Some years ago I read an article online about forgiveness from a Jewish perspective. I think it may have been by a rabbi, but unfortunately I made no note of it so cannot attribute it as I should. (If anyone does know I'll be happy to credit.) In any case, the story was this: at a public function, a man approached the writer, saying that he had been a Nazi and participated in the oppression of the Jews. What he wanted was for the writer to forgive him.
The writer did not.
The reason, he explained, was that the former Nazi was asking him for a kind of forgiveness he was not empowered to give. A Catholic priest bestows forgiveness for sins committed against third parties; a rabbi does not. The Nazi's crimes had been committed against other people, and it wasn't his place to speak for them. As he told the story, he clearly felt offended by this further evidence of disrespect for Jews, approaching a stranger and demanding his forgiveness according to a moral template imposed from Christianity - in other words, expecting him to give up his Jewishness to serve a sinning Christian. I'm not sure if it was his writing or my interpretation that further considered it insensitive in the extreme to approach a random Jew and announce yourself a former Nazi, dropping that emotional burden on him and reminding him that he lives in a world where the slaughter of his brothers and sisters will never see true justice. The former Nazi had placed his own feelings - his imagined right to demand forgiveness - far above the comfort, safety and dignity of the man he demanded it from. On a personal level, it was bad behaviour. But it was also bad behaviour on a cultural level, and that's important.
A few days ago, Fred's Patheos blog linked within a couple of clicks to this considered and serious article on a recent controversy. It sums up the issue better than I could, but briefly: Hugo Schwyzer, a sometime 'feminist' blogger guilty of the attempted murder of a woman and with a history of predatory behaviour towards his female students, is currently facing a backlash because of his behaviour, and particularly the fact that he was far from honest in disclosures while taking prominent positions as a feminist spokesman - including writing for Scarleteen, the admirable sex-ed website for young adults, which has further demonstrated its commitment to young people's welfare by pulling his articles. And apparently, this is being considered too harsh by Schwyzer's defenders.
Now, I'm in an easy position to judge; I wasn't familiar with Schwyzer before this controversy started outing him as a dangerous man, so I have no old loyalties to struggle against - so by the argument I'm about to make, I should pause before I plume myself on my superiority to his defenders. A brief look at his writing took me to his piece blaming a former girlfriend for making him an 'accidental rapist', and it was sickeningly creepy - not just because of the blame, but because as he described the conversation that began this supposed enlightenment, the emphasis is all on his feelings of horror and shows no compassion for the girl. She attempted to explain that sometimes she didn't feel like sex, gave out signals that he either misread or ignored, and then said 'yes' because she hadn't the confidence to say 'no'; his response, according to him, was 'Are you trying to tell me I raped you?' - which any sensitive girl can easily read as 'I'm escalating the situation to crisis level immediately: make an accusation (which I already know you aren't confident enough to make) or else back down, set aside your own feelings and comfort me for my distress at what you've just told me.' Not surprisingly, the girl started to cry and blame herself, and yet he writes as if we're supposed to pity him. A horrible story. And not his worst by any means.
So when some people are claiming that rejecting Schwyzer as a feminist spokesman is unforgiving and excessive, I disagree: every movement attracts people who like to game the system, and for a man who wants emotional caretaking and narcissistic supply from women, what better position to adopt than heroic, penitent spokesman-ally? But it's more than just that.
Fred's piece points out that when we want mercy and grace for all, we must start with protecting the powerless; forgiving the powerful comes later. But I'm also thinking of another post of his in which he reflects on the homophobia of some strands of Christianity, considering, among other causes, the 'safe target' explanation: it's more comfortable to condemn 'sins' you feel no temptation to indulge in yourself. (For the record, I passionately disagree with the contention that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. I'm quoting 'sin' because it's the term used by homophobic Christians; I think they are factually and morally wrong for so doing.)
I'm coming to the conclusion that these two problems - judging others for acts that don't tempt you, and forgiving others for acts that haven't hurt you - are two sides of the same coin.
The common factor, I think, is this: both are pleasurable when done lightly. When we condemn a sin, we are performing a kind of mental magic: we disavow it. We draw a line in our minds with ourselves on one side and the sin on the other. If it's a line we know we've sometimes crossed, at least a bit, and may cross again, that's far from comfortable, but if it's a line we know we've never crossed and never will, we are, in effect, congratulating ourselves. Now, there's nothing wrong with some healthy self-congratulation; a person who takes satisfaction in their good behaviour is more likely to repeat it. It's just that if you're going to repeat the behaviour - such as not sleeping with someone of your own sex - because you're happier that way anyway, then the self-congratulation is excessive. I don't consider it sinful to sleep with a member of your own sex, but I personally don't want to do it: the enjoyment of pursuing the sexual orientation I do have is reward enough for me. If I start congratulating myself for pleasing myself, I'm beginning to treat myself as a God: what is pleasing to me is morally right, no matter what other considerations. Dangerous.
And I am, likewise, beginning to deify myself if I get too insistent about forgiving people who haven't wronged me. I might personally forgive Schwyzer or an ex-Nazi for whatever harm they've caused me, but really, that's very, very little harm. They've made the world I live in a worse place, which harms me because I'm not an island, but it's a very survivable kind of harm. Forgiving someone who's actually hurt you is difficult - especially if the effects of those hurts have never been healed, and perhaps can never be healed. Genuine forgiveness is slow and painful; it can be rewarding at the end because we let go of the pain - but again, if it's a pain we haven't seriously felt, forgiving becomes closer to giving oneself a little spiritual treat and then giving ourselves another as reward for the first. We are rewarding ourselves for pleasing ourselves, acting as if we, godlike, are the ultimate reference point for forgiveness. Christians often say that sin is wrong because it hurts God as well as the victim, and thus God needs to forgive; we should probably all think twice before jockeying for that slot in the universe.
We like to feel like good people. It's easy to be stoical about other people's pain. Those two things can combine to ill effect.
I do not think this is solely a religious problem; more or less everyone has a moral compass and likes to feel they follow where it leads. But as a culture strongly influenced by Christianity, we necessarily have inherited an ethos and language of forgiveness. When it's important to us, we can misuse it - but the misuse, I would say, is double. On the one hand, be unforgiving towards acts you don't want to commit; on the other hand, balance yourself out with a large helping of forgiveness towards those who haven't hurt you. A big emotional reward for very little cost.
And if we want to do either of these things in private, well, that's our own business. But from a religious perspective, this non-Christian is starting to suspect whether it's a kind of idolatry, setting our own feelings up as God. And from a secular perspective, we should certainly think twice before we demand that this is the shining standard by which to judge the public good.
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