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Forgiving, Both Active and Passive

April 19, 1998|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty is a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago and senior editor of the Christian Century magazine. He directs the Public Religion Project, a nonprofit group analyzing the role of religion in public life

CHICAGO — The very name "Good Friday Agreement," designed to bring peace to Northern Ireland, has a properly holy ring. The accord asks much of warring parties that bear Christian names, "Protestant" and "Catholic." In the churches of both on Good Friday the words of Jesus, "Father, forgive . . . ." rang out. The Easter pulpits rang with pleas that the belligerents give the gift of forgiveness to their ancient enemies. Both sides in Northern Ireland have much about which to be angry and vengeful. Both have much to forgive and much from which to profit if they are forgiven.

They are not alone. The headlines of 1998 regularly banner the word "forgive." In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asks parents to look at the faces of those who murdered their sons during the years of apartheid, and forgive them. Would you? Could you give such a gift? Most stories of rage and revenge in conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians feature families who mourn victims of their decades-old violence. If we put ourselves in their place, would or could we forgive and move on with life?

Closer to home, a different sort of forgiving preoccupies a puzzled public. Front-page and prime-time stories tell of polls showing how a majority of Americans believe President Bill Clinton did something wrong in having sexual affairs and may have done something wrong in encouraging a cover-up of them. Long before anything definite about his conduct has been charged or proved and adjudged, and certainly apart from any sign of his apology or repentance--usual prerequisites for being forgiven--citizen majorities, including notables like evangelist Billy Graham, in effect forgave the president. How and why did they do this, given that, in the moral code of most, the sins he is rumored to be guilty of are offensive?

The kind of forgiveness demanded in Northern Ireland or South Africa differs greatly from the kind revealed in presidential polls. Protestant and Catholic peoples are blood-soaked in Northern Ireland where, in three decades of violence, 3,200 have been killed and 30,000 wounded. If they are to see progress toward peace, individually and collectively, they will have to offer forgiveness as a gift. They will do so having examined their own rage and having decided that promised blessings of peace outweigh the satisfactions of vengeance. Such forgiving is expensive. It relies on acts of will and changes in a way of life.

Forgiving in cases typified by the Clinton polls and reported U.S. public attitudes is a far different, rather inexpensive sort. It may result simply from impulses to take mild revenge against the media for making so much of presidential foibles. Rev. Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, once preached, "Ours is a culture where everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven." Ordinary people wearied by Beltway coverage of Arkansas of old or the White House today resent what they perceive as the media's self-righteousness and obsessively keeping score, so they react.

On the other hand, the people themselves often represent a "culture where not everything is permitted but much is forgiven." This kind of forgiveness I call "acquiescence," meaning "passive assent or agreement without protest." It emphatically does not mean "assent" to the conduct of which many believe the president is guilty. Nor does it mean "agreement." Philosopher Nicholas Rescher explains that acquiescence "is not a matter of approbation, but rather one of a mutual restraint which, even when disapproving and disagreeing, is willing (no doubt reluctantly) to 'let things be,' because the alternative . . . will lead to a situation that is still worse."

Look at any few hundred people crowding a food court at a mall, where middle-class America gathers. Ask yourself how many wives there would approve sexual misconduct by their husbands. Few or none. How many would agree that lying, if it has occurred, is all right? Few or none. Yet, given an economy that helps them enjoy the mall, and a situation of relative peace internationally, they connect these with the president and, in effect, say, "Let things be." To the media they say, "Let's get on with it." The alternatives are worse.

Couples, teachers and students, employers and employees do such forgiving by acquiescence in many daily transactions. Their forgiving represents a compromising type of gift, unlike the kind needed in Northern Ireland, the Middle East or South Africa. They do not have to engage in difficult acts of will and do not have to suppress impulses to take vengeance until forgiving becomes their way of life.

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