An atheist's take on the virtue of forgiveness

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I am not a fan of Christianity. For many years I have been what some might call a 'militant atheist': the type who is far more likely to catalogue the pitfalls of faith than to highlight the benefits. But more and more I am enamoured of one element of Christianity that I consider its most striking, and most laudable, feature: forgiveness.

Angry people back-to-back, one pair turn to take each other's hand in forgiveness. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonForgiveness stands out among religious virtues because it one of the most difficult to put into practice, particularly in the terms that Christ put it: love your enemies; turn the other cheek; forgive those who have wronged you. It's also one of the most unfashionable virtues going around, at least in the public discourse, as it's rare to see either Christians or non-Christians urging forgiveness.

This is understandable. In a world full of pain and suffering inflicted by human beings upon other human beings, extending forgiveness to anyone who is seen to have harmed others is hardly a high priority for most people. Compassion for those who have been wronged is more important than compassion for those doing the wronging.

And we are indeed exhorted regularly to show compassion— for refugees, for the poor, for the disabled, for victims of violence and oppression. This is no bad thing — the more compassion the better, and if we can make caring for our fellow humans the rule, we will create a better world.

Compassion is easy. There is no great challenge in opening your heart to those who are suffering, or to anyone you see as an 'ally'. What is difficult, though, is showing compassion for people who aren't on our side. Forgiving our enemies, or doers of horrendous deeds. Who can forgive a murderer? Who can feel compassion for a brute?

It's hard, but many would say that's no problem, as there's no point in trying it anyway. According to one strand of thought — and an eternally popular one — forgiving wrongdoers is a bad idea and will lead to a worse society. If we forgive, goes this thinking, we excuse, and we fail to send the message that what that person has done is wrong.

Why should we forgive? Because Jesus said so — but I don't believe that, of course. The reason I believe we should forgive is that it makes us better. For me, forgiving doesn't mean letting anyone off the hook: criminals can still be punished, people can still be held accountable for words and deeds that hurt other people. But we can punish and inflict consequences, while still leaving open the possibility of forgiveness.

 

"When we say, I forgive you, we do not say, I don't care what you have done. We say, What you have done is wrong, but that does not mean you are lost forever."

 

Because I don't believe forgiveness is about making excuses. Rather it is about looking at a person who has done wrong — even reprehensible acts — and saying, this wrong is not the totality of their being. It is about recognising that in every human, no matter how low they sink, humanity remains.

It is about believing that redemption is always possible, that a person never loses the capacity to be better than their worst self. When we say, 'I forgive you', we do not say, 'I don't care what you have done'. We say, 'What you have done is wrong, but that does not mean you are lost forever. I am willing to let you try to do better.'

When we forgive, we relinquish a little of the hate and anger that we all sometimes feel, and we improve our own lives through the affirmation that the world is not irredeemable. We see that world, effectively, through more hopeful, happier eyes.

We also benefit the person we are forgiving: not everyone we forgive will repay us by striving to be a better person, but our forgiveness tells them that at least someone believes they can be. To condemn someone is to tell them there is no point trying: to forgive them is to tell them to not stop trying. All of us have been forgiven for something at some time. We know the good it does us.

But it's still hard. I know it is. I know I fail to live up to my own standards frequently. There are people I struggle to forgive. There are people I still haven't managed to. And there are people, I know, who have been so badly hurt by another that they have sworn never to forgive. I would never demand they forgive the one who hurt them — I would never say they have failed by not extending sympathy to one who extended only pain to them.

All I want is for us, collectively, as a species, to come back to seeing forgiveness as a virtue. I just want us to try. I want us to at least see the benefits of forgiveness, and remain open to the idea that a human, no matter how monstrously they act, remains a human. Whether you hear it from Jesus or a militant atheist, I believe that's worth taking to heart.

 

 

Ben PobjieBen Pobjie is a writer from Melbourne, whose work has appeared in the Age, Crikey, Meanjin, ABC, SBS and others. He is the author of the books Error Australis and Aussie Aussie Aussie.

Topic tags: Ben Pobjie, atheism, foriveness

 

 

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Noble and sentiments, Ben. Is there a better yardstick for forgiveness than Romans 5:8?
John | 03 August 2018


I've read many words about forgiveness, thank you for these thoughtful words Ben. Forgiveness is very much a virtue and, I think, the highest virtue. When we are exhorted to 'love our enemies' it means wanting good for them not necessarily having warm feelings for them. When we attempt to extend forgiveness there's always a hurt, sometimes a hurt so deep that we can't get past that hurt in a conscious way. We can hope to reach a point where the pain is not so raw and the hurt not so present. That's when forgiveness has a chance.
Pam | 03 August 2018


Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves when we forgive others Great article
James | 03 August 2018


Great piece, Ben. Even from the point of view of mental health it is better to drop resentment than let it gnaw at us. And the alternative of an eye for an eye is a hiding to nowhere. Your article left me wondering about the power a 'morally superior' person can exercise by playing God. My mother believed n a very obedient God who would mete out punishment on her behalf. And wondering about the notion of perfection among Catholics... Had we had the enjoyed the naughty gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome we might have less gibbets on which to hang those who need our forgiveness.
Michael D. Breen | 04 August 2018


thanks, Ben is it forgiveness or acceptance (human flaws...etc... that WE also share)? forgiveness feels paternalistic have you read anything on restorative justice/practices? your words touch a lot on the principles thanks again
phil smith | 06 August 2018


Thanks for raising this question Ben. I have found forgiveness to be the most difficult of Christs teachings, yet. My father in law to be said one night, I wish you were dead. I carried this statement every day for 20 years after my marriage to his daughter. After 20 years of thinking of this daily and my resentment towards him I decided to overcome this preoccupation and went to his grave, I stood there and said out loud, I forgive you Tom for what you said to me so long ago. From that day the preoccupation with his comment has disappeared from my mind and returns only when the subject of forgiveness occurs, such as now. Forgiving for me has provided me with peace.
Kevin | 06 August 2018


Thank you Eureka Street for publishing this story of forgiveness from atheist's perspective - refreshing!
Patricia Langan | 06 August 2018


Gold! This would never have been said two years ago (or published). Times are a changing
Daniel Dominguez | 06 August 2018


Wonderful piece. Such an important topic - for people of all faiths and none. True forgiveness is so hard. For the paedophile? For the paedophile priest? For the priest who did not report forty years ago? As a Christian, I must say 'Yes. Yes. Yes.' Shakespeare writes of ...'the quality of mercy'. Mercy - as I've heard it described 'where love and misery meet' - humanises profoundly both the forgiver and the forgiven. In contemporary film I think of the 2014 film 'Calvary' and the life and - spoiler alert! - death of the priest. And in literature perhaps a more confronting and open-ended exploration of the subject in Cormac McCarthy's difficult book 'Child of God'. Week by week most places of Christian worship offer a 'word of forgiveness'. It is one of the radical, important and potentially life changing moments enacted in public worship.
Fiona Winn | 06 August 2018


There is no greater demonstration of forgiveness than what I have witnessed here in Timor L’Este. Here are a people who were abandoned by the Portuguese, who lost at least one quarter of their population to Indonesian aggression over a period of twenty years with Australia and the US if not actually condoning Indonesia’s takeover and slaughter of civilians in Timor L’Este certainly turning a blind eye to it. Yet the Timorese have a great sense of forgiveness. Much to be admired.
Vince | 06 August 2018


An atheist with Christian anthropology. Reading your article Ben, I found your understanding of the human condition very Christian: we are all capable of evil as well as good; forgiveness does not mean excusing the evil; the evil doer is capable of redemption - he or she has a better self to live up to; forgiveness is difficult but is good for the mental health of the one who forgives too. You might not proclaim Jesus as a faith filled Christian but you have echoed here at least four aspects of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel accounts. As for me as a Christian - I’ll continue to pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer with fervour “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Ern Azzopardi | 06 August 2018


A most interesting collection of reflections on the complexities of forgiveness is Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, fruit of his experience in a concentration camp when he was begged for forgiveness by a dying Nazi soldier. He walked out without replying, but was haunted by the experience and over years asked 50 or so religious leaders what they would have done, forgive? or not? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sunflower:_On_the_Possibilities_and_Limits_of_Forgiveness
Paul | 06 August 2018


Jacques Derrida's essay "On Forgiveness" is worth reading in this context. Derrida says: "There is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable."
Stephen Torre | 06 August 2018


Atheists are mistakenly always regarded by theists as men and women who are ungodly. A professed atheist, on the other hand, is rather someone whose reasons are reasonable. His/her reasons are not reasonable because God, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed say so, as would be the usual response of most theists. For the atheist, what is good is good because that in itself is good. Perhaps atheists should borrow a leaf from atheists. If they do, Christianity, Judaism, Islam would have a brighter day.
FRANCIS UGHANZE | 06 August 2018


It seems to me that the most forgiving people in our midst are indigenous people. We non-indigenous people have done such awful things to them over the past 250 or so years and, despite a deep sadness, indigenous people are far less bitter than most of us would be in similar situations.
Ady | 06 August 2018


Thank you for your thoughtful article, Ben Pobjie. I agree with your encouragement and I would like to add more weight to your last sentence and give you a reference you might enjoy: Heal Your Heart a little book with 'simple words of wisdom' from Gyuto Monks of Tibet. The emphasis is on understanding that forgiveness is not to do with the other person, but with us releasing our own misery: anger, and attachment to pain and hurt. Now this is difficult to grasp, but once experienced you feel the difference: you are on the path to healing and recovery.
Antonina Bivona | 06 August 2018


Forgiveness or Mercy does not and should not preclude justice ,,one cannot exist without the other. Too much unbalanced mercy or passivity (compassion) is a tyranny just the same as too much severity (justice). The path between them is a tightrope we all must walk, it imvolves the parable of Daniel in the Lions Den. Sometimes we must exercise the scale of forgiveness by using the sword, albeit with a tear in our eye.
Harlot Montague | 06 August 2018


When Jesus spoke about forgiveness we need to remember that he was a Jew under the brutal Roman occupation of Palestine. Traditionally Jewish Law had seen Justice as being in the 'eye for an eye' mode still so prevalent in the Middle East today. The Romans were amongst the most brutal of conquerors: they committed genocide against the Carthaginians and wiped them off the map. This was Jesus' world. He himself was judicially murdered by the Romans in collusion with the local religious authorities. Those responsible probably thought 'Well, that's that'. Jesus actually asked his Father to forgive those who were responsible for his death because they had no idea what they were doing. Jesus' death was not the end of the matter: far from it. Christianity later actually took over and changed the Roman Empire irretrievably. We should probably see this great act of Forgiveness on the Cross as the supreme act of practicing what you preach. Jesus did not call upon his Father to destroy the Romans, the Jewish religious authorities or anyone else. He broke the cycle of revenge and retribution. I guess, if you don't see this supreme act of Forgiveness in its religious and historical context, you miss something.
Edward Fido | 06 August 2018


Excellent point Fido , he effectively demolished an entire Empire over a huge time frame by sacrificing himself without hate . Ferocious stuff.
Harlot Montague | 07 August 2018


Great piece, thanks.
David | 07 August 2018


Harlot Montague's Maileresque remarks seem so cloaked in erudition and pseudonymity that some here may miss their mark. And as if to round off his/her point, s/he finally disgorges a remark that is so profound that it disdains the need to 'earn' redemption altogether. This is surely the point of Christ's forgiveness at the point of death by crucifixion. We are forced therein to abandon the side-taking that is so much part and parcel of conventional morality and instead to become accountable to our own conscience and autonomy and nobody else's dictates. That surely is the point of expiation that forgiveness entails.
Michael Furtado | 07 August 2018


That seems a very solipsistic notion of morality and conscience you're expecting others to subscribe to, Michael.
John | 08 August 2018


Re Furtado , Perhaps the destruction of Empire was a peripheral to JCs ultimate sacrifice, for i suppose an Empire can only exist if it contains enough humans who know nothing of the sort. In our objectivist cult sacrifice is virtually unknown, and the reiified matrix of experience is a thing to be manipulated solely for ones own benefit. To put it bluntly, when was the last time you saw a public leader someone sacrifice themselves for anything or anyone ? Think Barnaby J , Rudd or James Hird. Sacrifice as Sacrament seems an unlikely occurrence in the postmodern sphere, because “it” is all relative to how “I” see it.
Harlot Montague | 08 August 2018


John, I am no champion of possessive individualism, as you well know, so the question of solipsism cannot apply. JC took no one with him to his terrible yet magnificent death and was followed by a handful of stragglers, mainly female and whited-out from the Scriptures for the most part. In the end, each one of us faces death on our own, whether we like it or not, and despite the sentimentality and pathos that surrounds it all. I like well Harlot's use of example, but in their own clumsy ways Barnaby J, Kevin R & Hirdie have paid a noble price for their narcissism. After all, any reading of the Gospels must leave room for interpretations that portray Jesus as so revolutionary as to verge on insanely brave positions, even to the point of being regarded as deranged (Dostoevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov', for example). Ergo, and despite his eloquent denials, Pobjie is the true believer here!
Michael Furtado | 09 August 2018


Many years ago a religious teacher in discussing compassion said , “ remember every person is doing the best they can”. This has helped me see the person as well as the act. It is a challenge at times, but to date I have not been able to disagree with the statement.
Tom Mutton | 10 August 2018


I spent 8 years in Bougainville 94- 91working with teams conducting restorative justice courses in the villages. These people arranged reconciliation with others who had tortured or murdered relatives and friends during the civil war. Sometimes I asked them how they could do this. A common answer was,"We have to do it to get on with our lives." After I left in '2001 some of the people I worked with in Buin carried a Cross through the villages (followed by hundreds of people) They stopped at each village long enough to call on all unreconciled people to come forward for reconciliation. For Bougainvillians this is a necessary part of their culture.
Pat Howley | 10 August 2018


Well said Ben and I might add that from my perspective you are doing better than many professing Christians. Everything Jesus asks us to do has a reason. You have articulated the reason he asks us to forgive perfectly and you are not alone in finding that difficult so dont stop trying. You are a great example of why I listen to my atheist friends as much as my Christian ones and often question what those definitions really mean in the big picture
geoff Duke | 10 August 2018


Stephen Torre, the atheist Derrida's position is very revealing. Ultimately Derrida is compelled to reduce forgiveness to a form of madness - albeit a madness of which he, a decent human being and an incisive and sincere thinker (though I disagree with him on many points), is obviously in favour. What Derrida qua atheist misses, yet unerringly if unknowingly points to in his resort to madness as an explanation for forgiveness, is the triangular structure of that act. Forgiveness is not merely a linear matter between victim and perpetrator. If that were the case, then forgiveness easily collapses into a utilitarian, or at least (alleged) Aristotelian sentiment: "If I forgive you, I will be a better person for it, and so might you be. So I'll forgive you." That would grossly understate the mercy shown by, say, St Maria Goretti, toward her murderer and would-be rapist Alessandro, in her final seconds of life. Moreover, it fails to explain adequately the oft-observed reality of victims forgiving their perpetrators even after they, the perpetrators, have died. Absolute madness indeed!... unless, contra the atheist contention, there is a God, there is an afterlife, we on earth can with our prayers and offerings mitigate the just punishments due to the dead, and, ultimately, that forgiveness is a triangular (reflecting the Trinity?) interaction, between God who is Love Itself and the victim, on behalf of the perpetrator. Derrida was right: for the atheist, forgiveness–properly conceived–is a form of madness. But for the theist, forgiveness, incredible as it is to behold, is perfectly explicable. Join the dots. (Thanks, Ben P for raising this intriguing issue.)
HH | 14 August 2018


HH illustrates a definitional problem with atheism in Pobjie which he exaggerates by contrasting the forgiveness of Christ and the counter-intuitive 'madness' required to forgive heinous injustice. Religion means a lot more than belief in a Deity. A quintessential aspect of faith is to deal with problems of human life that are significant, persistent, and intolerable. Derrida is accordingly a deconstructionist of Judaic law in order to recover its spirit, especially in regard to acting justly. For him, it is only by adopting such a deconstructive stance that a genuine eschatology is possible. Derridean eschatology implies the awareness of a God that is to come, of a God that is not yet here and that is awaited ardently by His followers. Therein his God, by definition, exceeds our present assumptions and limitations of Him. The Derridean God to come ('a-venir') is an unknown God because He is beyond our present or revealed knowledge of things. Any other God remains entrenched in our present understanding as well as atrophied within Graeco-Roman immanentism. Jesus himself pointed this out in the parable of the thief (Matt 24:42-44). Religion is much more than belief in a Deity, otherwise our faith would lapse into God-Talk.
Dr Michael Furtado | 14 August 2018


Dr F, thanks. I admire your bravery for undertaking a defence of Derridian ideas within the confines of a blog comment. Alas, in a replication of my experience of reading Derrida himself, you lost me after your opening sentence, which I think rather mischaracterises my comment - but what the heck, who am I to say what you or I meant? The next two, truisms, should have triggered me as to the deconstructionist quicksand ahead, but in my foolishness I soldiered on. I reached the end no wiser. I had thought Derrida (and by extension, Mr Pobjie) was saying something quite reasonable and even insightful about forgiveness from his position as an atheist, and merely wished to comment on it as a Christian theist. For all his abstruseness, he’s occasionally said things I find thoughtful. “Flowering in a lonely word” as it were, albeit not often. Apparently I’m hopelessly out of whack, and a pathological exhibit. So there are three things I’ll never understand: your comments, Derrida, and scrum penalties in rugby. But life is short, eh?
HH | 16 August 2018


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