The Assassination of Forgiveness
In watching the news, I’ve noticed several stories where past words or actions have cost people jobs, college acceptances, and more. It doesn’t matter how many years ago the words or actions took place, the person must be punished now.
There have been some good and interesting points raised in response. A common theme on the conservative side is that it is part and parcel of being a post-Christian nation. A more libertarian approach has been to lament that one can dig back far enough on anyone to find something, and that we really need to stop doing this. A more rational approach has been to point out that people can learn and grow, and that as such we should not hold the past against the person that exists now.
The idea of forgiveness is not new, nor is the related concept of rehabilitation. However, neither has been the norm for much of the history of the world. Hammurabic and other ancient codes focused on vengeance rather than forgiveness and rehabilitation. An eye for an eye was the norm throughout most of the world.
Indeed, the laws of many ancient societies were quite draconian by modern standards. Slavery and death were widely used punishments, and the actions of one could land a whole family in permanent slavery that extended to offspring. Torture and maiming were more “moderate” responses for many.
The key is that any such marked both individuals and family units. Examples were made so that you saw the lifelong consequences of breaking the law. There was very little forgiveness, and rehabilitation was largely limited to a minuscule amount that was of use to the governments/leadership in question. Such rehabilitated were, with certain rare exceptions, never fully trusted again.
While you can find at least some small amount of forgiveness and/or rehabilitation in some minor philosophies/religions around the world, it truly did not become widespread until the rise of Christianity.
While forgiveness is a key point to Christianity, rehabilitation is an inferred point. An inferred point that came to have a huge impact.
The idea of forgiveness come from Judaic beliefs as outlined in the Old Testament. A recurring theme is God forgiving his people when they (repeatedly) screwed up. Which we did (and do) on a regular basis. This led to the concept of forgiving others who wronged us. In the Gospels, Jesus expands on this and makes it a formal part of the New Covenant: as God forgives you your sins, so too should you forgive those who wronged you.
There is, of course, a lot more too it than that, but this is a column and not a theology dissertation. I’m just hitting the high points, and am going to do the same for the other key point: rehabilitation.
The early Church was given the mission of spreading the Gospels and conversion, with Jesus formally passing on the ability to forgive sins, as had he, to the Apostles. Like the concept of Purgatory, the idea of penance grew out of a mixture of tradition (sacrifice to appease God and gain forgiveness) and inference from the words of the Apostles. Forgiveness was not automatic. Rather, it was earned by sincere repentance and by doing a task or tasks as penance (punishment) so as to earn that forgiveness.
Punishment, repentance, forgiveness. This was quite a concept, and it soon found use outside the Church and became, arguably, a major philosophical concept within the Enlightenment. The idea that someone who had done wrong could be punished and then released to “sin no more” had appeal. It allowed productive members of society to be retained (even if they had to move to escape the stigma) while keeping them from becoming a drain on society via crippling, etc. Yes, I’m oversimplifying and skipping a few steps/centuries. See above.
This is a concept that has grown and evolved over the centuries. It is important for many reasons. Which is why it and related concepts are hated by authoritarian regimes/philosophies.
At their core, Christianity and the Enlightenment (and yes, I know the Enlightenment was in many ways a reaction to the Catholic Church) are about the individual. The Gospels make it clear: the choice is yours to accept or reject Christ as your savior. Yes, Christ died for the sins of the world, but the choice to accept that gift is left up to each individual. The Enlightenment took things further, holding that each individual had both the capability and the responsibility for deciding what was right for them. No kings or others needed, you can figure it out on your own. A radical concept that still sits bad with some — I know at least one Catholic scholar who refers to it as “The Endarkenment.”
For the purposes of my thesis here, both Christianity and the Enlightenment support individualism. Which is why both are attacked, derided, and persecuted by those of an authoritarian stripe. Which also extends to the concepts of justice, punishment/penance, and forgiveness that arise from both.
Authoritarian regimes can brook no dissent and demand the individual be subsumed to the greater good that is the authoritarian state. Religion is despised for many reasons, with Christianity despised above all because of that core of individualism as well as its allegiance to a higher power. There can be no power, no religion, but the state and what thoughts it has right then.
The same goes for forgiveness and rehabilitation. Authoritarian regimes can’t afford to forgive and forget. That enemy will always be an enemy, as if they break with any part of the system they break with all. Therefore, examples must be made, and since authoritarian regimes must always have an enemy against which the people to hate and rage…
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a master of this. Dissidents and others were persecuted; those who broke the law became permanent examples to the rest. A few political types were “rehabilitated” if they admitted they are wrong and the State/Party were right and to be obeyed — but they were never trusted again and a number seemed to fade away permanently not long after. The National Socialist German Workers Party (yep, the Nazi’s) did it too.
And today we see it again. Once a thought criminal, always a thought criminal. The concepts of personal growth, forgiveness, penance, and such are verboten. The concept of context is verboten: there is only wrongthink and it must be destroyed. That it also eliminates all other outside reference to any other systems/civilizations/etc. is a benefit since no authoritarian regime/philosophy can last if there is anything else to which it can be compared (the Taliban and the Buddha’s), especially if that comparison can show that things were or could be better. All speech, writing, art, broadcasts, thoughts, etc. must be controlled.
There is more to this, of course, but this sets the basis for continuing discussions and explorations. There is a very deliberate attempt to assassinate forgiveness and other key beliefs of Western Civilization. What we are witnessing now, and have been for a while, are the opening volleys aimed at removing them from our lives.