Sunday, 26 July 2015

Forgiveness and Anger

My heart always sinks when I read Gavin Ashenden in the Jersey Evening Post, making wild generalisations about the culture in which we live. 

His latest article is speaking about forgiveness, and citing the case of Eva Kor who has forgiven Oskar Groning. It is a fine think for her to forgive; she was treated brutally in Auschwitz. But he also mentions very briefly Leon Scharzbaum, who lost 30 members of his family there, and cannot forgive.

I don’t think we should in any way belittle Leon, who showed the tattoo he had been given at the camp to photographers. And certainly we should not suggest that Christianity is a cure for that attitude.

Gavin Ashenden suggests, rather patronisingly, that “It isn’t that they won’t forgive, it’s often that the hurt runs so deep that they cannot” – and he suggests that Christianity is the solution - “That’s the point where those who have found themselves accepted, washed clean, and made new in a faith that prioritises absolution find themselves in a different place.”

But does Christianity prioritise absolution? Is that is what it is about – a religious form of psychotherapy to take away existential pain? I would say that while the Church certainly helps some people, it also messes up other people’s lives. It does provide absolution for some, but for some – and you have only to reference “Catholic Guilt” – that comes at a terrible price.

Some of the Church’s teaching in the past – and hopefully not the present – did really employ – on children, the threat of burning hell-fire. In other words, it created at atmosphere of guilt and fear where misdemeanours needed the confessional before absolution. Catholic schools really did have teaching like that – I have a number of friends who have escaped, sometimes damaged, from that kind of childhood.

It is the kind of religious upbringing which I suspect would not be tolerated today, but it did happen, and within my own lifetime. People were made to feel that they would not be forgiven unless they confessed their sins, and that they would burn in hell if they failed to do so.

Evangelicals - at the other end of the spectrum - held meetings at Universities where the speaker again builds up a sense of guilt. These were emotionally charged events. That they succeeded in the short term, in providing an absolution by making students convert to Christianity, does not mean that this approach was right.

This is the kind of approach for which the words of Bonhoeffer fit well: “Wherever there is health, strength, security, simplicity, they sent luscious fruit to gnaw at or to lay their pernicious eggs in. They set themselves to drive people to inward despair, and then the game is in their hands.”

When I read that on his comments on Churches, “people flock in to find a forgiveness that dissolves the poison in their hearts”, I really wonder which churches he is talking about. Certainly the relations between Jersey and Winchester have recently revealed what seems like a lot of poison that has yet to be dissolved.

The solution for the Jersey Churches was not forgiveness and reconciliation, but a break with Winchester, with oversight being given to Dover. That was not about forgiveness, about absolution, it was about finding a pragmatic solution for two sides which could not forgive each other for what had happened.

So the Churches don’t have a monopoly on forgiveness, even if some, like Gavin Ashenden, claim some kind of monopoly over absolution, with all the dangers that can entail in terms of controlling other people’s lives.

Forgiveness is important, and in that I do agree with Gavin Ashenden. Life is too short to hate, and be eaten away with the frustration of past hate. But anger and hate can in fact also be positives. If we hate what someone has done to us, we may in turn be able to speak out, and change things, and prevent other people suffering.

Anger can be a stimulus for justice. If you want to look at an example from Christianity, Jesus entering the Temple, and overturning the tables of the money changers would be a good example of where anger can be positive in the fact of corruption.

And Aristotle, while also praising forgiveness as a virtue, also noted in his Ethics that: “Anyone who does not get angry when there is reason to be angry, or does not get angry in the right way at the right time and with the right people is foolish”

For Aristotle, being angry in the case of an injustice can mean that one is much more likely to do something about the injustice in order to make sure that it does not occur again. Emotions can be intelligent and purposeful. A person should be “angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought” (Ethics)

Paul Hughes, writing about forgiveness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes the positive aspects of forgiveness:

“Forgiving those who wrong us often helps us move beyond strong negative emotions which, if allowed to fester, could harm us psychologically and physically. Forgiveness benefits wrongdoers, as well, by releasing them from the blame and hard feelings often directed toward them by those they wrong, or helping them transcend the guilt or remorse they suffer from having done wrong, thereby allowing them to move forward in their lives.”

But he also notes that forgiveness is not always positive, and can actually reinforce very damaging patterns of behaviour:

“Forgiveness may also go awry, deliberately or inadvertently serving more dubious ends, as when a victim of domestic violence routinely but without good reason forgives her abuser, thereby fuelling increasingly violent cycles of abuse. Moreover, perpetrators of such wrongs often feign apology and repentance, thereby fraudulently securing forgiveness from the victim. In these ways, forgiveness may become complicit in or collude with wrongdoing, converting what is generally regarded as a good or virtuous reaction to wrongdoing into its opposite.”

This ties in very much with Aristotle, noting that there is a deficiency with people who “are thought not to feel things, nor to be pained by them, and since they do not get angry, they are thought unlikely to defend themselves; and to endure being insulted.” Forgiveness can become a means of tolerating injustice rather than seeking to put it right.

Gavin Ashenden says:

“Our culture and our media reflect and amplify this treasuring of victim hood and anger, one feeding the other. Victims and victim hood has become the new ‘sacred’. Pain has become a currency that cannot be challenged or addressed, except by revenge.”

But while the media may highlight victims of sexual abuse to sell papers (e.g. the Daily Mail), that is not to say that this cannot be addressed or should not be made public.

Jimmy Saville is dead, but the stories of his victims should still be heard. The scars that the trauma caused by sexual abuse may not ever go away, but this is not just a new “sacred”.

The importance of listening to these witnesses is that we learn what has happened. No one can be revenged on Jimmy Saville, for example, but we can address the challenges of making our society much safer, and where those who are victims can call for help and not ignored. 

If we dismiss this simply as a “treasuring of victimhood”, then we belittle the crimes that have been committed. That has happened in the past; we must make sure it does not happen again.

Hughes, Paul M., "Forgiveness", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition),

1 comment:

Póló said...

The Roman Catholic Church cultivated guilt to enhance its power.

It also allowed the impression to persist that it was the priest who was dishing out forgiveness in the confessional thereby contributing to excessive deference to the clergy.

And, finally, it did not insist on, nor did it monitor, the sine qua non for forgiveness, a firm purpose of amendment ie don't do it again.

As you say, righteous anger has its place provided it does not destroy the angry person themselves.