The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal

TheLimitsBy Maria Mayo. Fortress Press, 2015. 253 pages. $39/paperback; $22.99/eBook.

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Here we have a book that draws us into a lively exploration of forgiveness. More pointedly, what is the role of unconditional forgiveness in our lives? Many would say that unconditional forgiveness is good for our community and good for our mental health. Maria Mayo agrees that while this is often true, she offers a solid argument that conditional forgiveness also has a place at the table.

Before getting into the details of her critique of unconditional forgiveness, a brief review of what we’ve been taught might help frame the discussion. Mainstream monotheistic religions generally teach that divine forgiveness is on condition of some form of confessional repentance. True, there are secondary streams where unconditional forgiveness is a divine gift to humanity.

When it comes to forgiving an offender in one’s community, generally our religious teaching is that forgiveness is conditioned by some form of confessional repentance on the part of the offender. It’s also true that unconditional forgiveness is a major value in religious teaching.

Here comes the hard part. What is one to do when there has been an injury and there’s no one willing or able to offer a confessional repentance? The most searing example from the last century is, of course, the Holocaust, one in a long list of similar atrocities. Then what does one do when the offender is in the same community (Rwanda) and is unwilling to offer an apology? What is the battered wife of a chronically abusive husband to do?

Mayo stirs the pot with her The Limits of Forgiveness: Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal.

She reports that when the victims of apartheid South Africa were asked during the Truth and Reconciliation process to offer unconditional forgiveness, there was pressure to do so for the sake of civil stability. She suggests that this pressure may have been a further victimization.

She notes that South African Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu used religious teaching to support the idea of unconditional forgiveness, citing teachings about forgiveness in the Gospels.

Mayo begs to differ. For her, the biblical teaching was that forgiveness was contingent upon an expression of confessional repentance by the offender. Forgiveness was best understood in the context of the community where offender and victim were helped to find restorative justice.

Mayo points out the limits of forgiveness, noting situations when unconditional forgiveness does not serve the victim, the offender, or the community. For example, take the case of Adolf Eichmann. She argues that refusing to forgive him and sentencing him to death served to heal the community, referencing Matthew 18:6 where Jesus says of a particular type of offender, “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” The implication being that while it wasn’t so great for the bad guy, it was the right thing to do for the community.

She leaves it to others to clarify how unconditional forgiveness is good for the victim, the offender, and the community.

What if there is no offender available to take responsibility and make amends? What if the injury is existential, as it the case with people whose history is of enslavement? Or if their history is of genocide?

A good place to start is with Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. He offers a nine-step process for letting go of hurt, helplessness, and anger while increasing confidence, hope, and happiness.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi invites us to join him for what he calls “a Testimonial Dinner for the Severe Teachers.” He offers a process where we can look for possible learnings and benefits from loss or injury. Our suffering can itself be a teacher? Yes, in some cases.

Closer to home, there was the 2006 case of the schoolhouse killing in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa. The Amish response was unconditional forgiveness.

And more recently there was the 2015 church shooting at the Charleston Emanuel AME Church, where the congregation responded with unconditional forgiveness.

It was Emmet Fox, in his 1934 book The Sermon on the Mount, who inspired the now familiar line often used in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

I enjoy a good revenge fantasy as much as the next person. But when it’s time to let it go, I visualize myself on a little bridge over a small stream. I wrap my current resentment of the day in a biodegradable paper bag, drop it in the river and watch it float away. Pretty soon, it’s gone.

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