The intriguing title to a Wall Street Journal article, “When Forgiveness Isn’t a Virtue,” motivated us at the International Forgiveness to ask the question: Is it ever possible for forgiveness not to be a virtue?
The answer is no.
Forgiveness has been considered a virtue for at least the past 3450 years, with the story of Joseph forgiving his brother and 10 half-brothers in the Book of Genesis. Since that time, forgiveness has been seen as one aspect of love, specifically being in service to others. The one aspect of love that particularly captures the meaning of forgiveness is mercy, or giving to others generously, even when the giving is not necessarily deserved if our focus is only on the virtue of justice.
When we forgive, we offer love, in the context of mercy, toward those who have treated us unjustly. This is the essence of forgiveness.
What, then, is the endpoint of forgiving? What is its purpose? We see three purposes to the virtue: a) to offer goodness (in the form of loving mercy) as an end in and of itself; b) to get the attention of the offending person so that he or she can see what was done to correct it; and c) to possibly reconcile with the transgressor if he or she does see the damage done and has remorse, repentance, and (where appropriate) recompense.
When the essence of forgiveness (what it is) is matching the endpoint of forgiveness (its purpose), then we can say that the person who is exercising forgiveness is doing so properly.
Now, let us look at two kinds of distortions of this ancient virtue. The first distortion concerns the essence of forgiveness (what it is). Sometimes people will misunderstand its essence. They might see forgiveness as a way of moving on from a situation or just letting a bad situation go. These are distortions of the essence of forgiveness because forgiveness is appropriated toward persons in particular, not situations. The offer of loving mercy is not “moving on” or “letting go” because one can move on in an unloving and unmerciful manner by dismissing or even hating the transgressor. Such apparent expressions of the essence of forgiveness are incorrect from a philosophical viewpoint because they are not capturing what forgiveness is.
The second distortion concerns the endpoint of forgiveness. Sometimes people will misunderstand the endpoint or purpose of the virtue of forgiveness. Sometimes people decide to forgive so that they can: a) keep an unhealthy relationship going at all costs; b) dominate the other by reminding the transgressor of the many transgressions, or c) remain passive and uncourageous by not confronting an offender. In any of these three cases, the person is failing to fulfill even one of the actual purposes of forgiveness.
Now, let us further suppose that we have a critic of forgiveness who criticizes the essence of forgiveness, saying that to forgive is a cowardly,
passive, non-constructive, or self-centered act of “moving on.” The critic may be right about what “moving on” might be, but he or she has not described forgiveness. Instead, the person has appropriated a distortion of forgiveness and then has criticized the distortion.
It is the same pattern when we turn to a distortion of the purposes of forgiveness. As a critic embraces a distortion of what forgiveness allegedly accomplishes and then criticizes that, he or she is fighting a straw man. Why? Because the criticism is pointed toward a distortion of forgiveness’ endpoint, not a true endpoint. When we forgive, we do not hold onto unhealthy relationships at all cost or dominate another or remain weak while hiding the virtue of justice under the bed.
When we clear away the distortions of forgiveness’ essence and endpoints we see more clearly. Forgiveness properly understood as a term and in its true endpoints is never not a virtue. A sharper way to say it is this: Forgiveness is always a virtue.