Forgiveness – A Radical Option for Healthy Living

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 64, Lent 2013

Jim Consedine

In many respects forgiveness is probably the most difficult virtue to practise. Yet it remains central to any lasting healing process, personal or collective, though its importance is often underrated and unspoken. On the surface it sometimes seems an unfair thing to attempt, given the pain caused by an injustice. But practising forgiveness is a foundation stone for healthy living. It is the step we need to take to be free of the ongoing negative effects of past injustice. It has unique transformative qualities.

To decide to forgive is to create a future free from control by the past. It doesn’t mean forgetting. It means remembering the past in a different way, leaving one free to develop the future. One is re-empowered, not controlled by events from the past.

For many, forgiveness essentially comes from God and is a divine gift. Specifically for the Christian, it flows from an understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ. But, regardless of religious views, forgiveness is among the most healthy mature things we can do as human beings and is a derivative of love. It can be freely offered or sought, given or refused. Forgiveness is a central part of holistic healing and at some time needs to form part of the journey for any party seeking to be fully restored from pain, loss or hurt.

The Essential Forgiveness

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa during the late 1990s through which a whole nation came to grips with its criminal past, heard literally thousands of testimonies from victims and offenders during the four years of the commission. He speaks eloquently and passionately about forgiveness as an essential component of healing. He says it is never a simple or an easy option. Grace is always involved.

‘I have been bowled over by the incredible humility one has experienced from the victims, both black and white, who have suffered as much as they have. By rights they should have been hate-ridden by lust for revenge. They have exhilarated me by how ready they are to forgive. I have come to see that. Yes, of course you have an acknowledgment by the wrong doer that they have done something that was very wrong, that they owe to us confession so that the victim, the survivor be enabled to forgive. But I have come to believe fervently that forgiveness is not just a spiritual and ethereal thing unrelated to the real world, the harsh world out there. I have come to believe very fervently that without forgiveness, there is no future.’

He points out that to forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. These emotions are all part of being human. As he says, ‘When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person – a better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you into a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it within yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on and even help the perpetrator become a better person too.’

Tutu goes on to say that ‘forgiveness is the capacity to make a fresh start. That is the power, the rational of confession and forgiveness. And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, to get up with dignity and begin anew. Not to forgive leads to bitterness and hatred, which just like self-hatred and self-contempt gnaws away at the vitals of one’s being. Whether hatred is projected out or projected in, it is always corrosive of the human spirit.’i

No Cheap Grace

Drawing on personal experience, Fr Michael Lapsley SSF, NZ-born Anglican priest, who was the subject of an apartheid security branch bomb and lost both hands, an eye and suffered lifelong internal injuries, writes with insight on forgiveness. He stresses reparation/restitution where appropriate as an essential component. In a recent interview in Auckland, he uses a metaphor to contrast what he calls ‘bicycle theology’ with real forgiveness.

He explains. ‘I steal your bicycle. Then six months later I say, ‘I am very sorry for stealing your bicycle. Please forgive me.’ Being a good person you say, ‘Yes, I forgive you.’ But the bike is not returned. In this case, with no attempt at restitution, is forgiveness complete?’

‘Some speak of forgiveness as if it were something glib, easy and cheap. Whereas, the real thing is costly and painful. It is something that where possible must involve making reparation. The story of Zaccheus, the corrupt tax collector, is the scriptural counter to bicycle theology. When he met Jesus, he had a conversion experience. Zaccheus promised to repay with four times the amount all he had cheated from the people. In other words, he is moved to a spirit of generosity of heart. That is a sign of biblical restitution.’

The person who assembled Fr Michael’s letter bomb has not acknowledged his crime. Michael holds the key to that person’s freedom from guilt. But since the person has not taken responsibility for his/her action, Michael says he is in no position to forgive. ‘Forgiveness is an I–Thou process. At this time there is no Thou. Therefore I cannot unlock the door which would free this person. Forgiveness is not an abstract transaction. I am not full of hatred. I am not bitter. I do not want revenge. But I need to know the person is not still making letter bombs! And I would need to know that the person had had a genuine change of heart.’

‘I believe in the justice of restoration, restorative justice, 100 times more than in the justice of punishment. Maybe I’d sit with the person and drink tea and say, ‘I have forgiven you – but I still have no hands, only one eye, damaged eardrums, and I’ll need some ongoing help.’ That is not a condition of forgiveness. It is reparation, restitution. It is part of returning the bike.’ii
Restorative justice advocate Howard Zehr points out that the victim’s forgiveness is a letting go of the power that the offence and the offender have over him, while not condoning or excusing that person. It means no longer letting the offence and the offender dominate. ‘Without the experience of forgiveness, without this closure, the wound festers and takes over our lives. It, and the offender, are in control. To forgive a person is to let go. It is to say that I will not define myself by your actions towards me. I will not allow you to have any power over me. Real forgiveness allows one to move from victim to survivor.’iii

Conclusion

Forgiveness then is the process of the victim letting go of the rage and pain of an injustice so he or she can resume living freed from the power of the violation. Though public perception is the exact opposite, the truth is that the primary beneficiary of forgiveness is the person who forgives.

Forgiveness may take time, it may not come easily, it may involve a lengthy struggle. It is often not simply a one-off effort. Because it involves change in relationship, it needs to be worked at to achieve its completeness.

The alternative is often bleak – a vengeful poisoned nature, filled with anger and self-pity, stuck in a time warp of hurt and pain, unable or unwilling to move on. Forgiveness forms the soul of a healthy family and community life. As Desmond Tutu rightly says, ‘without forgiveness, there is no future’.

An earlier form of this article appeared in The Common Good, Advent 2007.

i Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, Rider Books, London, 1999

ii Anglican Taonga, Advent 2012

iii Howard Zehr, Changing Lenses, Herald Press, Scottdale, 1990

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