Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Ask Tony: Forgiveness and Sincerity—UPDATED

Hypothetical situation: A friend, loved one, coworker, or acquaintance has a certain behavioral trait, one that is objectively sinful and hurtful. At times, you are the one s/he hurts. Every time s/he hurts you, s/he apologizes. After n apologies and n +1 times being hurt, though, don’t you have a right to feel his/her apologies are insincere? Shouldn’t the behavior have been corrected by then if s/he really meant it? In sum, aren’t you justified in refusing to forgive, or making your forgiveness contingent upon some material act?

Seventy Times Seven

There are only two passages in the New Testament where a finite number is connected with forgiveness. The first occurs in Matthew 18:21-22:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Jesus then follows this injunction with the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (vv. 23-35). The “seventy times seven”, of course, is hyperbole meaning that we forgive as often as asked: “... and if [your brother] sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:4). However, you don’t have to wait to be asked forgiveness in order to grant it.

As for sincerity — nope. Don’t find it connected to forgiveness of others anywhere in the NT. It’s not a condition. Nor do you find any passage that allows you to make forgiveness conditional. Catholics have done penitential acts over the centuries. However, those acts were reparative; that is, they were ordered towards repairing the relationship between the person and God, and not as a condition of His forgiveness. Making your forgiveness contingent upon fulfilling a material condition as “proof” of sincerity is spiritual extortion.

The Dangerous Subjectivity of Sincerity

Sincerity is a dangerous criterion for such a decision, because a person’s sincerity is subjective. One of the reasons why we have a Sacrament of Reconciliation is because people backslide, even given the assistance of the Holy Spirit — the Spirit does not, after all, make puppets of us. To assume that sincere effort will eventually result in success is optimistic but not necessarily true.

Habits are difficult to break. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors require extensive (and expensive) therapy to overcome. For some psychological conditions, behavioral change is either impossible or as close to it as makes no difference. I have two friends who are alcoholics, and who describe themselves as such despite being sober for over half their lives; part of learning to live sober is to learn that the compulsion doesn’t end until you die. So often, all we have available to us is DIY behavior modification; people are usually their own worst life coaches.

We just don’t know how much effort anyone puts into changing their lives, or how difficult the particular behavior is for him/her to overcome. Like Evelyn Waugh once said, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” We’re commanded to strive for perfection, but we’re not guaranteed achievement, even temporarily. Judgment of souls is properly left to God (cf. Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 12:19-21): only He knows how much freedom we have to change.

“As We Forgive Others”

Moreover, as the parable of the Unforgiving Servant makes clear, forgiveness is less for the other person’s benefit than it is for ours. The Catechism of the Catholic Church ponders the verse in the Lord’s Prayer, “… forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”:

Now — and this is daunting — this outpouring of mercy cannot penetrate our hearts as long as we have not forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Love, like the Body of Christ, is indivisible; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see (cf. 1 John 4:20). In refusing to forgive our brothers and sisters, our hearts are closed and their hardness makes them impervious to the Father’s merciful love; but in confessing our sins, our hearts are opened to his grace.

This petition is so important that it is the only one to which the Lord returns and which he develops explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 6:14-15; 5:23-24; Mark 11:25). This crucial requirement of the covenant mystery is impossible for man. But “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). ...

Thus the Lord’s words on forgiveness, the love that loves to the end (cf. John 13:1), become a living reality. The parable of the merciless servant, which crowns the Lord’s teaching on ecclesial communion, ends with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (cf. Matthew 18:23-35). It is there, in fact, “in the depths of the heart,” that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession. (CCC 2840-2841, 2843)

Anger is a natural, and sometimes necessary, emotion. However, it must not be allowed either to dictate our actions or rule our lives. A person who refuses to forgive an injury chooses to dwell in the anger and pain — not just dwell on, but to live within it, making it the foundation and warrant for our own unjust and injurious actions. By forgiving the other, we release the anger and allow ourselves to heal.

UPDATE — August 24, 2016

After publishing, I received pertinent news. In St. Louis, U.S. District Court judge Carol E. Jackson ruled that SNAP (Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests) and SNAP leaders David Clohessy and Barbara Dorris defamed Fr. Xiu-hui “Joseph” Jiang.

SNAP had made allegations against Fr. Jiang and had instigated criminal charges against him; however, the charges were dropped. As part of the defamation suit Fr. Jiang filed, the court demanded details about Fr. Jiang’s accusers per his 6th Amendment right to be confronted by his accusers; SNAP stalled for two months, claiming a “rape crisis center privilege” Judge Jackson ruled “meritless”. Judge Jackson ruled that SNAP’s failure to comply was “deliberate or in bad faith”, and that, under Rule 37(b)(2) of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, it had been “established for the purposes of this action” that the defendants defamed Fr. Jiang and conspired to obtain a conviction “due to discriminatory animus ... based on his religion, religious vocation, race and national origin.”

(A quick aside: It’s possible Clohessy and SNAP pursued this course to establish a precedent for their “rape crisis center privilege”. Rape and sexual assault trials, whether civil or criminal, can be brutal experiences for real victims. However, the privilege Clohessy and SNAP claim promises only mischief; when witnesses can make their claims anonymously and without cross-examination, it means they can commit perjury without fear of reprisal. When that happens, the trial becomes a mere formality, existing only to convict. However, it’s just as possible that Clohessy and SNAP went all-in on a busted flush, and got called on it.)

Clohessy and SNAP have been heading in this direction for some years now. This is not the first time they’ve demanded criminal investigations and charges based on testimony that proved to have little to no credibility. Anger corrupts even the best of intentions. The need to strike out and strike back sooner or later overcomes the demands of truth, justice, and charity, swallowed up in end-justify-the-means thinking. Even watchdogs need watching.

Forgiveness is Hard

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we must allow the person to continue to injure us at leisure. On the contrary, we must openly and explicitly draw bright lines, telling the person that our forgiveness does not make the injuring behavior acceptable. Depending on the nature of the injuring behavior, we may have to “love from a distance”; that is, to remain concerned for the person’s welfare, but to stay out of their reach, doing for them only that which can be done remotely or with minimal contact.

We must also look honestly at our own behavior, since we may provoke or enable the injuring behavior with our own actions, and change ourselves if we do. Being the injured parties, we often protect our own egos by convincing ourselves “it’s all the other person’s fault”, refusing to accept ownership of our provocation. Rarely does a pattern of injury arise in isolation, or come without a “feedback loop” that eggs on and aggravates the injuring behavior. Codependent behavior, by which family and friends enable addictive behavior, is one example of how such “feedback loops” are created.

Nevertheless, there’s only one sin that Scripture says is unforgivable — blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). Even here, the Church teaches that God’s forgiving mercy is available; it is the impenitence and obstinacy which shut the person off to forgiveness. A person who refuses to forgive steps onto a path which, if one isn’t careful, leads not just to social isolation but to the final isolation.

Forgiveness is hard, sometimes. So is healing. Christianity was never about confirming us in our special okayness; it’s always been about reintegrating our flesh and blood — that is, our bodies and minds — with our souls as a precondition for eternal union with God. We can’t become whole unless we become holy: the one condition is inseparable from the other.

Final Thoughts

This is why we insist on forgiving even the most grievous of sins, like rape and sexual abuse. Cue the angry spluttering: “But … but …  but you can’t know what that’s like! You can’t know how I feel!” No, I can’t say I’ve been injured to that degree. But I do know it’s like quicksand — you don’t have to ever step in it to know you shouldn’t want to stay there. The greater the degree of your injury, the more you need the liberating grace of forgiving the other. Forgiveness may never, ever do the predator a single bit of good. So long as you choose to remain unforgiving, though, you give the predator the liberty to continue hurting you so long as you live. Again, forgive them not for their own good but for your own.

Of course, a post from me would not be complete without a passage from another English writer and Catholic convert, the Apostle of Common Sense:

Charity is a paradox, like modesty and courage. Stated baldly, charity certainly means one of two things — pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people. But if we ask ourselves (as we did in the case of pride) what a sensible pagan would feel about such a subject, we shall probably be beginning at the bottom of it. A sensible pagan would say that there were some people one could forgive, and some one couldn’t: a slave who stole wine could be laughed at; a slave who betrayed his benefactor could be killed, and cursed even after he was killed. In so far as the act was pardonable, the man was pardonable. That again is rational, and even refreshing; but it is a dilution. It leaves no place for a pure horror of injustice, such as that which is a great beauty in the innocent. And it leaves no place for a mere tenderness for men as men, such as is the whole fascination of the charitable. Christianity came in here as before. It came in startlingly with a sword, and clove one thing from another. It divided the crime from the criminal. The criminal we must forgive unto seventy times seven. The crime we must not forgive at all. It was not enough that slaves who stole wine inspired partly anger and partly kindness. We must be much more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild. (G. K. Chesterton, “Chapter 6: The Paradoxes of Christianity”, in Orthodoxy [1908])


Bottom Line: Forgiveness cannot be contingent on sincerity or proof of change. We are required to forgive others as often as they ask forgiveness, because Christ has made forgiving others a condition of our forgiveness by God.