We are in a season traditionally devoted to good will among people and to the renewal of hope in the face of hard times. As we seek to realize these lofty ideals, one of our greatest challenges is overcoming bitterness and divisiveness. We all struggle with the wrongs others have done to us as well as those we have done to others, and we recoil at the vast extent of injury humankind seems determined to inflict on itself. How to keep hope alive? Without a constructive answer to toxic anger, addictive cycles of revenge, and immobilizing guilt, we seem doomed to despair about chances for renewal. One answer to this despair lies in forgiveness.
What is forgiveness? When is it appropriate? Why is it considered to be commendable? Some claim that forgiveness is merely about ridding oneself of vengeful anger; do that, and you have forgiven. But if you were able to banish anger from your soul simply by taking a pill, would the result really be forgiveness? The timing of forgiveness is also disputed. Some say that it should wait for the offender to take responsibility and suffer due punishment, others hold that the victim must first overcome anger altogether, and still others that forgiveness should be unilaterally bestowed at the earliest possible moment. But what if you have every good reason to be angry and even to take your sweet revenge as well? Is forgiveness then really to be commended? Some object that it lets the offender off the hook, confesses to one’s own weakness and vulnerability, and papers over the legitimate demands of vengeful anger. And yet, legions praise forgiveness and think of it as an indispensable virtue. Recall the title of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book on the subject: “No Future Without Forgiveness.”