ColumnistsFr. Brian D’Arcy

Are we all losing the ability to forgive?

Brian Williams was pilloried for embellishing his Iraqi war experiences
Brian Williams was pilloried for embellishing his Iraqi war experiences

America is having a heated argument with itself about crucial values in public life.

I have been following the debate in the letters and opinion sections of the New York Times and on national television channels. It’s a valuable debate and one which we should have in this country too.

New secular morality simply doesn’t do forgiveness. The leadership classes — be they political, secular or religious — are not permitted to show any weakness.

The “ordinary classes”, however, live without guilt.

Maybe it’s a media-driven attitude. In newspapers nowadays there is less news and more opinion. Columnists decide who is right and who is wrong. It isn’t clear what the criteria of right and wrong are, other than that those who reach the top will be dumped.  

All of this came to a head two months ago in America when the NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams dramatically fell from grace because he embellished his Iraqi war experiences. Hell hath no fury like a public scorned. 

One of the most powerful comments I read was written by David Brooks in the New York Times. He began by stating the obvious: “There’s something sad in Brian Williams’ need to puff up his Iraqi adventures and something barbaric in the public response.”

With great insight Brooks points out that no matter how high one goes in life and no matter how many accolades one wins, it’s never enough to feed our ego. Career success doesn’t suffice. Even powerful and famous people need to exaggerate their influence.

Brooks goes on to make the very valid point that the public response to perceived imperfection is barbaric. “When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracise them.”

A central quality of these condemnations is that there is no place for either mercy or forgiveness.

Access to the internet has made things worse. The internet, which is an extraordinarily impersonal medium, explodes with vile attacks on the person, including both contempt and mockery. No matter how sincerely the offender apologises, it merely inflames public reaction. 

Brooks offers an alternative way of dealing with scandal and humiliation. “We’d all be better off if we reacted to this sort of scandal in a different way. The civic fabric would be stronger if instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them.”

In other words it would be better if we tried forgiveness instead of condemnation. 

Modern morality understands forgiveness in an immature, sentimental way. “It becomes a kind of cheap absolution for everything, regardless of the rights or the wrongs of the issues.”

Real forgiveness, however, means more than that. It should begin by balancing accountability with compassion. 

Brooks highlights four characteristics of  true forgiveness.

A) Pre-emptive Mercy:  Martin Luther King pioneered public forgiveness by arguing that forgiveness is not an act but an attitude. It begins with the obvious fact that we are all sinners, that we should expect sin and that we should be

slow to think of ourselves as superior to anyone else. 

B) Judgment: Judging people should not mean condemning them. When we recognise that a wrong is being done, it gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate ourselves, the system, and the offender. Instead of judging a person we need to make judgements about the sin itself and the possible remedies for such a sin. 

C) Confession and penitence: According to Brooks, at some point the offender has to “get out in front of the process”. That means the person must be self-critical and be willing to probe the root of the error. That should lead to a sincere confession which in itself must bring about a change not only of attitude, but of lifestyle. It helps us to become strongest at our weakest point.

D) Reconciliation: This takes place when both the offender and the offended are willing to bend backyards to accommodate each other. The offender endures the shame and fall from grace in such a way that they are better for it. The offended person has to show largesse to be free from mean emotions. 

In America there is a mature, debate taking place. I see no signs at all of maturity in our public debates. There is a meanness and arrogance which aims to destroy. That attitude is as dysfunctional as the original “sin” could ever be.