There’s a film released in cinemas today called Only God Forgives. It’s the most recent offering from Canadian actor Ryan Gosling and Danish film director Nicholas Winding Refn. If their last collaboration, Drive, is anything to go by, I think I am going to struggle. It was very violent and I am very squeamish.
The film is about a mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who is unable to forgive the murder of her son. Instead she attempts to provoke her other son (Gosling) to avenge his brother.
I haven’t seen the film, but reading about its theme made me recall my deep dissatisfaction with pretty much every talk I’ve ever heard on forgiveness.
Most treatments of the subject fail because they duck a distinction central to any experience of forgiveness, between situations when someone has wronged me, realises they have done so, and is asking my forgiveness; and situations where the other person does not think they have wronged me and therefore is not asking for forgiveness.
In both cases forgiveness is required, ‘forgiveness’ best defined by German philosopher Robert Spaemann as ‘allowing someone to appear in a different light.’ But the experiences of the process are poles apart.
Not that cases in the first category – when the person is repentant – necessarily makes forgiveness any easier. Recall the story of Corrie ten Boom, whose sister Betsie was killed in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Corrie ten Boom recounts in The Hiding Place how, at the end of one talk she gave as an adult, the guard responsible for Betsie’s death approached her and asked her for forgiveness. Who would doubt the difficulty of granting forgiveness in that case? Indeed, Corrie ten Boom suggests that performing that feat required a miracle.
But in some ways, even though the experience may be just as intense, even as agonising, there is something straightforward about those situations. Because when your offender sincerely asks for your forgiveness they are essentially acknowledging that your view of the situation is the objective view of the situation. They have come round to your way of seeing things – that you were in the right, they in the wrong. He or she is confirming that your perception of the incident or quarrel or whatever it was that happened that now requires forgiveness, was not skewed after all. And there is a peace and confidence that flows from that: their repentance allows you to rest assured, that you weren’t making it all up, or being overly sensitive. That you weren’t, so to speak, ‘out to lunch’.
By contrast, forgiveness is so much more complex when the person you feel you have to forgive does not feel they need to be forgiven. On those occasions the whole experience, to quote Bob Dylan, ‘fills you up with nothing but self-doubt.’ Was I seeing it straight? Do they have a point? Was it an objective wrong they perpetrated against me? Am I really ‘more sinned against than sinning?’ Because lurking at the back of our minds is the awareness that it is possible to forgive people when they actually haven’t done anything wrong (and that, even further, roles need to be reversed, and maybe I will later see that it is I need who needs to ask them for forgiveness.) For example, there really are times when we feel we have to forgive someone, because our feelings are deeply hurt, when in reality we mistook what was in fact a justified criticism as an unacceptable insult.
Maybe another way of drawing this critical distinction is to say that when you forgive someone who is repentant the possibility of resolution is in view. A window for closure is open. While, if someone isn’t sorry, either you doubt yourself, or you there isn’t total equanimity between you. Because forgiveness doesn’t simply guarantee the state of affairs it is nevertheless purposed towards: reconciliation.
Interestingly, in Luke’s gospel we get the two different situations sharply juxtaposed. For from the cross first Christ prays, ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’ – our second category. Whereas one of two criminals being crucified next to Christ then declares, ‘We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve’, to which Christ replies ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’, – our first category. I wonder which of the two utterances it was easier for him to make? My bet would be the latter.