Is forgiveness overrated?
Maddy Fry’s visit to the cinema prompts her to ask some very uncomfortable questions about forgiveness.
The film Mass contains one of the most deceptively simple loglines ever. Two couples meet in a church basement to talk about their dead sons. One boy was killed in a high school shooting. The other boy was the shooter.
It’s a brilliant and slightly strange film, and certainly one of the most underrated to have been released in the last year. Low-key and claustrophobic, most of the film takes place in one room, rarely giving the viewer a moment’s peace.
One moment the air aches with tenderness and loss, the next it seems so pregnant with tension that it almost splits at the seams. Jay, the father of the murdered boy (played by Jason Issacs), has a face so contorted by misery that the basement seems more like a prison than a neutral zone. We know the characters will have to leave physically, but emotionally they may never escape.
And yet, what stops Mass becoming irredeemably heavy is our sense that the characters all hope for one thing, even if they aren’t aware of it – forgiveness.
It’s a loaded word in the modern world. The film seems conscious of this. The church hovers in the background but could easily be another building entirely. The people running the church are present but unassuming, happy to host but content to otherwise melt away. The significance of the setting and the title are clear, but the film in no way suggests that religion is an essential component of redemption. But is this so?
Today, for many, the very notion of forgiveness comes with heavy Christian baggage. It’s one of the things that probably makes it unfashionable.
Certainly, the word can carry overtones of sanctimoniousness, or a lofty sense of smugness.
After all, how often have you heard someone say ‘I forgive you’ to someone else? Who would want to hear it in the first place? It implies moral superiority, as it’s hard to utter the phrase without the speaker implying they were the wronged party, when few disagreements are that simple. Being told you’re forgiven implies you did something to offend, and that’s not a particularly comfortable role to adopt or accept.
Of course, not everyone’s use of the word is malign. Some people genuinely want to move past a sincerely held grievance, and want that to be known.
But if the forgiven party can’t be told, how can the sentiment be conveyed? If few people even think in such terms, then what does it mean in practice? Has modern life left us ill-equipped for forgiving a person, a group or an institution?
Indeed, our contemporary ‘blame culture’ always seems to demand a victim – someone to lynch, a head to roll, at the very least someone to resign or ‘cancel’. But why must this be so? Why not simply forgive?
It could be argued that on some level forgiveness is undesirable, perhaps even unethical. Many people who have endured horrendous forms of abuse, both physical and emotional, can’t forget, and shouldn’t have to. To even consider reaching the point where reconciliation with the past is possible requires a huge mental effort and continuous re-engagement with painful memories – all for the purpose of embracing what could be seen as little more than a sanctimonious, unrealistic ideal which has no real-world relevance.
The tortured protagonist of novelist Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series rages against this when he contemplates coming to terms with his childhood, one where he was sexually abused by his father from the age of five. He talks of how ‘detachment rather than appeasement’ will be what sets him free, relying on a mercy that’s ‘purely human, not one that rested on the greatest story ever told’. Emphatically he says that if he forgives, he ‘can’t do it out of piety’ or a sense of ‘phoney reconciliation’. He even calls turning the other cheek ‘a repulsive superstition’.
Here the character is explicitly rejecting forgiveness on Christian grounds: loving thy enemy, forgiving your neighbour because your heavenly Father has forgiven you so much more … and all that stuff.
Perhaps he has a point. Some relationships are too broken to be forgiven, particularly if perpetrators of abuse make no effort to change.
The celebrated author Francis Spufford acknowledges this at the beginning of his 2012 Christian polemic Unapologetic. Listing many of the criticisms aimed at Christianity – some reasonable, some less reasonable – he includes the accusation that Christians would apparently ‘free murderers to kill again’ and are merely advocates of ‘wish-washy niceness’.
It’s a criticism that can’t be dismissed. Is forgiving not just difficult, but morally dubious?
Yet the world of social media tells a different story. It’s widely accepted that speaking out of turn online can have horrifying consequences, plunging people unwittingly into a world where mistakes are never forgotten, errors are amplified, vilification is immediate and clemency almost non-existent.
The journalist Jon Ronson’s 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, highlights how much the digital lynch-mob that surrounds those who fall from grace has led to the destruction of reputations, careers and livelihoods.
Notable examples he draws on are Justine Sacco, whose ironic claim that she knew she wouldn’t get AIDS when she reached Africa due to being white was a sobering example of what can happen when people in their millions don’t get the joke. Her entire life was wrecked within minutes of an online pile on.
Similarly, some childish jokes made by two men at a tech conference went viral when the woman sitting in front of them posted their remarks on Twitter. The men were fired from their jobs, and in a particularly savage twist, the woman who did the shaming was fired too.
Public shaming, Ronson claims, has been digitally resurrected from its 19th century resting place, where it was deployed extensively in the UK and the US as an unmerciful tool to punish and control. He criticises the warping impact on both the shamed and the shaming parties, describing the practice as ‘powerful, crazy and cruel’.
A recent moving example of push-back was when Jewish comedian David Baddiel pleaded for civility after American actress Whoopi Goldberg stated that she felt the Holocaust was not about ‘race’.
She reconsidered her remarks after a public backlash, and Baddiel, who has written extensively about antisemitism, pointed out she had made a mistake and apologised, a gesture he argued should be respected. Even when Goldberg muddied her response by digging her heels in a few days later, Baddiel opted for penning a calm rebuttal rather than baying for blood, keen to stress that he was still a fan of her ‘brilliant’ work as a comic performer. His gracious handling of the situation seemed to fall largely on deaf ears.
This embrace of collective cruelty can have wider social implications.
A friend of mine recently recounted a conversation in which his acquaintance predicted that we will see a return to capital punishment within a generation.
He cited the fact that prison sentences are becoming longer and that both politicians and the public are externalising their condemnatory instincts, seeing problematic people as individuals to be punished and vilified rather than as those who might reflect our own behaviours more than we would like.
Perhaps he was being melodramatic. I hope so. Yet I fear he might have been bang on.
While there are notable examples of efforts to bring about peace between communities in conflict, like the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, the process is rarely straightforward. The British government recently announced a statute of limitations on the violence that happened during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The edict stated that historic acts of violence from both sides would no longer be prosecuted. It could be seen as a national act of forgiveness, but it wasn’t welcomed by everyone – especially the families of those murdered, who understandably felt they had been denied justice.
In Spain, the Pact of Forgetting was introduced by the state as a way to make the country move on from the horrors of the civil war. Yet many families felt this wasn’t enough, especially if their loved ones had disappeared. The move to excavate those who had been murdered from mass graves was a form of closure, even though critics have argued that this has kept the country from moving on and forgiving itself.
The same is true of France’s tormented relationship with Algeria, its former vassal. President Emmanuel Macron apologised last year for the torture and murder of the Algerian nationalist Ali Boumendjel by the French state, over six decades after it occurred.
The grandchildren of Boumendjel praised the move, but the writer Kamel Daoud criticised what he called Algeria’s continual living ‘with a coffin on its back’. He argued that the constant references to the war with France, rather than leading to redemption, have meant the two countries keep picking over their wounds and deepening their sense of division.
By contrast, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa has been criticised for doing the opposite. The legal writer Rod Tuaczon has argued that although accountability for the crimes of apartheid came in the form of what he called ‘public acknowledgment of wrongdoings by perpetrators, increased information about the truth, and the ability of victims to listen’, it also failed to give victims ‘adequate reparations’.
What is the best route to forgiveness? Does it come via individuals settling old scores, or does that get in the way of a country pursuing a broader kind of redemption, one based on forgetting rather than remembering?
Forgiveness is complicated and multi-layered. Asking for it can even seem laughably perverse when revenge, self-defence and pre-emptive strikes are an unquestioned part of modern statecraft. When governments often encourage such practices, it’s hardly surprising that communities turn on each other. If that’s how governments operate, why should ordinary people practise, expect or even value forgiveness?
Yet perhaps this is to misunderstand what the word really means…
The spiritual writer Philip Yancey’s 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace? not only argues for the importance of forgiveness but unpicks why it’s so painful and labour-intensive – and unfair. Forgiveness isn’t justice, the book argues. It’s liberation. It’s not just about appeasing a higher principle, sacrificing people’s desires for an equitable outcome to benefit a community or a country; it’s about setting people free from emotional enslavement.
That’s surely better than hoping revenge will make our murdered loved ones return, or lead to a society where fewer people will hold views we find problematic, when we know it won’t.
Forgiveness tends also to be a lengthy process, not one well-suited to a world defined by short attention spans and quick fixes.
Perhaps forgiveness should be re-imagined as another, deeper, more subtle way of loving. It involves seeing that in any act of violence or evil there are always at least two wounded parties: the victim and the perpetrator. Anyone who wounds another wounds themselves.
Christianity, in its insistence on forgiveness, recognises that we might on occasions need a greater love than we actually possess, a love which comes from on high. The capacity to forgive is a gift, one worth praying for.
The film Mass doesn’t go down any such theological avenue but it works partly because it shows the anger involved in forgiving, and the sacrifice. There’s no burying or forgetting. There’s also no expectation that anything material will change, for the living or the dead. After all, if anything changed, would forgiveness be needed?
Gail (played by Martha Plimpton), the mother of the murdered boy, chooses to forgive. She can hardly sleep or eat or breathe, her current existence barely giving her space to live. Instead of demanding compensation or reparations from the family of her son’s killer, she opts for a life free from hatred.
At the end, her husband Jay pauses as he leaves the church, struck dumb by how beautiful he suddenly finds the music from the choir loft above. There’s nothing so glib as any sense that he’s going to find God. Yet perhaps he’s found something extraordinary – a renewed appreciation for life and a sense of how to cope with death.
Forgiveness, the film seems to say, is not easy, and there are no obvious pathways to creating a more forgiving society. Yet it could start with each person extending a hand across the chasm. Sometimes that’s the hardest, but most powerful gesture of all.
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