what is forgiveness?


I was struck by something that Trayvon Martin’s parents said recently:

“As Christians we have to forgive. But it’s a process, and we are still going through that healing process.”

It’s understandable in many ways. They are parents who have just lost their son in what was a thoroughly avoidable tragedy. Whatever they are experiencing and feeling at this point in time is obviously going to be part of a long and difficult process. But it’s the first sentence that stays with me.

Christians have to forgive. Christians have lots of rules they have to follow, but this declaration makes resting on Sundays and avoiding the flesh of pigs seem like a breeze. How can you compel someone to truly forgive, just because it’s the abstractly ‘right’ thing to do? It’s not a physical action to complete, it’s a state of mind that surely requires reasons – otherwise it’s nothing but a brainwashing exercise.

Bearing grudges is a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ survival mode. It makes sense that if someone hurts you or someone you love, you stay away from them – you are filled with revulsion, hate or resentment for very practical reasons of survival. But, like many of our survival instincts, it’s not necessary, or even useful in our modern world. In fact, research has shown it’s probably detrimental to our physical and mental health (link).

True forgiveness isn’t a woolly feeling of loving someone who’s hurt us. It’s understanding that the person who caused the harm could have acted in no other way. It’s understanding that the perpetrator is not a person lesser than ourselves exercising free will to commit harmful acts, but someone with entirely different life experiences, who hasn’t had the input to allow them to behave any other way. If I’d been brought up in George Zimmerman’s shoes, chances are I’d have done the same thing. Silly gun laws, long-term racial problems and an ongoing unfair economic divide are to blame for the death of Trayvon Martin, not the individual who was brought up in the society that programmed him with his attitudes and then encouraged him to ‘protect’ himself with a deadly weapon.

All this then leads us to one of the key tenets of the Christian faith – humans are bad creatures in need of forgiveness from their creator. Appeasing angry deities through sacrificial offerings is hardly unique to man-made religions, so the blood offering of the man-god Jesus fits nicely with the basic superstitious practices of many societies. But given that it’s so obvious that people are a product of their environment and their genes, how could anyone possibly believe a deity created behaviour it can’t tolerate and also holds grudges if appropriate forgiveness rituals aren’t performed? The willful ignorance and simply childish nature of Christianity – and how it can continue to survive in this day and age – astounds me.