A Question of Forgiveness

The question of how to deal with unjust attacks is an age-old one. Some people advocate a philosophy of total forgiveness. Others say that forgiveness should be tempered by an understanding of the real world and the nature of the individuals with whom one has to deal.

Some say that forgiveness should come after wrong actions have ended, but not while they are still occurring. A remorseful person should certainly be forgiven, but those who show no remorse and continue to do wrong actions may require justice rather than compassion, for their own progress. (See also “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life.”)

Once upon a time, some spiritual devotees were meditating in a church. Suddenly, they were distracted by the sound of breaking glass. Upon investigation, they found that someone was throwing rocks at the church windows, smashing them to bits. Others were calling for the church to be burned to the ground! The wrongdoers were worldly people whose minds had become agitated, and who had embraced an aggressive, destructive consciousness.

Some of the disciples said: “Let us pray for protection and meditate on compassion.” This was all well and good. But after awhile, either their prayer and meditation was not powerful enough, or else the situation required different handling. As the rocks kept coming and windows continued to be broken, another disciple said: “Let us call the police, since they also represent protection and it is their job to protect us.”

When the police arrived, they arrested one or two rock throwers, and others scattered into the night.

What can we learn from this story? In an imperfect world, there is no perfect solution to problems of harassment. Undoubtedly, compassion is a powerful force; but sometimes justice is required to deal with aggressive, destructive people, or else they may destroy spiritual things which are most precious and cannot easily be replaced.

This does not apply only to physical objects, but to abstract things as well. A person such as a spiritual teacher has only one reputation, which he or she has built up over many decades through innumerable acts of kindness and compassion. If crude people wrongly attack the reputation of a spiritual master and will not stop, the situation may eventually require justice.

The problem is aggravated when those who have become aggressive and destructive feel they can get away with anything precisely because they are attacking gentle spiritual people. While I definitely don’t advocate zapping anyone with a ray gun, this short clip from Doctor Who dramatizes the outcome when a destructive person mistakenly assumes that the only possible response to their destructive behaviour is one of mercy:

English majors please note: River Song’s use of the passive voice (“It died”) is not generally recommended, though used here to good effect. 😉

According to the varying mythologies of many cultures and religions, there are different kinds of beings assigned to perform different celestial duties. Their qualities and appearance are suited to the tasks which they perform, or they may take on a different appearance according to the circumstances.

The compassionate nature of the universe is reflected in that people usually have numerous opportunities to change their ways before they reach a final reckoning with justice. They see the face of compassion many times before they finally see the face of justice. It is up to them to choose how they want to progress. In the case of spiritual people around the world, they often make the same essential prayer to their chosen deity: “Protect us with Thy compassionate face.”

When we think of a snake, often we think of its destructive qualities: it may hiss or bite. Usually the hiss is a warning, and if we ignore the hiss then we get the bite. But what of a snake who has become a vegetarian, recited holy mantras, and adopted principles of ahimsa (non-violence)? If such a creature existed, how would it defend itself from predators? This question is addressed in a parable from the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition:

“How To Deal with the Wicked”
http://ramakrishnaparables.blogspot.com/search/label/How%20to%20deal%20with%20the%20wicked

For those with little patience for spiritual parables, I will give away the punchline: I told you not to bite. I never told you not to hiss!

Some people demonstrate an impulsive nature lacking in wisdom and restraint. Perhaps they once knew wisdom and restraint, but have lost these qualities due to whimsicality, or because they abandoned their spiritual practice. In any event, they now do much harm. When we see the harm that they do, and their utter imperviousness to compassion, it is clear they need to be hissed at.

When compassion fails, some people may need a harsh word or Internet takedown or they will just go on attacking. This restores their sense of balance or understanding of cause and effect. “Oh, if I go on the Internet and attack someone, I too may be attacked.” Duh! Some people do learn from this, and others who have suffered feel vindicated when they see that justice is operating, and people who act cruelly and callously do get their comeuppance.

Worldly people are often obsessed with protecting their reputations, which are allied to their moneymaking activities; yet they think nothing of trying to destroy the reputations of spiritual people through libel. This points to a serious ethical imbalance, which occurs because worldly people (particularly apostates) tend to otherize spiritual people. They imagine that spiritual people do not enjoy the same rights to dignity, privacy, and protection of reputation.

In “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good,” John Leo addresses “the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?” But see also: “Tawana Brawley Rape Hoax Leads To Defamation Damage Payout 26 Years Later.” One consequence of false confessions of victimhood is that they may do collateral damage to third parties. Contrary to the social trend, some people do value their privacy and resent being used as mere objects in someone else’s spurious public confession.

In “My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father,” Meredith Maran discusses how a “perfect storm” of influences including recovered memory therapy, feminist political theory, and social pressure caused her to claim that her father molested her. Years later, she realized it wasn’t true, and was surprised at how strong a role external factors like therapy, politics, and social pressure played in making her commit to a story which she knew in retrospect was a lie. Her father suffered greatly because of that lie, whose genesis was bad therapy and social/political faddism. Yet, she herself was not an automaton or passive agent. Looking back, she knew she had done wrong.

Anti-cult operatives take advantage of the current fad by persuading gullible individuals that the need for public-confession-as-therapy and the need to embrace a new identity as a “cult survivor” outweigh any loyalties, privacy concerns, or traditional ethical and legal constraints against libel. So, drunk with the heady draft of fellow “support group” members egging them on, these people proceed to tell the most extravagant lies about their former spiritual teacher or group. The best “whoppers” are then leaked to the press by anti-cult operatives, or posted on a remote website, devoid of any clue about the support group pressures which led to their creation. (See elsewhere my criticism of attorney Joseph C. Kracht for orchestrating or participating in such fraudulent activities, thus giving them his legal seal of approval.)

As I discussed in Part 2, a typical problem with ex-cult support groups is that members otherize spiritual groups whose beliefs and practices they formerly espoused. They experience a pathological loss of empathy for former friends, colleagues and mentors, and a pathological escalation of hostility. They no longer honour the social contract and no longer treat others with basic human decency. This leads them to commit unethical or even illegal acts against their former colleagues.

What we’re really talking about is a socially constructed view of the religious other as archetypal bogeyman. This view inherently implies that the other has no rights, so who could possibly object to false accounts on the grounds of libel, harassment, or false light invasion of privacy? Therapy culture plus Internet culture equals an unlimited opportunity to publicly shame people with whom one has some disagreement. This is the new emotional etiquette championed by some ethically rudderless psychologists and attorneys engaged in anti-cult advocacy.

— The author, from “Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence.”

Boiling things down to a usable form: Don’t blame the fabled snake for hissing when harassed. Just pray it doesn’t remember how to bite! Those seeking mercy should demonstrate genuine remorse. Otherwise they are more likely to receive justice. When it is a question of forgiveness, the answer depends on the sincerity of the individual.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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4 comments on “A Question of Forgiveness

  1. Pingback: The Maryknoll Nun – Playboy Centerfold Paradox, Part 1 | Ethics and Spirituality

  2. Pingback: Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy | Ethics and Spirituality

  3. Pingback: On Apostate Accounts or Testimonials, Part 2 | Ethics and Spirituality

  4. Pingback: Bithika O’Dwyer: A Tale of Two Psyches | Ethics and Spirituality

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