February 11, 2013

Forgiveness is a Social Act

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

Six-year old Emily Parker was one of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. At her funeral her father, Robbie Parker, offered his love and support to the family of the shooter.

In 2012, nineteen-year old Conor McBride shot and killed Ann Grosmaire, his girlfriend of three years. When it came time for the District Attorney to recommend punishment, Ann’s parents advocated for a reduced sentence so that Conor would not have to spend his entire life in jail.  

In 2006, Charles Roberts killed five Amish girls at the West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster, Pennsylviania. Soon after the shooting, the parents of the deceased girls raised money to assist the gunman’s wife and children and they consoled his father during the gunman’s funeral.

These are three unthinkable tragedies and three equally unthinkable reactions by the victims’ families. In a society that seems much more accustomed to seeking revenge and retribution, the response by these families to the immense pain and suffering they experienced is certainly noteworthy.

Forgive 1Each of these reactions falls under the general heading of forgiveness: the act of no longer feeling resentful or angry against an offender. When we speak of forgiveness we usually think of this as a deeply personal act. Forgiveness often comes after a period of protracted self-reflection in which one must grapple with their own moral, ethical, and spiritual underpinnings. For an individual to get to the point of forgiveness, especially for the type of atrocities noted above, requires that one transform feelings of ill-will and bitterness into genuine empathy and compassion.

Although there is no denying the individual dimensions of forgiveness, it is important to recognize that forgiveness is also an inherently social act. The notion that forgiveness is a social act may run counter to the way many people think of this concept. Instead of recognizing the interpersonal dimensions of letting go of one’s anger and resentment, we are much more accustomed to talking about forgiveness in strictly intrapersonal terms: I choose to Forgive 2forgive so that I may live my life more fully and move forward.

From a sociological perspective we should recognize that the act of forgiveness does not occur in a vacuum; it does not transpire solely within the self-contained world of the individual’s heart, mind, or soul. While the individual is the one who may utter words of forgiveness the social dimensions of this act reverberate widely. There are three ways that suggest how the act of relinquishing anger and resentment can be understood beyond the inner world of the individual.

First, there is the social interaction between those doing the forgiving (the victim or the victim’s significant others) and the offender. Even in those instances where there is no face-to-face contact between these parties, a social bond is established, social roles are defined, and a specific discourse of forgiveness is utilized. In uttering words of forgiveness an individual often enters into a new relationship with the offender and this relationship often results in a different way of acting and speaking to one another.

Second, there is the social interaction between those doing the forgiving and their significant offers. In deciding to forgive someone we often must offer an account to friends and family explaining our actions. Those closest to us may want to know why or how we are able to act with kindness after such a horrible deed was done to us. Sociologists have long been interested in such explanations and see then as important verbal strategies that maintain social relationships. In effect, the act of forgiveness doesn’t just transform the relationship between the victim and offender; it may also alter the relationship between the victim and her or his social group.

Third, when one offers forgiveness there is the possibility that new meanings are constructed. This third point is somewhat abstract but it gets to the heart of understanding the world through a sociological perspective. As Karen Sternheimer recently blogged about, the meanings we have for things are socially created. What we think of forgiveness, how we define this term, and even why one may decide to forgive someone are all socially conditioned. Through our socialization we learn what forgiveness is just as we learn why we may or may not want to invoke it.

When forgiveness is offered, particularly for the type of dreadful crimes mentioned above, it is possible that the meanings surrounding forgiveness may change. As family, friends, and the larger public debate and discuss this very personal act the social dimensions which inform it may be modified. This is what Herbert Blumer meant by his third premise of symbolic interaction: the meanings we have for things such as forgiveness are sometimes revised through an interpretive process. 

As an example, consider the West Nickel Mines shooting. When the Amish families expressed compassion for the shooter’s family almost immediately after this tragedy there was a national dialogue about forgiveness that occurred in the media, in places of worship, in schools, and in homes. Although it’s difficult to quantify, it is certainly possible that people’s understanding of forgiveness changed as a result of these in-depth conversations. Some may have become more forgiving while others may have become more hardened. In either case, the meaning of forgiveness, like all things to which we attribute meaning, must be recognized as fluid and not as static.

Throughout this post I have been discussing forgiveness in the context of the horrific crimes I mentioned in the beginning. But the idea of forgiveness as a social act is not exclusive to such heinous events. Even lesser indiscretions share these same social dimensions. As you go about your daily life and you find yourself wronged by a relative, friend, or co-worker you will inevitably be in the position to offer forgiveness. If and when you do, you may want to reflect on the social dimensions of your actions as well as the social consequences that follow.


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During my drive to work this morning, I was struck by a poem about forgiveness that begins near the 3:35 mark of this song by Wild Nothing. "Forgiving = Being Forgiven." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zm636VSQXUU

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