FORGIVENESS – Part 1: a response to ‘the pathology of forgiveness’

This is going to be a three-part blog post. For the first time, I intend to provide the titles of each one at the outset so that everyone – myself as the author included – knows where we are going. I knew that one post could not do the job, so the plan is as follows:

  1. A response to ‘the pathology of forgiveness’
  2. The Functional Necessity of (True) Forgiveness
  3. Humanity and Divinity; Sin and Grace

This is #1 – proceeding below.




No piece of writing comes without a context – even if the context is nothing more than an initial pretext, the presuppositional realities governing that pretext are (by definition) a pre-existing context.

I want to think through some more dimensions around the idea of forgiveness, and the ‘macro’ starting point is the June 2015 massacre in Charleston. There is also a ‘micro’ starting point: a concept contrived by a fellow blogger of “the pathology of forgiveness.”

The breadth of all that happened before, during and after these Charleston shootings has led to the inevitable proliferation of thoughts about how we should all respond to this situation. One writer – Dr. Stacey Patton – has declared that Black America needs to stop forgiving white racists. That article makes some very important points, but its appropriation of certain Christian ideas (such as salvation) is theologically skewed at best. [And for those who think that ‘salvation’ is not intrinsic to Christianity because the idea of being saved is obviously extant Christianity and therefore doesn’t require it to exist, you should look up the etymology of the word – more on this in #3].

Although I have previously endorsed the basic essence of her argument, I am now going to state for the record that in my understanding, Dr. Patton’s single-shot notion that ‘Black America should stop forgiving white racists’ is, in the end, fundamentally flawed. I still believe that she has made some excellent points, but I can no longer endorse the article as I did before. My caveats are different. My thinking has developed.

On a somewhat different note, the Girl With Tha Fro (who happens to be a medical doctor by training) has exercised my thoughts by taking the idea of forgiveness (itself a cardinal necessity for life positivity, as I will argue) and placing it into the framework of ‘pathology.’

I divide my time across both philosophy and theology (as well as wider humanities), and for some years I have been observing what happens when theologians start talking about philosophy without having done the homework. The same is true when (for example) philosophers start making Biblical and theological claims without having done the homework. So I have learned the absolute necessity of knowing what you are talking about when you invoke a ‘word-concept’ from another discipline, and my growing interest in the philosophy of science has prompted me to a serious theological and pastoral question that would not exist without the concept of ‘diagnosis’ in the identification of disease in a medical context.

A three-stage blog will have already knocked out a bunch of readers, so those of you still here can now take a little detour to think about ‘addiction.’

In both secular and ecclesial communities, ostensible addictive behaviours are usually the focus. If you are abusing Class A drugs (heroin, cocaine, etc), or alcohol, or gambling, then this is understood as destructive behaviour that needs to stop. But medicine itself has not always concerned itself with the reasons WHY people end up in these behavioural practices in the first instance. I remember vivdly a conversation with a medical student at Cambridge University during which she explained in physiological terms what happens when people smoke and what it does. I was stunned at both the extent of her technical knowledge but also at the actual pathological and physiological dimensions of smoking, and it buttressed my own decision to remain a non-smoker for life. But at no stage did we ever address WHY a person would put a cigarette (or cigar or pipe) into their mouth and light the tobacco.

It has fallen to institutions such as AA and its sister organisations to take people on journeys into themselves and address the personal emotive and cognitive breakdowns that led to the addictive behaviours in the first place. And perhaps the patient readers will begin to see where I might be going with this: one of the biggest factors in addictive behaviour becoming a way of life is:


Roman Catholic theology includes an array of concepts that could be grouped under the rubric ‘sacramental grace.’ This whole concept is part of what separates Protestants from RCs. Within Protestant theology, there is ostensibly no accepted idea that one is saved by one’s own actions. Sin is understood as a very bad thing that humans cannot fix on their own. But then things get complicated. While Jesus is supposed to have died as the alpha solution to the sin problem (often understood as ‘justification’), it is somehow then our job to work on ourselves so that sin does not remain in our lives (‘sanctification,’ woohoo!). Without saying that this is completely wrong, I’d say that one needs to be more careful with these ideas and how they are expressed that Christians usually appear to understand.

‘Sin’ is a uniquely Christian word and scarcely understood by church members at large. No other word-concept is the subject of such fierce denunciation inside and outside the pulpit – so when a big-name preacher thunders words such as “get rid of sin” the congregation might shudder gently and even respond to the altar call – but sadly, the empirical evidence suggests that an immediate emotive response to such preaching has rarely led to a true, ongoing spiritual revolution – and ‘renovation of the heart’ (to coin a phrase from one of the late Dallas Willard’s most well-known books).

Now, if a patient has leukaemia, they would not want to be treated by a doctor who has no pathological concept of cancer in general and haematology as a specific area of expertise.

If, on the other hand, a patient suffers heart failure, they would not want to be treated by a doctor who had no pathological understanding of cardiac issues.

The Church wants to address the sin problem in human hearts across the board – but I believe that while ‘disease’ is not an entirely perfect analogy (one doesn’t exist), it’s the best one that we have. If one accepts that, then it makes absolutely no sense to be talking about people’s ‘sin problems’ without examining the pathology of sin itself as a concept.

So to invoke the notion of forgiveness (without qualification or caveat) as something with pathological dimensions is a very serious conceptual problem. It’s similar to the (usually well-intended) idea of being ‘spiritually addicted’ or ‘addicted to God’ – the idea being that it is okay to be addicted to ‘good’ things instead of ‘bad things.’

But that does not work. At all. Addiction can be understood as ‘non-regulable dependence on something or someone’ (my definition). The worship of God is to be an honest, intentional response courtesy of the freedom of choice that we have been given as human beings. Unregulated dependence is not truly volitional, and an addicted person is a slave. [This is why we must distinguish between ‘idolatry’ and ‘worship.’] So any kind of actual addiction is an abuse of human design.

We desperately need to think in more pathological terms about sin. But perhaps we could think in more anatomical or physiological terms about forgiveness. What I will later describe as false forgiveness is something that definitely exists in a pathological dimension, and I have already questioned the verity (not veracity – verity – i.e. truthfulness) of the claims of forgiveness that have been espoused by some of the bereaved.

These questions have themselves been questioned by some Christians who (amongst other things) believe that it is not our job to judge other people in that way. Some also argue that this quickfire display of forgiveness is ‘real Christianity.’

All these responses are lightweight. Dr. Stacey Patton:

Historically, black churches have nurtured the politics of forgiveness so that black people can anticipate divine justice and liberation in the next life. This sentiment shaped non-violent protest during the civil rights movement. A belief that displays of morality rooted in forgiveness would force white America to leave behind its racist assumptions. But Christian or non-Christian, black people are not allowed to express unbridled grief or rage, even under the most horrific circumstances.

For these Christians whose deep faith tradition holds forgiveness as a core principle, offering absolution to Roof is about relieving the burden of anger and pain of being victimized. In this regard, forgiveness functions as a kind of protest, a refusal to be reduced to victims. It sends the message to the killer that he may have hurt them, but they are the true victors because they have not been destroyed [emphasis mine].

Yet, the almost reflexive demand of forgiveness, especially for those dealing with death by racism, is about protecting whiteness, and America as a whole. This is yet another burden for black America.

After 9/11, there was no talk about forgiving al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. America declared war, sought blood and revenge, and rushed protective measures into place to prevent future attacks.

As the Atlantic Monthly, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates noted on Twitter: “Can’t remember any campaign to ‘love’ and ‘forgive’ in the wake of ISIS beheadings.”

As I said, some excellent points.

But how have we defaulted to questioning whether forgiveness is a good or bad thing in whatever context without first examining what forgiveness actually is? In serious detail?

Black Americans cannot forgive white racism without the only power that makes true forgiveness possible. A mother may ‘love’ her daughters and steal and kill for them. Do we say that she showed no love to those she stole from and killed, so therefore she did not love her daughters?

Or do we acknowledge that her understanding of love was sadly diseased and radically flawed?

As an anthropologist, I find Dr Patton’s construction of the ‘reflexive demand of forgiveness’ to be remarkably astute and in keeping with the psychological notion of ‘learned behaviour.’ This itself links to what I have called the ‘making-God-look-good’ syndrome.

False forgiveness requires pathological awareness and deconstruction. In this instance, the dehumanising aspect of societally expected-and-construed (false) forgiveness needs to be brutally exposed for what it is and taken apart – permanently (the Girl With Tha Fro is absolutely right on this one!).

But forgiveness itself requires a re-examination of ourselves. Forgiveness is too big to be owned, and it has to power to interrogate us even as we interrogate it. My argument in #2 will include the idea that to forgive is part of being a healthy, functional human being – regardless of race, creed, age or gender.


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