Forgiveness and Social Justice

Forgiveness and Social Justice March 17, 2015

Does Christ’s command to love our enemies and bless those who curse us place especially heavy burdens on the marginalized and disadvantaged?

On its face the answer is obviously “yes.” The more vulnerable you are to others’ abuse of power, the more they will hurt you and the more you will have to forgive. Women so often appear as icons of forgiveness in men’s stories (last point) because we are more vulnerable to them than they are to one another.

This is part of the reason for something which I’ve had a hard time grappling with: the backlash against forgiveness. As somebody who almost always is the one who acts hurtfully and has to apologize, rather than the one who is hurt and apologized-to, I have a deep vested interest in maintaining an ideal of forgiveness. And so I used to get self-righteous and angry when I’d read people (mostly women, which is important) talking about the cruelty of the expectation of forgiveness. They’d be super sarcastic about the Ninth Step, talking as if “making amends” is just a euphemism for “a narcissist’s demands that his victim make him feel better.”

The thing is, they were (sort of) right. On the individual level, part of what made Maps to the Stars so scathing was its portrayal of what 12-Step recovery looks like when you’re doing it solely to feel better, skipping the parts where you surrender and seek to be of service. And on a societal level so many communities treat forgiveness as an additional burden placed on the one who has already been hurt: a kind of emotional labor, and a standard by which victims are judged so that the rest of the community can extend our sympathy only to the ones who are appropriately merciful. This story ended relatively well from the perspective of the one apologized to, but it could easily have been perceived by her as solely an infuriating and even frightening intrusion. (as the commenters make quite clear!)

And reading stories like that one has, I hope, colored how I handle my own mess. I’ve had to do some of these “Hey we haven’t spoken in years, let me dredge up a thing I did” contacts and I now try pretty hard to do it only with reference to the other person’s needs and well-being and not my own. I try not to ask for stuff, including forgiveness. I do think it’s possible to ask for forgiveness from the posture of one in need, humbling oneself in a way which genuinely reverses the power dynamic between the person hurt and the person who did the hurting; but it’s harder than I used to think.

Looked at from one perspective, forgiveness can be a way of overturning privilege and societal power structures. Before forgiveness even becomes a possibility there must be genuine acknowledgment of wrongdoing. I mean, think how galling it is when somebody says sweetly, “I forgive you for [thing you did that totally wasn’t even wrong]”! What do you mean, you forgive me? What gives you the right of forgiveness? Or imagine a helot forgiving a Spartan: Implicit in forgiveness is an assertion that the one forgiving deserved better from the one being forgiven. The abuse they suffered was not simply “the way of the world,” or “good enough for someone like you,” but a profound violation of the beauty of Creation. Asserting the right to forgive is, therefore, asserting one’s own inalienable dignity.

And this is another big piece of the backlash against forgiveness, especially within feminism. The backlash is a reaction to communities which expect forgiveness prior to, and often without, any genuine acknowledgment of the injustice of the violation. It’s not only that the abuser himself hasn’t acknowledged wrongdoing; it’s that the entire community expects e.g. a battered woman, or an adult who was harmed by a parent, to forgive and reconcile, while placing no expectations on the ones who hurt them. Mercy only makes sense as a response to injustice (that’s what makes it mercy, something undeserved, a waiver of one’s rights) and therefore it only makes sense in a context in which we recognize and work against injustice. “If you want forgiveness, work for justice,” as Pope Paul VI did not quite say.

I’ll close this poorly-structured post by saying that I really appreciated Mudblood Catholic’s point (toward the end of the post) about forgiveness as something you “work toward.” And as he notes, a lot of that movement toward forgiveness is also about finally, fully accepting the truth that what was done to you, what you’re trying to forgive, was wrong. That it wasn’t what you deserved or should have expected. That recognition of injustice not only deepens mercy but is the precondition for it.


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