Forgiveness as Mental Health Exercise
Two “forgiveness” pieces came across my screens today. One a link from Donald Miller, the other a daily message (12/15/13) from The Listserve. Both make a pragmatic appeal to the audience to practice forgiveness for their own well-being. You should forgive because holding grudges is pointless and forgiving will make you happier.
The appeal is of course true and not necessarily bad advice. Many grudges are held over petty items of the distorted, bloated self. Such things should be let go quickly.
It does however, reveal a contemporary habit for coping with the cruelties of life with detachment. The wrong that has been done it is imagined can and should be overlooked exhorting the self to apply the will to force the emotions to let go of the grudge leaving the emotions free to be happy once more.
Detachment at Strategy in a World of Pain and Pluralism
Detachment is a popular strategy today for dealing with all sorts of pain. It is an ago old strategy for dealing with pain found in ancient philosophies of Buddhism, Hinduism, Gnosticism and Stoicism.
Religious pluralism also tends to invite us to swap religious connections and motivations for generic ones. To say “Jesus commands you to forgive in Matt 18:21-35” sounds sectarian and exclusivist but to say “Forgiveness will make you happier” sounds more broad and accessible. Surely we can all agree on detached notions of joy, gratitude, forgiveness, grace, generosity making the religious particulars of them better left unsaid, or perhaps applied as desired by other in their own minds.
The Economy of Outrage
This all sounds like a nice strategy for making society a more civil, harmonious place if we forget another strategy that we employ for world betterment, the economy of outrage.
“Where is the outrage?” is the battle cry presented for a host of wrongs that we find from discrimination to hunger to war atrocities to indifference to the suffering of others. The way to marshal the people of the world to force the powerful to address wrongdoing is to generate public disgust and protest.
This manifests itself in the political sphere where you should never let a possible outrage worthy mis-step or decision by your political opponent go un-publicized. Find the most incriminating angle on your adversary and sell it hard.
In the outrage economy forgiveness itself is the enemy. Forgiveness allows evil doers to get away with wrongs. “The only think necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing (or to stay silent)” as the quote and all of its variants assert.
The economy of outrage exiles forgiveness to the private sphere where we keep religion and almost nothing else.
What Forgiveness Requires
Daniel Hough whose Listserve message talked about forgiveness asserted “Most grievances are based on accidents or misunderstandings that got out of hand.”
This is a telling comment. The comment betrays the author’s location in the controlled, affluent West. How do you confront wrong and evil that is far beyond accident or misunderstanding that got out of hand? Blessed are us who have few of these things to forgive, but humanity’s story on earth is full of them.
It seems to me that forgiveness always requires two things: An ability to release the guilty from their debt, and an optimistic and well founded faith in future goodness.
For slights and misunderstandings the debt is small and can be mentally released, but for the consequential matters of history the toll is not so easily dismissed. Such forgiveness requires more than just a desire to be free of the mental toll of hanging onto a debt, especially if that debt itself is the cause for deep loss and suffering.
One of the best stories of forgiveness I’ve come across this year was from Radiolab’s “Dear Hector” The story is stripped of religious content but not too much scratching will reveal that Hector Black was a deeply religious man and his religion is what can account for this amazing story of forgiveness.
Christianity does not say “what humanity has done to itself and the world is a small thing, and God is nice so he simply says “oh don’t bother about the bloodshed, genocide and environmental degradation, it was nothing.” God expends himself in the most costly way so that the guilty can be forgiven.
The second thing forgiveness requires is a belief that the future is both good and secure.
The reason politicians can’t let go of the outrage economy is because their future is uncertain. If their competitor wins they may disappear so they can afford no forgiveness. They must press every advantage they have to destroy the reputation of their opponent and outrage them into extinction.
You can forgive IF you believe that your future isn’t threatened by the evil of your adversary. You can extend generosity to your enemy IF your enemy finally doesn’t hold your future.
For Christians just as God expends himself for the guilty in the sacrifice of Jesus, so also the future is secured by Jesus’ resurrection. Death is usually the final way enemies triumph, but if Jesus beat death then all enemies that employ death are finally powerless.
Forgiveness for Bloated Selves
We have many forgiveness problems because our selves have poor boundaries and flimsy identities constructed by impressions given by the stuff around us. We look to a myriad of contributors under the sun with which to paste together an identity. Parents, lovers, jobs, hobbies, images from popular media, etc. All such contributions are subject to the slightest wrongs which will need to be addressed by forgiveness.
Christianity offers the possibility of a received identity from a divine identity giver who has power and riches to both afford payment to offset great wrongs and insure a good future. It’s not close to a fair comparison.