Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Driving home a couple of days ago, I saw a license plate frame, on the top part of which was printed "TGIF." On the bottom was the helpful translation: "Thank God I'm Forgiven." Puzzling. Maybe readers can help.

The whole idea of forgiveness is a challenging one, particularly as it applies to specific acts between specific actors. But the car-driving lady in question -- helpfully sharing the news -- considers herself preƫmptively forgiven in all things, as if in possession of a limitless line of credit. Issued by god, one can only assume. (Unless she has an abusive husband.) Not a bad arrangement. Even better: she feels like mentioning it to strangers.

Maybe secretly unconvinced she really has a get out of jail free card, she chooses to flash it around. To anyone. Like that seals the deal: she has it in writing. Just above her tailpipe. I guess I sympathize with her defensiveness: the contract does seem a little too good to be true. Is she worried there's some fine print?

Or is it more like those bumper stickers: "Make a thousand dollars a day. Ask me how."

If she believes she's forgiven -- whatever that means -- no matter what, prospectively, no need to change her plate-frame whatever she does, from now till forever, what then is the motivation to restrain herself? And why the need to flaunt it?

"I am forGIVen, I am forGIVen, la la la la LAH la, neener neener NEEner..."

How do you reconcile the guiltogenic idea that Jesus died for your sins, with the idea that you still need to be forgiven? Are forgiven? Pre-forgiven. Either he wasted the effort, or you're not off the hook as much as you think. Of course, it's not like he actually died, so there's that... but if I were a Christian, I think I'd still want to err toward caution. Maybe even keep my license plate available for other sentiments, like My kid beat up your honor student.

This past Sunday, on 60 Minutes, there was a remarkable story, which can be watched here (there are two clips.) The main issue is the unreliability of memory, even of eye-witness accounts. In brief: a woman was raped, then (despite making a conscious effort, at the time of the crime, to remember her attacker) she mis-indentified the accused, who ended up in prison for eleven years. Even after the actual rapist was imprisoned for another rape, and was heard to admit to the first, and when the falsely accused got another trial at which the actual perpetrator was there in court for her to see, the victim re-identified the wrong man. Who was returned to prison. (They did look quite alike.)

It was only after the poor man kept working on his own behalf and got people to go back to the original rape-kit to collect DNA (not much used when he was first tried) that he was exonerated.

Fascinating as the issue of false memory is, and as important as the message was that law enforcement needs to handle eye-witnesses differently, it was something else entirely that impressed me. First, the woman was exceptionally brave and candid in telling her story, so publicly admitting and taking responsibility for her devastating error. Even more astounding was the fact that, after he was freed, she asked to meet the man, in a church. And he forgave her. He forgave her.

What interesting questions it raises. What IS forgiveness, really? What is the relation between the two people? Who is giving, who is receiving? And what, exactly, is the transaction? What is being given, what given up? Does it differ from the more familiar concept of "letting it go; moving on; it's okay, let's drop it?" Forgiveness seems a much more profound thing, but I can't quite say how. The woman said it allowed her heart to heal. And yet it seems too easy. (For one thing, the man turns out not only to have been innocent, but to be an amazingly generous soul. Can that degree of wrong disappear with a single word?) As I contemplate the situation in which I might use the word, it seems presumptuous of me that I'd assume that power over another, or see myself in what seems a higher position. It seems, paradoxically, both generous and self-indulgent.

I don't discount the act in any way. I think it's incredibly moving, on both of their parts. But I have a hard time processing it. Forgive. Forgiveness. Forgiven. At once too complicated to understand, and too simple when reduced to a single word. It does suggest that in humanity there remains a shred of hope. It's an act that only humans can bestow, and only a few at that: both in giving and receiving. Too easy, too hard.

The rest is wishful thinking. As to the kind one declares on a license plate: in its simpering self-satisfied certitude, it is self-canceling; in its supercilious smugness, repugnant.

Unforgivable, one might say.



Frank Drackman said...

Your just jealous cause she expressed her philosophy in 4 words while you took 13 paragraphs... You owe it to yourself to visit Jaw-Jaw before you die...I saw a "GOD HATES FAGS" the other day...on a car with a Delware license plate...

Leigh said...

If your theology fits on a bumper sticker, Ur Not Doin It Rite. Even Jesus, who was good at boiling it down, took three sentences.

And I am astonished to hear that Westboro Baptist has established a mission outpost in Delaware, of all places. Who'd thunk it?

But I love it when bigots self-label. Makes it so much easier for the rest of us to avoid them!

egomosperficio said...

the whole idea of god forgiving my sins is ridiculous. can god forgive me for wronging someone who actually lives on this planet? of course not; it is not his/her prerogative. what about when i "wrong" god? sorry, but i can't wrong someone that fails to reveal his or herself to me.

Sili said...

Some years ago I saw a short segment about a US family whose daughter had been killed in what was essentially a racially motivated drive-by shooting shortly after having come to South Africa - to do charity, I think.

(She was white and driving - or rather being driven by friends - through a ... 'bad neighbourhood').

Her parents. Her parents then went to SA, themselves, and took up her charitable work. Trying to help out in the townships.

They did cite their faith (I think - it's been a while), but either which way I was very moved. They demonstrated a compassion that I am not able to find in myself.

Ellen Kimball said...

We had to deal with "family estrangement" issues with living members of the immediate family. It is quite difficult to "forgive" them for their ill-will, but a psychologist has helped me with the comforting thought that "they are doing the best they can with who they are and what they have experienced." Essentially, these three children had to survive the ordeal of having their biological mother die from cancer when they were 13, 11 and 8.

Consequently, I did a lot of research on people who were somehow able to "forgive" parents who are murderers, rapists, serial killers, etc. The truly remarkable fact is that some people can even express forgiveness for a criminal who caused them or their loved ones grave injury or death.

I hope I never have to put it to the test, and I certainly wouldn't put it on any license plate!

This Salon article might be of interest to your readers:


Cheers from Nuevo Vallarta/Nayarit/Mexico!


Sid Schwab said...

A good article, Ellen. Thanks. It gets a little at what I was thinking about. Forgiveness is more about a process the injured party goes through, ie, finding a way to get rid of the anger and hurt. So, it seems to me, the "transaction" is more about the giver than the recipient. As, I think, it should be in some ways. The recipient, ie the perpetrator, gets off easier by having chosen a victim, or victims' family, with the grace to forgive. But I'm still trying to understand what it really means.

Leigh said...

I think what it means, Sid, is freedom. Mr. Science and I watched the segment, and that was our conclusion. Ron Cotton modeled grace, and because of it, he was able to free himself from the corrosive effects of anger and bitterness. He also helped Jennifer forgive herself. The two of them are able to do important work for justice now, which they could never do without that freedom.

We don't always see Christians following Christ, but Ron Cotton is an excellent example of how transformative that behavior can be.

SeaSpray said...

The transaction goes both ways and benefits both parties.

I had a hairdresser who's little 9 year old daughter was hit by a drunk driver who drove up on her lawn and the girl died.

She told me that they met with him and told him they forgave him.

They were very involved in their church and had a strong faith. She told me that he became a Christian after that.

Thought provoking post!

04:13 here. I'll come back. ;)

tribulation periwinkle said...

Atheist humanist here. Also victim of organized hate crimes. I forgive all of them, even though none have requested it, and they continue their acts.

But the forgiveness is for me - it affirms that I value all humans as inherently having worth and also acknowledge that there is always at least potential for the perpetrators to fundamentally change. It also keeps me from dissolving in toxic causticity of hate. But perhaps the key was for me to distinguish between condemnation of the acts from forgiveness of the person.

However, that does not mean that I don't avoid them at all costs, and that I will never forget what they have done and continue to do. The issue of trust is also always with me - they stripped it, and I don't think I'll ever get that back relative to trusting anyone for anything, large or small.

Anonymous said...

Jesus did not need three sentences--just one:

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

This is apt for a physician who is better at passing out aspirins than dispensing spiritual advice.

And, for those who are also rather smug and righteous in their own sight, he advises:

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, just the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, just sinners to repentance."

Doc, best to stick with your vocation and craft than with your avocation and crap.

Best of luck.

Sid Schwab said...

What a useless comment.

But it was "rather smug and righteous."

Anonymous said...

My brother-in-law is one of those Christians who caries a well-thumbed, sweat-stained bible everywhere he goes. He frequently quotes from it yet he does not seem to have actually read it for comprehension.

On one occasion, I pointed out a discrepancy between his behavior and the "Word of God." He played the "Get out of jail free" card; saying "I'm not perfect, I'm just forgiven."

I replied: "I suppose that means, that being in a state of grace, you could have volunteered to "Cast the First Stone."

And: "nowhere in the book does it say that forgiveness is automatic; for without repentance, there can be no forgiveness and you are the most unrepentant person I know."

He did not reply.

Kristi said...


As you and Ellen are aware, I'm going through a difficult time right now and ever day seems to bring something new and even more bizarre. But, I digress.

I consider myself to be an incredibly spiritual person. I do attend Church (it's be hard lately, though)....but I'm not a big fan of organized religion.

Having said that, my faith gives me a solid foundation of who I am and how I live my life. How I treat others. I have a very strong set of values and a solid set of personal ethics.

I have had more than my fair share of incredibly trying times in my life and I've learned that forgiveness is key. It has nothing to do with forgetting, but as another commenter said...it is corrosive. Carrying that anger around with you is no different, IMHO, than just being eaten from the inside out with pure acid. It's not healthy at all.

Again, it has nothing to do with forgetting...that's impossible.

Recently, I read a wonderful book in one sitting and it really put an interesting spin on the way that I've always thought of my faith to be. I very highly recommend it.

It's called "The Shack" by Wm. Paul Young and will only set you back about 10 bucks.

I read my copy in one sitting and have since been passing it around to friends and I just gifted a copy of it to a Surgeon friend of mine that helped out earlier this month.

You won't be disappointed. I promise you.

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