Our Theory of Forgiveness

Our Theory of Forgiveness: Excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Forgiving Life            (APA Books, 2012)

Our theory starts with the premise that all people need to both give and receive love to be healthy and to have psychologically healthy families and communities.  I am not alone in this view when we study the ancient literature, going back to the formation of the Hebrew nation, thousands of years ago, with the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  I am not alone when we turn to modern-day heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, or Mother Teresa.  Unconditionally loving others, despite their blemishes and faults, was at the heart of their message.

I am not alone in this view when we consult modern philosophy, in which Gene Outka has shown the centrality of love for morally good human interaction.  I am not alone in this view of the primacy of love when we examine the earliest roots of psychology, going back over a century to the pioneering work of the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, who made the famous statement that each person’s purpose is to work and to love if genuine mental health will result, a theme which continues to resonate with psychoanalysts in the 21st century.  Contemporary social scientists such as Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon make the compelling biological case that love is at the central core of who we are as humans.[1]  I continue not to be alone in this view when I ask people of good common sense about what is of the utmost importance to them.


All people require love, both the giving and the receiving of love; this is not an option.                                                                                                          Robert D. Enright


On this issue, people who use the method of religious faith to understand the world, some people who use the method of deductive logic and philosophical analysis, some people who use the method of psychoanalysis, and some people who use the method of modern biological and social science are in agreement—The essence of our humanity is to love and be loved.

Robert

How Does Forgiveness Differ from Ghandi’s Nonviolent Resistance?

I heard a talk recently in which– it was stated that Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolent resistance to injustice is equivalent to forgiving.  The point is that forgiveness is not passive but stands up to evil in a merciful way.  While there are some convergences between nonviolent resistance and forgiveness, I think that they are in essence different.  Here are at least three ways in which they are not the same:

First, Ghandi’s approach, as well the approach of others who followed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., is centered on a quest for justice.  They want an unfair situation changed.  Thus, nonviolent resistance in its essence is a justice strategy, as is the call for negotiation, dialogue, arms limitation, and other approaches of seeking fairness.

In contrast, forgiveness in its essence is a moral virtue centered in mercy and love.  The primary goal of forgiveness is not the seeking of fairness, but instead to unconditionally love another or others, not because of what they have done, but in spite of this.  To be fair to forgiveness, it is not the case that forgiveness abandons the quest for justice.  Instead, people can and should bring justice alongside forgiving.  When they do so, we must be clear that the offer of forgiving is different from the request for a fair solution.

Second, when a person or group practices nonviolent resistance, forgiveness likely would aid this strategy because it quells resentment which could spill over to hatred and actions of hatred which would destroy the nonviolent strategy.  Forgiveness in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one.  Justice-seeking is the primary issue.  In contrast, justice-seeking is an aid to forgiving so that the forgiver does not become weak or even abused by others’ continual injustices. Justice in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one.  Unconditional love toward an offending person is the primary issue.

Third, while the virtue of love may be at the center of non-violent resistance, and certainly was the case for Martin Luther King, Jr. as seen in his soaring volume, Strength to Love, it need not be at the center for all who practice the nonviolence.  Perseverance might be the center for some, justice-seeking no matter what the consequence may be at the center for others, while loving one’s enemy may take center-stage for others.  The action itself (nonviolence) and keeping one’s eye on the goal (social change) can lead to different virtues dominating a given person’s thinking and acting.  In contrast, the virtue of love is always at the center of forgiving even if the forgiver never reaches this depth of understanding and practicing forgiving.

Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share the following in common:

First, each is unconditional in that, no matter what the other does to thwart the practice, the forgiver and the nonviolent resister stand firm in their decision to either forgive or resist.  The others’ blows to the head did not deter Gandhi.  The other’s refusal to apologize or make restitution does not deter the forgiver, who may or may not reconcile depending on the degree of unfairness and the extent of any abuse.  The forgiver stands unconditionally in the offer of goodness toward those who are not being good to the forgiver.

Second, both have moral virtue at their center.

Third, each can effect social change as the one forgiven, for example, now sees the injustice, feels remorse, repents, and changes.  Nonviolent resistance historically has been shown to effect such change as the consciences of the powerful can be deeply affected as they continue their unjust ways in the face of the others’ peace.

Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share commonalities, but they are not the same.  We need clarity when engaging in each so that they move forward well and with a deep understanding about what the forgiver or resister actually is doing.

Robert