Forgiveness is a gift generated by generosity. It is generosity of spirit. It is an element of a shared spirituality. Socially, it is an expression of Richard Titmuss’s ‘gift relationship’.
Forgiveness recognises the existence of wrong, of imperfection, and seeks to mitigate their outcomes. We may all need it, and can resolve to give it when needed. It is a conscious decision to cancel the offence of a wrong-doing. It may also cancel a financial debt.
Forgiveness may or may not lead to reconciliation, which is a relational choice, separate to forgiveness itself. It is possible to forgive but not reconcile, but not possible to reconcile without forgiveness. Equally, it may or may not lead to restoration. A stolen good can be returned, but only if it hasn’t been lost, consumed, or damaged. The original relationship has been changed, either for better or for worse, by the offence, and cannot be fully restored unchanged. This is what Hannah Arendt called ‘the predicament of irreversibility’. The deed has been done and cannot be undone.
Forgiveness is the alternative to punishment in response to the requirement of justice. According to evangelical Christian thinking, God both punishes and forgives. In fact, he is said to cruelly punish person A in order to forgive person B. This is a zero sum concept of forgiveness, and is morally defective. Forgiveness has its own power. It mitigates punishment whilst satisfying justice. Justice does not have to be retributive. Sharia law in fact allows the victim’s forgiveness to annul legal punishment of the criminal.
Anthony Bash in his article ‘Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Spirituality’ argues that forgiveness is not restricted to religious paradigms, but is ‘part of the spirituality of all human beings’. How do we propose an atheist secular concept of forgiveness? We can achieve this by pragmatic argument, ie that we will all need forgiveness at some point in our lives, so we would all be better off adopting a forgiving attitude. Or we can determine that a forgiving nature is the way we prefer to be. Like kindness, forgiveness is a matter of the heart, and a disposition of choice.
Forgiveness is easier when the wrong we have been done is accidental, but more difficult if it is intentional. It’s easier where the consequences are small, but difficult where they are substantial. It’s easier if the fault is admitted and there is remorse, but more difficult otherwise. When we feel wronged or offended, we can suggest the option of forgiveness to ourselves. This is a spiritual discipline put into practice.
Richard Titmuss ‘The Gift Relationship’ 1971
Hannah Arendt ‘The Human Condition’ 1958
Anthony Bash ‘Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Spirituality’ in Journal for the Study of Spirituality, Vol 4 Number 1, 2014