Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS
Book 5. Zen Judaism
Chapter 12. Forgiveness
Defining forgiveness. It is not always easy to forgive those who have caused us some tangible or assumed harm. Yet, forgiveness of some sort seems in ordinary circumstances wise, if one wants to avoid wasteful entanglements. So, it is worthwhile reflecting on this topic. Forgiving means abstaining from demanding reparation for damage sustained; or again, refraining from seeking revenge.
Forgiveness varies in kind, with regard to the victim’s attitude towards the offender:
- One does not punish someone one believes culpable.
- Or one ‘understands’ the culprit, considering him or her at some level or to some degree less guilty than he or she strictly appears to be.
- Or one is willing to relinquish judgment, going so far as to let the matter drop and forget it altogether.
Forgiveness may take different forms:
- Conditional pardon: this is not forgiving without first receiving at least a sincere apology, an acknowledgment of guilt and promise not to repeat the offense, so that one is not taken for a ‘sucker’ and ‘screwed’ again.
- Unconditional pardon: this is graceful forgiving, not dependent on a prior sign of repentance from the offender, considering that such grace may eventually cause his or her conscience to realize the harm done and the debt owed.
- Pragmatic pardon: disregarding the offense, moving on to other things. This may mean avoiding the offender thenceforth, or resuming interactions with him or her as if nothing happened. One may take such an attitude out of practical necessity; or so as not to remain blocked by hate, dropping the matter to be emotionally freed of it.
These are some aspects of forgiveness and common motives concerning it. Note that to forgive is not necessarily to forget. Even when one forgives, one may nevertheless vow not to forget, so as not to be victimized again. In such cases, one remains on guard against a proven danger, ready henceforth to defend oneself.
In this context, a reflection on the Christian statement “forgive them, for they know not what they do” is in order. Such a motive for forgiveness may be considered self-contradictory, insofar as forgiveness presupposes some responsibility, which presupposes actions that were to some degree voluntary and conscious – if they were totally unconscious and involuntary, there is nothing to forgive, i.e. the concept of forgiveness is not applicable. One can still consistently say “don’t be angry, for they know not what they do”; for one might well be angry at a natural phenomenon, and seek to calm one’s anger, although one has no one to resent or forgive. Of course, it is also consistent to say: “forgive them, for they hardly know what they are doing”, implying a bit of self-awareness – but one must consider to what extent “they” have chosen to be so unconscious. But in any case, one should not forgive by fooling oneself into doing so.
Forgiveness is usually the wisest course, because anger and hatred are attachments, i.e. weaknesses. One should not let one’s enemy have this hold on one – i.e. weaken one and make one swerve away from serenity and nobility. It is bad enough that one has been wronged; it is preferable not to make matters worse for oneself by getting overly hung up on the episode. Let it pass, so far as possible. However, some crimes are unforgivable and it would be a crime to forgive them. Sometimes, one refuses to get involved in punishing guilt, out of laziness or selfishness. One then descends into advocacy of moral relativism or amorality, to justify one’s inaction. No, one must conscientiously fulfill one’s responsibilities, where applicable. Thus, be neither hotheaded nor indifferent, but find the right balance between mercy and justice.
Meditation both requires and produces forgiveness. One cannot advance far in meditation, if one is not willing to “let go” of unpleasant experiences. Also, the more one advances in meditation, the less are unpleasant experiences of any interest or importance. The mental influence of negative events diminishes, so that they appear less negative and so, when applicable, more easily forgiven.
General forgiveness. The Buddhists have a concept of “metta”, which emphasizes universal love and compassion – even towards one’s enemies, even towards people who have committed great crimes. This is of course a concept of total, immediate and unconditional forgiveness. The idea is that, through such magnanimous non-attachment to hatred and revenge, one becomes able to change people for the better and forge peace. It is argued that if one hangs on to resentment one only keeps the spiral of violence going.
I find it hard to subscribe to such a view, which in today’s morally confused world is serving more and more as a justification for passivity to injustice. It is the sort of upside-down view that places Nazis and Nazi-hunters – or Palestinian terrorism and Israeli self-defense – on the same moral plane. The net result of this Buddhist idea is that victims are reproved for complaining or defending themselves, and their aggressors are tolerated and appeased no matter how heinous their crimes.
Permit me to doubt that such an attitude can lead to world peace, or social peace, or inner peace. It is, instead, a formula for suicide and utter anarchy; justice has to be enforced at some level, or injustice is bound to reign. By failing to resist crime, we weaken the innocent victims and make them more and more vulnerable, and we strengthen and encourage thugs. Justice must be swift and firm, to make clear to all potential criminals that there is no profit in their antisocial behavior, and thus to protect the innocent as much as possible.
As for the universal compassion enjoined by Buddhism, I wonder whether it is fair to describe it as a high-minded virtue. If we examine the motivation involved within the individual practitioner, who in meditation trains himself to forgive and love his enemy, or anyone he perceives as evil, we see that: in the hope of gaining personal spiritual elevation or liberation, he is willing to be indifferent to the suffering of the victims of criminals, or even to reach-out in a friendly manner to criminals. This is best described as a selfish cop-out or sell-out.
However, if we avoid extremes, ‘metta’ is certainly commendable. An almost general loving-kindness can be cultivated by reflecting on the fact that we are all in this difficult world (samsara) together. We are all poor sods who landed here all of a sudden, not knowing from where and not knowing till where and when. This is our common lot. Some of us may seemingly have a luckier fate, but all of us experience some difficulty. One should not be too judging. Perhaps if I was born and raised in the place of this other person, I would have come out worse than him or her.
 As I recall, this was uttered by Jesus against the Jews or the Romans involved in his crucifixion, somewhere in the Christian Bible. This dramatic event was sadly used for centuries as a pretext to bash “the” Jews in general. That is to say, the “forgive them” statement was paradoxically interpreted as a call not to forgive!