Nine Views: Must We Forgive People Who Have Done What Would Seem to Be Unforgivable?

Posted on 09/01/08

1. Immaculée Ilibagiza:

“[W]henever I came to the words in the Lord’s Prayer that call us ‘to forgive those who trespass against us,’ I could not say them. I was stuck.”

We were in constant mental and physical torture during the ninety-one days we eight women spent hiding inside the pastor’s cramped bathroom. Occasionally, we heard the Hutu killers singing their sick songs outside. Then they were in the pastor’s bedroom, a few inches from my head, rummaging through everything. I started praying to keep busy and to try to remain calm. I prayed the rosary, my dad’s rosary, many times every day. But whenever I came to the words in the Lord’s Prayer that call us “to forgive those who trespass against us,” I could not say them. I was stuck. I wanted God’s protection but I could not pray for the killers. They deserved to die. I said, “God, what do you mean by these words? You know what I am going through. I hate the killers and I hate the Hutus.” The thing about hate is you begin to hate not only the people who are doing wrong but you hate their friends, their families, even their children, and their tribe. It becomes you. I remember thinking, “Do you know what this hatred is doing to you?” One night, we heard screaming near the pastor’s house, and then a baby crying. The killers must have killed the mother and left the child to die by the road. The child cried through the night, and then the cries were silent and I heard dogs snarling. “How can I forgive people who would do such a thing?” I asked God.

But then I heard, as if we had been sitting together, His answer: “You are all my children; the baby is with Me now.” That was what I was looking for. It felt like I was moving from the dark side of hatred to coming into light. It was almost like being born again. The killers were barbaric, but they were like children. They didn’t understand what they were doing. Maybe they would understand when they returned to their normal state. But they were still courting madness. Then I remembered what Jesus said from the cross: “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they are doing.” This gave me a way to separate myself from the poison that was killing me. I prayed that night with a clean heart and slept in peace for the first time since I had entered the bathroom. I could pray for the killers, that they would recognize their horrific errors in this life, before having to render an account of their mortal sins to God.

After the ordeal in the bathroom was over, I was asked if I wanted to see the man who had led the gang that killed my family. When I went to the prison, the burgomaster said I could do whatever I liked to him, that he would look the other way. I cherished my new peace and my dreams for my life. I didn’t want to lose them to a desire for revenge. But, in truth, I was angry, and I was scared. I watched as they brought a shuffling, disheveled man into the room. I recognized him instantly. I had played with his children. He had been a successful Hutu businessman who always wore expensive clothes, but now he was dirty. He smelled. I wanted him to experience justice because whatever was in his mind that made him kill could make him hurt people again. But I pitied him. He was a human being just like me. When I told him that I forgave him, my body eased and I could feel his shame. The guard was furious with me. What was I supposed to do? Hit him? Scratch him? Nothing could bring back Mom and Dad. All I had to give was forgiveness. I was ready to move on.


Immaculée Ilibagiza is the author of Left to Tell (Hay House, Inc.). She has established the Ilibagiza Foundation to help other genocide survivors.

2. Jean Bethke Elshtain:

“We are in danger of being swamped by a ‘pop’ view of forgiveness as some sort of divinely authorized ‘get home free’ card.”

Because forgiveness is so widely misunderstood, the task of bringing clarity to a concept — and practice — central to Christianity (and therefore a constituent element of Western culture) is a nearly impossible task. We are in danger of being swamped by a “pop” view of forgiveness as some sort of divinely authorized “get home free” card. As a result, the moral gravamen of forgiveness recedes further into the cultural background.

Let’s get down to brass tacks. There is a watered-down but widespread form of “forgiveness” best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to “forgive.” Thus it was with the 9/11 terrorists. With the wreckage of the World Trade Center towers still smoldering, mingled as it was with the bodies of thousands of victims, from pulpits and cultural gurus alike came calls for us to “forgive” rather than to embark on a course of “vengeance.” Notice that the options are often cast in this crudely dichotomous way: one either
forgives or embarks on vengeance. In such formulations, the call for justice, and what justice might demand, is forgotten. These sorts of admonitions have the further effect of devaluing the lives of the innocent: that almost three thousand were murdered brutally does not stop us, from our lofty stance, from “forgiving” the perpetrators.

What’s wrong with this picture? Who, after all, forgives whom, and for what? To answer these questions in full — something well beyond the scope of short remarks — means one would have to unpack forgiveness as a relevant moral category; explore the use, or abuse, of forgiveness in the realm of politics; and articulate fully why our options are more complex by far than the formulation of “forgiveness or vengeance” suggests. When answering such questions one must be aware at every moment that justice, including criminal justice, is the task of governments and the law. It is not a private affair.

It is entirely appropriate for Christians — and we are primarily talking about Christians because forgiveness is a central theme in Christianity in ways that it is not in other faiths — to pray for the perpetrators of evil, to pray that their hearts will not remain hardened and that they will recognize what they have done and themselves seek forgiveness. Remorse or regret is a central part of any forgiveness process. But too often nowadays to “forgive” signifies that the forgiver presume a superior moral stance in comparison to political leaders who have the harrowing task of dealing with threats and horrible deeds. But would we really want a president to “forgive” in an exculpatory sense? I doubt it.

I also doubt that the great political theorist Hannah Arendt had anything so crude in mind as exculpatory “forgiveness” when she argued that forgiveness is the great political contribution of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course a Hitler, a Stalin, a Pol Pot, or a bin Laden must be opposed, must be stopped, and must pay a price for his actions. What Arendt hoped to convey was our ability as humans to break free from repetitive cycles of vengeance. This leaves open the search for a course of justice, a course that may involve the use of coercive force. But because they flew airplanes packed with civilians into office buildings doesn’t mean we deliver tit for tat; rather, it means that our response must be consistent with the requirements of justice. The severity of one’s response is measured.

Forgiveness is best understood if one remembers that God is a god of justice as well as mercy. When Jesus forgives those who execute him in the most denigrating and painful way, he enjoins restraint because they “know not what they do.” They are agents who have no idea who or what they are dealing with. Most often, however, perpetrators of evil deeds know exactly what they are doing and delight in the doing of it, believing it will bring them glory or some other reward on this earth or the next. One extraordinary example of forgiveness in our own time was John Paul II’s forgiveness of his would-be assassin. The late pontiff forgave his attacker as he was being rushed in an ambulance to the hospital, where he nearly died. Later, he visited his assailant in prison and prayed with him. But none of this implied that John Paul opposed bringing the full force of Italian law to bear on the perpetrator. He, the pope, had been attacked as a man; he could, and did, forgive. But when an assault is made against an entire nation and its people, as in the 9/11 attacks, it then falls under the purview of the government. A responsible government seeks to do what the police do in a domestic situation: Stop the behavior. Do not let them do this again. And find those responsible so that they can be brought to justice. How this is best done is, of course, the subject of considerable dispute. And when punishment is handed down we may well call for a measure of mercy along with justice. But it is not my business to “forgive” those who murdered my fellow citizens.

We hope that justice may be tempered with mercy, when appropriate, lest justice become too stark and too severe. As well, we recognize that mercy absent justice easily degenerates into exculpation and corrodes thereby our sense of moral agency and responsibility as well as the requirements of justice.


Jean Bethke Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. Her books include Just War Against Terror (Basic Books).

3. Robert Thurman:

“To bear malice, lust for revenge, or obsession with punishing some external other is a state of mind immensely harmful for the bearer in a vital evolutionary sense.”

There is no doubt that aware Buddhists, at least in theory, consider everything to be “forgivable.” There is no “unforgivable.” The most heinous sins or crime, which are listed as five — killing a saint, killing father, killing mother, breaking up the Buddhist community, and making a perfect Buddha bleed — are called “uninterruptable” or “immediate” sins. This is different from unforgivable. It means that at death, except in extraordinary circumstances, these sins lead immediately to rebirth in hell-realms, of which there are thirty-two most notorious. But this intensely negative rebirth, its varieties described in the most excruciating terms imaginable, is not because any being, god or demon, has “not forgiven” the sinner or criminal. It is because the evolutionary force (karma, in its real meaning) of the deed itself leads the sinner into such an evolutionary situation — not forever, but usually for a very long time.

To understand this, we must understand the Buddhist biological theory, the theory of karma, which means “evolutionary action.” It comes from the verb root kr, to do or to make. It is comprised of actions of body, speech, and mind that are accompanied by intention, and which therefore affect the evolutionary trajectory of the being engaging in the actions. All beings, soul as well as body and mind, are in constant flux, changing second by second, and the shape of that change is dictated by their evolutionary actions, mental, verbal, and physical. The being either continues pointlessly to cycle through deaths and rebirths up and down from heavens to hells, with titan, human, animal, and hungry wraith embodiments in between, or attains enlightenment, or becomes a buddha, and enjoys an endless and infinite bliss, while still compassionately engaging with other beings.

None of this should be misunderstood as meaning that good Buddhists should not strive to prevent harm to self or others, or even that they should invite harm in some martyrish fashion. There is occasion for self-defense, and even more rarely occasion for “surgical violence” — a limited violence deployed to prevent a larger violence. Such acts must be performed out of compassion. (This deeply encultured attitude is the basis of the effectiveness of the Asian martial arts, that the adept does not defend out of hostility or anger, but calmly and dispassionately, keeps in balance and seeks to turn the attacking opponent’s violence back upon itself.)

Buddhism is highly individualistic, due to the above-mentioned biological vision of reality. The individual is embodied in a particular life as driven and shaped by his or her previous evolutionary actions, and he or she will continue into the next life impelled up or down by the actions of this life. The most powerful shaper is the mind of the individual. A negative mind at the time of death has an all-determining negative effect on many lives thereafter. So the quality of the mind is of paramount concern to the aware individual. To bear malice, lust for revenge, or obsession with punishing some external other is a state of mind immensely harmful for the bearer in this vital evolutionary sense. So out of enlightened self-interest, the individual has every incentive to abandon an unforgiving attitude toward anyone, no matter how heinous their transgression.

Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” But the aware Buddhist says, “Even that which kills me makes me stronger through my higher evolution, up to the inconceivable supreme good of buddhahood, the summit of evolutionary possibility.”

The mastery of this yoga is exemplified in our times by no one more clearly than His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has proven by decades of nonviolent leadership and personal action his lack of hatred for the Chinese communists who have so grievously harmed himself and his people for more than half a century, to the degree of committing genocide. And yet he resolutely condemns violence in response, calls for reconciliation and dialogue, and remains hopeful that a positive solution will be found, that his people will be liberated in some way, and that they and their Buddhist culture will survive.

A final point is that, even though one should forgive in one’s heart everyone for anything they might do, this does not mean that criminals should not be caught, restrained, and corrected; or, at a less dramatic level, that a friend or a relative should not be criticized and corrected for deceitful or harmful behavior. Forgiveness primarily benefits the forgiver; sometimes to benefit the transgressor, it is necessary to oppose and correct, as they harm themselves when they harm others. But with a forgiving mind, one will be more effective in such corrective actions, because the intention will be to benefit the wrongdoer, not to harm him or her out of the wish for revenge.


Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University, President of Tibet House US, and the author of many books on Buddhism and Tibet; most recently, Infinite Life (Riverhead) and Why the Dalai Lama Matters (Atria). He retains rights to this piece.

4. Shmuley Boteach:

“The demonization of hatred in our time has derived principally from those for whom toleration of nearly everything is paramount.”

How many times have we heard that the problem with the world today is that there isn’t enough love? It could be that precisely the opposite is true. Evil currently stalks the earth because there isn’t enough hate shown to those whose actions we must counter. Moral people, afraid of being poisoned by hate, are becoming indifferent to evil.

The history of the modern world is a history of genocide and the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents. Historian Paul Johnson estimates that at least 100 million civilians were murdered in the twentieth century alone by despotic and murderous tyrants. All too many of the murderers, like Pol Pot and Idi Amin, died comfortably in their sleep rather than at the end of a gallows. The world simply could not summon enough hatred of these individuals or their actions to stop them and bring them to justice.

I have heard all the arguments repudiating hate: Hatred is evil. It is the cause of all wars. It consumes the soul of the one who hates. But hatred is only evil when it is directed at the good and at the innocent. It is virtuous when it is directed at cold-blooded killers, motivating us to fight and eradicate them before more people die.

Hatred does not cause wars. Moral hatred often ends them. Because Churchill truly hated Hitler, he inspired a nation to put an end to the blitzkrieg conquests. The French, who did not hate Hitler, collaborated with him instead. It is indifference to evil, rather than hatred, that sends a message to the tyrants that they may pick on anyone they like, for the world will be silent.

He who does not hate terrorists who shout “God is great” while sawing off the heads of innocent human beings has compromised his own humanity. Can a man love innocent victims without hating their tormentors? Loving victims might generate compassion for their suffering. But hating the perpetrators will generate action to stop their orgy of murder. While innocence should evoke compassion, evil should evoke only contempt.

When Bobby Frank Cherry, the Klansman who killed four black girls in a church bombing in Alabama in 1963, was executed, I said that there was no other punishment that could suit the crime. A black caller phoned in disgust. “I used to be like you, Shmuley,” he said. He said that as a boy he had hated the Klan but that as an adult and a Christian he had forgiven them.

I answered him: “What do you think God would prefer? That you use your energy to fight your hatred, or use your energy to fight evil? Now, no one would sanction your running around and indiscriminately shooting people, because that itself is immoral and illegal. That’s not hatred. That’s rage.

“But it was due to prosecutors’ odium for this man that they pursued him for almost forty years, finally obtaining a conviction and sending him to prison. If they had not detested him and his actions, he would have died peacefully at his home and the message would have gone out that you can get away with murder.”

Hatred is not necessarily of the devil. Like any emotion, it is neutral, its morality determined solely by the object to which it is directed. Hatred is demonic only when directed at innocent people; it is truly appropriate when directed at someone whose murderous actions have made the world a darker place.

Exhortations to hate all manner of evil abound in the Bible. The book of Proverbs declares, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil.” King David declares regarding the wicked, “I have hated them with a deep loathing. They are as enemies to me.” Hatred is the moral response to those who have gone beyond the pale of decency by committing acts that unweave the basic fabric of civilized living. To encounter evil is to come under the injunction of never showing even a morsel of sympathy lest we weaken our determination to destroy it.

The demonization of hatred in our time has derived principally from those for whom toleration of nearly everything is paramount. Hatred of evil implies both the right to make judgments and a belief in absolutes.

Many of my Christian brothers and sisters mistakenly believe that God loathes hatred. They quote Jesus’s teaching to turn the other cheek and his admonishment to love your enemies as proof that we dare never hate. Many evangelical Christians have written to tell me that, in God’s eyes, we are all sinners, and thus from a heavenly perspective Osama bin Laden and the average housewife are equal. Osama must indeed face justice for his crimes, but we dare not hate him because Jesus still loves him.

But this is a travesty of Jesus’s teachings. It would make this great Hebrew personality into someone who had contempt for victims as he extended love to their murderers. Jesus advocated turning the other check to petty slights and affronts to our honor, not to mass graves and torture chambers. While Jesus taught that we ought to love our own enemies, this did not apply to God’s enemies. Our enemies are people who are our rivals for a promotion at work. God’s enemies are those who slaughter His children.

To love the terrorist who flies a civilian plane into a building or a white supremacist who drags a black man three miles after tying him to the back of a car is not just scandalous, it is sinful. To love evil is itself evil and constitutes a passive form of complicity. The old saying is right: Those who are kind to the cruel end up being cruel to the kind.

Some will say that by promoting hatred of evil I am trampling on the ideas of atonement and forgiveness. I disagree. Repentance is based on recognizing the infinite value of human life. Because God loves humanity, He provides a point of return so that the individual can find his way back to the light. Because repentance is predicated on the value of life, it cannot be offered to those who undermine its basic premise by irretrievably debasing life.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” Only if we hate the truly evil will we summon the determination to fight them fervently. Odd and uncomfortable as it may seem, hatred has its place. It is time for moral people to learn how to hate and fight evil again.


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of twenty books and hosts a daily national radio show on the XM Oprah and Friends Network. His most recent book is The Broken American Male and How to Fix Him (St Martin’s).

5. Charles Griswold:

“I am not a theologian, but I question whether Christianity really does advocate unconditional forgiveness.”

While just about every aspect of the discussion of the nature of forgiveness is fraught with controversy, there is one that generates particularly sharp disagreement: Must the offender meet any conditions before forgiveness may rightly be granted? Must forgiveness be earned? Our intuitions on this matter are divided and confused.

Part of the confusion is terminological. Those who think that the victim may grant forgiveness without the offender meeting any conditions often refer to forgiveness as “unconditional.” But even in their view, forgiveness comes with some conditions; for example, that the victim forswear revenge (you cannot simultaneously claim to have forgiven and take revenge), that the person identified as the offender in fact be the offender, and that the alleged wrong actually be a wrong (you can’t forgive, even unconditionally, someone who hasn’t wronged you). So “unilateral” might be a better label than “unconditional” for forgiveness so understood.

Nonetheless, given the prevalence of the term “unconditional” to characterize forgiveness that may be granted in the absence of any steps taken by the offender, I will use the term here.

Our intuitions about the status of “unconditional forgiveness” are often influenced by the widespread acceptance of a certain interpretation of Christianity, strongly reinforced by much of the discussion in the self-help literature. The interpretation of scripture to which I refer holds that we are commanded to forgive unconditionally, following the example of Christ on the cross. Just this sort of view is suggested by Father William Meninger (a Trappist monk at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado) in our lively exchange published in Tikkun in March/April of 2008 (and available online) and in his own work (cited in my exchange with him). I am not a theologian, but I question whether Christianity really does advocate unconditional forgiveness. Whatever the scholarly answer to that question — and investigation of the matter is under way — and keeping in mind that a single scriptural verse does not stand for all of Christianity, I note that when (according to some but not all of the manuscripts) Christ asks his Father to forgive those tormenting him, we are not told that Christ himself forgives (whether conditionally or not), and we are not informed as to whether God the Father did so (whether conditionally or not). Indeed, Christ does not explicitly ask that his tormentors be forgiven unconditionally. Moreover, Christ’s plea invokes a rationale (“they know not what they do”) that makes it sound like a matter of excusing rather than forgiving.

Given not only that scriptural interpretation is contested, that many don’t view scripture as a source of moral authority, and that we also have other strongly held convictions to the effect that wrongdoers should be held to standards as a condition for forgiveness, let us put aside whatever influence a certain interpretation of this religious tradition has had on our assumptions and examine the matter anew. Is forgiveness unconditional? I believe that the answer is negative. First, if it were, forgiveness would collapse into either excuse or condonement (it is telling, I believe, that in his final response in the above-mentioned exchange, Father Meninger concedes as much). And yet all authors on the subject agree that a bright line between these notions is essential, else forgiveness is no longer praiseworthy. Insisting that the offender meet certain criteria helps secure these distinctions. Second, as I have also argued in Forgiveness: a Philosophical Exploration, the moral relation that is forgiveness inherits features of the original context to which it responds. That context is interpersonal, as we are not talking here about self-forgiveness for wrongs one has done to oneself, and it bespeaks our interdependence as well as vulnerability to each other. The “target” of interpersonal forgiveness is the offender, and in the ideal case, it responds to reasons generated in part from the side of the offender and are not simply self-regarding. That is, forgiveness is warranted if certain conditions are met, and these conditions are rooted in the interpersonal and therefore bilateral context that gives rise to the question of forgiveness. One obvious candidate for such a condition is an apology on the part of the offender; many people quite rightly feel that absent an apology, forgiveness would amount to condonement. An apology shows that the offender has begun to recognize certain norms that he or she violated when wronging you; in requiring that (and perhaps more) of the offender, in other words, the victim is standing up for these norms and standing in for the offender’s better, or rational, self. Advocates of unconditional forgiveness ignore this entire social dimension when they insist that what is at stake is the victim’s well-being only, as though the sole relevant factor is the victim’s resentment or moral hatred. That self-centeredness is especially striking in the voluminous self-help literature on the subject.

But what about cases in which the offender is dead or unwilling to apologize (let alone take any further steps)? Does not the denial of unconditional forgiveness yet again victimize the victim, leaving him or her with toxic, vengeful anger? My answer would be that there are many ways to address such anger; forgiveness is not a magic wand that cleanses moral hatred from the soul. It may be that the victim is left with excusing, forgetting, therapy, or some other such approach. As I put it in response to Father Meninger, suffering cannot always be redeemed through forgiveness.


Charles L. Griswold is a professor of philosophy at Boston University, and author of Forgiveness: a Philosophical Exploration (Cambridge University Press).

6. Marietta Jaeger Lane:

“Might I suggest that what happened to my precious child would qualify as an unforgivable act?”

During the night of June 25, 1973, while on a camping vacation, my youngest daughter, seven-year-old Susie, was kidnapped from our tent. Fifteen months later, I was to learn that she’d been imprisoned in a closet of an abandoned ranch home, assaulted every night, strangled to death while resisting yet another rape, decapitated — her head thrown into an outhouse hole — and dismembered, parts of her body burned and other parts frozen and eaten over a period of time. Might I suggest that what happened to my precious child would certainly qualify as an unforgivable act?

After Susie’s disappearance, the FBI took charge of the investigation and my whole focus was on where she was, how she was, and how we could get her back. However, after an intense day of listening to the search planes droning overhead and deputies dragging the river next to our tent — my heart stopping every time the boat stopped — my rage and desire for revenge came roiling out of me like a tornado. I readily admit that I would have been delighted — and able — to take the kidnapper’s life with my bare hands and a smile on my face, if only his identity were known.

That night, crawling into our sleeping bags, when I openly owned my murderous fury to my husband, my hateful words hung before my eyes even as I tried to close them. I am a Catholic Christian and as such, I am called to forgive my enemies. The kidnapper certainly qualified for that category. But she was an innocent, defenseless, little girl and I was her mother — certainly my feelings were justified. Therewith began a major wrestling match with the God in whom I say I believe and whose tenets I have always tried to obey.

This God had laid a strong spiritual foundation in me, and even just psychologically, I had to admit that hatred is not healthy. I knew many embittered, angry people who were unhappy, unhealthy, and unpleasant to be with, and I knew myself: an “all-or-nothing” kind of person. I knew that if I were to give myself fully to this rage and desire for revenge, it would consume me, and I’d end up being hurtful and even harmful to my family and those around me. I realized that however I struggled against it, the attitude to which my faith was calling me was my best and healthiest option.

So I did the only thing I could do at that moment: I gave God permission to change my heart because I believe in a God who will not violate my free will. I promised to cooperate with whatever could be orchestrated in my life to accomplish this miracle. And then I went to work.

Forgiveness takes daily, diligent discipline. It is not for wimps. I constantly had to remind myself that, however I felt about the kidnapper, in God’s eyes — the God whom I profess to be crazy in love with each and every one of us, no matter who we are and what we’ve ever done — the kidnapper was as precious as Susie. I had to guard my tongue and not speak in derogatory terms about him.

I learned to pray for him, although in the beginning that was the last thing I felt like doing. At first, the best I could muster was that, if traveling, he not have a flat tire. However, I finally came to understand that God’s command to love your enemies has nothing to do with the “warm fuzzies” we associate with “love,” but rather cultivating a genuine desire for God’s best good for them.

On the first anniversary of Susie’s disappearance — one year to the minute she’d been taken from our tent — the kidnapper called me. Realizing to whom I was speaking, I was utterly amazed to experience that all I’d been praying and working for had come to fruition in me. My heart had been moved from fury to forgiveness. I was not only desperate to get Susie back; I was also desperate to reach this man and help him.

Though intending to taunt me for a few moments, the kidnapper was so undone by what God had done in me that he stayed in conversation for over an hour. In that graced milieu of concern and compassion, he inadvertently revealed his identity. Two months later, he was arrested, confessed and then committed suicide. I had already asked that he not be given the death penalty, for I believe that all life is sacred and worthy of preservation. Furthermore, there is no amount of retaliatory deaths that could compensate what Susie suffered and lost; to kill anybody in her name would insult the inestimable value of her sweet life. She was worthy of a more noble and honorable memorial than another cold-blooded killing.

Though my daughter had suffered unspeakable terrors and I was never to hold her in my arms again in this world, God is always faithful with the strength we need, and there were many people praying for me. In time, my mind and spirit were able to embrace the horrendous realities of Susie’s death.

However, what became clearly obvious was that I had been set free. I was no longer chained or controlled, by what the medical professions call unhealthy negative emotions, to a past event which, no matter how I felt or what I did, could ever be changed. I was free to honor my child’s suffering and death by moving on in my life and seeking to create good in her name.

First and foremost, and regardless of its effect on the kidnapper, forgiveness was an essential gift of healing and life to me.


Marietta Jaeger Lane is a founder of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and Journey of Hope... From Violence to Healing, both international organizations that oppose the death penalty.

7. Trudy Govier:

“I would question any notion of a person being, from a moral point of view, absolutely unforgivable.”

hat does it mean to forgive? We let go of hard feelings such as hatred, anger, and resentment, and set the wrong in the past. We reframe the perpetrator as someone not defined solely by misdeeds but capable of decent behavior and reintegration into a moral community. We forgive someone who has committed a wrong, is morally responsible for doing so, and is a moral agent capable of change. Forgiveness, then, presupposes a commitment to moral values.

Should we forgive a Hitler or a Stalin, a Mugabe or an Idi Amin? Straightforwardly the answer is no: the wrongs committed are appallingly serious and there is no indication of moral transformation or remorse.

Nevertheless I would question any notion of a person being, from a moral point of view, absolutely unforgivable. We should not regard any human person as incapable, forever, of the radical transformation that would make him or her eligible for forgiveness. Acts may be permanently unforgivable in the sense of being profoundly, horribly, and unchangeably wrong. But human agents are not reducible to their acts.

I would not say that brutal perpetrators ought to be forgiven in the sense that people have an obligation to forgive them. In rejecting the attitude that some persons are absolutely unforgivable, I am committing myself to the possibility of radical moral transformation and stating that under circumstances of radical moral transformation, it would not be wrong to forgive. Given the permanent human possibility of radical moral transformation, even the perpetrators of appalling atrocities could transform themselves, and for that reason, they should not be regarded as absolutely unforgivable from a moral point of view. Their moral unforgivability, though profound, is not absolute. Why this rejection of the absolutely unforgivable? Because the alternative is demonizing in its denial of human moral capacity; it is to think of human beings as inhuman or monstrous.

A common presumption is that it is up to victims, and only to them, to forgive. Those slaughtered by Hitler, Stalin, and other tyrants are dead and cannot forgive; we might conclude, then, that there is no one left to forgive the agents of the worst atrocities, so these agents are unforgivable for logical reasons alone. But not all victims are dead: Many victimized by ill treatment or through their family or community relationship survive to this day. In addition, attitudes concerning perpetrators and their reintegration into communities are matters for communities as well as victims. Applications of logic do not resolve moral questions about the unforgivable.

We might consider forgivability from God’s point of view, asking whether He would or could forgive the perpetrators of atrocities. If this question arises, I cannot pretend to answer it: I cannot know what God would forgive. It is more feasible to reflect on human capacity, inquiring as to whether it is psychologically possible to forgive the perpetrators of grossly serious wrongs. Amazingly, the answer to this question seems to be yes; such forgiveness has existed in our world and thus is humanly possible. But this psychological question is not yet our moral question.

People who have committed serious wrongs, express no remorse, and make no effort to atone for their deeds have done nothing to deserve forgiveness. Many will not wish to forgive them, and there is little reason to do so, especially if forgiveness will be misunderstood as exemption from punishment or as condonement. But profound moral change should always be seen as possible, and if it is actual, perpetrators will be at least eligible for forgiveness. Thus, from the moral point of view, I reject the notion of the absolutely unforgivable human being.


Trudy Govier is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Her works include Forgiveness and Revenge (Routledge).

8. Robert D. Enright and Jeanette A. Knutson Enright:

“What other moral virtue (justice, patience, or kindness as examples) requires a prior response from another before the commencement of the virtue?”

Tragedy struck a family with whom we are close. A drunk driver hit the car and their teenage son was killed. Must the parents now forgive? We first must understand the term forgiveness to adequately answer the question. This is no easy task, given the considerable “definitional drift” of the concept. Some writers see forgiveness primarily as a motivation, others as a personality trait, while still others see it as a coping mechanism. Forgiveness is none of the above, despite its shared characteristics with those concepts. Forgiveness is a moral virtue of reducing or eliminating resentment and offering unmerited goodness specifically toward one who has been unjust to the forgiver.

Being a moral virtue, forgiveness has certain characteristics. First, it is concerned with the good of human welfare, including the offending person. Second, the one who forgives has motivation to deliberately effect the moral good. Third, at least to a degree, the one who forgives knows that the expression of forgiveness is good even though he or she may not articulate a precise moral principle about the good. Fourth, forgiveness as moral virtue requires practice for greater proficiency in the expression of the virtue. Fifth, the forgiver need not be perfect in the expression of forgiveness. Sixth, different people demonstrate different degrees of the virtue. Finally, the one who is practicing the moral virtue tries to do so as consistently as possible.

To forgive is not to excuse, to forget, or to reconcile because none of the three are virtues. Reconciliation is an interaction between two or more people, whereas forgiveness, as a moral virtue, occurs within one person and is expressed by that one person outward to others. Thus, an unjustly treated person can exercise the virtue of forgiveness but might not reconcile with the other if the offender remains harmful. Because it is a moral virtue, forgiveness can be expressed in conjunction with the other virtues. Thus, one can forgive and still seek justice. The parents can work for the incarceration of the driver who killed their son.

The practice of some moral virtues is obligatory in society to such an extent that the behavior representing the virtue is codified into law. As one example concerning the virtue of justice, people must stop their cars at a red light or face a sanction. Other moral virtues are supererogatory, being part of the good but not obligatory in society, such as mercy. There are no secular laws anywhere in the world to our knowledge requiring mercy. Forgiveness is a specific form of mercy, offering unmerited goodness to an offender.

Now to our question: Must the parents forgive? From the viewpoint of what is acceptable within a given society, the answer is no because forgiveness is supererogatory and thus not obligatory. Thus, the parents should not be forced to forgive, nor should anyone put undue pressure on them to forgive, though a gentle nudge in that direction is certainly acceptable.

Yet both obligatory and supererogatory virtues are acts of goodness by definition. Thus, is the deliberate withholding of something good, such as forgiveness, morally — in contrast to socially — inappropriate? By “deliberate withholding” we mean that the parents know it is good and reject it without any effort to forgive. If it is always morally appropriate to exercise goodness with proper understanding and proper (within the guidelines of the virtue) execution, then the answer is yes, it is morally inappropriate to deliberately withhold forgiveness, but with qualifications. It is morally inappropriate in that the parents are showing moral imperfection, not living according to their best selves. At the same time, it is not morally inappropriate to the extent of requiring public censure, especially if the parents are exercising other moral virtues.

Consider three scenarios: First, the parents are withholding forgiveness today because of profound anger but are open to the possibility of forgiveness in the future. Second, they completely withhold forgiveness in this one instance, but not in others, because they are deeply hurt and angry. Third, they choose not to forgive the drunk driver and they roundly reject forgiveness for all offenders under all circumstances. These three examples are on a continuum from morally appropriate to inappropriate. To completely reject a moral virtue under all circumstances is to reject goodness.

Some religions require forgiveness and thus make it morally obligatory rather than supererogatory. Must the parents forgive under this circumstance? The answer here is: They must genuinely try. The practice of forgiveness as a virtue, we must remember, does not require the parents to be perfect practitioners of it, but instead that they seek the truth of what forgiveness is and is not, make a commitment to the forgiveness path as best they can today, and practice the virtue according to their capabilities at the moment.

Let us now reverse the question: Must the parents not forgive because the injustice is so grave? No one can morally restrict the parents’ forgiveness because the exercise of any moral virtue, with proper understanding and execution, is good. Must the parents not forgive until the offender shows remorse, apologizes, and makes recompense of some kind? In other words, is it morally good only if a person forgives conditionally following some action of the offender? What other moral virtue (justice, patience, or kindness as examples) requires a prior response from another before the commencement of the virtue? None. We have yet to see a convincing argument of the superiority of the conditional over the unconditional expression of forgiveness, which is consistent with the practice of all other virtues.

Given the high stakes for humanity when serious injustices arise, at a moral minimum perhaps we are all obligated to explore the genuine meaning of the term forgiveness when gravely offended by others, even an offense so painful as the loss of a child.


Robert D. Enright is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Jeanette A. Knutson Enright serves on the board of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. in Madison. Robert Enright is regarded as a founder of the discipline of forgiveness studies.

9. Gordon Marino:

“It seems psychologically perverse to think that someone who has undergone torture should then torture himself about being unable to relinquish rage at those who have put him on the rack.”

There was a story in the New Yorker this spring about a Polish Jew during World War II. When his hometown was overtaken by the Nazis, he escaped and became an officer in the Allied Forces. His mother and father could not bring themselves to leave their home and were brutally killed by Nazis sympathizers. Toward the end of the war, this same man was the commanding officer in the action that liberated his village.

After some threats, the townspeople gave up the person who butchered his parents. The officer was about to have the man executed but then at the last moment he decided that he should not act like the criminal he was facing. He decided to leave the issue to the postwar courts. In those tribunals, his parents’ killer received a short sentence and was set free in less than a year. The officer lived the rest of his life unable to forgive himself for failing to bring the slayer of his parents to justice. There are many who would argue that perhaps he didn’t go far enough — perhaps he should have forgiven the cutthroat, in addition to having spared his life.

Like Schopenhauer, Freud taught that we ought to adjust our moral ideals to psychological realities. According to the founder of the psychoanalytic movement, one may as well command someone to fly as to love their enemy and forgive the unforgivable. He has a point. It seems psychologically perverse to think that someone who has undergone torture should then torture himself about being unable to relinquish rage at those who have put him on the rack. And supposing the guilty party is unrepentant? Then it may be downright unjust to forgive him.In the cottage industry of forgiveness studies there is a sense in which giving absolution is seen as a form of therapy. Chronic anger is a very painful emotion to have in your living room. Perhaps some can show rage the door by telling themselves that they pardon the guy who got drunk and ran over their child. If so, and if the act is not a disguised form of powerlessness or self-deprecation, then more power to them. Let them sit down at the table with their enemies and not get a cramp in their bellies.

But unless the idea of forgiveness be so attenuated that it only entails refraining from acts of revenge, I cannot think of any neutral, which is to say non-religious reason, why we ought to forgive those who leave us with lifelong scars, often in the form of constant anger and fear. That said, I bow before those who are strong enough in themselves and in their profound knowledge of the weakness of human nature to be able to wash away the most terrible of sins committed against them. I am not one of those. But again, I am more than willing to recognize this largeness of heart as a remarkable virtue. To sum up the matter in pedantic terms, I suggest that genuinely forgiving the unforgivable, assuming that the perpetrator has repented, is an act of supererogation, but not a duty. Sans the act of repentance, a victim might come to an understanding of the springs behind a heinous action, and so release himself from hatred, but there would be no grounds for forgiveness.


Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota. He is author of Basic Writings of Existentialism (Modern Library Classics).