On October 2nd I was invited to present on forgiveness and reconciliation from a humanist perspective. It was an eight person panel for "Ahimsa Day" at Claremont Lincoln University. It was me, a Jew, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and a Jain.
I am pretty sure most of us are familiar with Alexander Pope’s famous saying, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” As a humanist, I think that “to err is human, and to forgive is human.” Humanism, as far as I understand it, promotes forgiveness and reconciliation (when appropriate) without any need for the supernatural, spiritual, or metaphysical. All that we need for forgiveness and reconciliation is empathy, sympathy, reason, and sentiments.
In 2002 the French philosopher Jacques Derrida spoke to university students in South Africa about “pure” or “radical” forgiveness. One young student said at end of his lecture, “Don’t you think it fulfills an ideological function to speak to us, telling us in a sense, we should not ask for forgiveness, because then we ruin ‘pure,’ ‘unconditional’ forgiveness, at the same time you are telling oppressed people they should forgive without expecting repentance.” This statement gets to heart of what we think about forgiveness. Should forgiveness be contingent on repentance and apology? Should one forgive somebody for horrific evils? Are there some evils that should never be forgiven?
As a humanist, I have no authoritative book, figurehead, or tradition to point to in order to try and answer these difficult questions. All I can say is that forgiveness is contextual. We have to recognize that forgiveness can be used for good and bad. If forgiveness is a way to hide from confrontation and ignore evil, than I am against it. If forgiveness is the delicate balance between truth and love, that confronts evil and oppression without sliding into cynicism and apathy, I am all for it.
I am not speaking for all humanists when I say this, but I do not think forgiveness and reconciliation are altruistic or based in some kind of “duty.” In fact, one of the best reasons to forgive somebody is the way it makes you feel better about yourself. So I think we should not have self-less forgiveness, we should have self-full forgiveness. We should also think this way because it is a contradiction to think that a self can do something self-less. Humanists often find a strong impetus for forgiveness and reconciliation because only people—not God’s, spirits, or forces—can better the world. As the humanist Eve Garrard once said, “Indeed our reason for forgiveness may be partly due to our lack of religious belief: if we don’t choose to break the cycle of hatred, there isn’t going to be anybody else to do it for us.”
But what about a “duty” to forgive? Do we have a duty to forgive and reconcile? I do not think so. In my mind, duty and forgiveness are mutually exclusive. Image this scenario: My partner wrongs me and I forgive her, she then asks, “why did you forgive me?” I respond by saying, “because it was my duty as your partner to forgive you.” What is wrong with my response? What’s wrong is that my duty-based ethics has hidden any notion of care or personal concern. I would rather say to my partner, “I forgave you because I love you.” In conclusion, the humanist perspective on forgiveness and reconciliation is one of sentimental concerns, self-full and freely given, which aims at bettering ourselves, and the world. “To err is human, and to forgive is human.” Let us be humans tonight, and try our best to forgive and reconcile.
Photo of "Humanity and Justice" via Wikimedia Commons.