Interlude: Summary of Guidelines on Forgiveness


Guidelines for Practice

Thus far we have traced the accumulated wisdom of the ages about how to encourage forgiveness at various levels:  inter-personal, inter-group, and inter-national.  We have also explored how humor can ease conflict and be part of forgiveness.  The findings of this study can be presented as a set of guidelines arranged according to level and the paths of the different elements involved.

I use the term guidelines in place of what might be considered principles because a guideline suggests a signpost for possible correction rather than an ever-present imperative.  Guidelines explicate considerations that are relevant to varying degrees dependent on the situation.  For instance, one situation may call on me to be more patient than courageous, while another calls on me to be more courageous than patient.  At the same time, in social interaction, another person’s courage might benefit from my patience, while another’s patience may call on my courage.  Guidelines are dynamic considerations that shift over time and between players.

 A)  Guidelines for Defusing Inter-Personal Conflicts

1)  The future-orientation embodied in the traditional value of hope is essential to forgiveness.  Hope is an antidote to depression and despair.  It should be the dominant tone in the process of forgiveness, even if the seriousness of the situation calls for it to be conveyed in a sobering or challenging manner.

2)  Forgiveness is neither impossible nor easy.  For this reason, a forgiving attitude is neither cynical nor naive.  A person with a forgiving attitude evaluates his/her own motives in order to avoid acting out of anger or fear, and uses the energy of these emotions for productive deeds.  As hope is an antidote to depression (preventing despair), so patience is an antidote to anger (preventing hatred), and courage an antidote to fear (preventing cowardice).

3)  Forgiveness comes in many guises and degrees, from the smallest gesture of civility to the greatest act of self-sacrifice.  In order to encourage forgiveness, it helps to recognize these forms so that they can be employed and augmented in the process of forgiveness.

4)  Forgiveness is achieved through repentance.  The forgiver’s abstention from revenge can effectively encourage the offender to repent.  Repentance, like forgiveness, is not an isolated act, but a process of work and achievement.

5)  The signs of repentance can generally be classified in the forms of admission, restitution and discipline, with discipline (abstention from recommitting the offense) being the most critical sign.  It is one thing to say “sorry”, but sorry is as sorry does (that is, don’t just say it, but mean it).

6)  The minimum requirement for admission is that the offender does not lie about the offense.  Confession may be indirect or explicit.  It is important for serious offenses to be admitted as serious, but we should not mistake an arrogant or flippant “confession” (which includes pride and cruelty) for honesty (which includes remorse and humility).

7)  Restitution may be literal, but is often symbolic.  Willing restitution symbolizes a sincere desire to be forgiven.  An attempt to give back what has been taken is a step towards seeking or accepting forgiveness.

8)  Discipline shows the lasting effects of forgiveness.  With discipline, the forgiven can take on a forgiving attitude, a readiness to forgive others.  This is how forgiveness breeds forgiveness.

9)  A person can encourage repentance and forgiveness with compassionate and challenging responses, setting an example of discipline and self-sacrifice.  This involves conveying hope, patience and courage.

10)  Encouraging this process requires care that the seriousness of the offense is not belittled and that the offender is not humiliated unnecessarily.  Compassionate responses serve to reduce humiliation and challenging responses serve to heighten the sense of seriousness.

11) The practice of forgiveness acts to prevent conflicts from escalating through counter-offenses and sensationalism.  This calls for a mixture of diplomacy and truth. To achieve this, private conflicts should be handled privately as much as possible.  When this fails the disputants should bring in a respected, non-partisan mediator to intervene directly.

B)  Guidelines for Defusing Inter-Group Conflicts

1) The more serious the conflict, the more important it is that the parties demonstrate their commitment to making peace with substantial and lasting deeds.  Roles and responsibilities should not be ambiguous in this endeavor.

2)  When conflicts escalate to engage groups, and private mediation no longer works, a disciplined community response is called for.  Activities that encourage mannerly conduct (common courtesies, rituals and ceremonies) and discourage scandal-mongering and inflammatory speech should be instituted.

3) The larger community should be involved only when a conflict has escalated beyond the control of the mediation process.  Larger conflicts generally require more time and more people to settle them, but the mediator(s) should decide who is to be involved, making sure that responsible members of the groups involved can identify with someone leading the effort.

4)  When acts of violence generate a public safety risk, the conflicted parties should be separated until the conditions are established to restore the social fabric through repentance and forgiveness.   Families and friends should mobilize to buffer against the risks of retaliation and escalation.

5)  Respected and disinterested community leaders should be put in charge of the intervention effort.  They should set a tone of hope, patience and courage.  Traditions for settling differences should be relied upon, short of litigation and other methods of retaliation.

6)  Universal cultural activities can help establish common ground between diverse groups.  Regular opportunities to eat together, sing, play and work together, can help prevent and ease conflicts before they spread and destroy our common interests.

 C)  Guidelines for Defusing Inter-National Conflicts

1)  When a conflict takes over a community and spreads without recourse to an effective institution, or where violation of human rights becomes institutionalized, a forgiving attitude can still be exercised through non-violent resistance or just war practices.   Some people will not resort to just war in good conscience; others in good conscience will practice just war as a last resort (which includes criteria for both just cause and just means).  Either way it is up to each person to consistently evaluate his or her own motives so that decisions are based on clear and solid values rather than fleeting emotions.  War acted out of anger is not just war; non-violence acted out of fear is not non-violent resistance.

2)  Legitimate self-defense and just war claims should not deny the potential for self-deception in all justifications.  The use of force and cunning is best minimized and reserved for the defense of others; when we lie to save our own skins, we risk putting other’s skins in danger as a result.

3)  We should not underestimate others’ capacity for resistance and endurance.  If we collude with corruption with the justification that we are protecting others more helpless than ourselves (family members or other dependents), we are likely using loved ones as an excuse for our own cowardice.

4)  When highly active in a struggle against oppression and injustice, a contemplative core is important for a person to avoid becoming obsessive.  Obsession can expose one to the dangers of despair, hatred and cowardice.  A good imagination helps prevent obsession and destructive fantasy from taking hold of the personality.

D)  Guidelines for the Use of Humor in Situations of Conflict

1)  Play can be serious business and humor can have serious consequences, for better or for worse.  A balance between humor and seriousness helps resolve conflicts.

2)  Humor can initiate or consolidate a change of emotional tone in a conflict, shifting the atmosphere from one of anger, fear and grief to a calmer tone of hope and encouragement.

3)  Humor and comedy are both stimulating and tension-releasing.  To feel socially included with humor is to experience a pleasant surprise.  Such experiences can have positive social and health benefits.

4)  Humor and wit should be distinguished from sarcasm and derision which act to ridicule and humiliate an involuntary target.  Sarcasm serves to escalate conflict, increasing fear and grief and hate.

5)  Wit can serve a challenging function in a social situation because it is sharper than humor (humor being more gentle and compassionate).  As forms of wit, parody and satire can be engaging but also risk alienating the person being caricatured.  Parody is the more gentle form, giving the subject of the caricature more room for saving face.

6)  A sense of humor about oneself and one’s own limitations is a prerequisite for a good sense of humor with others.  If one can’t take being teased, one has no business teasing others (“glass houses”, “splinters and logs”, etc.).  One learns how to make fun of oneself by observing the foolishness of others and how they accept this aspect of themselves.

7)  Power imbalances complicate both humor and forgiveness.  In situations of conflict, all gestures are risky.  Any potential provocation should be ventured tentatively so that damage can be minimized.  Apologies should be sincere or not offered.

8)  When conditions of oppression prevail, a strong sense of humor continues to play a role in survival, as a defense against tyrannical mind-control.  Humor helps one find one’s friends and fight obsession in a compulsory and friendless world.  Under the extreme conditions of unjust imprisonment, a solitary (rather than isolated) sense of humor can be a form of prayer and vehicle for intimacy with God.

9)  Different cultures tell similar stories about common human dilemmas.  The use of humor to tease people out of the temptations of despair, hatred and cowardice can be found in all cultures.  The more a culture encourages these virtues, the more it thrives.



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