Trying to get down to the heart of the matter

I want to follow up on this earlier discusssion — “Mercy for the downpresser man is not the first step. Or the second, or third” — about what it might mean to extend grace to an oppressor or an abuser.

What we’re talking about here is forgiveness. Can Pharaoh be forgiven?

Forgiveness is a Good Thing. Each one of us, at some point, requires it. And thus each of us, at some point, will also need to grant it to others.

But that qualifying phrase there — “at some point” — is important. And it’s not enough just to say that forgiveness is a Good Thing without also exploring why and how it’s a Good Thing.

If I have wronged you, if I have done you harm, then I did so through the use of power over you. The case of an oppressor or an abuser makes this especially clear, but it’s always true. To do another wrong is to exercise power against them, and the more power we have in relation to another, the greater the capacity we have to do them wrong by using that power for harm.

Forgiveness works by reversing that power dynamic. If I have exercised power over you, abusing that power to do you harm, then I require your forgiveness. It becomes something I need from you, but which I cannot compel you to give me. Forgiveness cannot be coerced or extracted by force. It can only be granted.

This is part of why the wrong questions discussed in the previous post are the wrong questions. “What about grace for the oppressor/abuser?” is a question that, when asked out of turn, becomes a tool for trying to extract or to compel forgiveness. And that’s not how forgiveness works or what it means.

If you are to grant me forgiveness, then, it can only happen if I come to you in powerlessness — if I accept that my request for forgiveness grants you all the power in the equation. Pharaoh can only be forgiven when he bows down before the former slave he has wronged.

This reversal, this correction, of the imbalance of power is why forgiveness can bring healing to both parties in the transaction. It’s like the leveling sung of by Mary or preached by John the Baptist. It brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; it fills every valley and makes low every mountain and hill. The powerful are brought low and the powerless are lifted up. The powerless are empowered.

The counterfeit of coerced or compulsory forgiveness cannot do this. There can be no leveling if the powerless are required or demanded or expected to surrender their forgiveness before the powerful are brought low. Any talk of forgiveness for one who has misused or exploited power over others that does not grant power — all the power — to those others becomes, itself, a second misuse and exploitation of power. It’s a sham and a scam that has nothing to do with real forgiveness at all.

And that is not a Good Thing.

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  • WingedBeast

    I want to alter this to say forgiveness cannot be required, demanded, or expected *at all*.

    Too many childhood memories of having the the bully mouth an apology for me followed by teachers giving me a stern “now, don’t you have to say something to him?” with the message that I’m doing something wrong if I don’t accept the apology and forgive.

    Unless you seek forgiveness ready to do battle for the right of the ones you’ve wronged to deny you said forgiveness, you’re not seeking forgiveness.  You’re seeking an escape from the consequences of your actions.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I hear ya. The bullies of my youth only ever apologized because the adults in charged bullied them into it. As soon as the adults were gone, it was back to business-as-usual for the bullies. Forcing them to apologize and letting them off without meaningful punishment or change in behavior only helped them hone their skills in being insincerely and superficially civil when authorities were present.

  • VMink

    My grade school seemed to double down on that.  Bully says ‘sowwy?’  You must forgive him.  Tried to defend yourself from the bully?  YOU get in trouble as well.

    They tried to hit me up for alumni donations (alumni? from a grade school?) a few years ago.  I still feel the urge to ask them, ‘Why?’

  • John Alexander Harman

    Why not write them a letter explaining why their policy was unjust and why they’re never going to receive a dime from you?  That seems more constructive than simply ignoring them.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Tried to defend yourself from the bully?  YOU get in trouble as well.

    Yeah, my schools (and most schools, I imagine) regard that as “fighting” and fighting is bad, mmkay? Add to that the fact that bullies figure out pretty quickly that teacher seldom sees the first punch, but often sees the second and pretty soon you’re a slow, day-long, one-punch-at-a-time beating.

  • aunursa

    What do you think about the act of forgiveness as being admirable, and a victim who forgives as being a Really Good Person?  When I hear that I think of those victims who cannot forgive or who do not forgive their attackers, and it really pisses me off.  Because it’s saying to me that those victims who cannot forgive or who choose not to forgive are somehow less worthy than those who do.

  • Jen

    Not only is there an implication that those who don’t or can’t forgive aren’t good people, but “forgiveness is a virtue” also overlooks the question of whether the person being forgiven really ought to be.

    I’m sorry, but some people shouldn’t be.  An abuser who doesn’t see his or her actions as abusive, and who intends to continue the abuse or who has stopped abusing only due to lack of access to victims, shouldn’t be forgiven. 

    And way, way, WAY too often, there’s an implication that once you’ve forgiven someone, you’re supposed to act as though the forgiven act never happened.  Which can under some circumstances be absolutely immoral.  If someone wants to forgive a person who abused (in any way) him or her as a child, fine.  But that doesn’t mean the abuser should be allowed access to other children!

  • Mary Kaye

    I think it’s pretty clear that in some cases where society praises a victim for their forgiveness, what has happened is that the victim has been victimized twice:  once in being abused, and again in being induced to “forgive” the aggressor in a way which is more about exoneration or excusing or smoothing over.

    A victim’s forgiveness is very convenient for society, because it lets society off the hook–once the victim forgives the abuser it is easy for the rest of us to feel we have nothing further to do.   I have been peripherally involved in one horrid situation where the victim was clearly being pressed to forgive specifically so that the authorities in charge could avoid having to deal with the aggressor.

    There is a reason that the Middle Pillar lies between mercy and justice and is not the pillar of mercy.

  • aunursa

    This also reminds me of an incident from many years ago, when Bernie Ward, a San Francisco talk show host, declared that Christianity was morally superior to Judaism because the former offered unconditional forgiveness.

  • Magic_Cracker

    …Christianity was morally superior to Judaism because the former offered unconditional forgiveness.

    And, of course, Ward can have “Christianity” can “offer” whatever he likes, seeing as it’s an abstraction and not a person who may or may not prove him wrong. Anyway specific incident of a professed Christian not doing what he says they should do can be chalked up to the Scotsman. In my experience (in a majority-Christian-ish country), many Christians’ forgiveness is very conditional, and why wouldn’t it be? Christians are only human, after all, and humans are largely venal, vicious, vengeful little apes. Myself included. /misanthropy
    In any case, one of my major peeves is the assertion that an abstraction does or is doing things. No — people do things. Abstract concepts may guide the doing, or provide rationalizations and justifications for what was done, but it all comes down to people.

  • VMink

    In this, I actually find the Judaism view of forgiveness to be *better* in that it’s not just some mealy-mouthed ‘You must forgive everyone!’  In order to be forgiven, there must be a desire to be forgiven, a recognition by the person who has done wrong that they have, in fact, done wrong. Otherwise, forgiveness is cheapened and made little more than saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes.

  • Anonymous Al

    Given that the story says God deliberately hardened Pharaoh’s heart when he decided to let the Israelites go, I don’t think Pharaoh’s a good example at all. In the context of this post, we should really be asking if God can be forgiven for using his power to manipulate pharaoh’s mind.

  • Jurgan

    That always troubled me, but I think the point, perhaps blurred by translation, is that God “hardened Pharoah’s heart” by not overriding it.  I could be wrong about this, but I think it has to do with active and passive voice.  Since he’s God, he could simply force Pharoah, but he chooses not to.  One could then argue that God is the cause of anything he doesn’t directly intervene to stop, but he allows Pharoah free will.  He created Pharoah’s heart, so he’s responsible for anything he does.

    I don’t know to what extent this is true, but it’s an interesting diversion.

  • swbarnes2

    So the text says that God was going to do something (harden Pharoah’s heart) and you interpret that as really meaning that God was not going to do that? How is that reasonable?  I checked three different online Tanakh sites, they all translate Exodus 4:21 pretty much the same, and none of them translate to “I’m going to allow Pharoah to be merciful if he chooses”

    I understand not wanting to believe in a God who forces people to be puppets, but can’t we at least accept what the text actually says, instead of pretending that it says what one might wish it said?

  • Jurgan

    Yeah, you’re probably right.  I don’t know for sure what it means, but I’m always on the lookout for new interpretations.  Some of them make sense, and some not so much.  I’ve seen a similar question about Job- is God responsible for Job’s suffering because he doesn’t stop it?  I don’t know, but it’s a tough question.

  • Helena

    This is the kind of damage that Strunk and White does. Is there no charity to help these poor victims?

  • Tricksterson

    I’m all about forgiving Pharaoh.. Wasn’t his fault.  He decided to let the Hebrews go and God hardened his heart twice.  Probably never even asked permission o the Egyptian gods, pushy bastards.

  • Charity Brighton

    I’m sure Thoth filed a grievance at some point, but by the time the issue came up before an administrative law spirit the Diaspora had already happened and everyone was just too tired to deal with it.

  • JustoneK

    In the context of this post, we don’t have direct proof God hardened Pharaoh’s heart at all.  What we do have is proof Pharaoh was oppressing people.
    Does the blame really lie in Pharaoh or in a manipulative God?

  • Jen

    In the context of this post, we don’t have direct proof God hardened Pharaoh’s heart at all. What we do have is proof Pharaoh was oppressing people.
    Does the blame really lie in Pharaoh or in a manipulative God?


    The same book that tells us that Pharaoh oppressed people ALSO tells us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, causing him to refuse to give in to the demands presented to him.

    If you believe there is evidence of one (the oppression), there’s just as much evidence of the other (the fact that God manipulated Pharaoh to get His desired outcome). 

    Now, personally, I think they’re both just stories in an old book.  But you don’t get to declare one bit proven and another bit unproven.

  • JustoneK

    Let me see if I’m reading you.  We’re talking about Pharaoh as the metaphor here for the oppressor class, right?  And we don’t have empirical proof the Judeo-Christian God is in fact fueling the modern abuse dynamic?

  • Helena

    We’ve got pretty good proof he’s not doing anything to stop it!

  • Tonio

    Fred doesn’t explore it explicitly here, but I see his point about forgiveness reversing the power dynamic as very applicable to social privilege based on personal characteristics. That privilege shouldn’t exist, I’d like to know his thoughts on how forgiveness works in helping reducing that privilege. Humility for people who perceive themselves as entitled, perhaps?

    If you believe there is evidence of one (the oppression), there’s just
    as much evidence of the other (the fact that God manipulated Pharaoh to
    get His desired outcome).

     The former would involve the usual standards for historical evidence.

     The latter would require far more extraordinary evidence, and this would be true if we were talking about some other extraordinary claim, such as von Daniken’s theory about aliens building the pyramids.

  • AndrewSshi

    I totally agree that mercy towards the wicked is cruelty towards their victims.  But that’s also a reason that I think that Fred’s (and Bell’s) notion that God doesn’t punish the unrepentant to be deeply problematic.

  • VMink

    I think that both Fred and Bell take a more nuanced view, that it is not a matter that God does not punish the unrepentant; rather God does not punish the unrepentant who at most were unrepentant for under a century, with eternal and everlasting pain and torment, no matter what they did.

  • ako

     I totally agree that mercy towards the wicked is cruelty towards their victims.

    I would not agree with that, actually.  I think that mercy towards the wicked is sometimes cruelty towards the victims, and mercy should only be extended towards the wicked when it’s done with due consideration for the well-being of the people they hurt.  But I don’t think it’s impossible to be compassionate towards people who’ve done serious wrong without further hurting their victims, and in the specific instances where it is practical to deal compassionately with everyone, it’s better to do so.  (When it isn’t possible to be compassionate towards everyone, the wronged and oppressed get priority.)   

    And I think that inflicting neverending punishment on everyone who did wrong and failed to repent is needlessly cruel.  Limited punishment for limited wrongs is far more just. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    Why even have ‘and failed to repent’ in that sentence?

  • ako

     Because that seemed to be the group AndrewSshi was talking about subjecting to Hell? 

  • Guest-again

    Recognizing this is not about forgiveness, but it is still a good thing to point out that forgiveness is not really something a child mass murder should ever expect, and that Norwegians seem to understand this in a way that is deeply right (and sadly, so very unAmerican in this day and age) –
    ‘Tens of thousands of rose-waving Norwegians gathered in central Oslo
    Thursday to deride mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik by singing a
    song he hates, viewing it as Marxist indoctrination.Some 40,000
    people, according to police, massed in the rain at a square near the
    Oslo district courthouse where Breivik is on trial for his July 22
    attacks that killed 77 people, to sing “Children of the Rainbow” by
    Norwegian folk singer Lillebjoern Nilsen.
    Inside the court, the
    33-year-old accused right-wing extremist sat listening without showing
    emotion to testimony from survivors of his bloodbath on the ninth day
    of his trial.
    Drawn by an Internet campaign, the protestors
    streamed into Youngstorget Square wearing colourful raincoats and
    carrying Norwegian flags and roses, which have come to represent
    Norway’s peaceful response to the horrifying attacks.
    The culture
    ministers of the Nordic countries were also at the square to
    participate, while other similar events were to take place across
    Nilsen led the chorus as the crowd, including many
    children who came with their nursery and elementary schools, sang
    along, waving roses in the air.

    This is a good way to fight hate filled racist mass murderers – and it involves neither forgiveness nor hate. Breivik is having his days in court – and his fellow citizens are letting him know what they they think of his beliefs and actions. By singing. And Norwegians are very unlikely to ever forgive a man that dressed as a police officer in order to more effectively kill children – including the 250 he wounded, a number I had not seen noted before his trial. A sane society knows how to deal with the hate filled – and it is not by responding with hatred.

  • Saffi

    Beautiful post!

    Great title, too – I actually pulled up “The Heart of the Matter” by Don Henley as background music while I read it, and it worked perfectly.

  • Jurgan

    Yes.  I’ve always hated forced apologies- I see them especially in schools and parenting. And pressuring people in a community to forgive when they’re not ready is just exerting more control over them.  You’ve summed it up beautifully, Fred.

  • Persephone

    An apology is meaningless when it is delivered by the one who has their boot on my throat. It is infuriating when it is accepted on my behalf by the bystanders who are watching and doing nothing to help me.

  • Kelly Withee

    I have been involved in horrible situations where I was pressured to forgive those who had hurt me badly and who had not apologized or atoned, let alone changed. Forgiveness is a CHOICE. God never intended it to become yet another weapon in the hands of an abuser or tyrant.

  • John Alexander Harman

    One of the things I find infuriating about some interpretations of Christianity is the idea that all sins are really against God, and that someone can ask for and receive God’s forgiveness without ever apologizing to the actual human beings who suffered from his actions.  This seems to be the concept of sin and forgiveness that Catholic hierarchy uses to justify their protection and enabling of child-raping priests and their disregard of (if not active cruelty toward) the victims of those priests.

  • Kirala

    Forgiveness and mercy only work with people who recognize that forgiveness and mercy are at work. Those who think that they are merely receiving their due – who think they have not truly crossed a line or think they have paid sufficient – are incapable of receiving forgiveness or mercy. It will be mistaken for fairness.

    I think forgiveness is a good thing when given and taken as a mercy.  I think it is unquestionably a Good Thing in those circumstances.  I think it’s a horrible thing when people think that a failure to set boundaries is forgiveness, or vice versa. I may be able to forgive a wrong; I can never and should never try to say “it’s okay” when it isn’t.

    Incidentally, amidst all the excellent talk of avoiding silencing victims, does anyone have any good ideas on how to train children to be mature without doing this? I can recall being very angry with my sisters for voting on a different TV show than the one I wanted to watch; my parents’ wise and correct admonishment was to just let it go. How ought one to discern between an opportunity to teach children maturity and a situation where a victim might be in danger of being silenced?

  • hapax


    I can recall being very angry with my sisters for voting on a different
    TV show than the one I wanted to watch; my parents’ wise and correct
    admonishment was to just let it go. How ought one to discern
    between an opportunity to teach children maturity and a situation where a
    victim might be in danger of being silenced?

    hapaxdaughter, bless her heart, has an intense need to FIX things.  By which I mean she will never let an injustice stand (which is admirable), has a bad case of “someone is WRONG on the internet” syndrome (which is tiresome), and will derail an entire class period as she seeks down to root out what she considers to be a factual error in a lecture (which will get her thrown out of class someday). 

    What I have attempted to teach her is “There is no such thing as a free choice.  Keeping silent will always have a cost.  Speaking up will always have a cost.  You cannot always know what that cost will be.  Before you speak, I want you to always ask yourself:  Is this problem the one worth spending everything to fix?  Or should I save my emotional, social, moral capital for something else?*

    I can’t answer that for you.  Nobody else can answer that for you.  But if you don’t ask yourself that first, speaking will only be arrogance and not speaking will be cowardice.”

    *Well, when she was young, I didn’t frame it quite that way — instead, I said, “What is more important in this particular case: being right by yourself, or being wrong in a group that is happy?”

  • Kirala


    What I have attempted to teach her is “There is no such thing as a free choice.  Keeping silent will always have a cost.  Speaking up will
    always have a cost. You cannot always know what that cost will be. 
    Before you speak, I want you to always ask yourself:  Is this problem the one worth spending everything to fix?  Or should I save my emotional, social, moral capital for something else?

    Thanks, hapax, I really like that rule of thumb.

  • Risser

    I’ve struggled for a long time over how to forgive someone that isn’t interested in being forgiven, either because they perceive no wrong, or honestly don’t care.

    My ability to forgive is a blessing for me.  When I forgive, I slough off a burden of anger, vengeance, pain.  That doesn’t mean I forget and we go back to normal.  Punch me in the face, ask for my forgiveness, I may give it to you, but I’ll never stand that close to you again.

    In any case, my desire to forgive is for my own benefit, not the person being forgiven.

    Similarly, my ability to be forgiven is a blessing for me.  When I allow myself to be forgiven by offering my contrition, my true heartfelt apology to someone I have wronged, I allow myself to enter back into their good graces and drop the load of regret, fear and even anger I might be holding.

    So, there are people I want to forgive for wrongs long passed, desperately, because I want to get past the anger that stands in the way of our relationship.  The relationship is more important to me now than any sort of actual remorse or admittance of guilt from those people.  But I can’t figure out how to do it.  I want to let it go and forgive, but without the other person actively engaging in being forgiven, I can’t seem to ever let it go.

    Anyway, looking for suggestions.

  • Dave

      My own approach to this is to remember two things:

    (1) I choose to forgive slights against me for my benefit, because it’s healthier than the alternatives.

    (2) Pretty much everything in my brain and my culture is opposed to (1).

    Which means that when I try to forgive slights, I will experience
    psychological and social conflict. I will kid myself, I will fool
    myself, I will discover years later that I still harbor resentment over
    things I thought I’d let go of a long time ago, I will suddenly realize
    that my attempts to engage with someone so I can forgive them are
    actually covert attempts to get them to acknowledge their error so I can
    feel vindicated, people will chastise me for failing to protect my own
    interests, people will get angry at me for failing to protect interests
    of mine that they have identified with, and much much more.

    That’s just part of what it means to be the kind of human I am.

    I find it helps to remember that, and to approach myself with compassion.

  • Lliira

    A “slight” is an entirely different thing from abuse and oppression. It just does not belong in the same category. At all.

  • Dave

     Sure, I agree. I was responding to Risser, who as far as I can tell was not discussing abuse and oppression, and who had asked for suggestions.

    I sort of feel like I ought to apologize for having a conversation with someone else about something else in a space which has been established as being for discussions of abuse and oppression, but on further thought I don’t really endorse that feeling, since I don’t feel that accurately describes what happened, so I won’t.

  • PepperjackCandy

    Regarding the “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” thing, I’m not a fundamentalist.  I don’t believe that everything it says in the Bible is 100% accurate forever and ever.

    I believe that it is entirely possible that some priest or other said (at the time or later), “Pharaoh would have given us what we wanted at this point, but God intervened and hardened his heart.” And that’s what got written down.

    Similarly, when God “told” the Israelites to go out and kill lots of people.  The priests said, “God says to go out and kill lots of people!” when it is their own ambition making them say that.  But the “God says” part is what got written down.

  • WingedBeast

    Bare in mind, Pepperjack, that when we’re talking about the Isrealites being slaves and building the pyramids, there’s absolutely no extra-biblical evidence of that happening at all.  None of it is in Egyptian records, and Egyptians were fastidious record keepers.

    All available evidence goes to say that Egyptians treated their slaves much like Greeks and Romans, as a personal comodoty rather than a business comodoty.  Slaves were, if they were put to work at anything business related, put to work in the fields.  But, far more often, they were put to work as personal assistants, home-management, “ladies in waiting”, etc.

    Similarly, the evidence all goes to suggest that the pyramids were not built by slaves at all, but instead built by farmers during the off season.  Said farmers were paid in a kind of thick breadlike beer.  More importantly, they were all Egyptians, themselves.

    And, to my understanding, there are few to no cognates between the old Egyptian language and the ancient Hebrew, which indicates very little communication between the two as languages put in the same space tend to mix quicker than liquids in a blender.

    So, all of that in mind, since we’re looking at a story that, from a purely evidentiary position, is likely as fictional/metaphorical as genesis, it seems rather convenient to a preferred image of God to treat the narrator as unreliable at strategic points.

  • swbarnes2

    “Similarly, when God “told” the Israelites to go out and kill lots of people.  The priests said, “God says to go out and kill lots of people!” when it is their own ambition making them say that.  But the “God says” part is what got written down.”
    Okay, and when Jesus “told” the disciples certain things, that could be a gospel writer doing the same thing, right?  Why not?

  • PepperjackCandy

    I admit that it is possible.  And probably happened any number of times.  

    However, if Jesus was real, he was a person.  He spoke directly to the audience in question, during a time when the audience was literate.  If several, or several score, or several hundred, or several thousand, people say that they heard him say, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth,” I would give that a lot more credence than one guy coming out of a room that no one else is allowed in and saying, “God says to kill the infidels!”

  • swbarnes2

    If Jesus was real.  And most modern scholars do not believe that the gospel writers heard the voice of Jesus, as they were writing long after the events they purportedly describe. 

    We have no evidence that thousands of people heard “Blessed are the meek”.  It’s likely that there is one single source that originally held that claim. 

    And I’m sure there were many, many voices saying “kill the infidel”, all of them equally assured through prayer that God was behind them 100%.


    To drag this back to the orignial topic, it seems sensible to say “No victim should have to forgive someone for a hurt that the victim is still emotionally bleeding from, it’s pretty much impossible, not to mention harmful to the victim”, but neither the text of the gospels, nor the traditional teaching of the church seem to make this exception, and that’s the cause of the disconnect here.   The rules the scripture lays out are not psychologically right for real human beings. Withou looking it up, I think the rules about “real” rape in the bible are similar; they say that a “real” rape victim will always cry out, and will always report the rape right away, but women (and men) who are really raped aren’t going to do that all the time.  It’s a bad set of criteria to judge the accuracy of the claim.

    Personally, I’d expect better from divinity.

    (I feel like there’s a better word than ‘victim’, but I can’t find it right now)

  • WingedBeast

    I think I should add into this conversation that there’s a difference between letting go of our anger and forgiving.

    Just because I’ve moved on from an issue and I’m not giving my anger any time in my life doesn’t mean I have to anybody as though I’ve forgiven them.  I reserve the right to retain my anger towards anybody who uses youth as a get-out-of-personal-responsibility-free card with regards to how they used to treat other people as a child or teenager*.

    I don’t have to spend all day, every day, or even a small portion of the time mulling this over to have not fogiven people, regardless of how long ago the issue was.  Neither do I have to explicitly hate somebody I haven’t forgiven.

    We tend to act as though we have to forgive somebody in order for us to move on… we don’t.  Forgiveness isn’t the ending of an obsession.  It isn’t taking a weight off of our own shoulders.  It’s something we do explicitly for the person who has wronged us.  We tell them that it is no longer their burden to make it up to us for what they have done.

    Here’s the thing, regardless of how I’m doing in my life and regardless of where you were or your age when you’ve wronged somebody, it still is your burden.  That’s how personal responsibility works.  You’ve done what you’ve done regardless of how it all wroked out in whatever length of time makes you feel that the statute of limitations passed.

    Whatever you do, regardless of all other things, you are forever the person who did that.

    *Seriously, if it’s funny to harass and assault a child, it’s still funny to harass and assault the adult who laughs about how funny it was.

  • pinksponge

    Thanks for this post. It reminds me of an article by another Fred — Fred W. Keene — that I first read back in the Fall 1995 issue of On the Issues, a feminist magazine. Some Slacktivist readers may be interested in the article, as it focuses upon the power dynamics of forgiveness in Christian teaching (disclaimer: I am not a Christian; and possible trigger warning: the article has some mention of abuse by clergy, incest, and domestic violence):

    The virtue of “forgiving those who harm us” is part of Christianity’s
    pervasive legacy to Western culture. It is invariably attributed to the
    teachings of Jesus as found in the Christian Bible. Ironically, though,
    there is absolutely no scriptural basis for this notion of
    interpersonal forgiveness.

    What the New Testament does say is that people with more power should
    forgive people with less power — or, as in the case of the
    first-century Christian communities, people should forgive each other
    because they are social equals (“brothers and sisters”). Nowhere in the
    Christian Bible is forgiveness even discussed, much less required, when
    the person who is harmed is less powerful than the person doing the

    The article can be read in HTML at or in .pdf in the On the Issues archives,

    My apologies if I end up wreaking havoc with the formatting of this post.

  • Erista

     That’s a really moving article. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Diez

    This might be slightly off-topic, but this post and the dynamics discussed within just made me think of The Legend of Korra.  Is anyone else watching that series?  It’s shaping up to be a pretty interesting examination of  power and privilege in a fictional society.  In this case, the power is actually physical in nature– the ability to ‘bend’ one of the four classical elements to your will.  The series has established fairly well that non-benders are routinely being oppressed and exploited by the empowered minority, and a revolution is brewing among the downtrodden normals of the world.  The leader of the revolution, Amon, is cast unambiguously as a Capital-V Villain, but what’s impressed me so far is that the revolution itself is not explicitly vilified.

    Korra is the Avatar and, in a way, carries the ultimate privilege and power, as the only person in the world able to bend all four elements.  She has been cast as a very forceful character, someone who uses and enjoys the power she has been given.  She is largely ignorant to the plight of nonbenders, but this is quite understandable.  Like Aang before her, ‘she has a lot to learn before she’s ready to save anyone.’  The further it goes, the more morally ambiguous and thought-provoking it seems to get.  I have high hopes for the series.

    Anyway, the reason I brought it up is because in his post, Fred mentioned that the powerful must be made powerless, and that the playing field must be leveled before forgiveness can happen.  In Korra, the revolutionaries call themselves ‘Equalists,’ and their solution is to remove the ability to bend from all benders, forever.  Unlike Fred’s post, however, this is unambiguously presented as a Bad Thing, and an incredible violation of individuality.  A bender’s element is tied to the very core of their being– removing it is essentially removing a segment of their soul or personality.

    I don’t think it quite translates to the real world, as real power (IE political power) isn’t quite that deeply entwined with people’s identities (though some politicians would have you believe otherwise).  I’m guessing the series will draw a distinct line between bending power and political power at some point.  The former will not likely be ceded, but hopefully, the latter will.

    Just something to think about.  Oh, and I would like to remind people that this is happening on a children’s television show.  *Kids* are being taught to examine power and privilege and ask questions about their abuse.  Pretty awesome stuff.

  • WingedBeast

    I’m watching the series.  Partialy because I’m such an avid fan of the first series.

    But, yeah, I’m seeing this dynamic play out.  I’m waiting to see actual examples of institutional oppression of non-benders by benders.  So far, all we’ve seen is one criminal syndicate and the thing about criminal syndicates is that they’re criminal… and syndicates, but the main thing for this point is that the’re criminal.

    What I’m going to want to see is non-benders being denied high level jobs in both private and public sector, some actual act of oppression rather than what may just be anti-bender bigotry.

    So far, the story could go either way.  But, considering that the original group couldn’t have survive without Sokha, there would be an irony in finding that guy with the bullhorn becoming an essential member of the new team Avatar.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What I’m going to want to see is non-benders being denied high level
    jobs in both private and public sector, some actual act of oppression
    rather than what may just be anti-bender bigotry.

    I’ma bet nonbenders can’t be elite metalbending cops, for one, or pro benders, for another. I won’t say they can’t be employed by industry or hospitals, but I’m betting industry prefers fire- and earthbenders and hospitals love waterbenders. And then look what Korra did to that street when she was cracking down on those gang members. Nonbenders are the ones to suffer from that sort of thing and can’t deal it out.

  • WingedBeast

    We, as the adults watching, can write that in.  But, above all, this is still a show for kids.  So, it’s got to be accessable on their level, too.  That means it’s still questionable whether or not the writers are going to go in that direction of showing outright legal discrimination.

    Again, the gang members were a criminal triad.  In a world without bending, things would have looked much the same without the victims of the crime being oppressed by any establishment.

    It seems like they’re headed in that direction.  But, I’d like to see it something force Korra to look into and see explicit oppression in the form of not just crime but freedoms denied.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    It might well be that the Equalist movement originally crystallized due to police harrassment from metalbending officers, and Amon seized on it as a vehicle to accomplish more nefarious ends than what the Equalists want.

  • WingedBeast

    I think that Amon, as a villain, makes more sense if the story he told was true, if he really is scarred from a fire bending extortionist.  Although, the fact that he can take bending away would suggest that he’s a bender, himself.  I think he’s more frightening, though, when his anger is a fully justified anger against a real world injustice that he, like so many battling injustice do when they develope tunnel vision, is just making worse.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Yeah, I’ve yet to see any actual oppression (and in fact there’s a whole bunch of joke videos being made explicitly comparing the Equalist megaphone dude to the “help! Help! I’m being repressed!” Monty Python sketch) of non-benders by benders.

    The show will probably elaborate on how the Equalists became such a potent movement in the next few episodes, though.

    (PS. It’s Sokka. :) )

  • Lori

    I’m not super informed about the Schwyzer case, but in everything I read about it, I have to wonder if “forgiveness”–whether people are concerned about it being withheld or granted–is the right term.

    Is it really up to me, or any other feminist, or any other woman who he didn’t directly wrong, to forgive him?  I mean, whether or not he should be a spokesperson for feminism is a valid question, obviously.  And the degree to which the feminist community wants to embrace him is a valid question.  But asking whether we should forgive him seems to be the wrong question.  I think that, for forgiveness to be meaningful, it has to be personal.  I shouldn’t have any authority to forgive Schwyzer, because he never wronged me.   I’m also not really in a position to withhold forgiveness from him, either.

    Whether or not he’s forgiven is up to the women he’s hurt; whether or not he’s accepted within the feminist community is a different issue.  Which isn’t to say that all of these issues of power aren’t at work in whether or not the women he’s hurt should or will forgive him, just that I think perhaps it’s not up to the feminist blogosphere to grant or withhold forgiveness for his past actions.

  • Invisible Neutrino


    The other one is this. It’s from a slightly older source. It is this: you shall not side with the great against the powerless.

    I’m reminded of things like this when I read about people insisting on forgiveness from those who have little reason to do so.

  • Jurgan

    Say what?