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Forgiveness is one of the central concepts of practically all world religions. To explore the complex relationship between forgiveness and religion, it is essential to understand the definition of forgiveness, and how various religions impact the definition. In this essay, the conceptual definition of forgiveness will be discussed and elaborated through examining a model case and a contrary case of forgiveness, interviewing believers of various religions, and analyzing psychology articles. The implications to the society of this evolving definition of forgiveness in the context of religion will also be thoroughly discussed and examined.
What is Religion?
Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. Human created religion to make sense of the world around us, and to guide believers in becoming better human beings. Therefore, the ideology in religions directly and indirectly influences people’s beliefs, values, and practices in a positive way, promoting social harmony and personal satisfaction. All world religions present moral standard and praise people who follow those standards exceptionally (e.g. saints). In another word, it serves as guidance for followers to improve their personality and maturity, along with achieving inner peace.
What is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a complicated process, which involves both overt and covert behaviors. Overt and covert behaviors are intertwined, but not necessary equivalent. In other words, although action could show some aspects of a person’s thought, the action itself might not represent the whole story of that person’s cognitive process. A person could show kindness or be forgiving toward a transgressor because of social pressure from the society, however, he/she could still be holding the grieve and be emotionally disturbed while performing the forgiving action. Therefore, forgiveness performed through overt behavior can only be considered as partial forgiveness if emotionally forgiveness is not present. On the other hand, covert process of forgiveness happens within the individual; therefore, it is resistant to social pressure, but might be influenced by moral standard. Emotional forgiveness does not have to come with reconciliation, because sometimes reconciliation with a transgressor is simply impossible. For example, a serial killer might be serving a life sentence in prison and reconciliation would not be unlikely, but the victim’s family member could still execute forgiveness to achieve inner peace. In that case, emotional forgiveness could be achieved with or without the existence of behavioral forgiveness, therefore it should be considered as the true forgiveness. Moreover, because religions promote the development within the individual, so emotional forgiveness should be the kind of forgiveness discussed in this context.
Model Case of Forgiveness: My Parents
My parents were childhood friends in China, living on the same street and growing up together. In their twenties, they got married and formed a family with three daughters, including me. Although my family was fortunate and happy, my father has always wanted a son to inherit the lineage and his business, which is a very common belief in the Chinese tradition. My parents tried many methods, including going to a clinic, to find out how to give birth to a son; however none of the methods was successful. And after fifteen years of marriage, my father had an affair with another woman and gave birth to a son. My father was very happy that his wish came true, but at the same time, he also felt sorry to cheat on my mother. My father chose to confess and apologize to my mother, and let her make decision of whether to accept the child, or divorce. My father promised whichever decision she made, he will continue to take good care of her and the children. At last, my mother chose to continue the marriage, took the son in and takes care of him as if he is her own child. As time passes, my mother told me that one of the main reasons that she has chosen to forgive my father is because she is a Buddhist. Buddhists believe in Karma, meaning that everything happens for a reason, if not this life, and then maybe it is in the previous life.
Through analyzing this model case, I extracted some of features that are essential for a person to achieve true forgiveness. When my mother chose to continue the marriage, she believed that more positive emotions will develop in the future of this relationship, and it will eventually overcome the sadness that she experienced at the time of the event. She chose to take in the son and forgive my father, to let go of the negative feelings, and to face the reality. She understands that being upset will not improve the situation and will only bother her and the children. Also, she empathized with my father’s strong desire for a son because it is a Chinese tradition, which as a traditional Chinese housewife, my mother was deeply aware of it.
The fact that my parents knew each other since grade one has contributed when my mother was deciding whether or not to forgive my father, because not only this is a valuable relationship that was built throughout all these years, the time has allowed my mother to have in depth understand of my father’s personality. My mother knows that my father is a reliable person, and except this incident, he always kept his promises. When my father confessed and apologized to my mother, she thinks that because he was sorry, he will try his best in the future to take good care of her and the children, therefore they will be compensated in some way. All those reasons above directed my mother to make the decision of forgiving my father.
This incident happened to Mary during high school. Mary and Jenny were best friends at that time, and they attended a house party together. And at some point that night, Mary got drunk and fell asleep. When she woke up, she found out that Jenny slept with her boyfriend. As an apology, her boyfriend asked Mary to beat him up as much as she wants, and she ends up slapping him more than 20 times until he fell on the ground, yet she still feels anger towards that person and she refuses to have any interaction with him again. At the same time, Jenny apologized to Mary and explained that she was drunk that night so she didn’t really know what happen, but Mary did not accept her apology and asked her friends to boycott her together, they refused to talk to her or sit with her in the prom. And she told jenny that she doesn’t want to see her again.
In this case, Mary felt that her boyfriend and Jenny violated their roles in the relationship, and she did not want to reconcile with them because there is no trust between them anymore. She also refused to see Jenny again, because that reminds Mary how she’s betrayed, and that shows Mary could not let go of the negative feelings, therefore Mary will not feel happy even if the relationship is continued. Although Jenny apologized and explained her reason to Mary, Mary did not accept her apology and thinks that her reasons are not valid, so there were no understanding and empathy at that time. At last, even Mary’s boyfriend apologized and let her beat him up to cease her anger, she did not feel justified after the beating and there was no inner peace.
After reviewing the model case and the contrary case, I extracted some essential features of forgiveness and came up with a conceptual definition of forgiveness. Forgiveness is being able to look at a bigger picture of the event, demonstrating understanding and empathy toward the offender; in addition, the victim is justified in some way, and eventually let go of the negative feelings to achieve inner peace. I want to discuss justification in more depth because this is a relatively complicated process. Justification is a feeling of satisfied, and in the context of forgiveness, it happens when the offender is punished for the wrongdoing, or the victim is compensated with a positive outcome. I find this concept to be common in almost all religions, for example, Matthew 6:14-16 implies that forgiveness brings rewards to forgiver: For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sin. This is a very important implication because it does make forgiveness a virtuous act that is rewarded by God. Besides encouragement, Christianity stresses the prospect of the judgment day and afterlife punishment in case of violation of Christian norms and rules. Remarkably, Buddhism has similar concept of justice in its ideology. Buddhists believe in Karma, which states that everything happens for a reason, because there is a cause and result to all events, and they act as a cycle across previous, present, and next life. Therefore, a Buddhist should forgive since that he/she will be compensated with positive outcomes, and the offender will be punished eventually because no one can escape from the cycle of Karma. In this aspect, it seems to be universal for religions to hold a system of justice within them. Being justified, ceases people’s anger and resentment, and become more willing to forgive the transgressor, and it is an essential part of executing forgiveness. For example, in the case of Cindy Winters, who forgave the killer of her husband, explains that she forgave the killer because not only this is what Christianity promoted, she also believes that her husband went to a better place (positive outcome). Besides the fact that the killer got caught (punishment), Cindy Winters felt justified also because there are positive outcome for the victim and those who forgive, which encourages her to forgive the killer.