I read a few posts recently on the subject of forgiveness. Theodore Dalrymple, in his review of two books dealing with the reactions of family members to horrendous murders, shows the different tone of the old way, one cognizant of the need for punishment and incapacitation of criminals, with the newer, confessional, and somewhat self-absorbed notion of forgiveness, forgiveness as “inaliable right.”
Jason Workmaster, a former classmate of mine and Catholic convert, confronts the horror of the Newtown Shootings while contemplating the Biblical injunction to be at peace and joyful, mindful of God’s Providence.
Dalrymple makes a useful distinction of what is being forgiven and whether one even has a right to forgive, say, the murder of someone else:
She does not consider the possibility that incontinent forgiveness, deemed good in itself regardless of the act to be forgiven or the attitude of the person to be forgiven, means that no human behavior is beyond the pale, that nothing is unforgivable. This is to turn forgiveness into a kind of inalienable human right of the wrongdoer (a profoundly un-Christian view, incidentally).
That Partington thinks this way shows up particularly clearly in her reaction to Rosemary’s response to her letter of forgiveness. West chose not to respond herself. Instead, a note came from a prison official: “Ms West has received your letter and asked me to relay a message on her behalf and asked that you cease all correspondence, she does not wish to receive any further letters from you.” This utter rejection of her advances—the only comic moment in her book, albeit unintentionally and bleakly so—has no effect on Partington. Her forgiveness rolls on undeterred like a panzer division, flattening all monstrous immorality in its path.
So wrapped up in herself is Partington that the question of her locus standi to forgive does not occur to her. What is it that she actually forgives and has a right to forgive? She certainly has no right to forgive the torture and murder of her sister; it was her sister, not she, who was the principal victim. She could forgive Rosemary West the suffering that the torture and murder caused her, but this implies blindness to the sheer moral enormity of the crime. Nor does it occur to her that the Wests’ infliction of violence on 11 other victims, apart from her sister, reduces the significance of her forgiveness, even if she had the right to bestow it. Does she suppose that everyone else who suffered because of the Wests’ sadism should follow her example, or, if they do not, that they are her moral inferiors? Moral grandiosity hardly comes grander. Her forgiveness is like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, subsisting without anchorage to, or expression of, anything, except ego.
Dalrymple’s austerity has a certain resonance. We live in an age of meaningless forgiveness. We are quick to forgive, as if it were somehow unnatural to burn with rage at the victimization of oneself or family member by a cruel, evil criminal. That said, there is a nobility in forgiveness that Dalrymple seems not to fully acknowledge. That forgiveness and even joy are acts of magnanimity that, properly understood, can be an expression of faith in the Divine.