Not all forgiveness is the same, and spam’s a pain

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 1, 2006

For the past three columns we’ve been talking about forgiveness. But I must confess that I’m having an increasingly hard time forgiving the spammers that fill my email box with nearly 500 pieces of junk mail every day. True, I use spam filters to isolate the junk mail, and they catch most of it, but I’ve learned from painful experience that I can’t just delete it all without first checking for important messages that were accidentally treated as spam.

For instance, just this past week while reviewing my spam lists, I found over 30 misfiled coffee companion responses to last week’s column, all of them real thought-provoking gems buried under tons of useless dirt.

And what were those gems about? Absolutely! They were about the many faces of forgiveness. In fact, your responses on forgiveness have been so insightful I just may have to produce a book on the topic. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, putting on my linguist’s hat, there are a couple of general clarifications I’d like to make on the meanings of the word “forgiveness.” I’d also like to recommend a writer who has taught me much about applying forgiveness to international relations.

Forgiveness is not one simple concept. Some of our coffee companions have argued that forgiveness is uniquely for the benefit of the one forgiven, while others argue that forgiveness has nothing to do with the one forgiven, and everything to do with the one extending the forgiveness.

The fact is, both meanings are correct, and often it’s a mixture of the two.

The first meaning can be illustrated as follows: When a creditor forgives a debt, it’s so the debtor can get on with his or her life – to take a financial burden off the shoulders of someone no longer able to bear it.

Within the Christian tradition there is Jesus’ widely-recited prayer that begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven....” At the heart of this prayer are these amazing words: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (or “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”).

This prayer is about God helping us, the forgiven, to have a good day.

But it carries with it a moral expectation: if we want to be forgiven, then we better forgive others, too.

Jesus illustrated this with a story about a servant who owed his master a large sum of money. When the master called in the debt, the servant begged for time to repay. The master, being merciful, decided to write off the whole debt and set his servant free from his financial burden. The servant didn’t seem to get the point, however, and when he later encountered a fellow servant who owed him only a few dollars, he showed no mercy toward the fellow. When the master heard about it, he cancelled the great forgiveness he had shown the first servant.

The second meaning of forgiveness is the one intended in much of today’s TV talk show culture: Forgive so that you, the forgiver, will feel good.

This use of forgiveness is about letting go of a range of negative, self-destructive attitudes, such as bitterness, anger, resentment and vengefulness. There can be no doubt about the importance of this kind of forgiveness for the spiritual, emotional and physical health of the one doing the forgiving, even if the person or persons who are forgiven never even know about it.

Such forgiveness is important also for inter-community and international relations.

British coffee companion and writer/broadcaster Michael Henderson, when speaking in Cochrane some years ago, told the story of French Resistance fighter Irene Laure. She, her family and her neighbours suffered immeasurably at the hands of their Nazi occupiers during World War II. By the end of the war her hatred was so great that she wished Germany to be “wiped from the face of the earth.”

Shortly after the war, as a member of the French Parliament, she attended a conference on European reconciliation. There she was confronted with the tension between her deep-seated animosity toward Germans and her realization that European unity could never be rebuilt without Germany.

Standing before the assembly, she turned to the German delegation and declared: “I want to apologize for my hatred of the German people.” With this apology – itself an act of forgiveness in the modern sense – she went on to become a major force in the rapid Franco-German reconciliation, hailed as one of the greatest achievements of modern statecraft.

Michael Henderson shares this and other inspiring accounts in his two books, “The Forgiveness Factor: Stories of Hope in a World of Conflict” and “Forgiveness: Breaking the Chain of Hate,” available locally at Westlands Bookstore.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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