Forgiveness is justice for adults

I have a theory about forgiveness. Forgiveness is about hurt management. I have a definition for it: Forgiveness is the ability to renounce the right not to be hurt. This requires some explanation I suppose.

We need to look at forgiveness in a interpersonal context. In other words we will address the forgiveness of mistakes, not crimes. Friends don't turn into villains overnight, they usually just make unintentional mistakes. "Forgiveness of crimes" may not even be the right concept to start with - we cannot address that one without having a serious discussion about justice. It is one bridge too far. Forgiveness has a basis which is not determined by the concept of "justice" as we know it. Because forgiveness is bigger than justice. Justice may just be a property of forgiveness. We will get back to that as well - but let us focus mostly on the concept of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a perplexing phenomenon at times. A declaration I saw on someone's Facebook a while ago: "Forgiveness is a bitch!" - And it was instantly clear what the writer meant. We all know how forgiveness can be a healer, but if she doesn't deliver what she has in store, it can terribly hurt.

When someone makes amends, you might be tempted to believe this person 'deserves' forgiveness, but you can never launch this as a claim. It does not depend on the 'wrondoer' when - if at all - he will be forgiven. At the same time, forgiveness has this amazing promise, to help us overcome mistakes, even "cover" someone's mistake (or, with an old, poetic phrase borrowed from the bible: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow").

We are really facing of one of humanity's deep dilemma's here. We are also getting a glance into the very heart of Christian faith too - although this is not saying forgiveness belongs to Christianity or even 'religion' - but clearly in religion there has been a profound focus on compassion and forgiveness, long before scientists got interested in it. So the least thing we could admit is that religions such as Christianity been like a prism - and of course you had to know how to use the prism. The discoveries themselves though do not belong to religion, they belong to mankind as a whole.

What I want to do here is thinking about forgiveness as in a normal relationship with someone we know, like a friend, a relative. If mercy and forgiveness are seen as gifts of God (the 'theological' implications so to speak), it must also be a gift to all Gods creatures regardless any 'theological interest'. Even Christianity after all is not (supposed to be) theology, it should be a dynamic quest. Christianity should be either a way of understanding humanity (all human beings "creations of God" as a matter of principle) or it will be an exclusive exercise and therefore not capable of framing adequately such ideas like forgiveness. Jesus, apparently, was one of those people in the past who may have seen things more clearly than most others in his lifetime - although he stood in a long tradition of a quest for the spiritual dimension of life.


I'd like to quote something from a conversation with a Christian friend on Myspace years ago. This was written somewhere around March, 2010:

There is a perceived correlation between ... Forgiveness [and] absence of residual hurt and confusion ... [or between] forgiving and forgetting. This is an especially tricky conundrum and has perplexed people of faith and good will, for millennia.

The idea that something can be forgiven does not mean that the act or words are now acceptable or bear repeating. Ultimately, I believe that everything is forgivable. We've often heard that old adage bandied about: "Of course I can forgive but I cannot forget." Well, that is perhaps true. Honest human beings are hard-pressed to will things out of memory. But I believe that we can choose where to place our focus. The question is: is the debt really cancelled? Allow me to explain. The idea is not to say, "This or that did not matter" — when this or that DID matter. Simply assigning a lower significance to the issue, or compartmentalizing and "rising above" the issue — is not forgiveness. So... what or where is the difference?

The difference is that when one says that the "debt" has been cancelled — it is paid in full. It may not be brought up again for re-payment or re-conciliation. That’s what forgiving means. So I, for example, would no longer be able to rehearse a perceived injustice, or nurture the sense of sadness or loss. Likewise, if the debt has not been fully cancelled — then that fact must be acknowledged, up front. Ahhh, but here’s the deal. It’s a contingency plan. If there is any hope of having my own debts forgiven, then I am mandated to do likewise. This is, at once, a huge responsibility and a tremendous freedom. That’s the way I see [these issues] in my life. ... to reconcile what happened and the motivation behind it ... to process the breach of trust and reach equilibrium, as far as understanding what happened. ... The debt has been cancelled. Let us speak of it no more.
Author: Kris A. Soare., AZ.

Now when I turned back to Christianity somewhere around 2005/6, I had a very different approach to my childhood beliefs, much more philosophical and rational. I restated the meaning of Christian faith for myself - but I was missing confirmation that I was on the right road. Reading things like the words I just quoted was very helpful. And yet, reading those considerations, you may feel tempted to ask how forgiveness can succeed under such conditions. Doesn't it feel a bit rigid, when you start thinking of it? If these things are such a "tricky conundrum", how would we ever put them into practice on a regular basis? What about the idea that the debt needs to be "paid in full"? This one seems like a huge show-stopper because it seems to potentially justify stretching out someone's debt almost endlessly - because in such interpersonal cases, it is - apparently - the victim of the mistake who will assess the extent of this debt. This seems very prone to all kinds of very personal, arbitrary ways of forgiving, or what are we to make of it?

What to think of this "contingency plan"? How can we ever trust there will be forgiveness if we make mistakes, if this is to happen under the conditions of a "contingency plan" supervised by the offended person alone? After all, the (unintentional) offender can only sit there and wait. Repeating amends a number of times maybe, but then, you can just sit there and wait. This seems scary - and it really is.

Maybe this explains why in Christianity it seems easier to depend on a mercy the source of which is to be found above, mercy from God? I can certainly see why this idea could be attractive as a theological facilitator for forgiveness. Yet, we cannot circumvent the simple fact that God is not never really supposed to do what human beings are supposed to do. For many of us, this is where it gets really scary, and where we may start mistrusting religion.


From my own experience, I would say human beings are not naturally capable of managing such a contingency plan properly. Granted it sounds like a beautiful concept. But we can plan all that we want - if the conditions in our mind (soul, heart) are not right, the plan won't deliver what it is promising. It will create false hope and maybe a terrible disillusionment.

Think of it: forgiveness essentially means dealing with hurt, with humiliation. It is a very human thing. It sounds great, it sounds fantastic: "Ultimately, I believe that everything is forgivable" - but how long exactly is the road towards this "ultimately"? How exactly will we distinguish between a long deferred forgiveness and wielding a terrible pressure which will, in the end, taste like revenge? The (unintentional) offender can't do anything, he is not in play. To him the "contingency plan" is a sealed book. Of course, under optimal conditions there may be an ongoing discussing - but don't expect "optimal conditions" when someone got hurt, or humiliated. Whatever the plan is, it may often be challenged by conditions much inferior to anything we would qualify as "optimal". It is often like waiting behind closed doors. It can be tough, eventually much tougher, more painful and more humiliating than what it has been for the originally offended person.

You see - in friendly relations you have this odd situation that forgiveness is *expected*, and therefore, lack of forgiveness tends to reverse the play after a while. This is the particular tricky part about forgiveness when no crime, but only a mistake is involved. And it seems to me that many people do not really understand the difference, nor its implications. (Which is why I am addressing it in the first place).

So that's why I think the underlying basis of forgiveness is the ability to renounce the right not to be hurt. It's about hurt management. This is what the contingency plan should be about. But our emotions often sit in the way and we do not play by the normal rules, we don't "manage" things the way wisdom wants us to. Maybe we just aren't enough trained to do it right. Forgiveness is not exactly an educational course. Not yet. But maybe it should.

The definition of "renouncing the right not to be hurt" does not necessarily apply to people who are being mean to us, who have no good intent. It applies to friends, or relatives, or simply "connected people", people who we have agreed to have dealings with on a friendly basis. Such people will make mistakes, unintentionally. Or, even when mistakes happen *intentionally*, yet invoked by some misunderstanding. Temporary hurtful conditions, things that can be solved once we understand why they happened. Whatever it is, the conundrum remains in place: forgiveness offers hope, but may also torment us when it is not being offered.

But here is the point of departure: we somehow need a way to trust that these things can work out well. It is better to hope that something can be forgiven than to believe it won't. Yet, such trust will have to be met with real action at some point. It is like a contract: you trust the commitment to the contract. The "contingency plan" is the unwritten contract. Goodwill is the assumed pretext - we have to "believe in someone's goodwill". When people act like things can be forgiven, and then they don't forgive, we are heading for disaster, pain, destruction - but that doesn't mean it is unfair to expect it. In business dealings too, unwritten contracts and agreements are more frequent than written ones. Even there, we remain human - or we try to.

So from one point of view forgiveness cannot come cheap, but from another point of view, the suggestion that all things can be forgiven is not cheap either. The whole contingency plan is an expensive affair if you look at it this way.


We may wonder why some mistakes have hardly any impact while other seem to be fatal in one way or another. It seems like it all depends on very arbitrary conditions, personal matters, personal interpretation. A mistake is often just that: a mistake. But not being forgiven is not "something that happened" - it generates a certain state of life which doesn't end until someone finds a way to make it end, or manages to live with the problem somehow. So whenever I thought about this problem, I was always reminded of the concept of "original sin". If forgiveness could be offered, but is not being offered, how would we call this? Maybe we could call it a "secondary mistake". But such a secondary mistake may remain invisible - covered by the "original mistake". Isn't this the case in the bible as well? Of course, few Christians would ask why eating the fruits of a wonderful tree would be 'punished' so severely - by throwing Adam & Eve out of the house altogether. A lot of theology has been invested in making the story sound reasonable (I have given such explanations myself, in the past). But still, at some point you wonder why it had to be so harsh. You wonder about it is some sort of essential way, regardless the theological explications in all their colors and shapes.

Forgiveness is an ointment with two sides: inside or outside the bottle. It's great to know there is this bottle with ointment - yet, someone else owns the bottle. The bottle may become the baton that hits you on the head instead. You may very quickly find yourself "at the mercy of the court".

The problem is, we cannot argue that the victim of someone's mistake becomes an "offender" just because forgiveness doesn't come instantly. Such an approach would violate a quintessential notion of forgiveness - especially the fact that forgiveness is more the outcome of love and respect, and not the result of a commandment. You can only ask for forgiveness, and the victim of your mistake will need to be given some room for dealing with what happened. Now in economics of the ancient world, where guilt originated in the form of debt - e.g. debt of a land owner - things could take considerable time: the Code of Hammurabi proposed a maximum of 3 years for lost property to turn back to the original owner. Much less than the Hebrews, who figured it might take 49 years before land had to be returned to its owner. In inter-friendly relationships, debt doesn't take this kind of shape or land mass. It's about less visible and non-official mistakes. We have to react faster. But how fast? There is no written prescription in these cases.

Forgiveness aims at restoring someone's dignity. So you can't just say one "MUST" forgive - we rather speak of mitigation, an effort aming at alleviation, at softening the issue, and then solve it - restore things. The restoration thing is not incidental, it is fundamental. Sometimes things cannot be restored - but in most cases there is always something that can be restored, and most often it is simply the friendship that needs to be restored. It may take some time, but forgiveness makes that aspect of restoration happen. It may take some time and energy. If someone gives up, there is no real forgiveness of course. Forgiveness cannot be just something formal, or administrative. You can't say: "Welcome back, you are forgiven - but get out of my hair now, I can't have you around anymore". No one would believe that to represent forgiveness. The purpose of mitigation is to come to the point of restoration. Mitigation is paving the way. This is how it works. This has been tested millions of times before us.

Still, one one may occasionally (or worse) find himself "at the mercy of the court", and the court pleading guilty "with malice aforethought", in spite of the accused "knowing" this is not true. This "knowing" may need to be tested internally though - as a personal exercise if we are not deceiving ourselves. Yet, if the plea is guilty, it will be haunting us. In this sense, the promise of forgiveness may feel like a poisoned promise, unfortunately. There is no way to get there unless both wrongdoer and victim work on it, together, until they get there. And it is not about having the same relationship as before. It's about getting to the point that we know forgiveness has been applied. The evildoer is the one who has to be convinced. He is the one in need, because he carries the guilt. That's how it works.


Ultimately things often boil down to the question of justice - or let's say "judgment". Not our mistakes but our judgment is what we need to come to terms with here. Among the lesson we learned from the past is the idea that mistakes are not supposed to place anyone outside the realm of mercy.

Justice, generally speaking, can be seen as a property of something bigger: mercy and forgiveness. It does not mean that mercy annihilates justice. It means that justice is not the purpose, but a means towards an end, and the ultimate "best ending" is restoration - as far as possible (and not beyond the human capacity to restore, and to forgive, for that matter).

So when we talk about normal human relations and the occurrence of mistakes in such relations, we could say that forgiveness is justice for adults. Justice the way adults do it. I see justice as a property of forgiveness, because forgiveness is bigger - it offers tools that are bigger than the tools used in the justice department. That's why there is a debate ab out restorative justice, as opposed to retributive justice. Justice should have positive goals, education, etc. - but in essence, those are not in our law books, our jurisdiction. They are "beyond law". When I talked about this with a friend, she rephrased for me as follows: "Perhaps forgiveness is a more sophisticated form of justice". That was a nice formulation.

In a way, we could say that mercy is distance to justice. Forgiveness is distance to justice. A merciful attitude is an attitude that doesn't seek justice in the first place, when things happened to go wrong and no one really intended to hurt anyone.

No matter how we frame it or vary our formulations, the overall point here is a reduction of pain in our world, in our social relations. The very thing that made me write about this is a long period of pain. Sometimes we lose things, and even people, in ways that seem irreparable but that shouldn't have happened that way at all.

Cathleen Falsani expressed it as follows: "Grace makes no sense to our human minds. We seem so hardwired to seek justice, or our limited idea of what that means, and occasionally dole out mercy". Sure we have to admit the necessity of justice being applied to certain conditions - but we cannot see it as a "solution for mistakes". We need to understand that while justice in itself is a necessary tool to make societies viable, it is not what makes human relations thrive - and certainly not what makes friendships thrive. The best contingency plan in human relations would be - or at least contain - a "mercy plan". Because no one is equivalent to his/her mistake(s).


Religion introduced, as it were, the notion of a "third party" that can act as an arbitrator. This may make some sense also from a psychological point of view, but for a non-religious person the role of a "third party" or invisible arbitrator may not be god but rather something like "common sense", something that we all share and which is even for that reason alone bigger than us. In case that a crime was committed, this arbitrator is the judge. In interpersonal relationships, the arbitrator is often our common sense. With or without god, the belief in "common sense" means to trust that both the perpetrator of a mistake and the victim are subject to a higher plan: making common sense. You can call in god if you want, but ultimately the test is about our "humanism", so to speak.

So we could say forgiveness requires some kind of faith. It's like saying: "To give is to receive". It may sound counter-intuitive in Western society, yet this can be tested. I know, and you probably do too, that even while we may not feel like being loved, we may nevertheless give love to others. The same thing is true for forgiveness. You can believe in those things once you experienced the possibility. Obviously we have this potential in us. And no doubt societal life may benefit from it, if we have the "faith" to live (at least partially) by such rules.

I for my part, I "believe in it" - even now that I turned atheist (or humanist, if you prefer - I don't mind the labels). In fact, being atheist is a state of mind I never wanted to adopt. To me, being atheist feels a lot like being unforgiven. They are not the same thing, but in my case they were clearly very closely connected. Is it a surprise? Isn't there a rather thin line between being "ungodly" and being "unforgiven"? It is for my own safety that I admitted to live my life unforgiven and atheist. If I would claim to be forgiven I would feel like a hypocrite (I will cover this subject in another post - about "self-forgiveness" and why I don't believe in it, but trust me: forgiveness is by design meant to receive from someone else than you). So the point is simple: I found myself, religion-wise, standing with both feet on my "ground zero". Call it realism. I could only accept my position - regardless the pain of standing there (if pain is realistic, then realism means you need to somehow deal with the pain). Whether you talk about being unforgiven or about being atheist - at some point these things are very, very similar - at least they were for me: it simply meant that God had become distant. Without forgiveness god was an empty concept. Loss of faith in forgiveness and loss of faith in god were one and the same thing.

It is very much like losing your mother, I guess. It's like losing something so essential that the only thing you can do is to accept. Some things are so painful you can't even weep or whine about it (although I must admit I have been crying about it a couple of times - but most of the time I did not and could not).

Yet, it is in this god-less state that I increasingly felt like I needed to have faith" in forgiveness - which I saw as a logical thing to do (think Golden Rule logic) but it also made me feel some relief by doing so to others. Yet god didn't make his comeback because of my newfound "faith". Maybe He didn't because He thought it was "fake faith", right? But it was all I had, and much better than having nothing, or a God who never answered any prayer for restoration of my soul. It simply turned out anyone can do forgiveness, if just you decide so, if you can see why it is the right thing to do. Maybe the right way to see it is that I became truly "humanist" some time after I became atheist. Mind you, I'm not saying one can't become a humanist after becoming a Christian, or Muslim, etc. - Who am I to design the way for human beings to grow? But I'm sure something like forgiveness does not depend on god.

And because forgiveness was probably the only real function I saw for Christianity - Christianity lost much of its appeal to me. This is what happened, as far as I understand. I didn't "hate god", I just felt like god had no dealings with me anymore whatsoever.

Being unforgiven made me feel sick for several years, maybe depressed. And while prayers for restoration never brought me any relief (let alone response), my decision to be a forgiver did effectively bring me at least *some* relief. And, oh gosh, god knows how much I preferred this relief above the kind of "relief" I've often seen happening on the Facebook walls of other "atheists" - the endless streams of derisive posters and one-liners that are so testifying of a frustration only comparable to the frustration of a headless chicken. No, this was real relief. No hatred, no binary mind, no conflict-based attitude, just acceptance of a hard fact and then seeking for a positive way to deal with the pain. Those may be atheist attributes that aren't common among atheist communities in general, but to me this is what I am. I suppose I could have lost all faith in god and still being the "agnostic Christian" I once was - but it just didn't happen this way.

Anyway, from my point of view, the way I try to live is not a matter of blind faith, it's a reasoned choice. But maybe that's what faith is after all. Even if it is "fake faith" from a certain perspective, to me it is the only thing I have and it doesn't feel like fake. Or, maybe I should say, more correctly: when someone feels like fake, but fake is the only thing you know, then those labels don't mean a lot. It is the only faith I have, so I work with what I have.

A friend of mine used to say: "fake it until you make it". And I guess indeed that I belong to those who, when faced with something beautiful but (almost) unreachable, I will, in the meantime, "fake until I make" it. Eventually I will even fake it even while I don't think I will ever make it - because I have this sneaking suspicion that some things can only happen when someone starts believing in it. But then, again: a reasoned belief - not some fluffy pink cloud kind of belief, that never works for me anyway. To "fake something" is not necessarily hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is when you fake things with false pretensions. What I'm talking about is faking something without any pretensions at all. This is about trying to follow good advice. Advice that the ancients have been delegating to us in the past.

My best friend used to say, many, many times: "Choose love". Today I would add: for God's sake let it be inclusive, not exclusive love. Ultimately it is a matter of having faith in life as a whole - connected life - and also contributing to make it more and more credible, so more people start to have faith in such a big thing like forgiveness. It only works if you start doing it. A "fan base" of forgivers has to be established - if 30 or 40 percent of us would become real forgivers, the world might perhaps slowly but finally REALLY begin to change for the better.

And we need to get there, together. Because behind the eyes, We are all the same.

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