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Is it ever OK not to forgive?

with 10 comments

The print edition of this month’s Prospect Magazine has an article from me on forgiveness. It’s a huge subject, but the particular focus of my piece is the pressure faced by victims of extreme violence publicly to declare forgiveness towards those responsible, even when the perpetrators have shown no remorse or willingness to change their ways.

Together with my own family’s case I was privileged to be able to include an interview with Julie Nicholson, whose extraordinary book, A Song For Jenny, recounts her experiences and reflections following the murder of her daughter Jenny in the July 7th 2005 London Bombings. Julie Nicholson’s story made international headlines in 2006 when she stepped down from her post as a Church of England vicar, and told the media that she would not forgive her daughter’s killer.

Forgiveness is one of those strange areas of human life where a small semantic nuance can have profound political consequences. In some of the most brutalised societies in the world, it has sometimes been taken as read that a) victims of violence  are morally obliged to forgive their abuser for the perceived “greater good” and b) “forgiveness” necessarily entails granting immunity from prosecution to mass-murderers.

When these ideas are taken to extremes, as they have been in Northern Uganda with the treatment of victims of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, the results can be both dangerous and deeply unpleasant.

Alongside these individual cases, I was keen to highlight the excellent work that has been done in recent years by philosophers and psychologists seeking to challenge some of the common assumptions about forgiveness and clarify a very muddled area of moral thought.

In preparing the article it was enormously useful to have the chance to speak to Professor Charles Griswold of Boston University, whose outstanding book “Forgiveness – A Philosophical Exploration”   has been a huge help in un-muddling my own thinking on this issue over the last few years. Charles Griswold pointed me towards two further books that I would also strongly recommend to anyone seriously looking into this issue.

“Ancient Forgiveness” is co-edited by Charles Griswold and David Konstan (Professor of Classics at New York University), with essays from both, and was published in the UK just at the end of last year. This book seeks to unravel the mishmash of traditions that have given rise to the many modern (and at times contradictory) definitions of the word.

The second book that Charles Griswold highlighted, and which I also found very helpful in writing the piece, was “Resentment’s Virtue”, by the Danish Philosopher Thomas Brudholm. This takes a refreshingly sceptical view of the absolutist discourse of “forgiveness and reconciliation” that dominates so much of the literature. In careful, forensic detail, Brudholm shows how, well-intentioned though such ideas are, they can often have the effect of re-victimising victims of horrific crimes, and even demonising those who make a free and informed choice not to forgive.

The last book I would recommend is “Forgiveness is a Choice”, by the University of Wisconsin psychology professor Robert Enright, who was also kind enough to speak to me at length about his work in this area. Enright is a strong advocate of the psychological benefits of forgiveness, and has won praise for his work treating victims of serious abuses who choose to go down this path. Enright offers a clear definition of forgiveness that is respectful towards victims, and robustly delineates this very personal process from the political issues with which it is so often conflated.

What’s interesting, however, in comparing Robert Enright’s writing with that of Charles Griswold, is the extent to which their respective definitions of forgiveness – and therefore a number of their conclusions – differ so widely. Even among the experts there appears to be no single definition of the word that is universally accepted, and some of the most fundamental principles around the issue are still being worked out.

This makes for an interesting discussion, but also further highlights the predicament that victims being pressured to “forgive” find themselves in.

Prospect Magazine is available from all good news outlets and on subscription – I’d be interested to know what people make of the piece, and hope to return to this issue in more depth later in the year.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 1, 2012 at 11:22 am

Posted in Titanic Express

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10 Responses

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  1. Many thanks for this. I have also read the article and it has caused me to blog too… or Hope there is some common ground between us. Thinking of 7/7 victims both direct and indirect today.

    Stephen Cherry

    July 7, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    • Hi Stephen – many thanks for your kind thoughts – I definitely think there is common ground, and I think that a lot comes down to the fact that we tend to use the word “forgiveness” to mean so many different things. But I do also think there’s room for reinstating the idea that (whether or not we frame this in terms of forgiving/not forgiving) in some circumstances anger and outrage may just be the morally appropriate reactions – I guess it’s a cliché to talk about Jesus raging at the money-lenders but it seems like a useful example.

      I will try to track down your book – but in the meantime I’d be interested to know what definition(s) of forgiveness you would advocate?

      Richard Wilson

      July 7, 2012 at 10:55 pm

      • v good. If by any chance you find my book on Amazon you will see it linked with Marian Partington’s book., ‘If You sit Very Still’. (Marian’s sister Lucy was murdrered by the Wests of Gloucester.) What both books have in common is the idea that while the word ‘forgiveness’ points to something important and life-giving, it is not possible to tie it down and not helpful to try to do so. Rather we see forgiving as a kind of poetic (meaning-making) creativity in the face of meaningless pain or loss.

        So no ‘definition’ from me right now… though I might do a blog showing a range of almost-definitions of forgiveness which – in my view – are more rather than less helpful.

        I agree about the importance of anger and even resentment (provided it keeps just this side of bitterness). I also talk in the book about the concept of the ‘good grudge’.

        Look forward to sharing more with you about this – by this medium or any other.

        Stephen Cherry

        July 8, 2012 at 9:00 pm

  2. when you are taught to be religious, go church, pray at home, pray for your enemies, turn the other chick when someone hurts you, it is easy to then believe that it is ‘unholy’ not to forgive. But as human being, someone who has done wrong to you, it is natural not to let it go.

    I know that I was able to forgive because of religious belief, but naturally as a human being, you don’t forget for example those who have killed or imprisoned your Family,some choose the path to do the same to those who did wrongs, or others just need justice.


    July 24, 2012 at 4:04 pm

  3. not sure if I could forgive such atrocity, hearing stories of your Father butchered and then dissolved into acid,no one can forgive such atrocities.


    July 28, 2012 at 2:20 am

  4. what would any parent do if faced with such news that their children have been butchered by militias.


    July 28, 2012 at 2:23 am

  5. both Parents,6sibblings,all butchered in 1994 Rwanda Tutsi genocide:

    Can anyone ever recover from this?


    July 29, 2012 at 2:35 pm

  6. DRC’s Rape survivor,Honorata’s story:

    In a region where Women and Girls have been sexually assaulted, the example of Zainab Salbi’s Women for Women international help rebuild the lives of Mothers,Daughters,Grand-Mothers to hopefully forget their painful experiences.Think of Somalia,Sudan,what Women go through.


    July 29, 2012 at 2:44 pm

  7. rescued by a Rwandan Hutu Pastor, Rwandan Genocide Survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza believes that as God saved her life, she has the responsibility in teaching about tolerance, unity and reconciliation, as a matter of fact, years after,she travelled from the US to meet the very individuals who butchered her Family,I watched the video and I could see how genuine the hug of peace was:

    I am amazed by the number of Rwandans I met who tell me about their stories of surviving, and at the same time challenge those who seek vengeance.

    But for Rwanda Genocide survivor Odette Mupenzi,who witnessed her Parents and Siblings murdered,and she was shot and left for dead, leaving her with scars, she still needs medical healthcare to date, can we blame her for not forgiving?

    [video src="" /]


    July 29, 2012 at 2:59 pm

  8. Hello Richard.. I realise this is a very old thread. However I have just watched you speak on the forgiveness project ” is it ever ok not to forgive” I wanted to track you down and thank you for everything you said. I believe that there may such a thing as dangerous forgiveness. I personally feel as a survivor of many years of serious abuse I have been not only shamed in the past and made to feel guilty when trying to seek justice but also further revictimised and emotionally harmed by pious faith based do Gooders from various traditions, thinking they know the best way for victims ( I say this word as a fact) to recover, when it is not their place to have a view on my or another’s personal journey. I could not agree with you more on every single point. Unfortunately you were in a minority viewpoint I would imagine, however for me like a breath of fresh air. I do not think forgiveness is necessary but a personal choice which should be respected one way or the other. First justice, then peace. Then build on all the beautiful and positive things in your life. Most of all keep safe from further harm by not having misguided ideas and interpersonal boundaries about forgiveness, as we all know the Christian church has an appalling record of abusing children but a great one on forgiving the abusers. I wish you deepening peace and Moments of joy in life. Thanks again….

    Fiona Battrum

    March 27, 2017 at 9:17 am

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