What is Forgiveness?. Anthony Bash Durham University. 1. The Place to Start. Letting someone off / Excusing? Overlooking something to get on with people? Forgetting about the past? Restoring relationships? Letting go ? Pardoning? Apologising? Condoning?
Compare forgiveness with other less obvious moral responses to wrongdoing.
Hannah Arendt, ‘The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth’ (The Human Condition, 1958).
The most obvious starting place to understand forgiveness in the western tradition is from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).
Godis forgiving – sweeping away, burying, removing, washing away human sin.
The achievement of the New Testament is to establish forgiveness as (i) a pattern of person-to-person behaviour; and (ii) as a moral virtue.
“Jesus’ achievement is to distil out of a range of behaviours a new, discrete category of human behaviour (person-to-person forgiveness) that people had not hitherto separately identified. It is also to give that category of behaviour its own characteristic features and identity markers. So, for example, those who seek forgiveness should be repentant and those whose forgiveness is sought should be unstinting in their efforts to forgive. Forgiveness seen this way is new in Jewish [and Greek] thought.”
“What matters to Paul is that forgiveness is an expression of grace, and one of many different expressions of grace. We can put it this way: Paul is not so much concerned with identifying forgiving behaviour as a genus of person-to-person relations as interested in exploring all kinds of virtuous behaviour that are the outworking of the grace of God among human beings in their social and personal relations. Forgiveness is an important aspect of what it means to be gracious – but the primary emphasis in Paul is on grace, not forgiveness.”
The ‘Augustinian Dilemma’ – a conflict between divine justice and divine love.
One of the central problems of forgiveness … it depends where we start! Do we start with love or do we start with justice?
Another way of looking at this is to think of the problem as being about conflicting moral goods:
‘The predicament of irreversibility’ (Hannah Arendt) – how do we undo what has been done?
We cannot atone for our wrongdoing and so we cannot resolve the predicament of irreversibility.
Before we move on, we need to explore five commonly held views about person-to-person forgiveness.
(i) God will forgive us only if we forgive others in the same way as and to the same extent that God forgives us.
(ii) If we forgive, it is because we ourselves have experienced the lavish grace of God’s forgiveness. Being a forgiver means we have received – and been transformed by – the grace of God; it is this evidence of having received God’s grace that is the ground of assurance that God will go on forgiving us.
‘Thick’ and ‘thin’ forgiveness – i.e. actions that we regard as forgiving and that have the six elements to a greater or lesser extent.