Owen Ellerkamp — Forgiveness: Ethical? Religious? Or both?

Forgiveness pulls on the heartstrings of humanity. It shows the vulnerability and tenderness of humanity in the action of dispelling resentment in search of making peace over a mistake by a wrongdoer. The scales forgiveness manifest on range from self to God to the scale of government to corporation which could potentially include millions of people. In the readings for this past week, forgiveness is looked at with much nuance, however it is always conceptualized in relation to a “wrong” whether that “wrong” be a genocide, disobedience to God, or violating a traffic law. In this response paper, I will move through the readings of this past week to provide an overview the main themes of revenge, forgiveness, apology with analysis of the topics.

The selection from Forgiveness and Revenge by Govier focuses on revenge and retribution — two actions that seem diametrically opposed to forgiveness. A Gandhi quote serves as an epigraph for the chapter — “If everyone took an eye for an eye, the whole world would be blind.” This quotation is in defiance of “an eye for an eye,” a loose legal code dating back to the Babylonian King, Hammurabi. An argument in support of revenge through retributive theory cites it as an act “that most typical, decent, mentally healthy people have a kind of commonsense approval of some righteous hatred and revenge,” is seen in the work of Jeffrie Murphy (Govier 3) . Under the framework of retributive theory, revenge is seen as a cornerstone of justice. Another argument in defense of revenge draws from the collective human psyche by positing that revenge is primitive. The appeal to primordialism puts revenge in the place of being the natural, go-to reaction to a wrongdoing which by default puts forgiveness in an unnatural place. By unnatural place, I refer to a secondary action, not a primary action, or an action that requires more effort to carry out.

The discussion of revenge in this reading is ethical with little to no discussion of religious praxis, faith, or God. Rather, it is framed in a more legal and emotional context — how does revenge manifest as a feeling? Under retributive theory how is justice to be determined? Unlike revenge, forgiveness addresses more than just an ethical component, but also religious. In Forgiveness in Christian Ethics Anthony Bash historically writes of forgiveness in terms of Christianity. Bash argues that forgiveness “has principally been the concern of people of religious faith, and of Christian faith in particular” (23). He highlights Nietzsche’s view on forgiveness– an act of impotence by victims unwilling to seek revenge — to demonstrate that revenge was the norm of the time and symbolic of strength. However, the doctrine of forgiveness in opposition to revenge was introduced through Christian thinking while non-religious philosophers of the 19th and 20th century advocated for revenge. The Christian view of forgiveness is one of a moral good, imitative of the love of God (Bash 25). Forgiveness in Christianity is present in scripture and praxis. Through the practice of repentance one can be forgiven of a sin by God’s mandate. What is interesting is that Bash focuses heavily on the relationship between devotee and God when writing about forgiveness, however I primarily think of forgiveness as an action between people or tangible beings rather than God and human relations. Bash writes about forgiveness as a solely religious practice throughout much of history, but as of recent due to “quality of life” issues forgiveness has become a commonplace practice amongst all humans. In the mid twentieth century forgiveness was accepted as a way in which relationships could be enhanced.

The discussion of forgiveness that Bash puts forth begins with conflating forgiveness with the Christian faith based specifically on the relationship between God and an individual who seeks to repent, however more recently the practice of forgiveness is seen as a means to enhance relationships and extends beyond God-human interactions to human-human or government-government. The expansion of forgiveness as a universal concept, not just a faith practice brings up the dilemma of is forgiveness a religious or ethical matter? The ethical/religious dichotomy may be a false dichotomy at times, or convoluted to say the least.

Immanuel Kant, a pre-eminent German philosopher, spoke to the relationship of religion and ethics with the byline of “morality inevitably leads to religion,” but in regards to forgiveness the opposite seems to ring true (Kant 35).  Forgiveness has been encoded in Western standards of morally good behavior and is treated favorably as opposed to the ravaging of revenge. What is interesting here is the way that a once religious concept came to have clout over mainstream behavioral ethics– a phenomenon that has happened countless times over history.

Professor Nasr’s speech on forgiveness puts forgiveness on a pedestal referring to it as the best use of spiritual energy and transformative. What struck me most was the way in which Nasr spoke of forgiveness as a hand-out from God. “Christianity is called a world religion of divine justice because there is just forgiveness by God no matter what you will do” (Nasr 2). In a majority of the theological conceptions of Christian human nature, the human possesses free will with the ability to sin, but recognizes that God is their judge. Nasr posits that since God gave humanity free will and a world to live in, God recognizes that we are not perfect beings, but continually wants to love us, therefore God grants us forgiveness. Under the idea that God will forgive for all sins, what is the impetus to act morally sound under God’s omnipresence?  Additionally, the idea of otherworldly figure to human forgiveness is rather abstract. How does such a forgiveness make itself known? In human to human instances of forgiveness, a gesture is often made or words heal a wound between to parties.

Turning to an example Oberlin students can relate to, I’d like to write about the concepts of revenge and forgiveness in regards to the Gibson’s incident in November. In my mind the student protests in reaction to the actions of Mr. Gibson (the wrongdoer) can be seen as a form of revenge. Immediately after the event, students began to protest in reaction as a way to serve justice to the morally wrong action of the store owner. More recently President Krislov, as a representative of the school, decided to continue business with Gibson’s. In an email sent in late January President Krislov writes: “restorative resolution for all involved. To that end, following discussions with Mr. Gibson and local community and spiritual leaders, the College has chosen to resume its business relationship with Gibson’s as a good-faith effort in hopes of positive resolution for everyone affected as our community explores concerns and questions about how we live, learn, and thrive together.” The solution that President Krislov decided on behalf of the college exists in a liminal place between revenge and forgiveness– the email does not state complete forgiveness, but rather states that the college would like a “restorative resolution” and implies the action of working side by side with Gibson’s to re-mediate the relationship rather than completely forgiving. Also of note is the reference to community spiritual leaders and their role in the mediation of this conflict.

Forgiveness, revenge, and apology are all human actions that come with much nuance and are often circumstantial. As the semester progresses, I would like to explore the idea of forgiveness between human and God — how is forgiveness manifested in this relationship?

Works Cited

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

Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge. Routledge, 2002.

Kant, Immanuel. Religion within the boundaries of mere reason and other writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Krislov, Marvin. “Message from President Krislov regarding Gibson’s Bakery.” E-mail message to author. January 23, 2017.

Nasr, Professor. “A Speech on Forgiveness.” Speech, OH, Oberlin, April 7, 2011.