending all the just and legitimate claims we have against the other, in the  name of the higher ground of divine love and human solidarity.  Regarding Christianity, the author states that forgiveness has an enormously high standng in the Christian faith; grounded in fundamental theological and metaphysical beliefs about the person and work of Christ which are in turn traceable to Jewish notions of sin and how one pays for it.

I've given a rather shabby, very partial summary of the essay and urge commentators to read the whole thing.
Bret:  Mr. McClay refers to the works of Rene Girard on scapegoating.  BTW, Gil Bailie is working on another book!  I'm a novice at understanding their ideas but find them fascinating and readily adaptible to our society. 

7 years 11 months ago
Hi Brett!

I'm glad to find another admirer of Rene Girard and Gil Bailie!  I'm a big fan of Gil for more than one reason.  He and a dear friend of mine were recently married and are happily living in my home city.  It is a joy to be with them.  I had attended his series of talks a few years ago and am a small contributor to the Cornerstone Forum.  I hope you keep writing comments as you bring a breath of fresh air to "America"s blogs!
Gregory Popcak
7 years 11 months ago
This is an incredibly important topic.  I try to remind my clients that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things.  Forgiveness, according to Augustine, is the surrendering of our natural desire for revenge.  In other words, you can say you've forgiven someone right about the same time you stop wanting them to be run over by a bus-or run them over-(metaphorically speaking) for having hurt you. In this sense, forgiveness is really more a gift one gives oneself and we can extend whether they other has asked for it or deserves it.

Reconciliation, on the other hand is the "tranquility that results from right order" (again, Augustine).  Normal processes of reconciliation require that the transgressor pay the debt that is owed to the injured party.   It is possible to forgive someone completely but to not be able to fully reconcile because the trangressor has refused to engage in the reconciliation process, show remorse or make appropriate restitution (practically or emotionally speaking).

Of course, there's a little more to it than that, but I've found this distinction to be incredibly liberating to people who struggle with what it means to really forgive, and reconcile with, someone who has hurt them.
7 years 11 months ago
David, #7 and #11,

You make a good point that one should first define what they mean by forgiveness.  It is a wide-ranging concept, as you said.  I like your definition that doesn't ascribe blame but looks at the relief of pain of the individuals.  I really didn't do justice( pun intended) to the essay in "First Things".  He also talks about empathy, scapegoating and more.  Have you read that magazine?  A philospher like you might enjoy it!  Your comments are always interesting and thought-provoking and I would guess that you are a person of compassion and empathy.
7 years 11 months ago
Hey Janice, thanks for the link to the article in FT!

I love Girard and have all his books but am also just a novice ;)

BTW, Gil has an active blog with lots of audio for his cornerstone forum:


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