In one of my favorite books, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterwork “The Scarlet Letter,” the ostracized protagonist Hester Prynne declares to her ex-lover Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, “Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!”
The line is reflective of her development as a character who is relegated to the shadows by her Puritan neighbors and who stands as a clear and resilient foil to their hypocrisy and cruelty. Despite the misgivings of her neighbors, Hester eventually receives forgiveness and redemption, and she too forgives, despite her ostracization. Her life affirms a powerful truth about forgiveness: It is a profoundly human ability, and our capacity to forgive others reflects our humanity.
Like Dimmesdale and the Puritans of Boston, our society struggles with the practice and realization of forgiveness, even though we may recognize its importance in theory. While conservatives’ discussion of cancel culture at the Conservative Political Action Conference and on Fox News often detracts from necessary conversations about institutional and personal accountability in the face of bigotry, there is nevertheless an appreciable cruelty in our society that views atonement as an eternal process and restoration as something entirely unreachable. On a societal level, we see this cruelty in the regressive and punitive restrictions formerly incarcerated people must navigate when released from carceral facilities. At the individual level, we see and feel this cruelty when we hold petty grudges against others for small slights.
Forgiveness is becoming increasingly taboo in an age of social disconnection, internet anonymity and political polarization as we start to lose touch with the humanity of others and lose our capacity to empathize with and trust those we disagree with. Any level of taboo associated with forgiveness should alarm us all. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “a great nation is a compassionate nation,” and indeed, a society’s ability to forgive is a powerful measure of its mercy and compassion. Instead of stigmatizing forgiveness and casting it as something negative and unnecessary, we must embrace forgiveness as a way to live a better, more satisfying life.
Modern culture often conflates forgiveness with an endorsement of the faults and failings of others. We often misunderstand forgiveness as allowing a carte blanche for those failings. But that conception of forgiveness misses the mark entirely. Valuing forgiveness does not necessitate ignoring the injuries and offenses of others but instead allows us to define ourselves and others by our innate dignity rather than our faults. Forgiveness helps us notice and appreciate the goodness in each individual being, enabling us to spread goodwill and peace in a world in need of both.
Throughout Lent, I’ve found myself constantly reflecting on the need to forgive. After all, Jesus suffered for 40 days in the wilderness — commemorated by the 40-day Lenten season and its tradition of abstention and self-deprivation — and endured his passion for the forgiveness of our sins. Forgiveness was a major aspect of both Christ’s life on Earth and his teaching and remains a foundational, albeit challenging, part of my personal faith, both in terms of the conscious act of forgiving others and in the constant process of atonement for my own faults and failings. Especially in a Christian context, forgiveness is a profound and continuous action and one that we are called to carry out every day as we live by Jesus’ example.
In the Gospels, St. Peter asks Jesus how many times we are called to forgive someone who has wronged us, and Jesus famously replies we must forgive as many as 77 times, employing a symbolic number in Jewish tradition that denotes perfection and completeness. He then goes on to tell the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who pleaded with his master to display mercy by forgiving a debt. Despite the compassion the servant received, he failed to pay it forward with another fellow servant who owed him a smaller debt. As a result, the servant’s master revoked his earlier forgiveness and released him to the torturers who punished debtors. Referring to the first servant’s unfortunate fate, Jesus remarks, “so also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:35.
This parable is why Christians ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Our capacity to forgive reflects our permanent state of interdependence between other human beings and entitles us to the mercy of others when the tables turn. As individuals, we cannot ask for forgiveness and mercy when we err if we deprive others of it for their mistakes. Furthermore, long-term forgiveness ultimately brings us closer to perfection and completeness.
Progressive Catholic commentator Elizabeth Bruenig remarked on the long-term nature of Christian forgiveness in reference to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, S.C. In particular, she referenced how families of victims famously — and controversially — forgave the shooter, white supremacist Dylann Roof. In an essay for The New Republic in 2015, she observed, “their forgiveness is only a starting point after which the hard work of penance must be carried out — not only by Roof himself, but by the aspects of our culture that produced him.” Forgiveness, therefore, is not an end in itself, but rather the fount of the collective restoration, healing and reparation needed to move forward.
Applying Christian forgiveness therefore goes beyond the call to “turn the other cheek” from the Sermon on the Mount, beyond even saying “I forgive you.” Generally, it invites us to assume best intentions in others and show them grace in the face of mistakes. When we are injured, forgiveness asks us to reject anger, vengeance, resentment and hostility and invites us to extend an arm toward atonement and reconciliation with the other person, if desired. Similarly, when we injure others, atonement and reconciliation demand humility, reflection and actualized improvement, coupled with a sincere recognition and acknowledgment of the harms committed. Forgiveness invites both parties to heal and, in turn, restores the humanity of each.
This way of practicing forgiveness is admittedly challenging in our daily lives, and I know I have imperfectly honored that obligation. Despite the challenge, we desperately need the restoration and healing forgiveness promises, as our nation confronts unprecedented political polarization, as the pandemic recedes and as our own Georgetown University community looks toward the future. Humbly and earnestly, we must embrace forgiveness each and every day as we seek to build a more empathetic and compassionate society.
Eric Bazail-Eimil is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Keeping the Faith appears online every other Friday.