Kristor asked me to jot down some reflections on forgiveness, and I here happily comply. Forgiveness is an important Christian virtue, and I am personally grateful for the many, many times I have been forgiven. I try to show my gratitude by being forgiving myself. But, as you shall see, I also think Christians are often too forgiving, and at the same time wracked with unnecessary guilt that they are not forgiving enough.
Forgiveness is one of the good thing of which it is possible to have too much. To be rigidly unforgiving is bad because, in a society where everyone is rigidly unforgiving, everyone will eventually have an irreparable falling out with everyone else. A society in which everyone has irreparably fallen out is a society that has fallen apart.
But it is at least equally bad to forgive every injury immediately and unconditionally. Immediate and unconditional forgiveness of injuries reduces the cost of inflicting injury to zero, without in any way reducing the benefits, so a society with a policy of immediate and unconditional forgiveness will be torn to pieces in a riot of unlimited injuries.
Thus the moral question of forgiveness is not always “how can I be more forgiving.” It often is. Many of us are, by nature, too rigidly unforgiving, too given to indignation, bitterness, resentment and revenge. But many of us are also natural doormats and pushovers who use the mask of forgiveness to cover our cowardice and masochism.
The moral question for those of us who are natural doormats and pushovers is not, “how can I be more forgiving.” It is, “how can I be less forgiving.” And this is a moral question, because a society of doormats and pushovers, operating on a policy of immediate and unconditional forgiveness, will be torn to pieces in a riot of unlimited injuries.
A moralist is always addressing a particular audience, whether an individual or a social group, and he naturally tailors his teachings to the moral vices of that individual or group. The moral virtue of temperance should not, for instance, appear in a moral address to a society of teetotalers. A moralist addressing such a society should instead dwell upon, and thereby aim to correct, the national vice of dishonesty, or unchastity, or even, perchance, rigid unforgiveness.
I could well imagine admonishing one man to be more forgiving and, in almost the same breath, admonishing a second man to “have a little pride,” “show a little spine,” and “stop letting people kick you around.”
All former ages recognized that human diversity extends to diversity of vices. All former ages recognized that this is true of groups as well as individuals, so that the characteristic vice of one nation, or age, or religion, is not the characteristic vice of every other nation, age or religion. Modern political correctness condemns this old wisdom about group vices as “negative stereotypes,” but modern political correctness is an ass. Some nations have a drinking problem, for instance, and a moralist addressing one of these nations of drunkards will properly lay emphasis on the need for wider temperance. His temperance teachings would be pointless in a nation where insobriety was not the characteristic national vice.
What is more, his temperance teachings might actually do harm, since they might engender an unhealthy horror of alcohol, which has genuine social benefits among a people who know when to say when. Harping on chastity probably does harm in a nation where breaches of chastity are not out of control, since this can once again lead to unhealthy mortifications of the flesh.
We must always remember that morality aims to correct mores, which is to say customs, that it particularly aims to correct customary vices, and that customs and customary vices are always peculiar to a particular nation, class, religion or age. This is why moral teachings are always properly addressed to a particular nation, class, religion, or age.
We should never read moral teachings as universal declarations.
Now I come to the difficult part of my argument. When Jesus enjoined greater forgiveness, he was addressing the Jewish nation in the first century A.D. I think there are excellent reasons to believe that this society was much more rigidly unforgiving than our society, and that, among these Jews, holding a grudge was a “national vice.”
This could be said of the ancient world generally, since forgiveness was not a classical virtue and revenge was not a classical vice. Christian morality aimed to correct this classical vice. It was not altogether successful, but the success that it did have was limited to the nations that were Christianized.
The Jewish nation has many virtues, but I don’t know anyone would say that letting bygones be bygones is one of them. Indeed, from the Old Testament to the modern period, Jews seem to have observed “never forget” as a moral precept. There is a reason people say, “don’t f#!% with the Jews.”
I don’t think there is any question that women have always enjoyed a uniquely high status in Christian society. By global standards, oppression and exploitation of women was not the characteristic Christian vice. Indeed, when Christians observed the mores of other nations, their Christian moral sensibility was almost always shocked by the degraded status of heathen women. Here, for instance, is a Christian missionary shocked by the sexual mores of the Hindus.
“To claim the service of woman as his divine right, to take it for granted, makes him a petty tyrant, a brute, and a boor. Brahman law exhibits here its characteristic vice . . . . It is opposed to the unselfishness and humility of the spirit of Christian service and chivalry.”*
I mention this in order to observe that the moral principle of female dignity works most actively among people in whom that moral principle is most advanced. If we take feminism as a radical moral doctrine, we observe that feminism is most ferocious in nations (and classes) where misogyny is not the national vice. The same thing might be said about the moral doctrine of anti-racism.
And I believe the same thing might be said about the moral doctrine of forgiveness. If a nation (or age, or religion) is writhing with moral guilt over its inability to forgive, that nation (etc.) is almost certainly one where automatic and unconditional forgiveness has become a national vice.
This is also true for individuals.
If you feel guilt that you are unforgiving, there is a very good chance you are too forgiving and need to correct in the other direction.