Awhile ago, I talked a bit about gifts and giving, and the concept of generosity, i.e. giving without expectation of receiving a gift in return.
Lately, a very specific form of generosity keeps popping up in my newsfeed — forgiveness. Whether it’s some state politicians who wore blackface, an actor who confesses to racist thoughts, or the latest wan apology from a man who seems to have trouble respecting women’s boundaries, there is always that very helpful soul who pleads for forgiveness for the person. The conduct was so long ago, they say. He seems truly sorry, they say. What he did wasn’t considered wrong at the time he did it, they say. Can’t we do the compassionate thing here and FORGIVE this person?
The suggestion is made, of course, because people want to put and end to the discussion of the incident. With so much going on right now, the thinking goes, it seems a little extra to get all indignant over something that is so clearly in the past. After all, most of us if we put our past under a microscope would find things that we would not be proud of, and we would want the same forgiveness for ourselves. We should give what we expect to receive, shouldn’t we?
Let me start with a caveat. Forgiveness is a separate issue from legal culpability. It is a matter of the soul, not of the law. We have a legal system that works out matters of legal culpability, but legality and morality are two different things. There are plenty of issues that are important to the soul for which the law cannot provide redress or counsel. And the fact that something is legally justified does not make it morally right. Today I’m grappling with forgiveness in the spiritual and social context, not whether anyone is legally guilty of a crime or liable for damages.
With that established, let’s consider for a moment what it means to forgive someone.
True forgiveness is very generous. But it is a specific kind of generosity. Forgiveness as a principle arises out of the concept not of giving and receiving gifts, but out of the concept of social or contractual obligation. One may only perform the act of forgiveness when there is a debt owed to them. I owe you a debt. You forgive my debt, and therefore I no longer owe you anything.
Sometimes that debt is money. But often that debt is about redressing a wrong done. I break your favorite vase. I owe you recompense for that broken vase. You forgive me, and so I no longer have to worry about your vase. Mary hurts John’s feelings by calling him a rude name. John has been wronged and is angry at Mary. Mary apologizes, and John forgives her and their friendship goes on. Whether social or monetary, forgiveness is always predicated on a debt that the individual must repay, and which is being expunged by the act of forgiving.
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing to witness in its purest form. When someone who understands they owe a debt to another is made to understand that they are fully released from that debt without any strings attached, it is a transformative moment of compassion for both the person receiving the forgiveness, and the person giving it. There is a tremendous sense of freedom as the burden on both parties is lifted by an act of true grace. When it happens, there usually isn’t a dry eye to be had anywhere among those witnessing it. True moments of forgiveness are very moving and special.
But that isn’t what we see most of the time, and it’s not what’s being asked for when helpful people bleat pleas for forgiveness for whatever the outrage of the day may be.
Usually, what’s missing in these situations is one of two things. The first thing that is often missing is genuine contrition on the part of the person for whom forgiveness is being sought. Typically you see this in the form of a wan apology that acknowledges as little guilt as the apologizer feels they can get away with. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is perhaps the most classic example. But it also encompasses all the hedging and qualifications that people try to use to minimize the harm that was done or the magnitude of the debt owed. “Things were different then.” “She wasn’t innocent in this, she egged him on.” “I remember it differently.” “It was so long ago and she was so young.”
Among my friends, we call this out by saying, “You need to own your shit.” Put less scatalogically, you need to acknowledge the full amount of your debt. If you attempt to minimize the impact of what you did, or claim it wasn’t as bad as all that, you’re not really seeking forgiveness, you’re haggling over how much you really owe. And presumably, you’re trying to get to the place where you require as little forgiveness as possible.
Given how uncomfortable humans are with receiving big gifts that they can never reciprocate on, that they should attempt to minimize the scope of the forgiveness they require is unsurprising. But forgiveness, while generous, is not an unsolicited gift, it is the release of responsibility from a debt that is owed or a harm that has been inflicted. You don’t get to decide how much you actually injured someone. They do.
Let me say that again, because it’s important — when you hurt someone, you do not get to decide how much they have been hurt. That’s for them to say. You don’t know all the corners of their life or their heart. You do not know all the ways in which your conduct has worked injury, because sometimes those injuries happen on the inside, or happen over time, and the person you’ve hurt cannot or will not show them to you. And let’s be very clear here — they are not under an obligation to show you their hurt either.
Owning your shit means that you take responsibility for your actions because you did them, and as an adult you therefore own the consequences. When you’ve harmed someone, you are responsible for ALL the damage your conduct created, not just what you can see. And those impacted are not under an obligation to perform some sort of convincing display of all their pain before you acknowledge your responsibility for your actions.
So when you start making excuses as to why someone shouldn’t be offended, shouldn’t be hurt, don’t pretend that you’re asking for forgiveness from them. That’s not what you’re doing. You’re asking for diminished responsibility for the harm that your conduct inflicted. Understand that when you negotiate away responsibility for an injury that was caused by your actions, it’s not about forgiveness anymore. You are effectively gaslighting your victim into believing they weren’t hurt as badly as they know they were.
Real forgiveness is only possible when the offending party owns their shit, when they acknowledge ALL the impacts of their conduct, and accept responsibility for them, without reservation. They offer contrition that is not qualified by memory, by their belief of what’s “reasonable” or what time or place the incident occurred, or by the conduct of the injured party. They are remorseful not because they know they are guilty, but because a fellow human is in pain from something they did.
The other problem with forgiveness in our age is that it is treated as an entitlement. The struggle against cheap grace is very real.
As a parent who has survived the toddler years, I have acquired this hard won knowledge: you get the behavior you let a child get away with. When your 3 year old does something inappropriate, irritating, or otherwise objectionable, it’s best if you decide in that moment if you are willing to live with that behavior forever. Because if you forgive it once — because it’s cute, because it’s not SO very bad, or because you just don’t have time to deal with it right now — you have made it that much harder to check it later. And if you continually give a pass to bad conduct, your child effectively learns that the behavior is okay. If at some point later on you try to eliminate that behavior, the child will resist, and feel justified in doing so.
Forgiveness is a wondrous thing, but it is not, nor should it be, an easy thing. The problem with forgiving people too readily is that they come to view that forgiveness as an entitlement. “You’ve always let this slide in the past,” they say. “Why is today different?”
There is a lot, particularly with respect to bigotry, that America has let slide, and has forgiven too easily. Sexual misconduct and the failure to respect a woman’s bodily integrity has never been okay. Racial epithets have never been okay. Blackface has never been okay. But until fairly recently, they were almost always forgiven by mainstream American society. Don’t get it twisted. Bad conduct and injury that is always forgiven, without one having to ask first, is NOT the same thing as it actually being okay.
As we try to dismantle the impact of bigotry in our society, it’s important to remember this — our society never actually asked forgiveness for a lot of the conduct that harmed marginalized people. We instead either pretended that there was nothing wrong with the conduct in the first place or presumed that it was forgiven simply because it happened in the past. There are consequently incidences of harm, very serious and real harm, spanning generations, that have been perpetrated against whole groups of people and for which no responsibility has ever been taken and no real forgiveness has ever been asked. And if you think that karmic debt isn’t impacting our interactions on race today you are kidding yourself.
When a public figure admits to donning blackface as a young man a long time ago, it is not just about one youthful indiscretion — it’s about the society that allowed that transgression to pass as being okay, and whether we are willing to own our shit, individually and as a society as to what that means, then and now.
While I may be a pagan now, I wasn’t always. I was, like many, steeped in the Christian faith of my birth, and thus heard a lot about grace and forgiveness and how wonderful it is, and how freely it is given by the Christian god and therefore should also be freely given by his followers. And I do agree. Grace and forgiveness ARE wonderful when they are freely given.
Where I take issue is when the ever-readiness of the Christian’s god to give grace creates a sense of entitlement to grace on the part of his followers. You are never OWED forgiveness. That actually stands forgiveness on its head. Forgiveness is about being given reprieve from what you OWE to others, it is not something they owe to you. You can certainly plead on someone else’s behalf for forgiveness, and someone who is wronged may grant it without being asked. But ultimately, for the full impact of forgiveness to be felt, the offending party, the one who owes the debt, has to want it and ask for it themselves. When someone who has not bothered to own their shit gets forgiven anyway, that is cheap grace, and if you give too much of it away, it cheapens forgiveness altogether.
Should all these people who have done all these things be forgiven? I don’t know. Every situation is complicated, and there are no easy answers. Some have asked for forgiveness, and those who have been wronged need to grapple with that. Can we move forward without forgiveness? I don’t know. I personally think that there is room for forgiveness as we move towards a society that is truly just and equitable. But I do know this — cheap grace will not get us there, and until each of us has the courage to own our own shit, real forgiveness is impossible.