Another politician swept up in a tawdry sex scandal, another celebrity nabbed for driving drunk—then cue the ritual of redemption: the mea culpa media confession, the promise to repent or check into rehab, the teary plea for forgiveness. “Even when we cannot ourselves forgive a transgressor,” Wilfred M. McClay writes, “we usually credit the generosity of those who can.” Indeed, forgiveness is being touted in self-help books for its therapeutic effects: “It makes us, the forgivers, feel better.” Forgiveness, McClay contends, is in danger of “being debased into a kind of cheap grace,” a state in which it will have “lost its luster as well as its meaning.”
To McClay, “forgiveness can’t be understood apart from the assumption that we inhabit a moral universe in which moral responsibility matters, moral choices have real consequences, and justice and guilt have a salient role.” It is—or ought to be—a serious business. In ancient Jewish society, transgressors performed sacrificial acts to wipe away their sins, and “in the Christian context, forgiveness of sin was specifically related to Jesus Christ’s substitutionary atonement.” In our time we retain “Judeo-Christian moral reflexes without Judeo-Christian metaphysics,” and discharging the weight of sin becomes more problematic and confusing, especially when the process is complicated by the guilt many feel about not being able to “diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.”
Our awareness of our own moral shortcomings, says McClay, a historian at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, makes us all too prone to forgive the failings of others, and also explains today’s odd spate of popular “phony memoirs” such as Love and Consequences. “The putative autobiography of a young mixed-race woman raised by a black foster mother in gang-infested Los Angeles,” it was actually written by Margaret Seltzer, a white 33-year-old raised in a prosperous suburb. What Seltzer and other writers of forged memoirs are marketing, McClay writes, is “stolen suffering, and the identification they are pursuing is an identification with certifiable victims.” In a world without a religious route to the absolution of sin, making such an identification “offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one’s innocence affirmed.”
McClay points to other areas in which moral sensibilities have careened out of control: the public apologies for the institution of slavery, such as one by the U.S. Senate, for instance, or the “faculty and administrator watchdogs” in academia who pounce on even the slightest slips by those who fail to “observe the regnant pieties regarding race, class, or gender in their public statements.” Attacking someone who falls short of perfection, he says, allows the condemners to “displace their guilt onto him, and prove to all the world their own innocence.”
Is there a way out of this confusion? McClay thinks we may have to “concede that forgiveness is an example of a virtue that may not be extensible beyond its religious warrant.” Maybe we need another name for our therapeutic absolutions. In any event, it seems we need our foundational moral understandings more than ever. Recalling the true meanings of guilt and forgiveness, McClay believes, may help us remember that they are concerned with “the soul of the transgressor and the well-being of society, and not merely with the forgiver’s good health and his sweet psychological revenge.”
THE SOURCE: “Pinning Your Own Tail on Someone Else’s Donkey” by Wilfred M. McClay, in In Character, Fall 2008.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Juliana Muncinelli