Forgiveness and the initiation of mercy

In my philosophy/ theology core class, we have just finished reading two authors on the nature of forgiveness, one of them the Christian author, Wolsterstorff. Wolsterstorff argues that forgiveness stems from the very root of Christian ethics itself: an ethics of love. Jesus argues against an ethics of reciprocity, where we give others what they “deserve.” Wolsterstorff looks at the ethics of “turning the other cheek,” or “going the extra mile,” as a denial of the ethic of proportional reciprocity (where one loves those that deserve it, and responds with harm to those who harm us). Jesus’ ethical message is to love all, whether they harm us or benefit us.

At the same time, Wolsterstorff places conditions on forgiveness: like many authors, he argues that a person who is not sorrowful for his wrongdoing and who does not express that sorrow to the victim need not be forgiven. In fact, he argues that since the heart of forgiveness is not only forswearing revenge but also giving up anger and resentment , that forgiveness in response to a serious wrong is impossible if another is not sorry. After all, forgiving is not forgetting. If the harm really took place, and another hurt us, then one must await the agent of harm to be sorry first, and only then is forgiveness possible. Still, even if one cannot forgive another, because they are not yet sorry or responsible for their past wrongdoing, Wolsterstorff says that we still must forswear revenge and only seek the other’s good, since we are bound to an ethic of love by God. We refrain from harm, but may well hold onto our anger, justifiably.

I disagree with the claim that Wolsterstorff makes on limiting forgiveness to cases where another is sorrowful and repentant. Of course, it is much easier to offer forgiveness in such cases. When we have been wronged, we all long to hear the words, “I am sorry,” and to have some sign that another understands and has heard our pain, and taken some responsibility. Another author whom we read, Griswold, argues that forgiveness can take place only when there has also been an exchange of narratives between two people. In his ideal case of forgiveness, the wrongdoer explains exactly why he or she acted wrongly; shows how the action does not reflect the fullness of his or her person; and how he is becoming worthy of approbation. If forgiveness is to take place, then the one harmed must also actively express an understanding of the wrongdoer as not reducible to his or her bad action, and directly address the offender to offer forgiveness.

I agree that these kinds of conditions are ideal. They address deep psychological needs on the part of both people in a rift. They also express an ideal of justice that makes forgiveness rational and warranted. However, is it really impossible to forgive another person before he or she has expressed sorrow or taken responsibility for his actions, as both these authors deny?

I think it is possible. We see this in the case of Jesus, who on the Cross, says to his Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus forgives others even before they are sorry or responsible. Jesus loves others not because they are already virtuous—after all, Jesus dies for the sins of others. Rather, Jesus loves others so that they can go on to live well after receiving forgiveness. When we are forgiven and when we know that we are loved, we can choose to live more virtuously. Human virtue doesn’t produce divine love. Instead, divine love makes the space for us to live more loving lives in response, and so to become more virtuous. Thus forgiveness comes first on Jesus’ part, even before the sorrow and contrition of the the wrongdoer.

The parable of the prodigal son perhaps exhibits this ideal best: the father runs out to embrace the son even before the son has shown any sign of sorrow, as Henri Nouwen points out in The Return of the Prodigal Son.He thus shows us that God extends mercy to us even before we are sorrowful. Moreover, since we are also to be the merciful father to others, we also can extend a capacious and gracious love to others, even before they express any sign of contrition. Martin Luther King Jr said that hate cannot cast out hate, but only love can do that. Love makes possible another’s (and our own) reform; not the other way around. When we refuse to forgive another until he has met certain conditions that we set, everyone remains defensive. When we extend love to another who has harmed us, we also make room for the other to have the space to reform, to change, to express sorrow, and to act differently. We make room for another to become better people, by extending mercy first. Perhaps that extension of mercy is the very thing that another needs for his hard heart to be softened. Of course, this also requires that we are willing to bear more of the burden of the pain ourselves, as Jesus did. Imagine the heartache of the prodigal father whose son has not yet come home, who still awaits!

Love is about acting for the good of another, and not only for our own good. When we forgive those who are not yet sorry, we act for their good. Forgiving another before he is sorrowful is a way of embodying the same kind of love that Jesus shows to others, and allowing divine love to act in and through us. We can also remember that we ourselves are sinners, and so ourselves in need of the same mercy, making it easier to extend it outward to others.