Our Post-Christian Culture is Forgetting the Radical Virtue of Forgiveness

“As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60)

Charles Thévenin, “The Stoning of St. Stephen,” 1829
Charles Thévenin, “The Stoning of St. Stephen,” 1829 )

Every pandemic needs a good stack of self-help books, to keep readers entertained and sane. Fortuitously, this March Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer released such a book, based on their popular podcast. That book, How to Be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self-Help Books, is dry, entertaining, but (caveat lector) salted with R-rated language. The coauthors sift through the self-help strategies they attempted to follow, praising some and discommending others. Sometimes their meta-advice seems to be the product of a luminous commonsense that makes one wonder what the original “helpful” authors were thinking. Sometimes it is clearly a product of their own backgrounds, experiences, and ideologies — progressive, feminist, secular. Almost always it is entertaining or at worst innocuous.

There’s one spot, however, that gave me pause. It wasn’t one of the many paeons to gender equality, critical theory, etc. It was Greenberg’s and Meinzer’s unwillingness to countenance forgiveness as a self-help strategy. Meinzer, who wrote most of that section, quotes a friend and fellow podcaster, Cameron Drews, saying that “There are a lot of options between unconditional forgiveness and burdened misery” (144). Meinzer then expands on that idea:

We can choose not to wish any happiness upon the people who’ve done us wrong and live happy lives. We can choose not to feel grateful to the people who’ve hurt us and be grateful for the lives we have. And, we can choose to have some anger in our hearts towards those who’ve abused us and still have hearts that overflow with joy.

The world is filled with in-betweens, and I honestly believe life is better when we don’t force ourselves to live on the extreme ends. If you want to, go ahead. But I, for one, don’t want to. And I feel at peace — unforgiving heart and all (144-5).

It might seem initially that Meinzer and Greenberg and Drews are being inconsistent. Left-leaning people tend to value tolerance and being open to other people and experiences, tend to profess live-and-let-live philosophies, tend to value niceness and kindness highly, and tend to condemn anger, rage and violence. These qualities are, to be clear, not exclusive to progressives; and they are values that people across political and ideological divides — especially Christians — can, do and should recognize. But they remain for all that stereotypically progressive values.

Unwillingness to forgive seems to strike at the heart of such a personal philosophy. So when Meinzer admits to still being angry at those who did terrible things to her as a child, it might seem to be incompatible with the philosophy upheld elsewhere in the same book.

I think, however, the incompatibility is superficial. There is no real inconsistency between insisting that ordinary mistakes and infractions should be tolerated and forgiven, and major, unrepented offenses and crimes should earn permanent hatred. In fact, that is more or less the position of most pre-, non-, and (we are now learning) post-Christian societies. Even Christian England could, under the Tudors, flirt salaciously with the revenge tragedies of Seneca, and produce their English imitations, culminating in Shakespeare’s landmark attempt to fuse the pagan and Christian impulses in Hamlet. That play is still of interest today largely because many people still hold some Christian scruples about things like revenge and suicide (the latter being another staple of Senecan revenge tragedy, and likewise harder to condemn outside a Christian context).

But we are entering an era in which Hamlet will no longer make sense to most people, except perhaps, to the highly educated, as a relic of the strange way people used to think. Hamlet’s impulse to avenge his father’s death remains comprehensible in a post-Christian world; Hamlet’s dithering becomes less so.

Obviously, saving Hamlet is no good reason for Meinzer and Greenberg to make themselves miserable; Shakespeare’s genius is no reason for anyone today to adopt his values carte blanche. Nor do the self-help books critiqued by Meinzer and Greenberg refute their position. If forgiveness is about making yourself feel light, and free, and unburdened, but trying to forgive those who have injured you does not produce those feelings for you, personally, then forgiveness is for you as pointless as it is for Meinzer and Greenberg. Forgiveness is just another lifestyle choice, like being basic or minimalist or car-free or having a plant-base diet.

Forgiveness — unconditional, radical, one-sided forgiveness of those who have wronged you — is a very strange thing to ask. You can argue for its personal benefits (sure, it helps some people psychologically) and its political value (a more forgiving society may be a more peaceful one, provided serious offenders are prevented from doing more harm); but those arguments are never going to persuade everyone to forgive, nor should they. Forgiveness doesn’t always “work.” It is not always the best or right choice in human terms. And post-Christian pop psychology, that glosses forgiveness in the bastardized terms of personal freedom and advantage, may ultimately serve to discredit the idea that radical, one-sided forgiveness has any value. If one can, why not be vengeful and happy both? Why not “choose to have some anger in our hearts towards those who’ve abused us and still have hearts that overflow with joy?”

For Christians, of course, forgiveness is critical: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It might be argued that the context of the Our Father implies that “those who trespass against us” are desirous of our forgiveness (even as we are desirous of the Father’s) and have therefore presumably begged our pardon, rendering even this prayer’s notion of forgiveness far from unilateral. But I would hate to make that case before the pearly gates.

Besides, there are the two examples in the New Testament of unilateral forgiveness. St. Stephen, the first martyr, dies praying for those who are stoning him, and on the cross Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Obviously, the executioners do not fully understand their actions in either case — the soldiers at the cross do not know Jesus is God, and Stephen’s erstwhile coreligionists don’t know that Stephen’s testimony is true. But they know enough to know better — indeed, theirs is the case of most bad people, not fully understanding the wrongs that they do, but understanding enough for there to be something to be forgiven.

None of this is to say that people who have done you great wrong get a one-way ticket back into your life — whether they ask for it or not! Forgiveness is not the same as a resumption of previous relationships. But it does entail love. It entails wishing the best for those who’ve harmed you — “wish[ing] happiness upon the people who’ve done us wrong.” And wishing them the best certainly includes wishing for them a change of heart and, in some cases, punishment; but also, ultimately, eternal union with the same God before whom we hope to stand, upon whom in the person of the Son we will all “look upon him whom [we] pierced.”