I have entered into conversations before on the topic of forgiveness. It has been thrust into our consciousnesses again, since some members of Reeva Steenkamp’s family have expressed their forgiveness of Oscar Pistorius. It is not my intention to comment any further on this case here (the BBC News website has its own dedicated section to the incident, subsequent trial and wider issues). Presumably, I am not the only one interested in this act of forgiveness, as the BBC has done one of their “iWonder” pieces, and you can see their overview of forgiveness and its origins in religion here.
To simplify greatly (and, perhaps, naively) the message of that page, is that the origins of forgiveness is the realisation that no one is perfect and we should forgive others’ mistakes in the knowledge that we have committed and will commit plenty of our own.
This simplification does not always hold, clearly. Some refuse to forgive, and there are doubtless many instances where homicide is not forgiven. But, like in the above case, some forgive and are willing to invite the perpetrators into their own home. That’s a stark difference.
What the iWonder article does not explore is why we forgive. The suggestion is that we blindly forgive to appease the deities to which we serve. In some cases, that may be true. Section 7 of that article suggests how these practices have moved into the secular world, as symbolic forgiveness may be a remedy for dealing with seismic events in our lives.
Furthermore, the article does not discuss what forgiveness is. Wikipedia offers an explanation of what it isn’t:
Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Forgiveness is different from condoning (failing to see the action as wrong and in need of forgiveness), excusing (not holding the offender as responsible for the action), pardoning (granted by a representative of society, such as a judge), forgetting (removing awareness of the offense from consciousness), and reconciliation (restoration of a relationship). — Wikipedia
What is the trigger that decides whether we can forgive or not? For some, it’s their faith. For others, it’s an apology. For me, I have to be able to understand.
I think most would regard me as a tolerant and patient person. I say that not to sound boastful, but to communicate the need to be willing to listen to an explanation or to mull over the causes of bad things that have happened to me. The reasons don’t have to be good ones. People make mistakes and bad choices, and I fully appreciate that.
So did those members of Steenkamp’s family forgive on the basis of understanding? In some ways, I hope so. There would be something powerful in accepting the remorse and explanation from Pistorius, as well as the judgement of the trial proceedings. I would hope that doing so would help to bring some closure to them.
Do I forgive Pistorius? Well, that is a discussion for another day!