Two models of forgiveness

Let me start off by acknowledging that some of our readers have thought more deeply about forgiveness than I have. And everyone who wants to should join in and comment.

The first form of forgiveness seems principally or even entirely internal to the victim. It may result in beneficent action toward a transgressor, but the transformation need only be in the victim.

The second comes from an article asking about victims of sexual assault and forgiveness of the transgressors. What is given is the first step of three in a standard conception of forgiveness from Judaism. Here the change starts with a change in the transgressor.

(1) Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Wikipedia


(2) From the NY Times:

Judaism offers a prescription for restorative rather than punitive justice that I think can provide a template for all of us — not just Jews — in determining what it should take to readmit transgressors into public life.
In Judaism, a religion that prizes deeds over faith, atonement is not an easy process. And why should it be? It is designed to effect nothing less than personal transformation. This is why the Hebrew word for “atonement” is “teshuva,” or return — as in a return to your higher self, a return to your essential goodness, a return to recognizing your own dignity and the dignity of others.
The repentance process begins with an “accounting of the soul” (heshbon ha’nefesh), an examination of how one has failed or fallen short. God can forgive sins against God, but notably, sins between people can be forgiven only by the aggrieved.

I’m concerned about the first. I think there are a number of negative feelings one can have toward or about others: envy, jealousy, anger or even hatred. Taking oneself through the transformation of (1) may make one a better person to be around, but if it involves letting the transgressor off the hook, it may be less than a good thing. It does not seem right to let racists off the hook, for example.

I remained puzzled by exhortations to foregive. Perhaps by self-transformation the transgressor can re-earn the right to one’s regard. But in other cases? What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Two models of forgiveness

  1. As a survivor of prolonged domestic abuse, physical, emotional, sexual, spiritual, and as someone who believes that forgiveness is important, I’ve struggled to come to a satisfactory expression of forgiveness. As children we were taught to say sorry, and make up with our siblings/friends, but frequently the offender continued to offend, and there were serial sorrys, but no transformation. The ‘making up’ model so often promoted by society is definitively NOT safe when we have been abused, moreover, my abuser, and many others, see nothing wrong with their behaviour, therefore there was no acknowledgement of wrongdoing, no apology, and no transformation. So how do I forgive? Firstly, I came to realise that I could offer forgiveness without needing to continue in any relationship with him, which was a huge relief. We had children together, and their desire to maintain contact with their dad meant facilitating this contact, which meant a polite, but distant, interaction with him and his new partner; this meant holding firm boundaries, and was quite empowering for me. Me and my children still suffer PTSD, and each flashback brings with it complex feelings that need a response from me. I often find myself angry; in addressing my anger I find forgiveness helps dissolve it. Forgiveness here means letting go of making sure my abuser meets the consequences of his behaviour, letting go of him being punished. I know I do not have the power to make sure there is justice for me and my children, we have tried, and the legal system couldn’t/wouldn’t deal with our complaints despite a thorough police investigation, so, forgiveness for me is letting go of him being punished, letting go of ensuring he changes his behaviour, letting go of any expectation that he will change. I do want him to be well in mind and spirit, I do want him to be at peace, I do want him to be happy. This is my forgiveness.

  2. The best article on this subject is Pamela Hieronymi’s “Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness”.

  3. I think it’s good to think of internal and external goals of forgiveness like you have; they both seem important.

    Taking the second first: external forgiveness in the sense of experiencing restorative justice is only rarely possible with perpetrators. But an external reaction can still be essential in healing for many people, even if we don’t think of doing so in terms of forgiveness. I have friends whose son was recently killed unnecessarily by cops, They have devoted themselves to honoring his loss through working toward legal justice, so that others will be prevented from losing their children the same dumbass way. It seems a natural and healthy focus for them, just as it might be to focus on restorative justice if it’s available with one’s perpetrator, or with similar perpetrators. “External forgiveness” in the broad sense of channeling the energy of vengeance or grief can use negative emotion positively, obtain peace and satisfaction, and allow the perpetrators or others to not be let off the hook, so the world can improve.

    Some others might have to avoid the “external” battle, as a woman I know does whose son was shot dead. I don’t see any rules here, just a multiplicity of healthy reactions, depending on our situation and makeup. Volunteer responses to trauma do have their risks, after all: to be lost in the work, in a way that potentially isn’t healthy overall for them or others; to allow the effective extension of trauma to make them bitter, or triggered unduly, or otherwise less functional; to be attacked for the work. Sometimes, letting a perpetrator off the hook is what has to happen; certainly, among the vast majority of cases of rape that go unreported, at least a small amount of those silences were about personal protection, of body or mind. It’s hard to pull out a yardstick that measures how right a victim’s acts are.

    Internal notions of forgiveness feel near the heart of what it means to be fully human. I can’t speak for everyone, because personality has to be considered, but for me, what people term forgiveness is a way to free myself from being obsessed with the perpetrator’s experience. There can be an endless, unproductive focus on the perpetrator’s internal experience, that requires victims to suddenly have the perpetrator’s legal status and mindset acquire enormous importance, rather than being a minor element in our life, albeit a tragic or cruel one. My own process is to fight for justice with my perpetrator or with similar perpetrators (like my friends who lost a son)– but also to wait and think and feel until I care about the perpetrator’s thoughts and feelings roughly as much as I do any other person who might do such a thing to others. I’m able to lump them in eventually with others, and think of broader social reasons why they were led or encouraged to do such a thing. I don’t let them off the hook, but I do see them as less interesting, as smaller, and less powerful– and, ultimately, eventually, as victims themselves, and finally as people whose lives are defined by more than the act I suffered from.

    Forgiveness might be thought of, then, as understanding them and their situation better, rather than as a nebulous or spiritual step that snaps into place at a certain point. If I can’t get justice with my perpetrator, forgiveness through understanding allows me to feel a much lower frustration, because I don’t feel as strong a personal obligation to fix this particular person in a particular way, simply because their action happened to befall me. They have less influence over me; their justice or repentance become more the world’s problem as well. Others can share the burden with me. Forgiveness is practical, first and foremost, a way to reduce the power their act has over our mind, even as we live with the results of their act.

  4. I don’t quite understand your notion of two “models” of forgiveness as you seem to be describing one model and its effects on two sides of the incident. Maybe two “perspectives” of the process is closer to the mark. But, beyond my confusion there, the weak point in your argument is the claim that forgiveness lets the transgressor off the hook. As the NY Times quotation clarifies, atonement is necessary to the process. The perpetrator isn’t just free to walk away once forgiven by the victim. I briefly worked in restorative justice with sexual abuse survivors, and it’s stunning how well it can help people once they put down the burden of their anger and vengeance. I wrote more on forgiveness of these recent cases here.

  5. I am a woman who has been profoundly harmed by my experiences in academic philosophy / “philosophy.”

    I’ve spent the past few years of my life seeking a resolution with my Department / University while in a debilitated state, coping with sequela / pile-on effects from the ordeal I’m seeking a resolution for, and all the while being subjected to ongoing discrimination from my Department / University.

    In my experience, exhortations to forgive are plentiful and tied to a mixture of the following sorts of toxic mold:

    • bigotry, including elitism and well-intended condescension;
    • disrespect for a victim’s dignity and autonomy;
    • inadequate curiosity and inadequate desire to learn and to grow from mistakes that have been made (but never by me);
    • lack of conscience, both intellectual and ethical;
    • taboos against and simplistic ideas about victimhood (which are very trendy right now);
    • negative and dismissive assumptions, e.g., that those pursuing grievances are after vengeance rather than justice, and that the former is always a bad and petty thing tied to character defects;
    • pessimistic prophecies about what is apt to happen if justice is pursued, including talk about justice being out of reach and any pursuit of it tantamount to accepting still further harms rather than “cutting one’s losses” (as bystanders continue to do nothing to help);
    • time tricks and attempts at exhaustion: guilty parties stall resolution processes and then use the passage of time against the victim as grounds to urge them to move on at long last;
    • social proof / riding the road to Abilene (doing nothing to help despite one’s reservations because everyone else is doing nothing);
    • running with trends and ignoring harms that don’t follow the “right” narrative and framing forms; sexual harassment is hot now, abusive feminist supervisors, not so much;
    • fear of spillover effects (if we raise awareness of abusive feminist supervisors, we might inadvertently damage the reputation of feminism and undermine efforts towards equality);
    • just world hypotheses and other forms of victim blaming;
    • old boys’ and old girls’ networks; hey, “victim,” leave my friend alone!
    • resentment (Why should I be the one to help? I do more than my fair share already and besides, who was there for me when I needed help?);
    • motivated not-knowing: witnesses and guilty parties shielding themselves from the pain of their own demons and complicities;
    • ideology and dogma; the victim’s preferred philosophy may not fit one’s own preferred party lines;
    • fear of opening cans of worms: if this abuse is taken seriously, than that abuse should also be taken seriously, and that one, and that one, and this one too (that I am complicit in);
    • excuses galore as well as varying distancing, attacking the messenger, and othering techniques, including denigrating the victim and telling oneself that one is too busy to help (in part, as a result of assuming one must go all out if one is to help at all, and underestimating how helpful even small gestures of support can be;
    • lack of sound protocols and resources in place that would help to distribute the workload required to help the field’s refugees;
    • convenient epistemic shields (It is too complicated to sort out from here; I haven’t heard the whole story; I don’t have the time to make sense of this mess);
    • self-protection, burnout, and one’s own lack of emotional and other resources;
    • ignorance about trauma and about much else besides;
    • self-absorption and careerism;
    • lack of inspiration, trust, and hope;
    • insecurity, cowardice, and hypocrisy; and
    • fear of being treated as the victim is being treated.

    When we start to think through the above sorts of toxins, and more, I think it becomes increasingly clear that talk of forgiveness is often be a red herring — a cheap and degrading balm to smear on those who are suffering and in need of help. The results, for those of us on the margins, or tossed off the field’s cliffs to fend for ourselves, can be heartbreaking.

  6. JSWagner, I think your thought below is valuable and worth taking very seriously. What do you say about the cases where the perp is someone that one may be around. E.g., a plagarizing adviser or an unfaithful partner.

    “…but also to wait and think and feel until I care about the perpetrator’s thoughts and feelings roughly as much as I do any other person who might do such a thing to others. I’m able to lump them in eventually with others, and think of broader social reasons why they were led or encouraged to do such a thing. I don’t let them off the hook, but I do see them as less interesting, as smaller, and less powerful– and, ultimately, eventually, as victims themselves, and finally as people whose lives are defined by more than the act I suffered from”

  7. Ms: I was trying to say it maylet the perp off the hook, not that it always will.

    What Igave as the first type Is a common thought. It is wholly internal to the victim. The second isn’t.

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