Simon Doonan Holds a Grudge: On the Proper Understanding of Forgiveness

Simon Doonan writes about the healing power of holding a grudge and challenges our “softy” culture.

I understand the sentiment.  Who doesn’t love a grudge?

Fortunately, his description of forgiveness is far from the church’s practice.   Forgiveness should not to diminish the worth of our own suffering, or to make us a nation of push-overs.  Forgiveness- or in the sacraments of the church, absolution – requires a depth of spirit.  For this reason, it is regulated.

Forgiveness cannot be demanded.  One cannot command someone to forgive, just as one cannot tell someone to “feel better.”  That’s emotional manipulation and blackmail.  The victim of a rape cannot be told to forgive; nor can the person’s mother forgive on the victim’s behalf.

Forgiveness also does not substitute for divine justice.  Liberal Christians may define hell all sorts of ways, but let us not forget what it’s there for.  It’s there so that we have a conceptual place for people who are certainly guilty of all sorts of crimes against humanity we cannot imagine doing ourselves, people obviously beyond our moral universe.  It’s there to say to the sociopaths among us that, even if the SEC won’t get you, God will.

For if Simon is saying, let’s us not abandon justice for the sake of forgiveness, he is perfectly right.

Fortunately, that’s not what tradition expects.

We don’t ask for forgiveness on behalf of other people.  If my friend gets murdered, I may ask God for forgiveness for my desire for revenge; but not for my murdered friend’s murderer.  And of course, I may choose instead to let God make whatever decisions about the murderer’s soul.  My hate can be my own.  I’ll let God do the hard work.

Nor should we forgive people who haven’t asked.  We forgive when people seriously and earnestly repent.  When they stop the excuses, the explaining, and recognize their fault and sin, THEN we can begin.  In these cases, the community of faithful people, through the church, may offer absolution.

This does not replace, of course, the demands of the law.

Certainly in the everyday work of living, we will get slighted and bruised.  These do not require forgiveness.  Instead, it is enough that a faithful person learn not to be offended, and to maintain one’s integrity in doing the work of life and seek the magnanimity and joy in life which we believe God wants for us.  An insult to me may merit indifference more than forgiveness.

The church believes in forgiveness, through the sacrament of confession, because it believes it forms a moral conscience, and it limits the damage victims also cause others harm.  We are rarely simply perpetrators or victims; we both cause harm and we receive it.  So t0 forgive has a task: to stop passing victimization along.

To forgive and absolve was handled carefully through the clergy class.   It was understood as a divine act, a gift, an opportunity to begin anew.  God is, by nature, terrifying, fearsome and jealous; the church could be alternately kind and merciful when the penitent came to his or her senses.  It was not meant to be casual or easy, but an opportunity to confirm a sense of right and wrong: a sense of order.

So although grudges are enjoyable, they are rarely helpful. They may have a place in our private imaginations, but they diminish our public life.  Our resentment may be full of error and misplaced pride as much as an expression of injustice.  Holding a grudge cannot replace restoring justice.  I share, for example, Simon’s outrage about the killing of elephants for ivory.  But I am not interested in either forgiveness or holding a grudge.  It should simply stop.  Now.

Our knowledge of goodness and sin are limited.  So we set limits to our behavior and to who has permission to forgive and absolve.  We believe, or hope, that there is eternal justice.  We know we may each be guilty; or vindicated.  But finally we will err on the side of mercy.

After my mother died, however, I ran into a famous poet who had been her mentor.  I’d discovered another time that he’d surreptitiously done great harm to her career.  When he discovered who I was, he said, “I always regretted not giving her the help she deserved.”

I told him to get a priest.

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