Forgiveness is a topic that has been receiving renewed attention in recent years both inside and outside of traditional religious circles. It is a broad and complex subject—too big for one Alban Weekly issue, but a topic that is important enough to lift up.

So why the interest in forgiveness? Perhaps in our post-9/11 culture, we are trying to find ways to cope and heal in the face of horrific violence—such as the terrorist acts at the school in Chechnya. We might be trying to regain a sense of control in a time of war. Maybe we are discovering that our larger political and social institutions are inadequate in creating peace on a grassroots level. Or perhaps in our media-saturated culture, we have lost some of the interpersonal skills necessary to sustain deep relationships and recover from injury.

Here are some examples of the renewed attention to forgiveness:

The well-known psychotherapist Janis Abrams Spring, who wrote an important book to help couples who are recovering from the impact of an extra-marital affair, has released her latest book, How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To.

Two highly respected professors of major universities, Marilyn Peterson Armour and Mark Umbreit, have co-authored a chapter on forgiveness for a not-yet-published book edited by E. L. Worthington, Jr.

Krista Tippet, host of public radio’s Speaking of Faith, recently discussed South Africa’s truth and reconciliation model (August 2004), how it was created, why it worked to heal a country devastated by extreme violence, and whether or not it could work in other parts of the world.

In July 2004, St. John’s University (through the former Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute) in Collegeville, Minnesota, sponsored a seminar on justice and forgiveness in cases of clergy sexual misconduct.

An important trend that appears to be happening is how the traditional use of the word forgiveness is being deconstructed by the involvement of other voices from outside the religious world. One hypothesis is that a word like forgiveness has been overused in traditional religion, has perhaps lost some of its meaning or become something that can sound trite or cheap. Marie Fortune writes about the freeing nature of forgiveness and “at the same time, while religious traditions assist people in thinking about how best to respond to the wrongs that have been done to them, one’s faith tradition can also become a place of experiencing further abuse or shame. Forgiveness sometimes becomes another way of hurting and wronging others. In other words, the demand to forgive so that everyone will feel better, or the desire to minimize conflict in relationships, encourages ‘forgiveness’ that is too quick and, ultimately, not redemptive. In this sense, forgiveness becomes part of the problem rather than part of the healing process.” (Fortune and Marshall, p. 2)

As the word is currently used in arenas outside of organized religion, it is paired with specific, painful, human experiences—affairs, abuse, murder, and severe political violence. It is not about a ritual of confession that absolves a person from the hard work of restoring relationships. Furthermore, according to these thinkers, authentic forgiveness doesn’t really happen on a national scale through the making of laws, policies, or treaties. It comes down to “a hard-won transaction, an intimate dance between two people who are bound together by an interpersonal violation.”(Spring quote from her workshop, How Can I Forgive You? A Radical Approach to Healing Intimate Wounds)

Mark Umbreit has learned through his research with victims of severe violence that: “It is particularly important to understand the paradox of forgiveness in such cases. The more the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation are mentioned to the parties prior to mediation, or in promoting the program, the more likely that fewer victims will participate in the process. For individual victims, use of such terms as forgiveness and reconciliation are highly judgmental and preachy, suggesting a devaluing of the legitimate anger and rage the victims may be feeling at that point.” (Umbreit, p. 17)

Whether or not we are living in a war-torn location, an abusive relationship, or in a neighborhood where significant violence is commonplace, human injury happens. Even in the midst of our best intentions, we all make mistakes and cause hurt from time to time. It is difficult to get past our feelings of shame or self-righteousness in order to engage in the challenging emotional work of restoring relationships and healing relational fractures.

Here are some of the steps toward daily, interpersonal forgiveness that Janis Abrams Springs suggests:

For hurt parties she recommends ten steps of acceptance:

  1. Honor the full sweep of your emotions.
  2. Give up the need for revenge but continue to seek a just resolution.
  3. Modulate any obsession about the injury and try to reengage with life.
  4. Protect yourself from further hurt and injury.
  5. Frame the offending parties’ behavior in terms of their own personal struggles.
  6. Look honestly at your own contribution to the injury.
  7. Challenge any false assumptions about what happened.
  8. Look at the offending party apart from the injury, weighing the good against the bad.
  9. Carefully decide what kind of relationship, if any, you may want with the offending party.
  10. Forgive yourself for your own failings.

For the party who committed an offense:

  • Look at the mistaken assumptions you might have about forgiveness and see if any of these assumptions are blocking you from taking action to earn someone else’s forgiveness.
  • Be willing to bear witness to the pain you have caused. Listen with an open heart.
  • Apologize genuinely, non-defensively and responsibly.
  • Seek to understand your behavior and reveal the inglorious truth about yourself to the person you have injured.
  • Work to earn back trust.
  • Forgive yourself for injuring another.


Featured Resources

AL304_SMPracticing Right Relationship: Skills for Deepening Purpose, Finding Fulfillment, and Increasing Effectiveness in Your Congregation By Mary K. Sellon and Daniel P. Smith

Why is it that some pastors flourish wherever they go, while others with superior theological and practical training continually fail? Why do some insignificant events end up touching people in significant ways? Why do people leave churches with vibrant and exciting programs, while others remain loyal to churches that seem to have very little to offer? What makes the difference?

AL199_SM Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences by Gil Rendle

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