Abstract and Keywords
The previous chapters have offered a comprehensive analysis of forgiveness that provides a religious framework on its related issues. This chapter summarizes the message that the book advocates. Choosing between forgiveness and vindictiveness is not a choice between reason and compulsion. Hasty forgiveness may sometimes entail danger both on the victim and the wrongdoer. Though the virtue of forgiveness should be highly regarded, we should also acknowledge that victims deserve to have their vindictive passions valued as well rather than judging and giving sermons to them.
[Those who] preach “cheap grace”…fail to see what it means for the gospel to call men and women to the cross, to intensify their darkness before driving it away.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
As this book has progressed, it has—like my own life—moved with increasing sympathy toward forgiveness and toward a religious framework for thinking about forgiveness and related issues.
Even at my most sympathetic attachment to forgiveness, however, I have tried to retain a sense of the legitimacy of resentment and other vindictive passions. They are deeply encoded and—within limits—highly useful passions, for they can be instruments of our self-defense, our self-respect, and our respect for the demands of morality.
Because of the value of the vindictive passions, their overcoming in forgiveness must be seen as a risky business. For in hasty forgiveness we risk weakening or even losing some of our strategies of defense. We also risk supporting a morally flabby worldview wherein wrongdoing is not taken seriously and in which wrongdoers are given insufficient incentives to repent, atone, and repair.
Of course, even the most sympathetic writings on forgiveness tend to recognize that forgiveness is hard—a difficult thing to accomplish. They see this difficulty mainly in psychological terms, however—that is, the difficulty always present when one attempts to control strong passions. In this way the difficulty of forgiving is seen as on a par with the difficulty of controlling a bad temper, controlling compulsive behavior, or controlling such evil passions as malice or racial hatred.
In contrast to this, I tend to see the difficulty more in moral terms—the difficulty of knowing how far one can go in the direction of forgiveness without compromising values of genuine importance.
(p.116) In this way, the difficulty bears some analogy to Luther's famous remark “Here I stand. I can do no other.” In making this claim, Luther was surely not saying that he was finding himself physically or psychologically compelled to do what he did. (He was not suggesting that his foot was nailed to the floor or that he had a strange psychological compulsion to post notices on doors.) Rather he was saying that, given his own weighing of competing values, his moral and religious sense forced him to conclude that the course of action he was taking was morally and religiously required of him. And in making that choice, he surely felt that something of value was being left behind. This is why he struggled and saw his choice as in many ways a dilemma.
So, too, with forgiveness. One who adopts this as a strategy sets sail on a risky sea—seeming less risky, no doubt, if one believes that the universe and one's own value are sustained by a loving God, but risky none the less. This is because the choice between genuine values, unlike the choice between clear goodness and clear evil or the choice between reason and compulsion, opens the door to the possibility of serious and perhaps even irrevocable mistakes.
A main part of the message of this book has been that the choice between forgiveness and vindictiveness is not a choice between reason and compulsion. Those who see the choice in these ways miss, in my view, not only the dangers of forgiveness (the dangers of vindictiveness are obvious) but also the nature of the struggle to attain forgiveness. They thereby distort and cheapen the value of what has been attained.
It has also been my concern in this book to argue that muddled sentimental thinking about forgiveness can have serious consequences in such otherwise diverse areas as criminal law and psychotherapy.
In the area of criminal law, hasty sermons about love and forgiveness can make us lose sight of the genuine values served by systems of punishment. These values include not merely the obvious values of protection against crime but also the value of treating most (but of course not all) wrongdoers with the dignity that attaches to their being viewed as responsible agents who deserve the moral compliment of being resented and even punished. I certainly want my own wrongdoing to be viewed in this way and would feel insulted and degraded if others viewed me merely as pitiful, sick, and myself as much a victim as those whom I have wronged. Do I not thus owe other wrongdoers at least the initial presumption that they, too, are legitimate objects of blame, resentment, and punishment?
In the realm of psychotherapy, hasty and uncritical leaps to forgiveness may cause some people (victims of abuse for example) to let down (p.117) their guards and open themselves to further abuse—to accept as necessary a victim status that they ought instead to resist both emotionally and behaviorally. To the degree that resentment and other vindictive passions are a part of such a strategy of resistance, then—unless they run to excess—these passions should be welcomed.
In summary, I think that the main message of this book has been this: Even as we rightly preach the virtues of forgiveness, we should recognize that victims deserve to have their vindictive passions respected and to some degree validated. Even if these passions should not be the last word, they have a legitimate claim to be the first word. Even when they should not control, they should be listened to with respect instead of met with pious sermons and sentimental, dismissive clichés.
We may grant that the vindictive passions represent a darkness within us that we hope ultimately to drive away. This darkness sometimes gives a bit of initial relief, however, as it partially shields us from the painfully intrusive light cast into our souls when we are deeply wronged by our fellow human beings—a light that shatters our innocence by illuminating our fragility, our vulnerability, our openness to suffering and betrayal. (p.118)