Perhaps it's that combination of things that drew me to this column by Giles Fraser in the Guardian. Fraser is, the Guardian tells us, "priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral." But really, I don't care about his titles or his job. What I'm intrigued by is the idea. We think about forgiveness wrong.
We have this idea. Forgiveness, we think "involves person A coming to have warm and kindly feelings towards person B when person B has done them some enormous harm." There are, in fact, cases. I've written about more than a few of them here. They're noteworthy precisely because they're so remarkable, because they demonstrate something of the capacity of the human heart.
Of course they're outliers. They have to be. Fraser puts it this way.
For the problem with forgiveness, as a kindly feeling towards a wrongdoer, is that it is impossible for most of us, maybe even for all of us. This I know: if you harmed my children, there is no way I am going to think kindly of you. Not ever.But if that sort of thing isn't within reach, maybe there's this.
A more realistic, and indeed a more politically useful understanding of forgiveness is, I think, that it is a refusal of getting even, a refusal of revenge.Think of it as the anti-Blecker, the response to he who thinks insisting on getting even is the goal of life, who believes in wallowing in the hatred, not just the hatred of those who did him wrong, but the hatred of those who do anyone wrong. Hate 'em all, thrive on it, seek revenge (but call it retribution and insist it's something other than revenge), revel in it.
Revenge, of course, is the model of the feud. Each stroke must be repaid. Hatfield kills McCoy, McCoy kills Hatfield. Hatfield must strike back. Ad infinitum.
Forgiveness, as in the refusal of reciprocity, does not make us feel good inside. In fact, as Nietzsche rightly pointed out, it does probably the opposite. We are still bitter and angry. But if this is the burden we have to bear for peace, then so be it.There's room in that formulation for those who would hate, perhaps. Fraser suggests that they could find peace by choosing not to act on the hate, and thereby give it up.
Forgiveness breaks the cycle of revenge and makes possible a future that is not trapped in the violence and hatred of the past.Frankly, I think that's fanciful if forgiveness simply means not acting on the hate. But then he's a priest and I'm just a lawyer. Still, I get something of his point.
One of the things I have always liked about the stories of the Bible is that they are mostly uninterested in a person's inner life. They don't say much about how Jesus feels. But they say a great deal about what he does. Likewise with forgiveness: it is not fundamentally something that you feel, but something that you do.Maybe. There's a simple eloquence to that formulation - not what you feel but what you do. Fraser knows better, I think, than really to believe it's that simple. Because his whole point, finally, is that the act of forgiving ultimately brings peace and eases hate.
But there's this, too. There's no figuring in this whether the object of the forgiving is deserving. The act of forgiving is an act of giving. Like mercy, like grace, it's about the giver, it's about what we can and will do.
Which is why it ultimately heals. Because in the long run, what we do is who we are.