To err is human. But when it comes to forgiveness being divine, Steve Larocco parts ways a bit with the famous English poet Alexander Pope.
Oh, it can be divine if granted in its purest form – an unconditional, unilateral forgiveness, Larocco says. But in contemporary society, forgiveness is often associated with the quid pro quo of an apology. “I’m sorry,” says the transgressor. The aggrieved often replies with a “That’s okay.” And while the victim can show class by accepting the apology – and, in fact, it may be the right thing to do – the mere exchange of an apology might muddy the waters between true forgiveness and justice.
“Forgiveness is a very complicated, conflicted phenomenon,” says Larocco, professor of English. He has been researching the subject for a book he plans to write and has presented papers on the topic for Inter-disciplinary.net at Oxford University.
“I’ve been trying to find out what forgiveness really is vs. what it ought to be,” he says.
Larocco says that justice involves some type of redress for wrongdoing. In that way, an apology is a form of redress. “If an individual forgives a person before an apology is made, that is more in line with true forgiveness. If it’s only done after an apology, that’s more of a form of justice.”
In Christianity, the concept of forgiveness is more like a free gift, according to Larocco.
He says there is considerable debate within academic circles about whether a socially performed act (e.g. acceptance of an apology) constitutes forgiveness, or whether forgiving someone is more of an emotional change of heart, such as the subsiding of resentment. “You can tell someone or in front of people that you forgive someone, but chances are there is still some lingering resentment toward the person,” Larocco says. “On the other hand, it can be extremely difficult to change your internal, emotional state to the point where you completely forgive someone.”
Sometimes, a public act of forgiveness can be a symbolic act of violence, according to Larocco. “If you tell someone that you forgive them for something, and that person doesn’t believe they offended you, it can create some ill feelings,” he says. “That kind of comment imputes guilt.”
Larocco also says there is a dilemma and debate about whether forgiveness requires one to forget about an incident in which they were aggrieved – the so-called “forgive and forget” proposition – or whether true forgiveness requires a person to remember the transgression and forgive them anyway. Interestingly, the quote from Shakespeare is actually “to forget and forgive,” he says.
Although acts of forgiveness occasionally stem from profound transgressions, most are generated from banal acts, Larocco says. “In everyday life, people say or do things that can mildly offend someone else. In many cases, the transgressor isn’t even aware that they may have irked someone. These everyday, minor offenses are often quickly passed off by the person offended. Most people don’t even bring them up.”
Larocco has concluded that he comes down on the side of the “free gift” being the true form of forgiveness. “There is an implied recognition in this type of forgiveness that there is an ‘offensiveness’ in all of us,” he says. “None of us are perfect.” He adds that justice – such as when there is a verbal exchange of apology and acceptance – can’t redress the disorder of social life.