Overview:

The ethos of forgiveness permeates Christianity and, thus, American culture. But is forgiveness always actually necessary or even moral?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Raised Roman Catholic, I was indoctrinated in childhood with the idea that forgiveness is a cardinal duty of faith, which then saddled me with knee-jerk guilt whenever I failed to bestow it.

But as I think objectively about this moral ethos many decades later, I’m unconvinced it’s essential for human harmony and contentment.

In fact, it often seems to make little or no sense in the real world.

I’m thinking of this after a number of coincidental events in recent days in which the supposed need for forgiveness—however burdened by pain, horror or even evil—was evoked.

Of course, by definition, forgiveness must be bestowed by victims on their transgressors, no matter—according to Christian dogma—how heinous or destructive the transgression. That sounds irrational to me.

Why must we forgive? Two biblical passages below summarize the Christian root of forgiveness—linking it to godliness:

  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
  • For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14).

But how is that even reasonable in a catastrophic situation, for example, as what happened September 4 in and around James Smith Cree Nation, a rural Canadian indigenous community in Saskatchewan province. In that horrible incident, two brothers with close ties to the Nation, Miles and Damien Sanderson, attacked community members with knives at 13 locations, killing 10 and wounding 18, according to the New York Times.

Should surviving victims and their families and all the people massively traumatized by this horrific act forgive the murderous, thirty-something brothers, who were long considered outcasts for bad and violent behavior? Even now that the killers are also dead?

Myles inexplicably died in police custody after being arrested, and Damien, was brutally stabbed to death—police believe the assailant was Myles—because Damien may have wanted to end the brothers’ joint slaughter spree.

Five days after the rampage, Darryl Burns, a member of the grieving Cree community and brother of a murdered victim, held a somber open-air press conference. Beside him was a young woman, sobbing.

“I have a young lady here,” Burns said. “Her husband was one of the accused. Her husband was accused of killing my sister. Our family is here to forgive. This woman shouldn’t have to bear that kind of guilt and shame and responsibility.”

There it is. The Christian compulsion to forgive.

Certainly, this woman—who has zero responsibility for the attacks and, thus, should suffer zero guilt about it—still will be unjustly burdened with unearned shame, because traumatized people judge irrationally in their grief, often unfairly targeting whoever is closest at hand.

In another recent case, the murderer of pop-music icon John Lennon in New York City in 1980—Mark David Chapman, now 67—will shortly be considered for parole for the 12th time. The good news is, the state, at least thus far, has reasonably decided to not forgive Chapmen his transgressions and to not release him from his “life term” in prison.

Why should he be forgiven and released in the first place? Lennon is still dead, after all, and serving an eternal sentence to fate.

Christianity is also present in this calculation. Assumed with the ethos of forgiveness is also the faith’s belief in personal redemption, statistically a somewhat rare occurrence among people who do unconscionably bad things, whether they be murderers, pedophiles, spouse beaters or other villains of humanity.

Recidivism rates—how often criminals are reincarcerated for other crimes after being paroled—illustrate how fraught the concepts of forgiveness and redemption are.

The social service network Atlas Corps explained:

According to an April 2011 report by the Pew Center on the States, the average national recidivism rate for released prisoners is 43%. But according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) about 68 percent of 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of their release from prison, and 77 percent were arrested within five years.

This does not bode well for an ethos of forgiveness, if redemption in earthly as well as heavenly law requires authentic repentance, appropriate restitution, and demonstrable success in not transgressing again.

To be fair, however, recidivism rates in the U.S. appears to have dropped significantly in more recent years, although they’re still unacceptably far too high.

There are also forgiveness opportunities for lesser infranctions—such as the kerfuffle that erupted recently when entertainer Lea Michelle (a prominent former cast member of the television series “Glee”) was named as the new star of Broadway’s coveted prestige musical “Funny Girl.” The musical was originally made iconic by singer Barbara Streisand.

It has been alleged by former colleagues of Michelle that she has in the past behaved professionally in racist, bullying and abusive ways toward fellow cast-mates. Her alleged victims believe, despite the passage of time, she didn’t deserve to be rewarded with a plumb role.

Wrote New York Times editor Jessica Bennett in a recent opinion piece:

Until very recently, America was a place where fresh starts were celebrated, championed, romanticized, rooted for (if sufficiently earned). The idea of second chances is a centerpiece of rehabilitation and renewal programs, with organizations named for it and even a month devoted to it by the White House. In restorative justice circles — in which those who committed an act of harm may sit down with their victim or a broader community to try to make amends — one of the core principles is that people are never the sum of their worst mistakes. Even, presumably, Ms. Michele, who starts performances in ‘Funny Girl’ tonight.”

Although she has publicly apologized to those who felt abused by her, Michelle admits “there is an edge about me” and that she is a hyper-intense perfectionist who sometimes aggressively demands the same of others. It doesn’t sound much like authentic repentance or seem to reflect hopefully on her potential redemption.

So, why then should she be forgiven?

She shouldn’t, in my view, until she authentically repents and changes her ways to become demonstrably less abusive toward others. Victims will know when she has.

But hers is of a whole different category than murderers and pedophiles, for instance, because the damage to victims by the transgressor in those situations is orders of magnitude worse and more life-altering (or ending) than that of boorish bullies.

Certainly, relieving oneself of a lifelong, raging need for revenge is a positive goal. But why does forgiveness have to be the only path to healing after a debilitating felony or an unjust wrong?

Instead of forgive and forget, how about just forget and move on?

After all, the American tendency toward worshipfulness manifestly does not just pop up in adulthood. Something clearly happens in carefree, clueless childhood that—if it doesn’t create little believers and forgivers immediately—at least sets the stage for eventual divine adoration and charitableness later on.

on the other hand
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions

Forgiveness: Your health depends on it

This Ted Talk video below offers a slightly different take on unnecessary forgiveness:

If a person murders your family member, say, and they are tried and convicted in a court of law and sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence, why not allow yourself to relax a bit? That’s all that can reasonably be done; at least partial justice has been meted out.

But if a murderous psychopath walks free on parole in 15 years of a so-called “life sentence,” you should understandably scream bloody murder. Statistics indicate that murderers only very infrequently transform into paragons of virtue in prison, so they should stay there to at least protect the rest of society from their highly likely recidivism.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want Mark David Chapman living on my street, much less next door, even if he has spent the last 40 years in prison paying for his sins. Although I don’t “forgive” him, I don’t want him to needlessly suffer, either, but I certainly don’t want him walking about blissfully with the rest of us non-murderers.

John Lennon is still dead, and his surviving family and friends, not to mention fans of his glorious music, are still grieving. They are all still figuratively paying for Chapman’s sins, so why shouldn’t Chapman, as well? The least we should expect is some guarantee that Chapman won’t transgress in the same way against anyone else, and I don’t believe anyone can guarantee that if he’s free.

Although studies indicate that while paroled murderers rarely kill again, many of them break other laws. The point is, they’re a risky bet for law-abiding folks, if welcomed again into society.

Of course, forgiveness is fine for marginal sins—like betraying a friend’s confidence or executing a rolling stop at a stop sign—which do not necessary reflect a permanent, dangerous-to-others flaw in character and can’t be overlooked once or twice with scant risk.

What I’m proposing is that some things are forgivable. And some things just aren’t.

There’s no need to beat yourself up if you can’t formally forgive a villain who has harmed you or yours. You’ve probably been taught since childhood to forgive, but there’s really no need. It’s just an artifact of indoctrination. A habit.

But that doesn’t mean it’s necessary.

This YouTube video below explores forgiveness from a slightly different vantage:

YouTube video

I mean, how can we forgive a mass murderer, for instance? I don’t see how we can. And we probably shouldn’t. But we can banish these living demons from our consciousness if there’s nothing we can do to change the suffering they have caused except to support temporal justice being served. Forgiving them, to my way of thinking, is just a form of self-delusion.


Read: Did too-blind justice free Kyle Rittenhouse?


Fortunately, we do have the power, if we use it, to embrace what’s nurturing and positive in our lives, dismissing the rest that we have no control over.

We can forgive ourselves for being understandably enraged at injustice and evil, do what we can to change it, and then purposefully move on.

To be fair, however, recidivism rates in the U.S. appears to have dropped significantly in more recent years, but they’re still, unacceptably, far too high.

Instead of forgive and forget, how about just forget and move on? Forgiving makes the victim complicit in rationalizing the crime.

Forgiveness is also an issue for infractions lesser than major crimes like homicide or sexual abuse—such as the kerfuffle that erupted recently when entertainer Lea Michelle (a prominent former cast member of the television series “Glee”) was named as the new star of Broadway’s coveted prestige musical “Funny Girl.” The musical was originally made iconic by singer Barbara Streisand.

It has been alleged by former colleagues of Michelle that she has in the past behaved professionally in racist, bullying and abusive ways toward fellow cast-mates.

Wrote New York Times editor Jessica Bennett in a recent opinion piece:

Until very recently, America was a place where fresh starts were celebrated, championed, romanticized, rooted for (if sufficiently earned). The idea of second chances is a centerpiece of rehabilitation and renewal programs, with organizations named for it and even a month devoted to it by the White House. In restorative justice circles — in which those who committed an act of harm may sit down with their victim or a broader community to try to make amends — one of the core principles is that people are never the sum of their worst mistakes. Even, presumably, Ms. Michele, who starts performances in ‘Funny Girl’ tonight.

Although she has publicly apologized to those who felt abused by her, Michelle admits “there is an edge about me” and that she is a hyper-intense perfectionist who robustly demands the same of others. It doesn’t sound much like authentic repentance or seem to reflect hopefully on her potential redemption.

So, why then should she be forgiven?

She shouldn’t, in my view, until she authentically repents and changes her ways to become demonstrably less abusive toward others.

But hers is of a whole different category than murderers and pedophiles, for instance, because the damage to victims by the transgressor in those situations is orders of magnitude worse and more life-altering (or ending) than that of boorish bullies.

Certainly, relieving oneself of a lifelong, raging need for revenge is a positive goal in the most devastating crimes against humanity. But why does forgiveness have to be the only path to healing after a debilitating tragedy?

Instead of forgive and forget, how about just forget and move on? Forgiving makes the victim complicit in rationalizing the crime.

If a person murders your family member, say, and they are tried and convicted in a court of law and sentenced to a lengthy prison sentence, why not allow yourself to relax a bit? That’s all that can reasonably be done; at least partial justice has been meted out.

But if a murderous psychopath walks free on parole in 15 years of a so-called “life sentence,” you should understandably scream bloody murder. Statistics indicate that murderers only very infrequently transform into paragons of virtue in prison, so they should stay there to at least protect the rest of society from their highly likely recidivism.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want Mark David Chapman living on my street, much less next door, even if he has spent the last 40 years in prison paying for his sins. Although I don’t “forgive” him, I also don’t want him to needlessly suffer, either, but I certainly don’t want him walking about blissfully with the rest of us non-murderers.

John Lennon is still dead, and his surviving family and friends, not to mention fans of his glorious music, are still grieving. They are all still figuratively paying for Chapman’s sins, so why shouldn’t Chapman, as well? That sounds more like justice. The least we should expect is some guarantee that Chapman won’t transgress in the same way against anyone else, and I don’t believe anyone can guarantee that if he’s free.

Although studies indicate that while paroled murderers rarely kill again, many of them break other laws. The point is, they’re a risky bet for law-abiding folks if welcomed again into society.

Of course, forgiveness is fine for marginal sins—like betraying a friend’s confidence, executing a rolling stop at a stop sign or telling a “white lie”—which do not necessary reflect a destructive flaw in character that can’t be overlooked once or twice without dire risk.

What I’m proposing is that while some things are forgivable, some things just aren’t.

There’s no need to beat yourself up if you can’t bring yourself to forgive a villain who has harmed you or yours. You’ve probably been taught since childhood to forgive, but it’s really just an artifact of indoctrination. A cultural habit.

Not a universal moral edict.

I mean, how can we forgive a mass murderer, for instance? I don’t see how. And we probably shouldn’t. But we can banish these living demons from our consciousness if there’s nothing we can do to change the suffering they have caused except to support temporal justice being served. Forgiving extreme transgressors, to my way of thinking, is just a form of self-delusion.

Fortunately, we do have the power, if we use it, to embrace what’s nurturing and positive in our lives, dismissing the rest that we have no agency over.

We can forgive ourselves for being understandably enraged at injustice and evil, do what we can to mitigate them, and then purposefully move on.

Avatar photo

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...