What’s Wrong? is pleased to publish this original contribution from philosopher Bonnie Steinbock.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof shot ten parishioners at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, nine of whom died. In December 2016, he was found guilty of all 33 charges in the Charleston Church shooting, including multiple counts of committing a hate crime against black victims and using a firearm to commit murder. On January 10, 2017, the same jury that found him guilty decided that he should receive the death penalty.
Mr. Roof never showed any remorse for the killing, which he said he had to do, because black people were killing white people every day. In a jailhouse manifesto he wrote after the attack, he said, “I would like to make it crystal clear. I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
During a bond hearing two days after the shooting, five family members of the victims addressed Mr. Roof, telling him that they forgave him. Some urged him to confess and repent, and to be saved by Christ, but their forgiveness apparently was not contingent on his doing so.
Many have praised the relatives of the victims for forgiving the man who caused them so much pain. Forgiveness is generally viewed as praiseworthy, and when, as in this case, it is extremely difficult, the bestowing of forgiveness is regarded as evidence of a truly admirable character.
But did the parishioners forgive Mr. Root? Clearly, that is what they thought they did. However, I think that forgiveness is not simply a matter of subjective intention. There is a logic to forgiveness, just as there is to many other concepts, such as duty, authority, and punishment. That is the topic of this essay.
I realize that questioning the forgiveness of the parishioners may be offensive to some, who will interpret what I am saying as doubting their sincerity. I do not doubt their sincerity or their goodness. Rather, I am making a conceptual claim about the nature of forgiveness, and in particular, the context in which forgiveness is intelligible. I hope to show that when a claim of forgiveness is removed from that context, which I will lay out below, it is hard to understand what it means to forgive, or why it should be regarded as forgiveness, rather than something else.
What is forgiveness? I view forgiveness as the flip side of rights claims. When someone has a right to something, he or she has a justified claim against others that they do or forbear from certain actions. For example, my right to life imposes on others the obligation not to kill me. My right to property imposes the obligation not to deprive me of my belongings. When my rights are violated, I am justified in making certain demands against the wrongdoer. At the very least, I would be justified in expecting an apology. Depending on the nature of the rights violation, I could also be justified in claiming restitution or compensation. Rights violations also justify certain attitudes or feelings, including anger, resentment, and a desire to see the violator appropriately punished.
I am not claiming that there can be forgiveness only when someone’s rights have been violated. There may be all sorts of wrongful behavior, such as being unsympathetic or inconsiderate, that is not a matter of violating anyone’s rights, and forgiveness in such cases may well be appropriate. My point is rather that there is a kind of symmetry between rights claims and forgiveness. Just as rights imply having justified claims against others, so forgiveness can be seen as forgoing justified claims (in the case of rights). Where the wrongdoing is not a matter of rights violation, forgiveness is a matter of forgoing other justifiable actions or attitudes, such as anger, bitterness or resentment. Forgiveness is thus an alternate response to having been harmed or wronged. Sometimes forgiveness is an alternative to punishment. Instead of punishing the guilty, we might forgive them instead.
However, given the social utility of punishment, primarily for purposes of social protection, it does not seem that forgiveness requires forgoing any punishment, although forgiveness does seem inconsistent with demanding the severest penalty. Some of the parishioners did speak out against the death penalty for Mr. Roof, advocating that he be given life in prison without parole. Their doing this demonstrates their belief in mercy, a concept that goes hand in hand with forgiveness. However, I hope to show that the claim that they forgave Mr. Roof is still problematic.
Some may say that forgiveness can only be understood in the context of Christianity. While I am not versed in Christian theology or ethics, my understanding is that the general idea is that we are all sinners and therefore in need of God’s forgiveness. Just as God forgives us our sins, so we should forgive others. However, as I understand it, God’s forgiveness depends on the sinner’s acknowledgment of the sin and sincere repentance for it. If God does not forgive the sinner who is unrepentant, can anyone else? Perhaps the idea is that only God is in a position to determine whether the sinner is repentant. We mortals should simply forgive, and leave judgment about whether it is deserved to God.
My concern is not primarily with the normative claim that we should forgive, but with the conceptual claim about what forgiveness is. I want to argue that forgiveness most clearly makes sense in the context of a relationship that has been riven by the infliction of harm. The point of forgiveness, understood as a forgoing of justifiable attitudes, like anger and resentment, or actions, like a demand for compensation or punishment, is to repair the relationship. The repairing of a relationship takes time. Therefore, it cannot be done simply by an act of decision, nor is it accomplished simply by saying the words, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness is not an act, but a process. It requires communication and understanding, on both sides, which is why it takes time, sometimes even years.
If this is right, then forgiveness is not one-sided. It is not something that can be bestowed by the forgiver, quite independent of any participation by the transgressor. It is a mutual endeavor. Acknowledgement of the wrong and sincere repentance by the wrongdoer is as important as the response of forgoing justified claims. Repentance is not sincere where someone does not acknowledge the harm done. A conditional apology, like “If I hurt or offended you, I’m sorry,” is not a real apology. That is why it is so infuriating.
At the same time, in seeking forgiveness, people often do attempt to provide excusing or mitigating conditions: I was drunk, I was angry, I was jealous. I didn’t think. I didn’t mean it. To forgive is to understand that all of us do things we should not have done, and not let that permanently destroy a valued relationship.
In the clearest cases of forgiveness, there is an ongoing relationship between the parties. However, I am not claiming that such a relationship has to exist prior to the harmful act. Consider the case of Officer Steven McDonald who died on Jan. 10, 2017 (“Steven McDonald, Paralyzed Officer Who Championed Forgiveness, Dies at 59,”). In July 1986, Officer McDonald was shot three times at point-blank range by a teenager, Shavod Jones, in Central Park, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. His son, Conor McDonald, was born several months after the shooting. At his baptism in 1987, Officer McDonald asked his wife to read a statement saying that he forgave his attacker and hoped that Mr. Jones could “find peace and purpose in his life.”
Although there was no relationship between Officer McDonald and Shavod Jones prior to the shooting, Officer McDonald reached out to Mr. Jones while he was in prison. Therefore, they had the kind of relationship that I think is necessary for forgiveness to be intelligible.
Strangely, we became friends. It began with my writing to him. At first he didn’t answer my letters, but then he wrote back. Then one night a year or two later, he called my home from prison and apologized to my wife, my son, and me. We accepted his apology, and I told him I hoped he and I could work together in the future. I hoped that one day we might travel around the country together sharing how this act of violence had changed both our lives, and how it had given us an understanding of what is most important in life (Johann Christoph Arnold, Steven McDonald’s Story).
The offering of forgiveness was the first step in forging the relationship between Officer McDonald and the boy who shot him. If Officer McDonald had not wanted any connection with Shavod Jones, I am not sure what the claim that he had forgiven him would come to.
Another case of forgiveness occurs when the parents of murdered children, in an attempt to understand why the tragedy occurred, make contact with the killer in prison. Their forgiveness is based on trying to understand what led to the killing, as well as a belief that the individual is redeemable, and more than his worst act. Although forgiveness in this context is possible and intelligible, I do not think that it is morally required. As a website for survivors of homicide victims notes, the advice that people sometimes give survivors that they should “‘forgive the murderer’ or ‘pray for his redemption’ is not only infuriating but painful to hear.” (Survivors of Homicide Victims). Indeed, I think it betrays a misunderstanding of forgiveness. Unless the claim is that the parents of murdered children ought to attempt to establish a relationship with their children’s murderer — something they clearly have no obligation to do — the claim that they have an obligation to forgive him is empty rhetoric.
Some may think that I have missed the point of forgiveness. It is not, it may be said, to enable an existing relationship to continue, or to forge a new one. It is rather part of a healing process that involves letting go of one’s anger and resentment. Officer McDonald expresses this in Steven McDonald’s Story, saying:
I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that his act of violence had unleashed in me: anger, bitterness, hatred, and other feelings. I needed to free myself of those emotions so that I could love my wife and our child and those around us.
Of course, letting go of anger, bitterness, and hatred can be beneficial to the injured party. These are often toxic emotions that cause more harm to the one experiencing them than the one at which they are directed. As Carrie Fisher said, “Resentment is like drinking a poison and waiting for the other person to die.” (Wishful Drinking, 2008, Simon & Schuster, p. 153). There are excellent self-interested reasons for letting go of anger, bitterness, hatred, and resentment. We might call this the “prudential account” of forgiveness. However, if forgiveness stems purely from self-interest, it is hard to see how it can have moral worth, any more than refraining from overcharging one’s customers to avoid getting a bad reputation that will hurt one’s business has moral worth (Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals).
The prudential account does not only fail to explain how forgiveness can be a moral requirement or have moral worth. It fails to provide an adequate account of what forgiveness is. This is because its focus is on the effects of anger, hatred, bitterness and resentment on the injured party, and the benefits of letting these toxic feelings go. But why should this be regarded as forgiveness? One could let go of such feelings by turning one’s attention elsewhere, by moving on. Surely simply “moving on” is different from forgiveness. One can move on all by oneself, whereas forgiveness implies (at least) two people. Forgiveness must be bestowed on someone else; it cannot be given in general, like perfume sprayed into the air. It most clearly makes sense in the context of a relationship that requires forgiveness to survive and continue.
One last comment. What I have said so far might seem to imply that one can only forgive living persons. What about the dead? Can one forgive one’s parents for abusive or neglectful childrearing after they have died? Obviously one’s deceased parents cannot repent, or ask for our forgiveness. Nevertheless, I think that forgiveness is possible because the relationship we have with our parents does not end when they die. Their effect on our lives and who we are continues as long as we live. If we come to understand the pressures they were under, why they acted as they did, and even that they did the best they could, we may come to forgive them.
The act of saying, “I forgive you,” may be the beginning of a relationship. It may lead to remorse and the desire for forgiveness on the part of the wrongdoer. But in the complete absence of any relationship or hope of a relationship, and where the one who has inflicted harm is not sorry, but instead regards himself as justified, the concept of forgiveness does not apply.
(Professor Steinbock wishes to thank Rachel Cohon for valuable comments on an earlier draft of this blog post)