Suppose you are father of a daughter who has been brutally raped. The rapist is apprehended, tried, and found guilty. Suppose further than the man convicted really is guilty as charged and pays the penalty prescribed by the law, and that the penalty is a just one (the penalty that justice demands, as I would put it). The man serves his time, is released from prison, and yet you still harbor strong negative feelings toward him. You are assailed by murderous thoughts. You fantasize about killing him. After all, he violated your sensitive daughter in the most demeaning way and scarred her psychologically for life, snuffing out her vibrancy and souring her on life and men. What the miscreant did cannot be undone no matter what punishment he endures. But despite the negative feelings, you decide to forgive the man. And let us further suppose that you forgive him not just for your own peace of mind, but to restore good relations with him. (Suppose he is an acquaintance or co-worker of yours.)
Now if I understood what my young friend Steven was arguing a while back, his point was that this is not a genuine case of forgiveness: because the miscreant has paid his debt, there is nothing to forgive him for. Even if you forgive him before he serves his sentence, knowing that he will serve it, you have not truly forgiven him. Steven's thought, which he takes to be an explication of Christian forgiveness, is that true forgiveness exonerates the person forgiven: it removes the guilt and moral responsibility and with them the need for restitution and punishment. One cannot both truly forgive and demand that justice be served. True forgiveness is such that it cannot be made conditional upon the satisfaction of the demands of justice.
I think only God could forgive in this sense. So if this is Christian forgiveness, then I wonder whether it has any relevance to human action in this world.
That's one concern. Here is another, which may well rest on theological misunderstanding.
Curiously, in orthodox Christianity, God does not forgive man in the above sense: he 'holds his feet to the fire' for the 'infinite' offense of disobeying the infinitely perfect and good God. Is God not a Christian? Because the guilt man incurs by the primal disobedience of the first parents is infinite, there is nothing finite man can do to set things right either individually or collectively. Only God can restore right relations between God and man. So the triune God sends his Son into the world to assume human nature. This God-man is sacrificed in expiation of the infinite guilt incurred by Adam and Eve. Only God can atone, by substitution, for man's infinite sin.
"But I have never done anything that requires forgiveness." Really? Then please forgive me for considering you either a liar, or deeply self-deceived, or an amnesiac, or insane, or a joker, or someone unfamiliar with the English language . . . .
A track star at the University of Southern California, Louis Zamperini was swept up like so many of his generation into World War II. Story and interview here.
In May 1943, his B-24 crashed into the Pacific. For 47 days, he floated on a raft in the ocean. He was then captured by the Japanese, who held him prisoner until August 1945. These experiences tormented Zamperini’s postwar life, but in 1949 things began to turn around for him. Zamperini forgave the men who held him prisoner, including the sadistic Japanese corporal, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who was known as the “Bird.”
Zamperini credits a young Billy Graham for bringing him to Christ and forgiveness.
I pointed out earlier that forgiving is triadic: x forgives y for z. There is the forgiver, the one to whom forgiveness is proffered, and that which is forgiven. Nominative, dative, accusative. It is of course correct English to say 'I forgive you,' but this fact about usage cuts no ice since 'I forgive you' is elliptical for 'I forgive you for what you did or what you failed to do.' 'I forgive you' is not evidence that forgiving is in some cases dyadic any more than 'Tom is married' is evidence that marriage is monadic. Forgiving is then at least triadic: it is a three-place relation. 'X forgives y for z' has three argument-places. But it doesn't follow that forgiving is in every case a three-term or three-relata relation. For if one one can forgive oneself, then x and y are the same person. Compare identity, which is a two-place, but one-term relation.
Why did I write "at least triadic"? Because we need to think about such examples as 'I forgive you both for conspiring against me.' That appears to involve three persons and one action. I set this issue aside for later discussion.
At the moment, the following aporetic triad is at the cynosure of my interest:
1. There are cases of self-forgiveness and they are instances of genuine forgiveness.
2. If a person forgives himself at time t for doing or failing to do z , then he cannot help but be aware of and admit his own guilt at t for doing or failing to do z.
3. Genuine forgiveness is unconditional: it is consistent with a non-admission of guilt on the part of the one who is forgiven.
Each limb of the triad is plausible. But the limbs cannot all be true: the conjunction of ( 1) and (2) entails the negation of (3). Indeed, the conjunction of any two limbs entails the negation of the remaining limb.
To solve the problem, we must reject one of the limbs.
(1)-Rejection. One might maintain that cases of self-forgiveness are not instances of genuine forgiveness. One might hold that 'forgiveness' in 'self-forgiveness' and 'other-forgiveness' is being used in different ways, and that the difference between the two phenomena is papered over by the sameness of word.
(2)-Rejection. I would say that (2) is self-evident and cannot be reasonably rejected.
(3)-Rejection. One might maintain that genuine forgiveness need not be unconditional, that there are cases when it depends on the satisfaction of the condition that the one forgiven admit his guilt.
I would solve the problem by rejecting both (1) and (3). As I see it at the moment, genuine forgiveness is an interpersonal transaction: it involves at least two distinct persons. Self-forgiveness, however, remains intra-personal. What is called self-forgiveness is therefore a distinct, albeit related, phenomenon. It is not genuine forgiveness the paradigm case of which is one person forgiving another for an action or omission that is in some sense wrong, that injures the first person, and that the second person admits is wrong.
I also maintain that forgveness cannot be unconditional. For forgiveness to transpire as between A and B, B must accept the forgiveness that A offers. But B cannot do this unless he admits that he has done something (or left something undone) that is morally or legally or in some other way (e.g., etiquette-wise) censurable. Thus B must admit guilt. That is a condition that must be met if forgiveness is to occur.
One who accepts both (1) and (3) will, via (2), land himself in a contradiction.