Matthew Ichihashi Potts is a professor of religion and literature at Harvard University. He is also the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard.
Below, Matthew shares 5 key insights from his new book, Forgiveness: An Alternative Account. Listen to the audio version—read by Matthew himself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Forgiveness is a problem.
Perhaps the most dramatic public example of forgiveness in recent American memory was in June of 2015, when a white supremacist named Dylann Roof entered the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine church members.
After his capture, Roof showed absolutely no repentance. When he was arraigned, however, some (but not all) of the victims’ family members offered Roof forgiveness. Observing these public acts of forgiveness during an interview, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wondered aloud, “Is that real? …I question the realness of that.”
If forgiveness is real, then it’s a real problem. Many philosophers, scholars, and activists have grown skeptical of forgiveness’ usefulness. Isn’t it a moral hazard when a person who remains entirely unrepentant and hostile to reparations is offered forgiveness without any condition whatsoever? Why is it so often that people of color and those marginalized by systemic violence are the ones asked to forgive? Doesn’t this transfer the responsibility for repairing wrongdoing from the offender to the victim?
These critiques are all valid, but I also believe it’s because the form of forgiveness we have inherited, the one that shapes our collective wisdom and conventional practice, is both very recent and deeply wrong. There’s good evidence that ancient and other models of forgiveness do not necessarily fall into the same traps which contemporary Western customs do.
2. Forgiveness can be angry.
Another very public instance of forgiveness happened in 2006, when members of the Amish community of Nickel Mines Pennsylvania rallied around the family of Charles Carl Roberts IV, after he had killed five young Amish girls and gravely wounded five more, before committing suicide. The Amish community, including family members of the victims, mourned with Roberts’s mother and widow and even shielded them from the press so that they could grieve in private at Roberts’s funeral. This part of the story is fairly well known. What is less well known is how complicated bonds of care and grief developed between Roberts’s mother and his victims. Christ King, whose daughter Rosanna was shot and permanently disabled by Roberts, welcomed Roberts’s mother Terri into his home as a part-time caretaker for Rosanna, until Terri’s death a few years ago. Another child who survived the shooting volunteered to clean Terri’s house while Terri underwent chemotherapy. Christ King said in 2016 that even after ten years of genuine friendship with Terri, he still felt anger every single day.
“To say, I forgive, often means, I’m no longer angry. But this association is not necessary for forgiveness to be genuine.”
We tend to associate the offer of forgiveness with the abatement of anger. To say, I forgive, often means, I’m no longer angry. But this association is not necessary for forgiveness to be genuine. When reviewing ancient scriptural sources and their references to forgiveness, it becomes obvious that these teachings are far less concerned with how we feel than with what we do. Which makes some sense; ethics ought to be about evaluating actions, not policing emotions. In the early modern period, anger was understood to be entirely consonant with forgiveness and love, rather than contrary. The moral philosopher Joseph Butler, for example, in his sermons on forgiveness, spends half his time defending anger, which he calls a natural and necessary emotion. It protects us and others because it helps us know we have been harmed and we need to know we are harmed before we can seek redress for it. For Butler, forgiveness is about reacting to anger appropriately, without vengeance or hatred.
Anyone who has suffered a grievous harm knows that emotions are unpredictable and anger can arise at any moment. Making forgiveness depend upon the utter absence of anger renders forgiveness impossible to achieve for real victims. This all makes me wonder why we have come to associate forgiveness with anger’s abatement, and I think it’s for the reason Butler cites. Anger is evidence of harm. Anger will indicate my harm has not been redressed and you still have work to do. I think in our present moment we have been left with the form of forgiveness that power wants, the sort that erases the evidence of harm to avoid the burdens of reparation.
3. Forgiveness isn’t reconciliation.
Acclaimed scholar and peacebuilder John Paul Lederach is not only one of the founding voices in the field of peace studies, he’s also an experienced practitioner, mediator, and negotiator, having conducted peace work in Colombia, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Somalia, and other places. Lederach writes about what he calls the gift of pessimism. When warring peoples have only recently ceased active conflict, he observes, there is often impatience among bureaucrats to move forward with negotiations quickly and towards full reconciliation. But Lederach cautions against moving too fast. In these difficult moments of post-conflict agreement, people are still hurting deeply and trust no one—certainly not their enemies, and the peace process least of all.
Lederach says the peacebuilder must honor this sense of pessimism. Any attempt to pull people too hastily away from their pain and mistrust will be to misunderstand the depth of their pain. Reconciliation can’t be rushed. People have good reasons to mistrust their enemies. The peacebuilder’s job is to create the space and time for people to process that resentment non-violently, and often that may be at a safe enough distance from those they distrust and despise.
“Reconciliation can be a good and honorable goal, but there remains a great deal of moral space between the refusal of vengeful retaliation and a fully restored relationship.”
In our colloquial usage, we often employ the language of forgiveness and reconciliation interchangeably, suggesting that forgiveness requires welcoming an offender back with open arms. But restored relation is crucially distinct from forgiveness. Reconciliation can be a good and honorable goal, but there remains a great deal of moral space between the refusal of vengeful retaliation and a fully restored relationship. The assumption that forgiveness also involves an immediate invitation to renewed intimacy forces victims prematurely to close the gap between their simple and laudable retaliatory restraint and the separate, often unwarranted, goal of reconciliation. There’s no reason forgiveness has to collapse into reconciliation. As Lederach suggests, there are many reasons why it shouldn’t.
4. Forgiveness seeks justice.
One of the most ancient frameworks for justice comes from the Hebrew scriptures, though it has analogues in both ancient Babylonian and Roman law. It’s called the lex talionis, which is Latin for the law of like for like. It comes from Exodus 23: If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
This sense of justice is so deeply engrained that we don’t even notice it. When a wrong goes unpunished, justice has not been done. But what’s really at stake in the ancient law of like for like? First of all, retaliation doesn’t actually restore anything. I can’t put your tooth in my mouth if you knock mine out. So, if it’s not about compensation, what is it about? It’s about restraint. You’re not entitled to murder someone who sprains your ankle. It’s only a tooth for a tooth. One should also consider that this law was written at a time when social status entitled the powerful to all sorts of abuses toward the vulnerable. This teaching suggests the idea of equal dignity, that the poor man’s tooth is worth no more or less than the powerful man’s. Justice isn’t about payback, it’s about respecting the equal dignity of enemies.
What is at stake in this law is something about ensuring fairness and promoting restraint. What it’s not about is a fantasy of compensation. In fact, there is little evidence that teeth were pulled or eyes plucked out as a general rule of punishment in ancient Israel. Instead, monetary fines were levied as equivalent compensation, but this has led to a problematic conceptual legacy. Think how pervasively an economic metaphor structures our language about punishment. We say offenders must be redeemed like vouchers, or that people emerging out of incarceration have paid their debt to society. But how is five years is prison anything like drug possession?
“Justice is about finding a way for a community to move forward in the wake of irrevocable harm, and forgiveness is just this sort of justice.”
In the cases of the most grievous wrongs, no compensation is possible, and the idea that vengeance can provide compensation is a form of culturally persistent magical thinking that betrays the basic values of the lex talionis. If you take five dollars from me, you can give five dollars back, with interest even, depending how we define repayment. But if you kill my brother, no act can restore what has been lost. The loss is something I must live with, not something I can recover. Justice is about finding a way for a community to move forward in the wake of irrevocable harm, and forgiveness is just this sort of justice. It is always a judgement, it names and condemns wrongdoing. But in levying its judgement, forgiveness commits to the values of restraint and equal dignity that ground the lex talionis in theory, if not in practice, and in spirit, if not in letter.
5. Forgiveness is mourning.
Near the end of Homer’s ancient epic war poem, The Iliad, there is a brief truce between the Greeks and the Trojans who have been battling for the whole of the poem. Through thousands of lines of verse, the Greek warrior Achilles has been terrorizing the Trojans and laid waste to the Trojan’s hero Hector, leaving Hector’s beaten, broken corpse unburied and unmourned on the battlefield. In response, Hector’s father, the Trojan king Priam, comes to Achilles to beg for the body of his son. The old king falls at the feet of Achilles and weeps. Achilles gazes upon his aged enemy and recalls his own dead father Peleus, and his dead lover Patroclus, and then Achilles, the man of rage, weeps too. Priam and Achilles cry together and then they sit for a meal and admire one another’s awful beauty. Achilles returns Hector’s body to Priam to be buried according to the proper rites, and the armies have peace just long enough to mourn their dead.
This ancient story exemplifies why I characterize forgiveness as a form of mourning. Forgiveness accepts that what has been lost cannot be restored, and then it aims to live with the irrevocability of wrong. If forgiveness is a moral good, then it is good only in the sense that mourning is a social or psychological good: not because mourning itself is a wonderful and enjoyable thing, but because it is the way we learn to struggle with a loss we cannot redeem. Forgiveness is more tragedy than triumph; less miracle than mourning.
Since forgiveness addresses the past unflinchingly, it also positions itself more honestly toward whatever the future can actually be. The urge to live with loss is still an urge to live, and so forgiveness is a stance of openness towards the future. It is a future which might demand facing down sorrow, anger, and anguish daily, but forgiveness does not vainly try by violence to rectify the irrevocable. Forgiveness looks with grief towards what life really must become going forward, and then it faces that future with a grim will and survives.
To listen to the audio version read by author Matthew Ichihashi Potts, download the Next Big Idea App today: