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Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits
Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits
Jeffrie G. Murphy
Oxford University Press, 2024
152 pp., 22.95

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Before Forgiving: Cautionary Views of Forgiveness in Psychotherapy
Before Forgiving: Cautionary Views of Forgiveness in Psychotherapy

Oxford University Press, 2002
288 pp., 159.05

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By Scot McKnight

Slowing Down the Runaway Forgiveness Truck

Is there such a thing as too much mercy?

In the movie Gloomy Sunday, Ilona (played by the overly displayed Hungarian actress Erika Marozsan) survives "sex for release" of her paramour, Laszio (Joachim Krol), a restaurant owner. She is betrayed; her lover is not released and disappears from the scene. When, some 50 years later, Hans-Eberhard Wieck (Ben Becker), the Nazi to whom she tearfully surrendered her body, returns to the restaurant, Ilona laces his food with poison and he collapses. Some in the theater express joy, others a primitive sense of satisfaction with retribution, but each person is summoned to the room so clearly described in Simon Wiesenthal's irreplaceable The Sunflower.

What would I (had I been at the crossroads of decision) have done with a Nazi in a position of vulnerability? Is forgiveness always to be offered? Sometimes? When and when not? What happens to justice if forgiveness is offered? Ilona's face is not seen in the final scene of revenge, but she is comforted by her adult son (the son of the sex for release?), suspending the haunting question: Can the victim face the evil of retribution which her heart may crave? Did it bring her relief? Closure? Or even more pain?

Forgiveness is a quintessentially moral issue, but the debate over it is bedeviled by clumsy definitions, confusing categories, and contextual dislocations. In spite of the efforts of professors and clinicians, some still confuse forgiveness with reconciliation, with forgetting, with excusing, with condoning, with social acceptance, or with tolerance. The psychologist's emphasis on what forgiveness is not needs to be balanced by what forgiveness is: a fundamental moral problem.

And we should not forget that forgiveness is theological. We may define (ideal) human behaviors as analogous to, and imitations of, divine behaviors. Yet in the case of interpersonal forgiveness, the analogy to God's forgiveness of humans can collapse. God's forgiving of humans, always designed as it is to effect reconciliation, requires repentance. Interpersonal forgiveness at times cannot seek such a goal, or wait until it is achieved. In such cases, forgiveness becomes exclusively therapeutic (beneficial to the victim alone). Clearly, the issues are complex.

So, when a moral philosopher and law professor makes it his life's passion to understand forgiveness, to raise cautionary flags, to detail its limits, and to do so under the notion of validating the vindictive passions (e.g., resentment, anger, hatred, moral outrage), we are obliged to pull our chairs up to the table to listen. Jeffrie Murphy, Regents' Professor of Law, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, lives with what he calls a "hard moral vision." Murphy is "very skeptical about the value of forgiving wrongdoers-self or others-in the absence of sincere repentance on their parts." Indeed, he describes his understanding of forgiveness as "stingy." Ouch. He's not insisting, he adds, that victims of wrongdoing are "obligated to feel resentment [a crucial term deriving from Nietzsche's ressentiment] or to retain it, only that … such a feeling is not always wrong and is sometimes, for some people, a mark of self-respect." That's better. But then, alluding to Marx, he suggests that "forgiveness might sometimes function as such an opiate as well." That's effective rhetoric, but it is naughty.

The issue boils down to this: how does one maintain self-respect, self-defense, and (especially) the moral order when one forgives?

On a roll, Murphy doubts that forgiveness ought to be a "general counseling prescription." He sees "the difficulty [of the entire forgiveness establishment] more in moral terms-the difficulty of knowing how far one can go in the direction of forgiveness without compromising values of genuine importance." Here he raises a profound question, rarely explored in Christian discussions, whether from theologians or psychologists.

Along with Sharon Lamb, Murphy also edits a volume of essays addressing various themes emerging in therapy when forgiveness arises as a possibility. The highlights include the essays by Mona Gustafson Affinito, Margaret R. Holmgren, Lamb, and the potent analysis of the narrative of a perpetrator by Janet Landman. Murphy's own fine essay is part of his Getting Even.

The issue boils down to this: how does one maintain self-respect, self-defense, and (especially) the moral order when one forgives? What happens to self-respect and the moral order when humans set up a strategy of pursuing forgiveness? Will wrongdoers repent? Will they learn?

Will society spiral downwards into looser moral standards if wrongdoers know they will be forgiven? Murphy, and those like him, argue that one must come to terms with the nature of the offense before rushing into forgiveness, and one must pursue a path of resolution that respects justice for society (which easy forgiveness may sabotage) before promising healing for the victim. Those whom Murphy disagrees with are especially Robert Enright (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Holmgren, and L. Gregory Jones, as well as the more popular writers such as (even if not explicitly cited) Lewis Smedes and Philip Yancey, not to mention the ever-present preachers and counselors toting inadequate ideas and uninformed counsel.

Murphy is a Christian (though a late bloomer); he deserves his place at the table, and his own journey is one of progressively appreciating the power of forgiveness. As well as its limits. And there's the rub. Such doubts may seem to undermine fundamental assertions of the Gospels. If Jesus said "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34 [some mss.]), and if he said we are to strike back with "pre-emptive forgiveness" (e.g., Luke 6:27-36), how can one claim-as Murphy does-that it is consistent with Christianity to demand repentance first, to retain a place for the vindictive passions, and ultimately for the victim not to forgive his or her abuser? Murphy poses alternative interpretations of such texts-namely that in each case forgiveness is offered because of certain conditions being met: either ignorance or repentance. But, as his book moves into its final phases, what poses the larger question is the front-and-center nature of grace and forgiveness at the very core of Christian belief.

Let me offer a definition of forgiveness. Forgiveness occurs when:

A. an act violating a moral norm breaks trust, disturbs or destroys a relationship and produces moral outrage (resentment, anger, hatred, vindictiveness, righteous indignation),

B. is addressed at the level of morality, damage, and responsibility,

C. but, with full awareness of the gravity of the moral offense, an increased understanding of the personhood of the wrongdoer, and contrary to a retributive sense of justice, and on the basis of one's own personal beliefs,

D. a victim chooses to release (suddenly or progressively) the moral outrage in various ways (emotionally, cognitively, behaviorally), depending on the victim's conditions (repentance, repair, restitution, retribution) and goals (psychological health, social justice, reconciliation).

Here is Murphy's definition: "the overcoming, on moral grounds, of what I will call the vindictive passions—the passions of anger, resentment, and even hatred that are often occasioned when one has been deeply wronged by another." Others in the collection of essays he coedited offer similar definitions. In short, most of these authors see forgiveness as an emotional virtue but not a moral agenda.

Murphy and I agree on the act that violates a moral norm and disturbs or destroys the interpersonal relationship, and on that fact that such acts produce moral outrage. Furthermore, we agree that moral outrage has various manifestations, including what he calls the "vindictive passions": anger, hatred, resentment, and so on. We agree that these vindictive passions are consistently felt by people after injury, and that their humanness is thereby expressed. We agree that "hatred" should not and does not necessarily dominate a person, that it sometimes does, and that it can overwhelm a person's life. I would emphasize the strangeness and utter incommensurability of forgiveness with our innate sense of justice, though I think Murphy would see forgiveness as a gift of choice rather than a right. And I think we agree that some victims simply are not capable of reconciliation.

Here we should notice that there are kinds of forgiveness, depending on the nature of the offense and the condition of the victim and the offender: there is psychological/therapeutic forgiveness (the internal release of moral outrage, in a process, over time, but real and palpable), social forgiveness (the permission of the wrongdoer to enter your world, to tolerate or even appreciate his/her presence, and to wish that person well-as best as the victim can), and reconciliatory forgiveness (when a powerful, if also progressive and emerging, re-union is established "as it was before").

If we define forgiveness as reconciliation, we encounter insurmountable difficulties at times: is the battered wife to re-enter the home with the unrepentant husband? No. If we define forgiveness as social, we meet awkward problems. But, if we define forgiveness as psychological, then we land on the rock-bottom nature of a Christian obligation. The Christian may feel outrage, but it should fall short of hatred; and the justifiable initial sense of moral outrage that leads to the vindictive passions needs to be released until the heart is settled into dispositions more consistent with the gospel. Again, this is a process. Where am I headed? To reconciliation or to revenge?

My disagreement with Murphy is primarily a matter of orientation. I agree with Margaret Holmgren (in Lamb-Murphy, chapter 6; and with L. Gregory Jones): forgiveness is the Christian strategy and goal, as long as one has met the conditions outlined above: considering the gravity of the offense and its threat to the moral order of society, and maintaining self-respect as one comes to terms with a resolution. What Murphy needs to address is the following: forgiveness suspends the moral order rooted exclusively in justice. Murphy operates with a moral vision wherein justice rules but forgiveness is an option. A more consistently Christian vision would turn the table around: love has the ruling voice but, when driven to it by the impenitent, justice becomes operative. Seen thus, justice is an expression of love.

What we have learned in the last five centuries from the Anabaptist tradition is that grace, love, and the pre-emptive strike of forgiveness can create an alternative moral order that vastly improves the moral climate for humans. Thus, the challenge for Murphy's view is how to square long-term legitimation of the vindictive passions with the Christian imperative to love, to offer grace, and to forgive. If Murphy can be challenged to square love and the vindictive passions, many Christian writers are being challenged by Murphy to square forgiveness with a sense of God's holiness and a maintenance of the moral order.

Another helpful provocation comes from Solomon Schimmel, professor of Jewish Education and Psychology at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, known for his lucid study The Seven Deadly Sins1. In Wounds Not Healed by Time, Schimmel confesses that he harbored visions of revenge against the Germans. His study is admirably aware of both Christian scholarship and the nuances theological orientations bring to one's understanding and practice of forgiveness.

In some ways, Schimmel stands with Murphy; at times, over against. Perhaps Schimmel's most important sentence is this: "It is my belief that the best balm for the resentment, rage, guilt, and shame engendered by human evil is the proper balance of justice, repentance, and forgiveness." If Murphy is concerned with legitimating the vindictive passions within the system of justice and then gradually nuancing that claim, Schimmel is focused more broadly on the power and pitfalls of forgiveness.

Schimmel finds distinct emphases in Judaism and Christianity, though both faiths value forgiveness, justice, and repentance. He states: "Judaism overall is more concerned with guaranteeing justice than with forgiving incorrigible sinners, whereas Christianity . … talks more of forgiveness as an act of grace, given even to the undeserving and not-yet-repentant, than of justice." Such "overall" perspectives have a pervasive impact on theory and practice, as he shows in the case of a Christian psychologist friend who urged criminals to focus on their future rather than their past. But Schimmel is nuanced enough to know that not all Christians-including Murphy-would agree with this psychologist. Hence he points to Christian preaching that focuses on getting sinners to repent from their past rather than on making restitution for their past. (Murphy quaffs two cheers for Schimmel.) Indeed, whatever aspect of the subject he takes to hand, Schimmel analyzes broadly, fairly, and deeply enough to shed light on the human condition. His analysis of the human obstacles to repentance is worth the price of the book.

Both Murphy and Schimmel bring their insights on forgiveness and repentance into the realm of prisons and global politics. Schimmel's studies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, slavery, and South Africa are insightful, and have led me to a renewed appreciation for affirmative action. No, affirmative action is not fair or just, but just as forgiveness transcends justice, so also does the restitutional dimension of repentance lead to agendas like that of affirmative action.

The theology of forgiveness ultimately leads Murphy as his book unwinds to a progressively cleaner Christian view of human relations. Humans are made in God's image; the human condition is fallen or, in his words, "tragic"; we are all limited in our perceptions of our own motives and the actions/motives of others; therefore, we need to be compassionate. And, because the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ is a God of love and grace, the first word of the Christian may be moral outrage or anger or even hatred, but that word is gradually chased down by love and grace, the twin "hounds of heaven." Yes, the Cross itself is an example not only of God's gracious forgiveness but also of the simultaneous punishment of sin that justice demands. And yet, is not the operative word one of reconciliation?

God's offer of forgiveness, a pre-emptive strike against embattled hearts, sometimes creates a grace so effective that repentance occurs. That's not an Abelardian understanding of the atonement, but it fits the modus operandi of the God who, in his grace, pre-emptively struck his enemies with forgiveness by sending his Son.

Scot McKnight is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University. His new book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others, will be published in October by Paraclete Press.

1. Solomon Schimmel, The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology (Free Press, 1992).

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