THE RITUAL, LANGUAGE, and practice of forgiveness have bled into popular culture over the last few decades in unprecedented ways. What were once private acts of contrition have become a national craze.
Themes of self-forgiveness and repenting to curb addiction and abusive behaviors are staples for recovery-themed reality shows. The Forgive or Forget talk show ran between 1998 and 2000, a sensationalist pop-psych frontrunner featuring feuding and estranged family members. More recently, pop culture icons and self-help gurus such as Dr. Phil have taken the place of religious counselors, offering secularized advice on confession and atonement. Oprah’s grandiose apologies—those she’s demanded, accepted, and even occasionally offered—are a major part of her inspirational brand. Adulterous and embezzling politicians regularly ask for forgiveness in public—a request of their families as much as their constituents. None of this should be surprising, though. Spiritual leaders and renowned writers such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Hannah Arendt have said that forgiveness is an essential aspect of everyday life.
Not long ago, forgiveness was an issue restricted to and handled by the church. Many (if not all) faiths lean heavily on the idea that we all must continually seek forgiveness. Islam and Judaism have entire holidays devoted to penance—Lailatul Qadr, or the Night of Power during Ramadan, and Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, respectively. Catholicism has long been tied to the tradition of confessing sins to a priest and asking for forgiveness. Christians know that Jesus’ last words on the cross were a plea that God would forgive those who crucified him. Even the Lord’s Prayer includes a line about seeking forgiveness for our sins.
But does forgiveness restore us? Has the very concept of forgiveness lost meaning? Can forgiveness, now engulfed by capitalist self-help language, exist without God? Is it even necessary to forgive? For answers, it’s easy to turn again to the media, to seek out the plethora of resources now dedicated to dissecting the very practice of forgiving, with or without assistance from above.
In the past two decades, forgiveness studies have emerged as an interdisciplinary academic field of inquiry, merging philosophy, psychology, law, and gender studies. Books such as Kathryn Norlock’s Forgiveness From a Feminist Perspective offer key insights into gender bias in forgiveness narratives.
In addition, several real-life case studies offer road maps for those seeking to atone or offer forgiveness. Many are collected in Helen Whitney’s documentary film, Forgiveness: A Time to Love and A Time to Hate. In Forgiveness, Whitney travels the globe interviewing penitents and forgivers. People dealing with the aftermath of random acts of violence or war are offered as meditative examples of moving on, regardless of whether forgiveness is desired or possible.
Perhaps not surprising, the most striking contemporary example of mass forgiveness happened within a community of faith. After a local man shot 10 Old Order Amish girls in their one-room schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in 2006, the grief-stricken local Amish community literally embraced the perpetrator’s widow. Even more striking, the mourning families immediately declared their wholehearted forgiveness of the horrible crimes committed against their children. For many unaccustomed to the Amish way of life, it was a shocking display of tolerance and even love.
In the film Forgiveness, one expert weighs in that because the Amish routinely give up so many other aspects of their independence—higher education, individualism—the act of giving up on resentment comes somewhat naturally. “Forgiveness is about giving up,” says author David Weaver-Zercher. “It’s about giving up one’s right to revenge and eventually giving up on the anger one naturally feels.” But forgiveness doesn’t have to mean giving up grief.
“I think we can only talk about forgiveness if we talk about the existence of evil,” says Terri Jentz, author of the chilling memoir Strange Piece of Paradise and another subject of the film. Jentz was barely 20 when she was brutally assaulted by an unknown man with an ax while she and a friend camped at a remote site in Oregon. Jentz explains that she faced her own inability to forgive by acknowledging the presence of true evil in this world. For her, it is possible to understand that some forgiveness can never be offered. True evil like that which she experienced cannot be redressed, and forgiving an unrepentant assailant is futile.
On the atonement side of forgiveness are people such as Kathy Power. An anti-war activist involved in a 1970 robbery that resulted in the murder of a Boston police officer, Power was on the lam for 23 years before she surrendered to the authorities. In the aftermath of her trial and conviction, Power realized the true nature of the harm her crime had caused. Moreover, she truly feared that her sins were beyond any measure of penance. “The really deep work that I had to do as a penitent was to keep peeling back these layers of defensiveness—the fearfulness that I would be unforgivable,” she explains.
On a much larger scale, Forgiveness also explores entire nations ripped apart by incomprehensible violence and saddled with a legacy of atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. While war is certainly an area rich for discussion about the nature of atonement and forgiveness, filmmaker Whitney focuses on nations’ internal conflicts and civil wars, such as those in Rwanda and Germany.
Since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the nation has struggled to reconcile its once-divided and still deeply wounded people. The Rwandan government promotes reconciliation, but one has to wonder how such large-scale forgiveness is conceivable without some measure of justice—and what could resemble justice in the aftermath of such brutal horror?
One advantage is that as an overwhelmingly Christian nation, surviving Rwandans have access to evangelical forgiveness training. Profiled in Forgiveness, friends Celestin (a Tutsi) and Elie (a Hutu) explain how their spiritual training taught them the importance of reconciliation despite their obvious differences. Though Elie had killed a number of Celestin’s family members, they both speak about being radically transformed by forgiving one another. They have become friends but also work together. When Celestin got married, Elie was his best man. To many who carry grudges, that sort of generosity of spirit is unthinkable. But Celestin and Elie seem to think little of it.
The most obvious example for Rwandans to follow on their collective penitential journey is found in Germany. No other country in the world spends the kind of resources that Germans do on commemorating their own horrific legacy of unspeakable acts. Because Germany is also decades removed from the Holocaust, its people provide an interesting road map in coming to terms with evil, acknowledging suffering, asking for forgiveness, and doing penance. Germany is also an interesting case study in the necessity of keeping alive terrible memories so that younger generations never forget history and never repeat it.
“One of the great important things about forgiveness is that it is not excuse,” Donald Shriver explains in the film. “Forgiveness involves the facing of an evil and then asking whether or not, out of the facing of it, some reconciliation is still possible,” the theologian says.
Depending on who you ask, offering forgiveness simply because it is requested can be too much. Forgiveness, as a shared act, is as much about the person seeking it as the person offering it. While the church has long ago been forced to relinquish control over the dominant forgiveness narrative in our culture, it is worth considering how the ritual language of apology and forgiveness has changed very little from when Jesus asked God to pardon those who crucified him. Throughout time, forgiveness has been about vulnerability, about laying one’s soul bare for another to judge. Perhaps especially those of us who remain unforgiven for past sins can be among the first to consider how offering our own forgiveness can benefit others as well as ourselves.
Brittany Shoot is a writer living in San Francisco.