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 A Time of New Beginnings

Guilt, Forgiveness, and Justice

Copyright © 1998, Dorian Scott Cole 
Guilt and being forgiven  The impact of guilt and forgiveness in characterization Forgiving others - repairing relationships Justice and forgiving
Guilt and being forgiven

Springtime is when the signs of life and beauty again begin to peek from the earth. It can also be a time of new beginnings for people - if the sheer weight of human existence doesn't freeze life permanently from the warmth of the light. The Easter holiday is intended to make sure that each year, and even each day, human life can begin anew just like the earth. Easter is a time for burying guilt and renewing life. 

This is a good time to take a close look at some of the most basic human emotions that apply to characterization, guilt and forgiveness, and at some of the most basic concepts used in stories: guilt, forgiveness, and justice. Guilt is about the most destructive of human emotions. When someone does something that he believes is wrong, the feeling of guilt sticks like glue and not much will relieve it - not ever. 

If the guilty person doesn't find a way to forgiveness, he will usually wrestle with several negative ways of coping with guilt that only make it worse. He may try to find a way to deny responsibility for what happened. This includes pointing the finger of blame at someone else, saying it was an accident, and just ignoring it. If that doesn't work the next step is to justify what happened. The other person deserved it or made him do it. But these actions are just head games and are sometimes just for putting on a show for others - the person knows what he did. 

By continuing to deny what he did, the person's reaction can only get worse. The friendship or other relationship is over. By continuing to refuse responsibility for what happened, the person digs himself in deeper and deeper. He has to continue with whatever ruse he used to deny responsibility. He can continue to ignore the person he wronged so nothing ever works right when the two are involved. He can continue blaming the other person and trying to polarize others against him. 

He can even turn it into a war of spite and resentment. For example, in Buddha, The Gospel when Dighavu had the opportunity to retaliate, “Dighavu thought: ‘People will forgive great wrongs which they have suffered, but they will never be at ease about the wrong which they themselves have done. They will persecute their victims to the bitter end." The wrongdoer can't be nice to the person they wronged without admitting their guilt, so they have to continue hating and mistreating the innocent person they wronged. But there is one thing the guilty person can't do. He can't feel good about himself. Even if he accepts responsibility for what happened, and tries to do better, he still can't feel good about himself because he carries around that load of guilt for what he has done. 

To err is human. To forgive is divine.

Guilt stops people from getting on with their lives. People just can't do it by themselves. It is very often necessary for some other person to say, "Your wrongdoing is forgiven." It is also often necessary for some "action" to be carried out by the guilty person - even if the action is only symbolic. The guilty person needs first to get forgiveness from the person he wronged, and repay them if possible. But the person who was harmed may not be so forgiving. What then?

One action of the US penal system is that it allows the guilty to feel like they have "paid their debt." They supposedly can leave the system without feeling guilty. It's a mechanism that frees people from guilt for major wrongdoing. But a major problem with the guilty in jail is that despite being convicted, they still won't accept responsibility for what they did. Accepting responsibility is central to being forgiven.

Religion is very often the mechanism that is outside of themselves that people turn to for getting rid of the load of guilt we all carry. In Catholicism, the individual goes regularly to confession and tells a priest of his wrongdoing. The priest "absolves" the person and often gives him some symbolic action to carry out. 

Most religions from the Mayan to Hindu to New Age recognize the concept of and need for forgiveness. Some contained a mechanism, sacrifice, for appeasing an angry god. Sacrifices included food, animals, and even humans. The Aramean religions (Judaism, Christian, Muslim) have in their heritage a well developed mechanism for dealing with guilt. Two animals were often involved. The first animal was killed, and I believe symbolized the wrath of God for people who mistreated others. (The localization of God in ancient times was often identified with political and vengeful purposes outside of the normal reach of the people.) This sacrificial ceremony symbolized that the animals fate might be what you deserve, but you are only paying the penalty of losing livestock. That livestock was often a large chunk of their food supply, so they were paying a heavy penalty. 

Then a second animal was involved. An unblemished (perfect and innocent) animal would symbolically take on the wrongs of the people and would be turned loose into the wilderness. This animal was called a scapegoat, because the people escaped responsibility for their wrongs. I believe this animal represented the mercy of God and the freeing of their guilt. The guilt escaped into the wilderness. The people, as individuals and as a nation, recognized this as a time when they could all forget their wrongs - through the mercy of God, their penalty was paid and their wrongs were banished, they were forgiven. They could stop feeling guilty and get on with their lives. They could mend friendships. Guilt could cease to be a wedge between themselves and others, and could stop being destructive in their lives.

Easter celebrates the time when another mechanism for removing guilt was established. Christ was recognized as the "sacrificial lamb." He was innocent of any wrongdoing, and then put to death for political reasons. His followers said that at his death he took all the sins of the world upon himself. Others could cease killing animals; all they have to do to be forgiven by God is to point to Christ and ask God. Their penalty was prepaid. Christ became the final sacrifice and the scapegoat, the symbol of the wrath and the mercy of God. Guilt could forever cease to be a destructive influence in people's lives. 

Easter is celebrated as a time of hope and new beginnings as Christ also rose from the dead. Christ's triumph over death symbolizes that the guilt of an individual's wrongdoing does not destroy the soul. Christians understand the constructive power of religion (Christ) to change their lives. Other religions also recognize the destructive power of guilt, and the liberating power of forgiveness and are quoted in various places in this article.

The impact of guilt and forgiveness in characterization

In characterization, there are several points to remember from this example on guilt and forgiveness. First is that guilt is a universal phenomenon and the reaction to guilt is also universal. People don't react to their own wrongdoing by going on with their lives as if everything was normal. Guilt has a profound impact in people's lives, and in a story or in real life people have to find appropriate ways of dealing with guilt. If they don't, then they deal with it in negative ways. For example, the police sometimes are able to get a clue to who is guilty by throwing them in jail. Those who aren't guilty become anxious and sleepless, fearing they are going to prosecuted for a crime they didn't commit. In contrast, the guilty person will often sleep well, knowing they have been caught and the hiding from their guilt and the police is over.

The second thing to keep in mind is that people typically need something symbolic to use as a mechanism for mental change. Things just don't seem real unless you can see them and touch them and do some "action" with them. Symbols are physical things that represent something else. For example, Christ represents a scapegoat that takes away wrongdoing. Saying a few "Hail Marys" is an action. Time in jail represents paying your debt. Other symbols can represent different things to different people: Sex sometimes represents love. Money represents power. A college degree, a hot car, a CEO position, a deer's head on a wall, a sports trophy, can represent many things. For more on using symbols see Using symbols.

Forgiving others - repairing relationships

The Aramean religions (Judaism, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian (Z is both Eastern and Middle Eastern) speak very little about the individual healing aspect of forgiving others. Modern psychology has discovered that forgiving others helps wounds to heal, and when you don't forgive another, you are emotionally tied to that person and the injury until you do forgive them, in kind of a Karma-like entwining of fates. Perhaps that is what is implied in the religious idea that if you don't forgive, you won't be forgiven. 

I think that individual healing by forgiving someone is more an aspect of recovery from loss.  A person "should" forgive - it may easy or it may be very difficult, but the difficulty involved in dealing with loss is another subject separate from forgiveness.(Or perhaps in "love" there is only one subject.)

Religious teachings about forgiveness are largely about tearing down the barriers erected by mistreatment (or debts).  They are about being proactive in a positive way, and not knee-jerk reactive.  The following teachings from Christianity are about breaking down beariers through mercy:

1) Forgiveness is a choice (proactive)
2) Don't return evil for evil
3) Forgive everyone continually, even your enemies - in fact, do good to them 
4) If you don't forgive others, you are guaranteed not to be forgiven
5) Be merciful as God is merciful

One of the best object lessons given in religious writings is Christ talking about the person who throws a debtor into debtor's prison until they pay their debt.  You can't earn money in prison, so why put someone there?  Psychologically we do the same to people by keeping them imprisoned by the injustice they do to us, by not forgiving them.  Most people know when they have done something wrong to another person, and the reaction of the person who does the injuring is to be defensive, to turn away from the other person, to avoid them, and even to become hostile toward them. The relationship becomes a war, especially if the injured person reacts in a retaliatory way.

Forgiveness breaks down the barrier and gets the relationship back on workable terms. But it isn't natural to forgive - it's natural to maintain the barrier and even retaliate - forgiveness is an instruction that one learns.

The religious instruction includes some recommendations:  If someone has wronged you, talk to them and work it out.  If that doesn't work, visit them with a group and talk it out.  If the person apologizes, forgive him, before you talk to God.  And when you do talk to your God, forgive anyone who has mistreated you.  If you wrong someone, ask their forgiveness. By doing these things, the problem is not allowed to fester and grow worse in either the person who injured or the person who was injured. 

There is a lot of speculation that forgiveness isn't complete until the injured person can accept the person who did the offending and not have "hard feelings."  To "forget it, just as our forgiven 'sins' are as far from God's awareness as he can put them."  To deny one's feelings would be to deny one's humanity and deny the injury.  We are not gods who are above the fray and all that it means, we are human, we feel.  If there were no hurt feelings, then there would have been no injury.  There would be nothing learned by the injuring party. There would be no love shown.  The entire experience would be denied.  Not so: both people accept the other despite the feelings.  The forgiving person expresses both the desire and the willingness to overlook the injury - not to deny that it exists.  It's a new beginning.  It's the reaffirmation of an old relationship, or the beginning of a new one.  A more solid relationship is often formed, and the forgiven thing is testimony to the value of the relationship. 

Getting over the feelings involved is about accepting loss and the nature of grieving.  For example, in the Biblical phrase "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," the ancient Greek word used for debt implies that something is owed. It means anything that one deserves or brings on oneself. The ancient Greek word for forgive means to draw away or desert. This follows the Hebrew meaning for forgive which was usually translated from a word meaning forgive or pardon. What debt means is that someone injured you and "they owe you." What forgive means is "let go of it." Tell them they owe you nothing. 

Religion is good at telling people how to live, but often very short on how to achieve that. Each of us have different capacities for forgiving. The Koran recognized this in the following passage: "But if ye pardon, and overlook it, and forgive,- verily, God is forgiving, compassionate!" The "if" means it is up to us - our choice. In practical terms, for many people there is no forgiveness as long as there is pain.  In other words, they can't forgive until there is nothing to forgive. But without religion compelling us to forgive, many of us might never go there.

People change slowly and often need to be forgiven many times. (This was pounded into me by my children.)  I also know of brothers who got angry over a few fish and never saw each other again to the day one died. (Of course the fish were a symbol of something else - or many something-else's - that festered and grew and were never resolved.) Relationships, even in families, are strained by people doing something wrong. Both the Koran and the Bible speak of forgiving repeatedly. Koran: "...if they should ask forgiveness for them seventy times, yet would not God forgive them..."

None of this ignores the fact that some people need help in order to change, and that there may have to be a separation until the person does change (especially for safety), or that there may need to be a "guarded-ness" in the relationship - something short of total trust.  It doesn't mean that people's lives aren't permanently changed by what has happened. It doesn't mean that offenders shouldn't try to repay victims for what the offender has done. 

Religion is not a shield from pain, but a mechanism for dealing with it effectively.  Effectively: not hiding from pain, not eliminating it, not denying it, not continuing it - but working through it and getting past it through very practical methods.  There are two distinct aspects of religious experience that I think are often confused.  On the one hand there is the life of the spirit - the mystical oneness with God, that part which is self-less and reflects the desire to fully be a channel of God's love - the perfect union when one's desires are the same as God's desires.  This aspect is experienced and documented by the mystics in various religions, but is open to everyone, and I think is experienced in some ways by everyone.  It is that part of religious experience that can help us "see it all in perspective," and which can even make us momentarily impervious to injury because it is self-less.  It reminds us of the direction in which we are going - to love and understand others and not hold their faults and actions against them. 

The other aspect is the life of the soul incarnate - the individual - the person with desires, faults, an agenda for living, and a vulnerability to experience.  Most of us are, and should be, in this aspect most of the time.  It is here that we are vulnerable - we risk being injured - we are human.  It is here that we strive to work out our individuality, our creativeness, our faults, our love, our being - our growth.  We can't attain perfection without experience - without growth.  But I feel certain we are valued as much for our individual-ness, our creativeness, our love, our becoming (being), as we are for one-ness, despite our faults.  I know I enjoyed my children's differences more than when they were being just like me. 

I recently saw the movie, Fearless, which is about a man who survives a plane crash.  Having faced death and survived, he is no longer afraid of death.  But he has lost something very important.  Himself.  And in losing himself, he has lost all the relationships that were part of him.  He exists, but like a spirit - a ghost - he is no longer vulnerable.  Nothing can touch him - not anything bad... and not anything good.  He can selflessly sacrifice himself, but he can't be himself.

A sampling of religious thought on forgiveness:

Buddha, The Gospel “Dighavu thought: ‘People will forgive great wrongs which they have suffered, but they will never be at ease about the wrong which they themselves have done. They will persecute their victims to the bitter end. 

Book of Mormon: "...and if he confess his sins before thee and me, and repenteth in the sincerity of his heart, him shall ye forgive, and I will forgive him also... as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me...he that forgiveth not his neighbor’s trespasses when he says that he repents, the same hath brought himself under condemnation.

Koran: "...if they shouldst ask forgiveness for them seventy times, yet would not God forgive them..."

"...among your wives and children are foes of yours: so beware of them! But if ye pardon, and overlook it, and forgive,- verily, God is forgiving, compassionate!"

Laws of Manu (Hindu) "By twice-born men belonging to (any of) these four orders, the tenfold law must be ever carefully obeyed. Contentment, forgiveness, self-control, abstention from unrighteously appropriating anything, (obedience to the rules of) purification, coercion of the organs, wisdom, knowledge (of the supreme Soul), truthfulness, and abstention from anger, (form) the tenfold law."

Justice and forgiveness

Is there any such thing as justice, or is it just a government sponsored opiate for the people. Consider: A prisoner is being executed for killing a child. The family of the child watches in the background. Should they forgive him? A habitual drunk injures another person as the result of drinking. The injured person could prosecute for reckless endangerment. Should he? Or should he forgive and forget? During a honeymoon, the best man pulls a stupid prank and blinds the bride. Will the groom ever be able to forgive him? A man is caught about to sexually molest a child, but doesn't begin the physical act. Should he be turned over to the police? These are the kinds of questions that a writer faces when he creates a story. The answer of course is in the heart of the character. But writers often create the question and the answer before creating the character. People's lives are permanently altered by their own answers to these questions. Ethnic groups stay at war over similar issues. The writer's answer is influential.

In the Judeo/Christian history, one prophet summed up all of the teachings on both sides of the forgiveness and justice issue in just a few words.  Paraphrasing, the writing says that: "God has already set the example for us, demonstrating how we should act. What He requires of us now is that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him."  Justice, kindness.  Although justice can be merciful, forgiveness falls more on the kindness side of things. Both are valid actions, and are not mutually exclusive. 

A few centuries after the prophet Micah spoke those words, Christ entered the picture.  The people at that time were politically subjugated and bitter.  What Christ saw among many of them was a perversion of justice: People were falsely accused for political convenience.  There was an absence of mercy in the hearts of people, while enforcing the letter of the law - for example, stoning a prostitute.  There was religious mockery: ritual being used as a substitute for genuine religious action - that is, mistreatment of others instead of kindness to others while pretending to be "religious." 

To those people Christ said that vengeance belongs to God, and before they judge anyone they should remove their own giant crimes so they can see (remove the board from your own eye). Judge not so they not be judged - none of us are perfect.  He was talking to a bunch of people who were frustrated because they weren't getting their way, so they were using religion as a tool to beat other people over the head, get their way, and exact revenge - mob rule.  Justice isn't about vengeance, revenge, and retaliation, nor is it about manipulating the law to get what you want and oppress others.  It is about full justice, which in its largest and abstract sense can mean to defend, and implies using sound judgment - that is, understanding what is the right thing to do for the offender and some recompense for the offended. 

To "do justice" means to accomplish or fulfill justice.  Although we should try to resolve our disputes with each other and not let them fester and grow, more serious offenses need to be dealt with (judged) by competent and impartial professionals, not by vindictive and unethical people and mobs. Forgiveness doesn't mean that justice isn't necessary.  Justice is a requirement.  Justice helps the offender understand and face the full weight of his offense, and to make recompense.  But sometimes in justice the "judge" understands the limits of the person to understand, and the compelling motivations, and the remorse of the person, and applies not punishment, but mercy and assistance.  Probation, community service, counseling, training. Or as Christ said, to forgive and keep forgiving.  Guilt and forgiveness have their own way of breaking down barriers and reaching people so they can change.  We each have to be responsible for our own actions, or learn to be responsible. 

Additional religious thought about justice:

The Koran (Muslim) sounds similar themes about justice: "when you judge between men... judge with justice."  "...stand steadfast to God as witnesses with justice, and let not ill-will toward people make you sin by not acting with equity."   "Say, ‘My Lord bids only justice:- set steadfastly your faces at every mosque and pray to Him, being sincere in your religion."  The Koran has equally weighty passages about kindness and mercy. 

Buddha, The Gospel "...the community of the Buddha’s disciples teaches us how to exercise honesty and justice... (and) shows us how to practice the truth. They form a brotherhood in kindness and charity..." 

The religions of this world address giant problems that individuals can't address by themselves. Guilt - we really have no way of getting rid of it and it destroys relationships and lives. Forgiveness- it isn't something that we naturally do so we naturally escalate conflicts and destroy our friends. Justice - it gets confused with forgiving or gets replaced by vengeance. But religion tells us that God can fix guilt, and that He requires both forgiveness and justice. 

Other forgiveness links:

Can I Be Forgiven? - an article on the One Spirit sister Web site.

The Forgiveness Web (forgiveness resource site) and their forgiveness links page.

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