Two Systems of Forgiveness

Do you know when you have effectively forgiven someone who has offended you or against whom you hold a grievance? Not necessarily.

I am going to describe two systems of “grievance-processing” here. The most important MSDMIBE EC006thing I want to say is that if there are indeed two (or more) and if they operate independently, it is crucially important that we know that. Not knowing it makes us all look foolish.

I want to argue that there are two systems and that they work differently and are seen differently by the participants and others. [2] This little clip of dialogue is from Robert Redford’s film, The Milagro Beanfield War. It is Ruby’s fault that Charlie spent the night in jail. Charlie has spend his jail time polishing up his complaint. Ruby, who has spent the time collecting money to bail him out, thinks the grievance should have dissipated some time during the night.

Ruby: (Sarcastically): “Thank you, Ruby, for bailing me out.

Charlie: I’d be a hell of a lot more grateful if you hadn’t gotten me in in the first place. Or at least if you had bailed me out sooner.

Ruby: I had no cash. I had to wait for the bank to open.

Charlie: Oh, I see. So I have no reason to be sore.

Ruby: No, you had all night to get over it.

Do grievances just “go away,” do you think, or does something have to be done to fix them? The answer given to that question indicates which of two understandings of forgiveness seems right and normal to you. I’m going to call one system “forensic” because of the easy analogies to courtroom practice. I’m going to call the second “relational” for reasons that aren’t as easy to describe. After a brief description of each, I will launch into my thesis.

The forensic and relational systems

The judicial or forensic system is easily understood by everyone. The agreement that it ought to be applied to people is not as broad as the understanding. There is an offense of some sort. The state has them all defined and most of time people know when they have violated a law. You are charged with something by impartial agents. [3] You are convicted by other impartial agents. You ‘serve your time’—that’s the appealingly broad expression I am going to use to refer, in this system, to jail time—under the watchful eyes of yet other uninvolved agents. And finally, you are excused by someone, speaking for the state in all its interests, and pronounced “free.” You have, in the much too often used expression,”paid your debt to society” and are now permitted to live among your fellows on the same terms. That’s the judicial model; familiar isn’t it?

The Roman Catholic church, as even Protestants know from all the movies, follows aforgiveness 6 similarly formal system. You confess your sins to the priest, [4] he prescribes some act of penance (and possibly of restitution—the movies aren’t as clear about that) and then pronounces, on God’s behalf, that you are forgiven and restored to full fellowship in the church. I hope that account isn’t too far wrong; I am trying only to illustrate a non-state version of the judicial system.

So everybody is with me so far.

But, I am arguing, there is another system. It may be is widespread use—I suspect it is—but it isn’t talked about. Or if it is talked about, the elements of the system are called by other names. This is an informal or, as I said above, “relational” system.

In this system, you know that there has been an offense when someone tells you that he or she is offended and/or begins to behave the way people do when they are offended. These would be offenses against custom or some notion of “good taste” rather than against a law.

Many times, good practice argues that the offender—the person who has been informed that he has offended—apologize. [5] The offender need not take the offense seriously—he may not yet know just what it was—but he is determined to take the offended person seriously and to deal with the state of his or her feelings.

Common practice diverges at this point. Among some people, it is absolutely necessary that you pronounce the words of forgiveness, whether you have forgiven the offender or not. Among others, it is possible to “receive” the apology and for the offended person to confess that he or she is not yet able to forgive, but that he or she hopes to be able to in the future. The implication of this formula is that there is an intention to forgive, as there might be an intention to get in shape, but it is going to take work to get there. By using this formulation, the person implies that he or she intends to do that work and to arrive at the requested forgiveness.

Then, odd as it may seem, the next step is the resumption of the relationship in some form. It may be a crimped and distant form; it may be a tense and wary form; it may be an apparent resumption of the old relationship—but only in public settings where the offended person and the offender happen to be together. [6]

And then, finally, the relationship in its old undamaged form is resumed and there may even be a period of “better than normal”—a compensatory increase in warmth and affection, as if to call attention to the return to normality.

There are two

That was the easy part. Now let’s get to work. If there is only one system, it is the forensic system. There is no way for people to live in ignorance of the forensic system, since it surrounds them in society, so it is natural to apply it to relationships between persons. I’m not arguing that it is a good thing to do; I am arguing that it is common and that it is natural.

forgiveness 7If there is only one system, then the behaviors of the other person will be evaluated using the norms of that system. This is the step where I lose people, so let’s imagine that a well-known rugby player, Jonah Lomu, for instance, is referred to as the dirtiest basketball player in the league. I know that makes it seem silly, but if you really believe that the only game there is is basketball and if, with that in mind, you watch Lomu doing this, you will be driven to that kind of criticism.

But if there are two (or more) kinds, then you evaluate by using the standards appropriate to that kind; you judge the behavior within its own system of standards. So criticizing a practitioner of the forensic style as “heartless” or “cold” or (even worse, as “linear”) is the most natural thing in the world. If there is only one system and it is the relational system, then the steps of the forensic model seems as “wrong” as Jonah Lomu’s “basketball moves.” Criticizing a practitioner of the relational style as unpredictable or cruel or whimsical is the most natural thing in the world If there is only one style and it is the forensic style, then the person who ignores or denies all the well-known markers of forgiveness and restoration is a terrible person.

One and a half solutions [7]

The first solution is knowing that there are two systems. That makes it possible to assess the characteristic behaviors of each style by the norms appropriate to them. A practitioner of the relational style, like Ruby in the opening dialogue, will be judged as better than or worse than other practitioners of that style. A practitioner of the forensic style, like Charlie in the opening dialogue, will be judged as better or worse than others like himself. Fine.

So now everyone understands everything. Now we can get to the hard part where the two styles are mixed. Charlie, or someone like him, is emotionally abusive to a friend and then “fixes” it with a heartless “request” for formal forgiveness. He has done the right thing and is dumbfounded that the friend is furious. Ruby, or someone like her, is emotionally affirming, a way of signaling that the period defined by the offense is over. No offense has been recognized, no apology has been given, but clearly, the relationship is back to normal so far as Ruby is concerned. She is dumbfounded that Charlie continues to hang on to a grievance when he should have gotten over it by now.

The half solution involves how one such person can deal with another. There is always empathy, of course. I know you to be forensic in style so I model my asking for or granting forgiveness in the style I know you will understand. I know you to be relational in style, so I model the restoration of the relationship—with no reference to “offenses” or “forgiveness”—in a style I know you will understand.

I think that “solution” is clear, but I am not sure it is good. I have two concerns. One is forgiveness 9that it is really hard to do. Picture this. A man finds that his wife has been sleeping around in the neighborhood with his friends. What he wants from her is some sign of remorse and a good faith promise that she won’t do it again. What he gets after each episode is…oh, “enhanced affection” from his wife. Whatever it is that he likes best about the relationship, there if more of it for him for awhile. This is perfectly in keeping with his wife’s understanding that what she did was emotionally hurtful to her husband and now she is making up for it by being emotionally receptive to him. There are no “offenses” here; I was mean so now I am being nice.

Picture this. A wife finds out that her husband has been sleeping around the neighborhood with her friends. She confronts him and he admits that he has done wrong. He apologizes and she forgives him, but for reasons she cannot quite grasp, the relationship never returns to full power. The offense as been dealt with completely, so far as formal steps will allow, but he is still distant and easily offended and she feels like “it” isn’t over yet.

I have great sympathy for this this husband and this wife. They have already received what I have to give them, which is understanding. She understands that he is a forensic person; he understands that she is a relational person. But when it comes to healing the rift between them, that understanding just doesn’t get the job done.

So I will leave them with my sympathy and no more. I don’t know what else to give them. There is one more theoretical step, however, and I want to tuck that in before I punch out. It is that each system can also be judged by whether it works, not just by whether it is familiar.

I, as a forensic style person, am wasting my time by complaining about the practices of relational friends IF what they do, actually works. There are, as Rudyard Kipling says, “four and twenty ways/of making tribal lays/ and every single one of them is right.” If it works, it works. What criticism can there be of a sequence of steps that does, in fact, produce genuine reconciliation and restoration of relationship?

Unless you can’t do it, yourself. You can approve of it. You can suspend any criticism of it. But you can’t go so far as to internalize its benefits as the two empaths in my example did. You are stuck. Good luck. Don’t forget to write.

[1] Note the two formulations. You may hold a grievance, for reasons of your own, against someone who has not offended you. There is no “crime” here, but someone is nevertheless being charged with it. Or there may be a crime and the charge is just the first of many necessary steps in dealing with it.
[2] And written about it differently by counseling psychologists and perhaps even by theologians. But every treatment of this matter I have seen begins and ends within the same system. That may be the source of some of our misunderstandings.
[3] I mean only that there is no need for them to have been personally offended by what you did. You didn’t do it to them. They are impartial in that sense.
[4] In Ireland last May, we visited a Catholic church where the confessional was called forgiveness 1“the reconciliation room.” I liked that It had never occurred to me before that you could name the room after the outcome, rather that after the process.
[5] I am thinking of a real apology here, not the non-apology apologies that have become so common in political life. “I’m sorry if what I did offended you.” Really? You are conditionally contrite, waiting only until better data arrive? I don’ think so.
[6] This is very common in family settings where there are so many reasons to be together other than the choice of the two people to be together. The two might be taking turns in schlepping the kids. They are not “together” in the old sense, but some face has to be put on the relationship anyway.
[7] I own that subtitle to a book title. The movie, Their Finest, draws on Winston Churchill’s famous speech. “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties,” said the Prime Minister, “and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.” The book on which the movie was based was about propaganda films for World War II and it was called Their Finest Hour and a Half.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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1 Response to Two Systems of Forgiveness

  1. Carrie says:

    I am reading through your blog like a kid with a candy jar…a kid who hasn’t tasted candy yet to boot. Regarding the forensic style, Harvard’s decisions this past week about Chelsea Manning and Michelle Jones come to mind (NYT 9/15/17). I often think about society’s role in forgiveness and my conflicted role within it. For example, the ever-expanding list of people required to register as a sex offender the rest of their lives, the utility of that list and the State’s responsibility to respond to individuals (criminals…forever?) who do not maintain their registration status. This is just one of many examples in my career where I ponder whether there are some offenses that society can/will never forgive; and what role the worker-bee prosecutor who wants to insert some subjectivity into all of this? I’m so glad you and reconnected recently.

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