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We all know what “forgiveness” is, right?  It’s what you do when you accept an apology from someone for some wrong they have done to you.  While that may be the most common form of forgiveness, the question of when and how to forgive can be a bit more complicated.

Let’s say that the situation involves not just a relatively minor misdeed, but a serious transgression, such as abuse or rape.  The act may have resulted in serious physical or mental harm or in the loss of a great deal of money.  Would a simple apology be enough?

Doctrines on forgiveness can be found in many religious faiths, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism, to name just a few.  Usually, they involve some form of atonement coupled with mercy for the transgressor.  Teachings on the subject seem to focus on two types of absolution.

One focuses on a path of redemption.  This usually involves a confession of the transgression by the guilty party, contrition, and some form of recompense where that is possible and appropriate.  Once they have proceeded through this process, the victim (or perhaps God as the case may be) will forgive them.  This would seem to couple the imperative of some form of accountability for the offense with compensation for the victim.

An interesting example of this type of forgiveness can be seen in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which sought to address the crimes of apartheid without resort to prosecution.  (Of course, involvement in apartheid was so widespread in South Africa that a primarily judicial approach to accountability would have been impractical and destabilizing to the country.)   The way the Commission worked was that only those implicated in serious offenses under the apartheid system and who acknowledged their guilt would be entitled to amnesty and avoid prosecution.  This approach at least gave victims of offenses the satisfaction of having their victimizers acknowledge their transgressions openly.

The South African experience is an example of what is called “restorative justice,” albeit on a scale that exceeds most cases in which it is used.  Put simply, restorative justice seeks to heal the rift in a community or relationship brought about by transgression through the perpetrator’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a mechanism to promote reconciliation, without resorting to a judicial process.

Closely related to this route to forgiveness is an aphorism which I first heard uttered in an episode of Star Trek by Sarek, a Vulcan diplomat and Spock’s father, but which apparently is derived from a French proverb, and which goes as follows:  “To understand all is to forgive all.”  The notion is that if we understood all of the circumstances surrounding some wrongdoing, we would invariably forgive those wrongs.  In order to get there, there must be some accounting for the wrong that enables the victim to fully understand why and how it took place.  That accounting might come through some sort of confession and/or an investigation that reveals all of the relevant circumstances.

Now, what if the perpetrator is not interested in treading a path of redemption, perhaps because they do not feel that they have done anything wrong?  Is there some room for forgiveness nonetheless?

I recall such a case that took place several years ago at a black church in Charleston.  A white supremacist killed several of the church’s members and expressed absolutely no remorse for his heinous acts and did not seek any forgiveness from the victims’ families.  Nevertheless, several of the victims’ families, despite their pain, said that they forgave the killer for his crimes.  This was a bit of a head-scratcher for me, as forgiveness was not sought by the killer and the killer had done nothing to earn it.

This leads to another type of forgiveness – forgiveness even where the transgressor does not seek redemption.  This is forgiveness “by act of grace.”  This notion of forgiveness finds origins in a number of faiths; Christianity and Buddhism have particularly developed dogma on this.  The New Testament says on this topic that just as mankind’s sins were forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, so should we forgive the sins of others without any contrition or compensation required.  Buddhism similarly holds that one is to forgive trespasses even in the absence of repentance.

It is said that forgiveness by act of grace is not just for the transgressor, but more importantly it lifts the spiritual and psychological burdens of anger and hatred from the victim.  Seen in this vein, we can understand the forgiveness by the families in the church attack and how it lifted a spiritual burden from them without any need for remorse or compensation on the part of the attacker.  Still, it would seem difficult indeed for most people to let go of transgression in that manner.  And in the case of the church attack, there was a judicial process that pursued accountability and punishment for the transgressor, making it an easier case for forgiveness than one where accountability is unavailable or eluded.

I have had opportunities to reflect on these approaches to forgiveness on several occasions.  While a number of ethical systems support the desirability of forgiveness by act of grace, there is something unsatisfying about it and its lack of any gesture on the part of the transgressor towards healing the victim’s pain.  It would also not appear that this approach could provide a basis for an effort to pursue restorative justice, which to many is highly desirable.  While some victims may be willing to forgive in such a manner to unburden themselves of anger and hatred, it may be likely that, in the absence of some form of justice, such emotions will reemerge at a later point to torment the victim.

Forgiveness through redemption would seem to respond to the victim’s entitlement to some measure of justice, even if it is only on a spiritual plane, while opening the door to unburdening both victim and victimizer.  It should not be lost on readers that this approach is also spiritually cleansing for the transgressor, who must come to terms with their guilt and make amends with the victim, and who thereby merits absolution.  Admittedly, there may be cases where extenuating circumstances will justify an exception to this principle and eschewing a redemptive process, leaving forgiveness by act of grace the only alternative.  But that determination is for the victim to make.