Over the years I’ve led a few classes on forgiveness, counseled a few people struggling with how to forgive, read the usual array of articles probing the issue, and had a few problems of my own with it.
In the end, I think forgiveness is the act of not perpetuating violence. It’s a discipline, not an emotion, although the later may be the result of the discipline.
Perpetuating violence begins with holding a grudge because it does real injury to the holder, something psychologists and spiritual directors have known for a long time. The grudge holder might object that I don’t understand the depth of violence or injustice inflicted on them, and they would be right, but holding that grudge is a form of violence committed against the self, and thus a perpetuation of the violence and injustice.
Expressing it outwardly takes on some form of revenge, even if it’s cloaked in the language of justice, in which case the violence perpetrated in the first instance has been used as an excuse, or justifiable reason, for perpetuating violence on the rebound that has a high probability of rebounding again. That is not to say that acts of injustice and violence should be without consequence. They always have consequence, but holding grudges and acts of revenge need not be among them.
Looking at it another way, we condemn gang turf wars and senseless shootings, but, if we are honest about it, they are magnified images of our own, more civilized, turf wars and senseless shootings as we continue the cycle of violence in our families, among our friends, and at our places of work. We are accomplished at a less visible form of violence because we inflict it with words, and acts of interpersonal sabotage, behind which we can easily hide. When we inflict physical abuse, we do what we can to shroud it in secrecy, or claim it as an act of self defense. It’s not uncommon, but it’s crude. Most of us are far better at inflicting psychological abuse in ways that are harder to detect and easier to cover up.
The excuses don’t matter. What matters is the continuation of the cycle of violence. Forgiveness, then, is not an emotion in which the violent act ceases to have psychological power over us. It is a decision made to not continue participating in the cycle. It’s what Jesus did, what Mandela learned to do, and what Girard has written about in our own day. It seems so simple, but when it’s brought up in conversation it tends to elicit one of three responses: a blank, uncomprehending stare; a “yes but not me”; or a “you don’t understand.”
“Let no evil talk come our of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up." So says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Good advice.