Forgiveness: Amnesty or Penance? (Part 1 of 2)

An Austrian man named Josef Fritzl was arrested in 2008 for holding his own daughter, Elisabeth Fritzl, in captivity for 24 years. During this time, he repeatedly sexually assaulted, sexually abused, and raped her. All this resulted in the birth of seven children and one miscarriage. Josef kept four of the children in the basement with Elisabeth. And he abused them in the same way he abused their mother. As Christians, if we were in Elisabeth’s (or her children’s) shoes, we would be required to forgive Josef, right?

What does it mean to forgive?

The first and most popular view of forgiveness is one that says, “Let’s just drop it and pretend it never happened.” This view of forgiveness is essentially amnesty. The word amnesty comes from a Greek root meaning “no memory”. We use the same Greek root in our English word “amnesia”.In this view, the problem lies with the FORGIVER, not the offender. The forgiver is the one who needs to change and deal with the issue at hand. So forgiveness is the tool that the forgiver uses to get rid of his pain and anger. Proponents of this kind of forgiveness like to say things like, “Anger is like an acid. If you hold it in your hand too long, it will burn you. So you need to just let it go so you can stop the pain.”

So is Elisabeth Fritzl supposed to just drop it and pretend it never happened? There is something within us that screams that this can’t be right. It’s easy to have this view of forgiveness when it comes to small offenses, but when it’s an unspeakable injustice, it doesn’t work. This amnesty view of forgiveness has some major problems. If you subscribe to this view, you leave yourself vulnerable to being hurt repeatedly. One of the fundamental problems with this view is that the offender is left unchanged and unchallenged to change, and therefore, you will become a perpetual victim.

For example, let’s say that a physically abused wife says to her husband, “I forgive you for beating me.” And she hopes that her forgiveness will change him. But her problem is that she’s assuming that he believes that his behavior is wrong. But the fact is, in the vast majority of spousal abuse cases, the abuser thinks that they have every right to discipline their spouse. So when she says, “I forgive you”, he thinks “You stupid idiot, I don’t need to be forgiven, but if that makes you feel better…” And he continues abusing her. Thus, she becomes a perpetual victim.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the second view of forgiveness that says, “You’re gonna have to earn my forgiveness.” This type of forgiveness focuses on the idea of compensation. It’s a kind of penance. If you make enough compensation, whether emotional, physical, or monetary, then you are entitled to forgiveness.

An example of this type of forgiveness is what Kobe Bryant did for his wife after he was caught cheating. In an attempt to compensate for his offense, he had a tearful press conference and said he was sorry and he was going to be a good boy. And then he bought her a four million dollar ring.

In this second view of forgiveness, we face the same fundamental problem that we faced in the first view. The offender is not changed or challenged to change. If the offender has enough resources to compensate for the offense, then he will continue the wrong behavior. To use another example, if there were no point limits on your license and you had enough money, you could keep speeding and get a ticket every day. And as long as you could pay the tickets, there would be no motivation to stop speeding.

So then I ask again, what is true forgiveness?

This discussion will continue in part 2…

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