To give forth, from the Old English “forgiefan.” What are you giving forth? Your pardon. Freedom from the obligations of paying you back, or of fulfilling the mandates of justice.
It’s never been a virtue that has appealed to me, I must admit. I don’t see it on a lot of Pagan virtues lists, either. It smacks too much of Christianity — of sin.
It needn’t be Christian; “sin,” from its Old English roots, simply means “offense,” and we’ve all offended people. We’ve screwed up, been less than our best selves, did what we knew was wrong because we were tired, cranky, what-have-you. In this case, the offense needn’t be the fact of your tainted birth, as original sin is conceived of in Christianity. But since sin is bound up in punitive spiritual terms, I’ll stick with the term “offense.”
Forgiveness, then, involves the offense of others, especially if it impacts you in some way. In the ancient world, an offense required justice — and often bloodshed, sometimes lasting for generations. And modern concepts of justice and legal recourse aside, our primate brains still work in this way. For a good example, read the Internet comments posted at the bottom of any news story dealing with the commission of a crime — any crime. They’re bloodthirsty.
A world without forgiveness is a violent one, one in which people are seen as unchanging, incapable of redemption and intrinsically vile. It’s a world in which retribution rules, and can power conflict for generations. It’s a world where there are no innocents, because everyone is related to someone, somewhere, who has committed offense — and is thus intrinsically vile, wrong, Other by that association.
It’s the dark side of tribalism. We defend our Own against the Other, unto death.
“An eye for an eye,” Hammurabi’s code goes, although there were more subtleties to Sumerian law. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” Gandhi sagely noted.
And Gandhi is a good example of forgiveness, which is the underpinning of non-violence.
Forgiveness is the refusal to seek vengeance, justice or even reparations. It doesn’t erase the memory of what occurred, or invite the offender into the enclosed garden of your heart.
But it means you look into the eye of the offender and see his or her basic humanity — the humanity you both share. There is no sacred tribe of Better Than You and thus no Other. It’s a recognition of shared spiritual value, of an intrinsic commonality of being. Forgiveness is born of humility, in that it counteracts a sense of superiority. You forgive an offense because you, too, are an imperfect creature capable of wronging others, even if not in the same manner as the offender.
Great acts of forgiveness — forgiving the witness who lied and sent you to jail for 10 years for a crime you didn’t commit, or the spouse who beat you, or the drug addict who murdered your child — attract our attention. The small acts of forgiveness — when a friend says something wounding, or your dog pisses on the floor, or a loved one lets you down — attract very little notice or comment. We forgive as a matter of course.
If you’re like me, the large acts of forgiveness seem almost alien. Start small, then. Start by recognizing the many times you’ve taken offense and forgave, or you gave offense and were forgiven. The small acts make the larger possible. The small acts blunt the spear of never-ending war.