Ashley Belohlavek: Forgiveness: A Deeper Realm


There are so many aspects and nuances within forgiveness that make it so complex. For one thing, forgiveness is not always two sided. One person may forgive but the other has not reconciled, or someone feels immense guilt but the victim refuses to pardon them. A majority of the readings for this week touch on the possibility of one-sided forgiveness. Bash, Griswold and Nasr all consider a situation in which one chooses to forgive, regardless of regret or disavowal of past actions on the side of the wrongdoer. While this may not be one’s traditional idea of forgiveness, all authors note the positive effects that forgiveness brings to one willing to put the past behind them. I have always considered forgiveness to be a two-way street, but the philosophical nuances that each author brings to the discussion illustrate a much deeper, situational landscape to the very definition of forgiveness.

What I find incredibly interesting is this idea of collective forgiveness. This concept is often used in the case of mass injustice like the Holocaust or Apartheid, to name a couple examples. There is much thought focusing on how that kind of forgiveness could work, but a question I think is more pressing is if it can work. How can an apology undo the pain that genocide, brutal oppression and constant fear have created for so many? Of course, forgiveness is possible, but forgiveness as an expectation is asking for a lot. I think that Professor Nasr’s class lecture has some interesting points concerning this issue. Nasr inquires, “What would it mean if the relation between peoples, civilizations, and nations can [be] based more on forgiveness and friendship than self-interest and revenge.”[1] While I agree that a society based on forgiveness and friendship is most ideal, I think that the struggle to forgive does not come from a place of self-interest or a need for revenge, and I think that the issue is much more complex than Nasr is generally framing it. For instance, both Islam and Christianity speak often of giving to those who have not been given the same advantages as others, such as the poor or historically oppressed groups, so the idea of reparations in order to produce genuine forgiveness is not a selfish request. In my opinion, reparations beyond words of regret are actually a duty of the ancestors of those who wronged the original victims. This issue is obviously not black and white and there are so many things to considerate in any individual case, but I think there is a sort of middle ground or a different perspective that is not often considered here that should be explored through extended research and discussion.

Anthony Bash briefly mentions this idea of mass forgiveness when he questions if Jewish people could ever forgive Germany for its supremacist attitude and its genocidal actions. Bash, however, does not answer this question or consider its possible responses. I think this would be highly interesting and thought provoking for future study. Bash perceives international forgiveness as a necessary peacemaking tool, keeping tensions between countries low. The key that, in my opinion, nations struggle with is admitting that they have done wrong to another nation and need to renounce those unethical actions. As long as nations are unwilling to look upon themselves critically, peace and forgiveness will become increasingly difficult and unattainable. Bash uses this situation as an example of why forgiveness, originally a religious concept (and heavily Christian, in his opinion), is necessary in the political, everyday sphere, not just the religious community.

Govier has a lot to say about the nature and consequences of revenge, which relate a lot to Bash’s comments on peace. Govier considers the point of view of a party that has wronged another, keeping in mind that there is a good chance that the wrongdoers do not actually see themselves as having done something wrong. Govier envisions the unintended circumstances that seeking revenge could spawn in this situation with his explanation, “…if we bring harm to them in revenge, they will think that we wronged them and feel in response a desire for revenge themselves.”[2] He then goes on to state that not only is revenge an immoral concept but it is often extremely short-lived and not worth the cost at which it comes. Govier entertains the idea of instant gratification that revenge can bring for someone scorned, but he uses the high cost of revenge to deem it not worth the brief satisfaction that it may bring. Bash notes that study conducted at the University of Wisconsin—Madison showed results of improved mental health and more “positive therapeutic outcomes” for people who chose to forgive someone who hurt them in some way. In other words, forgiveness brings long-term happiness while revenge creates a very short-lived, distorted sense of satisfaction. Both Bash and Govier’s arguments point towards a more favorable long-lasting outcome in choosing to forgive someone.

Griswold makes an interesting statement in criticism of “unconditional forgiveness.” He compares unconditional forgiveness to that of gift-giving, but notes that even gifts, “come with expectations of reciprocity attached.”[3] This is a strange idea to me, since it is possible for one to forgive someone who does not wish for forgiveness, but it can still bring the victim peace. I think a more important criticism of unconditional forgiveness would be not “Is it conceptually valid?” but instead “Is it just?” Initially my instincts tell me that, no, it is not just, as the perpetrator of the injustice receives no inconvenience for their crime against someone, but this too is yet another debatable topic.

All of these scholars touch on aspects of forgiveness that I had never even considered, especially questioning the mere possibility of forgiveness. Some things are questionably unforgiveable, but not all instances of forgiveness require the cooperation of both parties. And in certain situations, some may not even recognize that they are in the wrong and ought to hold themselves accountable. A reoccurring theme in all of these writings is the very real human nature of us all, which is what makes accountability, awareness, and the ability to forgive all the more complicated and unique to every person. After all of these considerations, it is clear to me that forgiveness is not the uncomplicated virtue that it is often framed to be. It has many layers and its essence cannot be described in a single thought.

Works Cited:

Nasr. 2011. “A Speech on Forgiveness.” Lecture, Oberlin College.

Bash, Anthony. 2007. Forgiveness and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge. Routledge.

Griswold, Charles L. 2008. “Forgiveness and Apology: What, When and Why?” Academic Search Complete Vol. 23 Issue 2:21-26.

[1] Nasr

[2] Govier, 9

[3] Griswold