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Must We Forgive?

Why granting instant absolution to murderers isn’t for everybody

By Cal Sr from Newport, NC, US
Source: By Cal Sr from Newport, NC, US

Virtually every time there is a horrific massacre of the innocent—the Columbine students, the Amish schoolchildren, the Colorado moviegoers, and, now, the congregants of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston—I refuse to give their murderers the notoriety they crave by repeating their names, and I wish the media would minimize coverage for the same reason—the devastating scenario is the same: the heart-wrenching announcements of forgiving the killers by the victims’ loved ones, the passionate testimonials, including in one case displaying a huge sign the morning after that said “We Forgive You, [name omitted].” These responses always make news; the extraordinary statements of faith and forgiveness by the bereaved worshippers in Charleston were commemorated recently by a banner headline across the top of the front page of The New York Times: ‘I Will Never be Able to Hold Her Again, But I Forgive You.’

I am not questioning the sincerity or the power of the declarations by any of these bereaved sufferers; no one could fail to be moved by the enormity of their losses and the moral courage and grace with which they behaved. I hope that they find consolation and purpose by speaking and acting as they did. But I don’t think what worked for them works for everybody, nor that forgiveness, whether immediate or not, is the only humane and healing response to vicious crimes and acts of terrorism. Surely I am not the only one made uncomfortable by the virtually universal assumption that only those who forgive, either publicily or privately, especially instantaneously and categorically—are worthy of admiration and emulation? Must we idealize this action as the best, most enlightened response it is possible to have to terrible acts of violence, and feel inferior or morally bankrupt if we ourselves fall short of achieving it or, even worse, refuse to do it?

I do not repudiate forgiveness. In my book, Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better NOT to Forgive, I argue that the capacity to grant it is essential to wisdom and maturity. Forgiving can bring peace, if not always equilibrium, after violent crimes as well as crimes of the heart. But I question the imperative to grant it, especially the automatic, instantaneous kind that is so often idealized. As a psychologist, I believe that forgiving is a process that takes time, not a declaration or an immediate fait accompli. Like love, it cannot be willed, only invited. Sometimes it is impossible, or even inadvisable; for example, I did not advise a patient of mine who was the victim of repeated incest to forgive the perpetrator, even though he was her father. To do so would have been, to her mind and mine, masochistic. There is a Talmudic saying that “He who is merciful to the cruel is cruel to the merciful.”

The automatic absolution in Charleston that moved the world, as authentic as it is, comes from religious conviction. It is based on the belief that since we are all sinners, in order to be forgiven by God for our own sins we must extend forgiveness to others, regardless of what crimes they have perpetrated and how many lives they have destroyed by hatred. Even those of us without religious faith or belief in Christian theology (the need to emulate Jesus in our own lives) tend to think of forgiveness as the only antidote to corrosive, lifelong, soul-destroying hatred and desire for vengeance, the only way to assuage these terrible feelings.

It is telling that we don’t even have a word for healthy non-forgiveness. It exists, nonetheless, though it is rarely reported and, I’m afraid, rarely advocated by therapists, who have mostly bought into the quasi-religious model as the only way to go; I call them “the forgiveness lobby,” and they act and talk like true believers. If you don’t forgive, they say, you are condemned to bitterness, despair and misery for the rest of your life. This can be a burden to those who have already suffered, adding guilt to their pain.

Don’t we all know people—people who have rich emotional lives, who can love and forgive, who cannot or choose not to forgive particular heinous acts or persons? I shall never forgive Osama bin Laden, and my refusal to do so has not warped me; in fact, it is integral to my sense of morality. Not to forgive does not necessarily condemn you to a life of thirsting for revenge; there are many ways to come to terms without having to love our enemies or grant mercy to murderers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for crimes against humanity.