by Rebecca Bynum (February 2013)
I was prompted to write on this subject by an excellent article written by Theodore Dalrymple and published in City Journal in which he discusses an openly exhibitionist display of forgiveness by a woman named Marian Partington who claimed in her book to forgive her sister’s torture and murder at the hands of a notorious serial-murdering couple, Frederick and Rosemary West. She details her struggle to forgive Rosemary West specifically, who had not sought her forgiveness and indeed returned her letters with a request that Partington cease all correspondence with her. Ms. Partington nevertheless proceeded to write a book about her inner quest to forgive Mrs. West, presented, and no doubt marketed, as climbing the Mt. Everest of forgiveness, for who could forgive a thing like that but the most forgiving person in the world?
With the collapse of religion, tolerance has been raised above justice and forgiveness above mercy. Forgiveness of every wrong along with tolerance of every thing is now the universal expectation as a marker of being a spiritual person. Dalrymple describes this kind of “incontinent forgiveness” as a signal of egotism and/or spiritual pride, a kind of spiritual one-upmanship the modern world seems to be engaged in. “I am more spiritual than you are and as proof of this, I have forgiven the most evil person imaginable.”
There are several problems with this. First, as Dr. Dalrymple points out, we can only forgive the evil done to us personally, not that done to others. In this case, Marian Partington could forgive her own sorrow at the loss of her sister, but she could hardly forgive the torture/murder itself. Second, in order to forgive someone we must imaginatively enter into the wrong-doer’s world to understand his actions. This is hardly possible with actions as evil as that done by the Wests. Thirdly we must understand that those who become habitual evil-doers are highly unlikely to repent or seek forgiveness; indeed, the more hardened they become, the less likely they are to accept any form of forgiveness, either from God or man. In that case, the offer of human forgiveness is simply a futile display of pride, ignorance or both. Of course, pride and specifically spiritual pride were once universally recognized as sin. You may recall that pride was the great sin of Lucifer. Fourthly, personal forgiveness cannot be extended to the realm of public justice – the obligation of society is to protect and defend the innocent is paramount. Fifth, there is the idea that God is all-forgiving and therefore, the thinking goes, that to be all-forgiving ourselves is to display God-like behavior. The problem with this is that if God were all-forgiving he would be unjust, and if he were unjust, he would not be good, and if he were not good, he would not be God. In the final analysis, God is not mocked.
All that being said; however, it is important for those who seek to move closer to God to forgive those who trespass against them, for this is the key to the personal experience of divine forgiveness. When we seek divine forgiveness, we seek entrance into the kingdom of heaven and all that goes with it, including life eternal. It is unfair to hold grudges over the small wrongs done to us (often for matters of personal pride) when we seek forgiveness of all our sins and acceptance into the realm of eternal existence. No matter what we forgive, the nature of human forgiveness is a small and insubstantial thing in comparison with divine forgiveness. In this light, it is impossible to withhold our small mite of forgiveness for the same human weaknesses for which we ourselves expect to be forgiven on high.
21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’
The effect of forgiveness by a human being on the one forgiven varies greatly. The person forgiven may feel such gratitude that his whole life is altered from that moment, or the person may simply mock the forgiver, holding forgiveness as nothing. Rosemary West was not seeking forgiveness. It meant nothing to her.
It seems, however, there is always a noticeable effect on the forgiver himself. Upon forgiving another, people often speak of feeling as though a great weight had been lifted and are conscious of increased spiritual freedom, as if a fresh breeze has blown through their minds, clearing out the old and making space for new spiritual growth. There is also a new consciousness of having been forgiven - a consciousness of God’s love. This priceless gem is purchased by giving up pride, for it is pride which holds on to the sense of having been wronged. Pride results from an exaggerated sense of self-importance; it nurses grievances and resentments and these may eventually lead to evil actions. It is fashionable to call this “narcissism” today, as though it were a rare phenomenon. A generation ago, it was called pride and recognized forthrightly as a sin – a sin of which we are all guilty.
Our children are no longer taught these simple truths. Children are naturally egotists. It used to be the role of the home and church to dampen and correct this tendency, but with both these institutions in shambles, many children have no brake upon their sense of self-importance and are easily lured into byways of selfish pleasure, which themselves are no longer recognized as sinful. It is no wonder that the home is in crisis, for home-building requires the sublimation of ego-desires; it requires self-sacrifice and that is not something anyone feels obligated to do anymore. That is why pride in forgiveness of the kind exhibited by Marion Partington is so loathsome: it reveals a twisting and distortion of spiritual value which has become an integral part of the modern sensibility.
Rebecca Bynum's latest book is Allah is Dead, Why Islam is Not a Religion.
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