Magazine article The Christian Century

How Do We Forgive?

Magazine article The Christian Century

How Do We Forgive?

Article excerpt

Rethinking Christian Forgiveness: The Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Explorations

By James K. Voiss

Liturgical Press, 448 pp., $34.95 paperback


NO ONE CAN PASS through life without being challenged either to offer or to accept forgiveness. Forgiveness is undoubtedly at the forefront of the teaching and example of Jesus, as well as a crucial component of the Christian life and the identity and mission of the church; indeed, to tell the story of Jesus is to commit to being agents of forgiveness and reconciliation.

But what exactly is forgiveness, and is it always possible? Are there times when it is unwise to forgive or when forgiveness ought to be withheld? And is forgiveness even feasible when the one needing forgiveness refuses to repent? Moreover, is there anything distinctive about Christian forgiveness?

These are some of the questions James K. Voiss takes up in his extensive, superbly researched, balanced, and consistently astute analysis of a practice we may not understand as well as we think. Voiss wants "to look at forgiveness with fresh eyes" and relocate the discussion "in a new landscape." He summons us to envision God's forgiveness not primarily as escaping God's wrath but as the most poignant and extravagant expression of God's love, a love that relentlessly seeks communion with us no matter how great our manifold failures and persistent refusals might be. As Voiss writes near the end of the book, "Whether in the initial act of creation or in the restoration of right relationship through grace-mediated reconciliation, God is consistently appealing to humankind to embrace the relationship God offers."

Voiss does not arrive at that reassuring conclusion quickly or easily. He contends that in order for Christians to think rightly about forgiveness, they must first become acquainted with what philosophers and psychologists are saying about forgiveness, and they must especially scrutinize what is going on whenever we attempt to forgive. He begins his excavation of the landscape of forgiveness by turning to the work of French and Anglo-American philosophers, starting with Jacques Derrida.

While sympathetic to Derrida's analysis of forgiveness through the lens of hospitality and gift, Voiss rightly observes that Derrida's persistent emphasis on forgiveness as unconditional and untainted by any expectation of return makes forgiveness virtually impossible. For Derrida, forgiveness is an "event" that can occur only in the face of something that is utterly unforgivable, something so horrendous that it falls outside the realm of morality, and only when the one forgiving is unable to remember having forgiven. Derrida's commitment to maintaining the purity of forgiveness renders it practically incoherent.

Paul Ricoeur offers a more promising account because he focuses not on the seeming impossibility of forgiveness, but on the generosity and love that enables the one who forgives to see an offender as more than the wrong he has done. For Ricoeur, the unique power of forgiveness is that it unbinds a wrongdoer from her mistakes and, if completed in reconciliation, restores a relationship that had been damaged or even destroyed.

Unlike Derrida and Ricoeur, who despite their differences both insist that forgiveness must be unconditional, the primary concern for the Anglo-American philosophers whom Voiss considers is the conditions under which forgiveness is morally permissible. Although there are important differences between these philosophers (Jeffrie G. Murphy, Joram Graf Haber, Pamela Hieronymi, and Charles Griswold), they concur in recognizing the pivotal place of resentment within the process of forgiveness. Resentment is evoked whenever our dignity and well-being have been undermined by another's behavior.

These philosophers agree that the person who has been harmed must recognize the harm--and may experience a desire for vengeance--but in forgiving chooses both to overcome the justified resentment and to renounce any strategies for revenge. …

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