The Heart of the Matter IV: When Forgiveness is Absent

Some time ago I wrote a couple of blogs describing my view of forgiveness.  In the first I wrote that forgiveness is best understood as a virtue or trait of character and secondly established the necessity of forgiveness through the use of Buber/Brueggemann’s “I/Thou” theory—the idea being that human identity is defined through relationship and is therefore required for healthy living.  In this blog I’d like to again address the topic of forgiveness and specifically write about what it looks like when forgiveness is absent in relationship.

All relationships have moments where things go wrong.  Sometimes things go wrong unintentionally—we may say something intended for fun that ends up hurting.  Other times things go wrong intentionally—acts of spite, insults, etc—not our proudest moments to be sure.  All acts of wrong—whether intentional or not are acts of injustice.  The problem with injustice is that its presence drives a wedge between people in relationship.  What is more is that when its presence is not dealt with adequately it spreads like a poison which eventually destroys the relationship.

Unfortunately a common way in which we human beings attempt to deal with injustice is by seeking retribution.  Although retribution claims to be founded on fairness (“an eye for an eye”), it ultimately fails to reconcile.  Instead of focusing on healing the injustice and the long-term health of a relationship, retribution focuses on punishment and making the other hurt the way we’ve been hurt.  Retribution thus often looks much more like malicious revenge than an act of justice.  What is more is that the person seeking retribution often loses perspective of the situation because of their hurt.  This causes them to overreact and instead settling the score actually end up making the situation worse.  In the world of conflict management this type of behaviour is called “escalation”.  As violence begets violence so does retribution beget more retribution—the end result is an outward moving spiral where two people who were once close have their relationship dissolved.

For those visually minded consider the following image.  In its original context this picture described the destruction of a friendship.  However the same principle applies to all types of relationships–romantic, professional, parental, etc.  Imagine that a small act of injustice occurs at the left of the image and that each ‘loop’ represents an act of ‘retribution’ which pushes the circle further and further apart.

Page 53 William W. Wilmot and Joyce L. Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict 6th Edition. New York:   McGraw-Hill, 2001.

While this image is (hopefully) helpful, nothing helps communicate better than an example.  Although a personal example may be entertaining for all of you—I’d instead like to turn to an unlikely source for an example of how real relationships work:  Hollywood.

Although Rom-coms are not known for depicting how relationships work in the real world there is at least one notable exception—a sort of black-sheep of the genre—an anti-rom-com if you will—the 2006 film staring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn:  The Breakup (see the trailer here).  Instead of telling the story of how two people fall in love and live happily ever after, the movie tells the story of how a ‘happily-ever-after’ couple slowly sabotage their relationship ending with its break-up.  What makes the movie work is that the story of their break-up is so believable.  The conflict starts off small—Gary (Vaughn) does not buy enough lemons for his girlfriend Brooke (Anniston) who is hosting a dinner party.  This sparks a heated argument which eventually snowballs out of control.  Before you know it the two are sleeping in separate beds, redecorating their home (separately from each other), putting their shared condo up for sale, and yes breaking up…

Although the movie works it is not the type of movie I like to watch over and over again.  This is because there are so many moments along the way where I wanted to yell at the screen “just say you’re sorry” or “forgive each other”.  However it is precisely the absence of forgiveness that allows the story to end in the breakup…

I hope this gives a glimpse into why I think that forgiveness is one of the most important of all virtues.  Its absence leads to the destruction of relationships while on the other hand its proper practice can diffuse the power of injustice and restore closeness in relationship.

However even while being one of the most important virtues, my future blogs will show that  forgiveness is also one of the trickiest to practice.  Up next I will show why forgiveness takes two…

The Heart of the Matter III: I/Thou

The extent to which we see forgiveness as significant is determined by the importance we attach to relationships.  I believe that relationships are the source from which humans derive their very identities—without an “other” there can be no me.  This belief in philosophical language is called “I and Thou” and was first articulated by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.  Because the idea of needing relationships in order to have some sense of self seems so foreign to the Western mindset I think two examples are required to comprehend this point.

Example #1 comes from Walter Brueggemann’s The Covenanted SelfIn the first chapter of this book Brueggemann explains I and Thou in the context of a baby and its mother.  He notes how a baby is dependent on her mother in every sense—not only for food and basic care but also for forming her identity.  When a baby is newly born the mother gives attention and praises everything the baby does–whether it smiles, burps, etc.  This display of love celebrates the baby for who she is and thereby encourages and allows her to gain a sense of self.  Of course as time goes on the mother must inevitably distance herself from her child and allow the baby to experience other “thous” and thereby obtain a healthier and more complete identity as she comes into contact and relates to other “I’s”.  This validity of Brueggemann’s example is most tragically driven home through the many cases of neglected infants who struggle the rest of their lives with their inability to form a healthy sense of self.

If example #1 provides a positive example of how identity is shaped through relationship then example #2 provides a negative example of what occurs when there is no “thou”.  What I have in mind here are the extreme cases where a human child is raised by animals.  These cases have been brought to the public’s attention through T.V. documentaries and books such as The Boy Raised as a Dog.  What these stories tell us is that if a human child is separated from other human contact at an early age and is instead surrounded by animals the child will actually behave more like the animal and less like a human.  In fact much of the damage caused by being raised by animals are irreversible.  In cases where humans raised by animals have been found and studied, scientists have noted that parts of their brains are missing—most notably the part which allows us to learn language.

Despite the fact that the two examples listed above may represent extreme examples, the principles of I/Thou still apply in more everyday examples.  We can imagine for instance how a spouse, child, parent, or friend draw out in their own unique way different parts of who we are and even to some extent shape our identity.  From basic examples such as the way we talk, the music we listen to, dress, and joke—to more important matters such as what we think about ourselves, God, and the world.  If we think about contact with others in this way then forgiveness becomes a serious matter indeed.  When I lose any thou, I lose a part of me.  The significance of this loss is obviously dependent on the closeness of relationship—however even still one fact remains:  we need each other.

The Heart of the Matter II: Those good ol’ fashioned values

I’ve decided to modify my approach and defer “I/Thou” to Part III since I think a more basic issue needs to be discussed first.  In Part I, I mentioned that forgiveness is a virtue–however it occurred to me that although many have a vague understanding of  “virtue” its technical or more nuanced form remains unexplained and so unknown.  For this reason I present a brief sketch of virtue theory.

Broadly speaking there are two types of ethical theories–theories of obligation such as utilitarianism (i.e. we ought to do what causes the most happiness) and virtue theory.  In contrast to theories of obligation, virtue theory assesses morality on the grounds of character.  There are two types of character traits:  virtue and vice.  Virtue are those character traits which allow one to fulfill their function in a society and are often found between two opposing destructive character traits called vices.

In the case at hand forgiveness can be seen as the trait which falls between being a “push over” and holding a grudge.  It is this type of thinking that leads to pop-philosophy like “everything in moderation”.

Because virtues are seen as character traits they are things to be practiced habitually.  Thus the virtuous person is the one who consistently models positive character traits as often as the situation calls for it.  Forgiveness is therefore not a one and done action but a habit practiced so often that it becomes a part of a person’s character.

Traditionally another significant component of virtue theory is what in the “olden days” was called telos.  Telos is a Greek word which refers to the purpose of life.  In the context of virtue theory this means that virtues are those character traits which when practiced allow the individual or group to fulfill their function/purpose in society.  Christians identify their telos as bringing reconciliation (forgiveness) to all spheres of life:  with God, other people, and with the physical environment.  Forgiveness is therefore an intrinsic and signficant virtue in the Christian life.

One of the more troubling points of Virtue Theory is the role of the community.  Because it is so rooted in fulfilling function, Virtue Theory requires people to view themselves as existing as a part of a whole rather than as an isolated individual free to do as they please.  This point will be addressed in more detail in part III

Community dovetails nicely into another aspect of virtue theory:  narrative.  Narratives are stories which a community (family, country, church, religion, etc) tells which shape life goals, attitudes, priorities, etc.  What one sees as virtuous thus largely depends on the type of story being told.  From a Christian perspective the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection causes forgiveness to be seen as one of the supreme virtues.

A final significant aspect of Virtue theory is its emphasis on the particular.  Unlike obligatory theories which stress a more or less cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach, virtue theory has much greater flexibility.  Although virtue theory maintains that the virtues should be practiced constantly, the form they take changes greatly depending on the situation.  For example we can imagine how practicing the virtue of generosity can look differently depending on your class/age/situation:  as a child you may share a toy, as a student your time, and as a wealthy person you may share your riches.  In each situation the act is different but the virtue remains the same.  With forgiveness this is also true.  We can imagine, for example, how forgiving someone for cutting us off on the road may look different from more extreme situations like forgiving someone of physical abuse.

The heart of the matter…Part I

One of the hot topics in theological circles right now is the atonement.  Opinions regarding how salvation has been provided by Christ to humans are numerous.  Some people believe that there is only one right way to understand what happened in this event whereas others are content to believe that the various theories of atonement are better thought of as metaphors which help explain the event.

 To be frank, I find most discussions about the atonement to be a crashing bore.  I know this may be borderline blasphemous considering that I am, after all, a master’s student of theology.  However what I have found is that there appears to be some sort of disconnect between how people view the atonement and how forgiveness works in human relationships.  It seems likely to me that the way humans practice the virtue of forgiveness should at least be analogous to the way God has provided forgiveness through the Christ event. 

For this reason I wish to present for your amusement and edification my understanding of forgiveness.  It is my hope that the suggestions I make will help you make sense of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and eradicate any ‘formulaic’ understanding of God that may be lurking in your life.

These thoughts originate in a lecture I gave last April on the virtue of forgiveness.  The impetus for these musings stem from my own attempt to integrate my life experience with “theoretical data”. 

The first entry coming soon will be on “I/Thou”