Is Forgiveness Always a Good Thing?

Almost nine years ago, a deranged man took hostages in a one-room Amish schoolhouse, and eventually shot ten girls before turning the gun on himself. After the tragedy, the Amish community reached out to the shooter’s family to tell them that they forgave him for the destruction he had wrought on them, with thirty community members even attending the man’s funeral. While many commentators were amazing by this act of forgiveness on the part of the Amish, others noted that it made no sense to forgive someone who showed no remorse for his actions. Similarly, I would say that this gesture wasn’t that impressive, given that Amish culture forces community member to offer knee-jerk forgiveness to an offender, whether they want to or not. This raises the question of whether forgiveness is always a virtue, or whether it can be a vice in some circumstances.

To start, let’s look at last week’s interview with Jill Dillard and Jessa Seewald, the two married Duggar girls who wanted to defend their brother, parents, and TV show from criticism. The two kept insisting that the abuse wasn’t that bad and that Josh had been forgiven by them and god. However, if you know anything about how Gothardism treats sexual abuse, you’ll know that it teaches that victims, even small children, are often to blame for abuse, usually because of a perceived lack of modesty:

As is the case among the Amish, sexual abuse victims in Gothardism are forced to publicly forgive their abusers, whether the feeling is genuine or not, lest the victim be bogged down in “bitterness”:

In the case of the Duggars, forcing forgiveness from the victims of the crime was used as a way to silence them and further bind them to the teaching of Gothardism. While Jill and Jessa may very well have genuinely forgiven Josh and moved on, they don’t seem to understand that their parents and their religion failed to protect them in their own home, and used the concept of forgiveness to brush a crime under the proverbial rug.

Next, here’s an interesting link from “First Things” of letters written in response to an article written by famous Orthodox rabbi Meir Soloveichik in 2003 on “the virtue of hatred,” a concept that he says in found in Judaism, but not Christianity, because of that religion’s belief in the importance of forgiveness: (the original article) (the responses)

As you might expect, there are a slew of replies, mostly from Christians, who assert that the importance of forgiveness and “Christiansplain” to Soloveichik what the Hebrew Bible “really means.” In looking at the Christian responses, I can’t help but wonder if part of their dislike of Soloveichik’s position is that they think that Jews should forgive Christians for 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, or at the very least, be tactful enough not to bring it up; indeed, Soloveichik mentions that he knows of religious Jews who dislike Christianity and religious Christians, precisely because of this bloody past, something that probably made more than a few FT readers squirm in their chairs. Soloveichik mentions hating Saddam Hussein, Haman (the Biblical anti-Semitic tyrant whose demise is celebrated during Purim), and Hitler,  so it’s not hard for me to imagine that some of the “Christian kings” from the days of Christendom might be included on his list of extreme sinners hated by god. Given that the FT crowd is always game for a new Middle Eastern military adventure, it seemed a bit odd that so many writers were so offended by Soloveichik’s hatred of Saddam Hussein. I guess it’s one thing to call someone a tyrant who needs to be deposed, but something else to declare that god hates said tyrant and has turned his back from him. Perhaps, Christians, no matter how conservative, have to believe that maybe Saddam or Hitler or whoever may have repented several seconds before their respective deaths, while Jews are more willing to cast judgement and just say “good riddance.”

To tie these two disparate stories together, I think it’s important to read what Soloveichik says about original sin, which is a conception that doesn’t exist in Judaism. Consequently, there is no notion in Judaism of people being born automatically in need of a redeemer or the corresponding idea that original sin makes us all equally hateful in the eyes of god. Soloveichik says that every person, Jewish or otherwise, is responsible for their own actions and has a choice about whether to do good or evil. To him, the Christian demand that we “love/forgive Hitler” in an agape sort of way implies that those who choose to do what is right are no different than Hitler, when in fact, there is a great difference between the misdeeds of Hitler and the average more or less law-abiding person. Similarly, if we look at some of the responses of some of the Duggars more ardent fans, a common response is that we’re all sinners, and there is no difference between Josh molesting his sisters, and say, cheating at Scrabble. Except that’s not true, as there is a world of difference between molesting your five year old sister and covertly peeking at the letters to get a Z while playing Scrabble. As Soloveichik implies, when Christians make all sins equal and demand unconditional forgiveness, it makes us unable to differentiate between minor character flaws and truly horrendous acts.

Now, I don’t want you to think that forgiveness is a necessarily a bad thing. For many people, forgiving someone who has wronged them is key in allowing them to get past the traumatic event in question. On a societal level, wide scale forgiveness may be required to move the country beyond a traumatic past. However, I think that too often, victims are told to “forgive and forget” as a means of protecting the abuser, when what is needed is to “forgive, but remember.” For example, post-apartheid South Africa set up Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to fully explore the human rights abuses that occurred during the apartheid era. While some critics say that offering amnesty to the abusers gave them too much power, I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for all of its flaws, was much better that what happened in the United States after the Civil Rights Movement, which was nothing. Or, rather a conspicuous attempt to misremember the past to protect to not so innocent (for example, you won’t see the South African Dutch Reformed church try to pretend that it was really against apartheid, the way some apologists in the South Baptist Convention are claiming about slavery). In any case, I think that forgiveness can be a virtue or a vice, depending on how its being used and who is asking to do the forgiving. It should always freely come from the wronged party, and not be demanded by the one who committed the offense.