“Forgiveness” is much in the news these days, focused mainly on the horrific murders of nine parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Many commentators heaped praise upon some surviving family members and other parishioners of the church, for their almost immediate willingness to “forgive” the identified gunman—despite any direct expression of contrition or remorse on the part of the alleged (and self-confessed) shooter.
This communal spirit of forgiveness was generally viewed as a shining example of Christian ethics in action, and the power of a community to heal itself. But a dissenting view was voiced by some, including the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam, who wrote:
“Almost immediately after Dylann Roof allegedly slaughtered nine parishioners of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., Christians stepped forward to forgive him. Most astonishingly, some of his victims’ relatives spoke out at Roof’s first court appearance and forgave him for his acts. The relatives’ forgiveness may play a role in Roof’s sentencing. Because “victims’ statements” have wormed their way into American jurisprudence, they might save Roof from capital punishment. But suppose we don’t want to forgive Roof? I don’t. It’s nowhere in my heart. Houses of worship aren’t always sanctuaries, but they should be. He killed people in the one place where they could reasonably expect to find shelter with their friends, with their beliefs, and with their God. His sick motives don’t interest me very much. I forgive him nothing.”1
Beam’s column drew many passionate responses, pro and con—the latter consisting largely of the usual anonymous slurs and accusations we inevitably see on the internet (so much for the spirit of forgiveness!).
Beam was accused, for example, of “holding on to hatred,” merely because he refused to forgive the shooter. But a refusal to forgive a particular person for a particular act is not the same as hating the person—though it may mean hating the person’s act.
Sometimes, refusing—or at least, deferring—forgiveness is the sign of a mature moral sensibility and also has important implications in psychotherapy. And when forgiveness is bestowed upon an evil-doer despite his apparent lack of remorse, this is ethically—and psychologically—troubling.
As New Republic writer Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig put it:
“There is perhaps a second source of unease surrounding Roof’s [receiving] forgiveness, namely that he has shown not even a vague sign of remorse, which makes the victims’ families’ decision to forgive him seem all the more harrowing.”2
Moreover, as Psychiatric Times’ s Ethics Section Editor, Dr. Cynthia Geppert, observes:
“When we immediately “forgive” people without their showing any remorse or repentance, we are co-opting their autonomy and not fully respecting them as moral agents.” Furthermore, “…rapid forgiveness without corresponding responsibility as a condition does not invite offender[s] to open themselves to morally serious reflection and change…” (Geppert CMA, personal communication, 7/12/15).
Furthermore, as I’ll discuss below, the almost immediate bestowal of forgiveness in the absence of the malefactor’s remorse raises another troubling question: do some communities of faith “short-circuit” the inner process of forgiveness, by putting undue pressure on their members to “forgive” some heinous act?
Forgiving by Proxy?
Then there is the thorny moral issue of forgiving on someone else’s behalf. As an ethicist raised in the Jewish faith, I was glad Alex Beam brought up Simon Wiesenthal’s refusal to forgive a Nazi war criminal who murdered 300 Jews—a refusal that reveals an important element of rabbinical ethics.
In Judaism, one is prohibited from “forgiving” an evil-doer on someone else’s behalf (absent the latter’s consent to do so). One can forgive only the harm and injury done to oneself. Murder victims, of course, cannot forgive their killers, at least in this life. And in the Jewish ethical tradition, a blanket of “forgiveness” should not be extended to the murderer by surviving friends or family, except in so far as they forgive the harm done to them.
I agree with this view. Forgiving someone for a heinous act committed against somebody else is, in my view, a kind of “boundary violation.” Even when done out of compassion, such forgiveness amounts to an incursion into the “moral space” of another person– who, in the case of a murder victim, can’t express a view one way or another.