Forgiving is a serious matter but can it come from nowhere? Or is an apology needed first?
30 January 2020
Presented by Ed Kessler
Production by David Perry, Tara Zammit.




Forgiving others is a serious matter but can it come from nowhere? Or is an apology needed first from the perpetrator of the misdeed in question? And when does an apology become an excuse? When we hear the lawyer guided public apologies of some politicians and spokespeople, it’s tempting to say, often. What are the social and psychological consequences of forgiving? Are some sins, like the Holocaust, unforgiveable? Joining Ed Kessler are Elazar Symon, Kitty O’Lone and Gemma Simmonds...

Ed - Welcome to Naked Reflections brought to you from the Woolf Institute. I'm Ed and each week I'll be taking an in depth look at the stories reported by our friends over at the Naked Scientists. What does the latest scientific stuff mean for the rest of us? Stay with us and find out...

A science story for you! When Isaac Newton discovered that the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz had published a paper about calculus in 1684, he was incandescent with rage. Newton had been thinking about calculus for some time, but had not published. Therefore, Newton thought it was obvious that Leibniz had got hold of some unpublished material and plagiarised it. Today's consensus is that each man came upon this seminal methodology independently, but Newton abused his position as President of the Royal Society to write a vitriolic put down of Leibniz and to publish it as a report of what he termed an independent committee. He continued to hound Leibniz who died in 1716, his reputation in tatters. Leibniz was buried in an unmarked grave. Newton never even came close to apologizing for what he'd done. Could or should Leibniz have forgiven Newton for such behavior? Forgiving is our subject this week and with me to discuss it are Dr Gemma Simmonds, Director of the Religious Life Institute, Rabbi Elazar Symon co-Jewish Chaplain here, at the University of Cambridge and Dr Kitty O'Lone, a researcher at the Woolf Institute. Forgiveness is a profound matter, but can it come from nowhere? Or does forgiveness require an apology from the perpetrator of the misdeed. And when does an apology become an excuse? When we hear about lawyer guided public apologies of some politicians and spokespeople, it's tempting to say often. Paulina Sliwa of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge has been researching these things as she told Chris Smith on the Naked Scientists.

Pauline Silwa - So, you know when we when we fail to live up to our obligation in general, it means that we encourage some other obligations. So now I owe an apology or I owe an explanation or I might owe you a drink or some other kinds of compensations. And part of what happens when you're making an excuse, I think, is you're trying to negotiate just what the fallout is from your norm violation or your failed obligation. You know, you're trying to negotiate just how much of an apology you owe, and what kind of apology it really is.

Ed - Gemma, should we forgive?

Gemma - I think we should forgive, a) for the good order of society, for our own spiritual and mental health, and also for the liberation of the other person from the mistake or, indeed, the evil that they've done. But, although I believe we should forgive, how we go about that and how we get ourselves to a place where we can forgive is very, very complex. I don't believe that being able to forgive is actually a human attribute. I don't think we've got it in us, and Jesus clearly didn't think that either because, in the New Testament, he's constantly telling us that we must forgive. But he teaches that forgiveness is an attribute of God, not of human beings, which is why in the Lord's prayer, he teaches his followers to ask for the gift of forgiveness, at the same time as asking for daily bread for their very survival and they have to pray for it every day, because every day there are things for us to forgive and we can't do it just out of our own strength.

Kitty - Forgive me, Gemma, but I'm about to say something that runs contrary to what you just said, when you said that you didn't think that forgiveness was a human attribute. I would say from a social, psychological perspective, it's very much, if you like, a human instinct, it's a forgiveness instinct. And without it, we probably wouldn't have large scale societies, that it's actually so important to us in terms of our cooperation, and our social evolution that we sort of developed an instinctive feel, or sense of mechanisms, or set of mechanisms that will tell us when is best to forgive rather than seek revenge, for example.

Gemma - I would actually disagree with that, in that, I certainly think that it's a reasonable thing and when one is at one's rational best self, one realizes that vengeance, the vendetta, is absolutely suicidal, not only for oneself but for society. But if forgiveness were that easy, we'd be so much better at doing it. And the fact is, and I've certainly dealt a great deal in pastoral work with people who are longing to forgive, longing to be able to let go of an injury done to them, but they just can't. What I think we are good at, and I think is rational, is finding excuses for people. So we find excuses when we can understand, even if we didn't like what a person did, we can understand why they did it. Forgiveness, I think is what we need when we face the inexcusable, when there is no way that we can rationalize to ourselves why a person did this. And when you see a person forgive the inexcusable, it's a wonderful, wonderful, godly thing.

Ed - Can I turn to the definition of forgiveness, because that may help here. Elazar, how do you define forgiveness?

Elazar - I think that's a very interesting question. I think also, a bit with a Jewish perspective, Jewish law has a definition for forgiveness which is basically the person saying, I forgive you. Right? So Jewish law doesn't require, it doesn't talk about the psychology of how one's soul should feel as opposed to this person. It's a matter of this, of a person saying, I'm sorry, and the other person saying, okay, that's okay, I forgive you. And more specifically, I do not want you to be hurt or I do not want you to be punished by God because of me, because of the thing that you did to me. But, I'm not sure I have a great answer to the deeper meaning of forgiveness. The image I have, is letting go.

Ed - Gemma! So letting go is a Jewish understanding of forgiveness. What's a Christian understanding of forgiveness?

Gemma - I think the Christian understanding of forgiveness is obviously very deeply connected to the Jewish understanding. But the whole purpose, the story of Jesus coming into the world and Christian belief that this was actually God himself taking on human flesh, taking on a human life and living in the world among us, um, is about Jesus himself embodying in his own life the forgiveness of God. So, for instance, at the very moment when he was being nailed to the cross, Jesus is recorded as praying to his father. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. Now, in a sense, Jesus is making an excuse because he's saying they don't realize what it is they're doing. If you look at what St Paul writes about forgiveness, it's ultimately about liberation. It's setting people free, either from a debt that they owe, or indeed from the overwhelming harrowing memory of what they've done. I spent 26 years working as a volunteer chaplain in a prison in this country, and I worked all the time I was there, with people who were unable to forgive themselves. You know, women who'd murdered their own children or people who'd killed their partners. I mean, people who've done terrible things and the horror that they carried of what they had done was almost unbearable. Christian faith says God comes into such a situation and says, you don't have to bear this. I, God,will bear this for you.

Ed - So it's, it's transformative, isn't it?

Gemma - Yes.

Ed - Kitty, from a psychological point of view, is forgiveness transformative?

Kitty - Very much so. I think from a psychological perspective, forgiveness has a couple of functions. Firstly, it sort of reinforces or restabilizes valued relationships. So, it acts almost like a social plaster or glue if you like, it repairs and heals, damaged, valued relationships. And this is obviously extremely important, in terms of social cohesion and the functioning of a large scale society or, indeed, any society. Um, but also, psychological studies show that people who a) are forgiving and b), are forgiven, experience sort of a plethora of wonderful, sort of, mental health benefits. So, for example, reduction of stress, um, it's associated with low levels of depression and even sort of physiological responses. So, many people have argued that we're so attuned to our reputation and how we are perceived by others, that things like blushing for example, evolved as a, like a forgiveness signal. And studies have shown that people tend to forgive people who blush more, Certainly within the context of a psychology experiment, which I realize isn't sort of applicable to large scale humanity, but that's certainly what's been found in the lab. So yes, forgiveness is really important, especially from a psychological perspective and it's become very, very, a really sort of hot topic of research and psychology over the past couple of years.

Ed - What about the difference between the excuse and the real apology, because there is a fundamental difference. We are very good at excusing ourselves. I didn't, I'm sorry if you felt offended by this, you know, that sort of thing.

Kitty - Yes. So, from a psychological perspective, the difference between an excuse and an apology is an excuse. There was some attempt to sort of displace blame. You sort of lay out a set of mitigating circumstances that kind of displace any personal culpability that you might have. And, actually, in terms of sort of people's responses to transgressions or when people have done something wrong, people tend to be naturally quite hostile or they dislike excuses. So, the thing that comes to mind is Bill Clinton. I did not have sex with that woman. Had he sort of offered a genuine apology, he might have received a slightly warmer reception and actually, it's funny to track him in the press, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal sort of evolved. He gradually got, each statement he made would be, there would be greater degrees of blame, he would accept. Till the end, he came out with a full on sort of Baptist, you know, I'm sorry for what I've done, I've sinned, I've sinned, and one thinks, well, if he'd done that in the first place, he might've received a slightly better reception.

Gemma - It seems to me that people, for forgiveness to work, the truth needs to be there somewhere. There needs to be truth and actually there needs to be truth not only in terms, as you said, Kitty, of the repairing a fractured relationship. There needs to be truth for the sinner, for the person who's actually done the transgression to tell themselves the truth . And over and over again, certainly in the prison, I saw this . When the women became able to tell themselves the truth of what they had done, the process of forgiveness can begin.

Elazar - I want to add to that, that it's, you mentioned like that it's about the truth. I think it's more than the truth because sometimes the excuse is the truth. Sometimes we have the, I'm really sorry, but, and the but is, it's not going to be wrong. It is. it is something that had happened, but you must have the stage where you are saying the sorry without the but lines. And I know in my personal life, if me and my wife fight, I always have a lot of complaints on her as well. So, when I'm going to apologize, the instinct is to say, listen, I'm sorry I hurt you, but this and this and this and this. And what I've learned is that never works. And the only thing that works is to say, I'm sorry I hurt you. I'm sorry I did this and this and this. Um, and, maybe to keep that conversation for the thing that she did to bother me, to keep it for another day, to keep it for another time, right. I think, eh, Jewish tradition that when Maimonides defines what is repentance in Judaism. Repentance is a confession and the confession is just saying, I did this and that, and that's it. And that, and that's what, repentance is all about.

Ed - Is there a requirement on your wife to forgive you?

Elazar - She doesn't need to forgive me, but for like, what was mentioned earlier, for her sake, she wants to forgive me. Right? She doesn't want to carry on this relationship feeling how she feels. You don't want to go through your life carrying the baggage of all the relationship, all the hurting relationships you've got with the world. Um, you, you just don't want that. So, for your sake, you have to do it. Yeah.

Ed - Kitty, you talked about transformation by the person asking for forgiveness ,and equal transformation by the person giving forgiveness, in terms of the psychological study.

Kitty - Yes. I mean, indeed. So psychology sort of backs up a lot of what religion has been saying for thousands and thousands of years, that letting go is actually a very sort of transformative and sort of cleansing experience, if you like. Um, so people who forgive tend to have, um, well there's differences in the brain structure for example. So people who are forgiving, they tend to have a much, much smaller insular cortex and this is sort of closely associated with a disgust response. So, we can see that there are sort of actual chemical structural things going on in the brain that actually inform our attitudes and our judgements about forgiveness. Um, so it is transformative. Um, people who forgive tend to have less depressive cognitions, less ruminations. Um, they sort of reenter this social relate, this damaged relationship with a much more renewed sense of zeal. So yes, it does have a very cleansing function I think for both forgiver and forgivee.

Ed - Well, forgive me for one moment. You're listening to Naked Reflections and my guests this week are Gemma Simmonds, Elazar Symon and Kitty O'Lone. I'd like to explore whether there are sins that really can't be forgiven. Gemma.

Gemma - It's something that puzzles Christians a great deal. Jesus said rather obscurely um, that, you know, everything can be forgiven except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. And a huge amount of ink, Christian ink certainly has been spent down the centuries trying to work out, what is that exactly? I suspect that what Jesus was talking about, was the total denial of the presence of God or the total denial of the effectiveness of God in people's lives. If you are actually saying, you know, God is not capable of helping us or God doesn't exist in a, in a way that relates to us, so that God is an active element in our lives, then, what we're saying is we're on our own. And if you're really convinced of that, then seeking divine help is going to be of no use to you, because you don't believe it's there.

Ed - But are you saying then that atheists, people who deny, not humanists or a religious people, but atheists who stridently reject the existence of God, cannot be forgiven?

Gemma - I wouldn't want to say that, ever. But, for instance, I had members of my family who went to the Nazi death camps, okay. They were in the French resistance, they were arrested, father and son, they went to Auschwitz together. They were then separated, father went to Belsen, son went to Buchenwald. Miraculously, they both survived the war. And I often had discussions with the son ,Pierre, you know, can you forgive these people for what they did to you? And he would always say, that is not mine to forgive. Only God can forgive that. This is a sin of such massive order, what was done to the Jews, what was done to the gypsies, what was done to many, many people under the Nazi regime or under the Stalinist regime. There is so many other instances of genocide. This is what the, the old catechism calls a sin crying out to heaven for vengeance. And the vengeance is God's and no one else's.

Elazar - God generally forgives and we have a special day, um, where we're meant to do repentance and God will forgive. But that applies only to sins against God. So, when we have sins against, when you sin, when you wrong someone else, no amount of praying or God worshiping, um, is going to help you. And God says you have to make it right with that person. Ultimately that brings the responsibility back to the person. So you have different kinds of relationships in your relationships with God. You can and you should try to ask for forgiveness. But that applies for your fellow human beings and in that sense, and that is different, God is not going to forgive anything for you. God is not going to do anything instead of you. You need to fix exactly what you've wronged and, and not leave it now, not go out of it but fix the thing itself.

Ed - But what happens when that person is not there? I mean, the thing about the, the reference to the show of the Holocaust is that millions of people perished. Um, and they're not there to forgive their perpetrator if their perpetrator sought forgiveness.

Elazar - We have a practice in Judaism, where if we need to say sorry to someone who has carried on, we would gather 10 Jewish people in a cemetery and the person that needs us for, for forgiveness would, um, would say what he did to that person and ask for his forgiveness. The power of the community, of the, of the ten Jewish people is going to help him to solve his problem. Right? But really there's a sense in which that, the ship has sailed and that we tried to use the power of the community to give the person seeking forgiveness that salvation.

Ed - Let's take it slightly more wider than that because Gemma has given us an example where, in the New Testament, for a certain sin, that of blasphemy, however we understand it, is not forgivable. From the Jewish religion, are there sins or a sin, or is the Holocaust, such, that it is unforgivable?

Elazar - My, my feeling in the Jewish tradition is that everything is forgivable. We don't assume anything about the goodness of, of a human being. People are capable of everything, but just like they're capable of, of doing the most horrible things, they're always capable of of repentance and fixing how they behave.

Kitty - Yes. I just wanted to clarify what I was talking about in terms of a forgiveness instinct if you like. It really comes down to, like, the degree of transgressions that we're talking about. So ,a human forgiveness instinct would have evolved in a hunter gatherer, small scale society and it would be in relation to various, sort of, mundane, everyday transgressions, the allocation of resources, cheating on your spouse, you know, sort of social squabbles. It did not evolve in response to enormous catastrophic tragedies of the proportion of the Holocaust, for example, or the murder of a child. So, in those cases, they're very much out of our repertoire. They're sort of things that we absolutely, this is not what our forgiveness instinct is equipped to deal with. But, in terms of everyday , like the lubrication of society, it's much easier in some cases just to forgive the petty squabbles here and there and everywhere, just to make sure that society kind of functions. Because, ultimately, if you sort of took revenge on everybody who committed some small scale transgression, you'd end up spending so much energy and resources in terms of punishment that society would just collapse. So I just wanted to clarify that I wasn't sort of suggesting that the forgiveness instinct in humans applies to any kind of transgression. It's really much sort of, it evolved in response to the problems we have day to day.

Elazar - The way I see it is the, the belief and forgiveness is the belief that people can change for the better. And, if an individual person can change for the better, so a whole society can change for the better and the country can change for the better. Nazi Germany has changed for the better and that doesn't mean it's going to be easy for anyone or that I could demand of anyone who was in the horrors there, to forgive. But this essential belief that God gives us the freedom of choice and people can choose to do wrong and then they can choose to fix it and they can, they can choose to do right, that's a powerful thing and it's true in all circles of life.

Kitty - You've raised a really interesting point there actually. It's the difference between sort of interpersonal forgiveness. So if there's a specified individual who has, I don't know, taken some of your resources and you're angry and you want punishment or do you decide to forgive, sort of on an interpersonal level. What becomes really interesting d much more philosophical, I think, is when you're thinking of something in the abstract, like forgiving Nazi Germany, I mean what, what are you, how are you defining Nazi Germany? Do you forgive everybody that was in Germany at the time? Is it just a set of individuals? Then it becomes really problematic, when you're thinking about forgiving a group at large or a concept if you like. It's much more difficult,I think, to sort of define the mechanisms of forgiveness in those cases.

Gemma - I think also there's something that follows on from that, which is about the, the two ends of a scale. I mean, we see at the moment, for instance, with the whole me too movement of people wanting the truth to be told. Um, there are whole mechanisms in society which excuse some groups in society for behavior that is utterly reprehensible, but don't forgive other groups. So, uh, men, the way they've treated women, when they are in power over women, um, this has long been a thing that's been swept under the carpet, whether it's in Hollywood, whether it's here in the academic world, whether it's, uh, you know, in the religious sphere. And so on the one hand, you've got people who seem to have a privileged position because they can get away with behaving very badly. And the people who suffer from their bad behavior are meant to just shut up and get on with it or just keep quiet. And all of a sudden,now, there's a whole movement of people saying, we will no longer be silent about what has been done. We want to tell the truth. And that it seems to me, is a terribly good and important thing, the truth telling of real evil that's been done. But on the other hand, you get people saying, yes, but what we're developing now is a victim culture where everybody's a victim. And what's more, I define myself by my victim hood. So I never moved beyond being a victim. And that is as toxic for the person who sees themselves as a victim, as indeed it is for society hiding or pushing things under the carpet, which, uh, require the truth to be told.

Ed - Well, we're drawing to a close, but I have one final question, which is where we are now? I mean, are we as a species more likely to forgive than before? I mean Steven Pinker would suggest that we are improving in that way. I mean, are we more able to forgive than our forebears?

Kitty - I think just from a societal perspective, we certainly got sort of state level mechanisms now, in place, that generate and facilitate forgiveness and reconciliation. So I'm thinking of the legal system, the Hague, the UN, all these, sort of, post-conflict societies where you have state-put mechanisms in place that facilitate or ,at a state level, they facilitate forgiveness. Um, so I mean, certainly that wasn't something that existed, you know, 5,000 years ago. So, in that sense, yes, but at the individual level, I don't think we probably have changed that much really from our ancestors.

Gemma - I think in the age of, um, the computer, it's much harder to get away with things these days because people know what's going on. Uh, we have more access to more information, but of course, that means that we're more sophisticated about making excuses. At the end of the day, for me, forgiveness is about an individual person before God, asking God's help to negotiate things that have been damaged and broken. They need to tell themselves the truth. They need to tell the truth to the other person, and they need to believe that it's actually possible to be freed from this. Um, I think if you've got all those factors, however you frame it, you may not frame it in religious language in any way, whatever, but if you frame those three elements in your mind, I think forgiveness is possible.

Elazar - I think the idea of tolerance that found its way to the heart of a modern society, more or less, I think it does make it easier for people to forgive. I think that tolerance is a, is a godly virtue and I think that's why God has always known how to forgive. But it took humans some time to learn that. Um, and I think that in the place that we are , when we understand people that are different than us, so the next stage is that it will also help us forgive because forgiveness can come out of seeing the other person understanding that he has an inner life and he has things look in his mind. And it doesn't mean he didn't do wrong, but it means you can, you can have compassion.

Ed - Well, I hope you'll forgive me for drawing this podcast to a close. Thanks to my guests, Gemma Simmonds, Elazar Symon and Kitty O'Lone, and thanks to you too for listening...

Naked Scientists clip featured in the programme -


Add a comment