Christianity and forgiveness

This time I would like to share another Orkut incident with you. It is a perfect example of how Levinas decribes the “killing the other” (in a non-literal way), a phenomenon which he strongly protests against and describes as immoral. It is about forgiveness.
(I will use some other names for the Orkuters for the anonymity.)

Ibrahim had insulted Brian, in a thread Brian had started in which he c
ompares European politicians who receive Muslims "with open arms " in Europe, today, with “Quislings”. Quislings were collaborators with the Nazi’s in the Second World War (a ridiculous comparison). Brian said to me that Ibriham should take back his words within 20 minutes, or that I should ban him from the community otherwise. I said I would give him more time. In the mean time another Orkuter said that we "badly needed some lollipops to stop all the fighting there and make people sweet". Then Ibrahim said that he accepted the lollipop because it was so sweet. Then Brian complained that I didn’t ban Ibrahim although he didn’t take back his words.

I said that I thought there should be some forgiveness with Christmas (it was the 26st of December) and that Ibrahim had said something friendly at least...

So far so good for the silly fights in Orkut and talks about lollipops, which have nothing to do with real discussions. But then it becomes interesting, because Brian starts to put stickers on me, and thereby he treats me as an object instead of a human being with my own will and point of view.

Brian says to me: “Forgiveness is a Christian Western trait, Esther, and not suited for someone like you who hates all things western or Christian.”

He labels me as a West-hater and Christianity-hater. His logic is crazy, saying that forgiveness is a characteristic of Christianity and Western culture, as if it would be totally absent in anything non-Christian and non-Western, a ridiculous idea. Anyway, he labels me as anti-Western and anti-Christian. These labels don’t fit for me, being pro-moderate-Islam and choosing a non-Western side in some issues of international politics, doesn’t mean that I would hate the Western and Christian culture that I grew up with, which is part of me, and of which I appreciate many aspects. We have had discussions at Orkut for more than two years, Brian and me, he should know me better than that by now. And his way of reasoning is totally wrong. He comes to his conclusion without ever asking me anything, without listening to me. He treats me as an object, as if I cannot speak out for myself, and that’s how he has decided for me that it doesn't suit to be forgiving. By labeling me as anti-Western and anti-Christian, he reduces me to these categories, instead of treating me as a unique individual. He claims that for all people who belong to that category it is unsuitable to be forgiving. So he determines to which category I belong and he claims to know the characteristics of all people in that category. The logical conclusion is then that I have to have these characteristics as well: I cannot be forgiving.

There is no need to ask me how I think about forgiveness, there is no need to look at my actual behaviour (in fact I just forgave Ibrahim). And through that, Brian killed me as a human, he is treating me as a lifeless will-less object. It is totally immoral and inhuman to do that to the other. I should have the right to speak for myself, I should be able to say to Brian: “What you say about me is not correct, it suits me very well to be forgiving.” He should listen to that and accept it. Maybe he is right and maybe I am wrong, maybe he knows me better than I do. But I always have the right to speak for myself, an he never has got the right to treat me as an object.

And then it becomes even funnier, the discussion, because then he says that he considers himself somehow as a Christian, but that he disapproves of the concept of forgiveness.

He writes:

On Forgiveness

While I am an Agnostic, I consider myself a cultural Christian.

This concept came to me when I had an Indian roommate who was an atheist. He said that he loved his culture, but it was difficult to salvage the beauty in his culture while throwing out Hinduism. If he completely abandoned Hinduism, then he would be completely abandoning a culture which is to be proud of; not just the religion.

He came up with the concept that while he was spiritually an Atheist, he was culturally a Hindu.
I liked that idea.

I am spiritually Agnostic, but culturally Protestant (even though I have quite a few Je
wish relatives).
Some parts of Christianity are very beautiful, but I have learned through life's hard lessons that they are not for me. One such thing is forgiveness. I very, very rarely allow myself to forgive people.

If a friend commits a trespass against you, you can never trust him again. Forgiveness is a lack of pattern recognition. If a friend steals from you or a girlfriend cheats on you, they have proven to you that they are capable of such things. Now you know that those actions are within the expected behaviors of that individual. You cannot logically forgive or forget the incident or you will likely find yourself in the same position of victimhood. Your guard must forever be up against such a person.

Forgiveness: This aspect of Christianity I reject.

How strange. Adopting the culture of Christianity but not the religion. Accepting some beautiful parts, but with no belief in God, choosing nice beautiful pleasant parts as if Christianity is a supermarket where you can choose whatever you like and leave the rest behind. You keep some cultural traditions but you skip the ethics mainly. “To respect my parents is ok but the “Thou shalt not kill” command doesn’t fit for me, I will skip that one ;). God probably doesn’t exist anyway so I don’t have to fear his punishment.”

Brian says that forgiveness is a lack of pattern recognition. He is right in that, however that is exactly what we should do: stop thinking in absolute generalized stereotyped patterns. Stop predicting future behaviour of the other, stop putting labels on him or her.

To do the opposite, no dehumanization of the other, but to fully accept the other, to take my responsibility to listen to the appeal of the other, to try to understand the other, to care for the other, for that forgiveness is badly needed. We are not imprisoned in the past, the future is free and open. We can start today to create a new world. People make mistakes, that is only human. I have to build a bridge towards the other who is totally different from me. Only if I accept him totally as he is, with all the things I disapprove of, all the things he has done wrong, the harm he has done to me; only when I forgive him, can we go on together.

On the other hand some things cannot and should not be forgiven. Levinas didn’t forgive Heidegger for becoming a Nazi. Only such extreme cases, where there is no recognition of the wrong and harm that has been done, no regret, no responsibility, no change for the better, then it might be impossible to forgive.

But you have to do something with the harm someone did to you, otherwise there is a big chance you will become embittered and cynical. You have to have a big heart and to open it for the other. If you show that you are willing to build a bridge to the other, then the chance is much bigger that the other will also be willing to build a bridge to you. And that is the road to goodness, love and peace, away from hate, violence and war.

When I speak like this I speak as a believer. In the same way as Levinas is a believer. He believes that God is infinite goodness. To follow God means to be good like him, to do your best to do good deeds, unconditionally. The other requests this from me. If I help the other, if I listen to his appeal, then I am good, a true follower of God. I should feed who is hungry, offer shelter to the homeless, take care of orphans, help strangers who are lost to find their way. If there is a typical Christian and Jewish moral then it is this. And of course I should be forgiving, and turn the other cheek. There are different ways in which you can consider the concept of Christianity, but I think it is impossible to consider these aspects as un-Christian, and it is impossible to skip these aspects and keep the rest. Brian said himself that forgiveness is a Christian trait. It is at the core of Christianity and it cannot be neglected. Like this it is the world totally upside down, to say that I would be a Christianity hater for whom it doesn’t suit to be forgiving and that Brian would be a cultural Christian who disapproves of forgiveness.


by Luka Bloom

I open up my eyes
To the sunlight shining new
And in the dream that takes me back
A single word rings through
My memories awaken
To the horrors come to pass
One word in the morning light
Brings freedom home at last


For the ancient wounds still hurting
For the wrongs I've never known
For all the children left to die
Near fields where corn was grown
Like the ones who braved the ocean
In the fever sheds to burn
Let all the hatred leave these shores now
Never to return

When all the fighting is done
When all the blood has run
The opening fist
brings forgiveness
A wounded hand to kiss

It's the wonderdrug
it's the miracle cure
It could change our world
make our lives secure
I take my chance
at each abyss
and reach for my forgiveness

In the light of a new day

Together we grow
together we know
no losers no winners
in forgiveness

Together we're free
together we see
no right or no wrong
in forgiveness

Forgive me
I forgive you

It has been two days since you clamed that you would fix your factual errors.
I changed it now (I have some other things to do as well in my daily life :) )

I was thinking still about the concept of forgiveness, I find it really beautiful and good.

Strange that Brent said that when a friend does something wrong, you cannot trust him anymore because you know he is capable of doing bad things.

For me it doesn't work like that at all. Last week a friend didn't keep his promise. Normally I would be angry if someone just dissappears without letting hear anything from him. But because I know him will, and I know he has got a good heart, and this is something he finds difficult and he does so to everyone, it is not that he thinks I am not important, this is why I can forgive him at once.

In general I certainly trust him, but I know that he often doesn't keep this kind of promises, so already at the moment he makes the promise I doubt if it is going to happen, that is why I am not very surprised and not very angry when it turns out he didn't keep his promise.

That friend can always "break a little pot" from me (Dutch expression), he can do something wrong and I will accept it immediately, things which I don't accept from other people. It is good to have friendships like that, that the friendship is unconditionally, you trust and like and forgive each other. Then it's a strong friendship and you can be open to each other. Each time you can make a new start together.
*Correction: I know him well (instead of will)
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The comment on how your friend can 'break a little pot' with you (yes, I know the expression ;o), made me think of something...

Levinas says the other appeals to me and that in doing so, I have a responsibility to aid the other.
He adds though that I should aid in the matter that is possible for me...

I was wondering....when we decide to aid the other, will we not aid the other to a greater extent when we are familiar with the other ? (a friend, a relative, ...)

And if we indeed tend to aid what is familiar to ourselves more, where does this leave us in the face of what is not familiar to us ?

For example...the man of the strange culture and habits we meet in the street ?

The appeal is the same, as is the responsibility...but is the chance of us aiding ?

Just a thought...
A very interesting thought, Bart.

The appeal and the responsibility is the same for a complete stranger indeed. I don't know if I can help the stranger less.

When the person who is the closest to me in my life was in trouble, I could not help. Exactly because I was too close and only someone with a distance could help.

And the ethical force of an appeal made by a complete stranger is the strongest. Of course you want to help your family and friends, but why would you want to help someone you don't know at all, one who will probably do nothing for you in return, somebody for whom you don't feel anything. It could be anyone.

But the other is not just anyone, it is this specific face standing before me and making his appeal to me, and to nobody else.

And in fact what matters is not how much I can help the other, what matters is that I do all that I can. No matter how little food I have, that I share it with the other.

Of course it does matter if the other is really helped or not, but Levinas is mainly interested in ethics, more in my responsibility to the other than in the result of my actions.
As you say ...the ethical force of an appeal made by a complete stranger is the strongest..., it really gets interesting.

Because now we can turn the whole idea upside down: the more something is strange or different something or someone is to me, the stronger the ethical force of it's appeal on me...

Or, to stay with Levinas and his 'Totalité versus L'Infini', the more something is strange to me, the more I will try to eradicate it because it does not fit in my totalitarian system (Gestell).

or...simply said: while the appeal is in fact the same, it takes me more effort to live up to my responsibility when it concerns something strange to me.
Exactly :)
This reminds me of a theory I heard recently on the symposium 'Making Sense of the City', a forum for social scientists and artists on urbanization.

The theory said that, next to personal relationships (with friends, family, ...), we also have so-called 'traffic relationships'. These are a set of written and unwritten rules that allow us to move through our society without getting into trouble. Things like knowing when or when not to make eye-contact, how to behave in the streets, on the bus, ... are all included in these 'traffic rules'.

Intercultural frictions are often caused by differences in these 'traffic rules'.

A Dutchman could for example easily get around in Belgium without causing the least of anoyance and friction, while complaints about 'those loud Moroccons who stand in the streets till late at night' are often heard.

So again, we end up with: when something is 'strange' to me...it takes more effort/ethical appeal to sucesfully interact with it.
I said "exactly" the first time you said it takes more effort to take our responsibility for something strange.

But the way you said it the second time, in fact I disagree.

There can be many intercultural frictions because we don't know each others "traffic rules", indeed.

But the advantage is that we expect the stranger to have other traffic rules. So then there is a bigger chance that I treat the stranger "the way Levinas wants it". That I listen well to what the stranger says, that I try to understand him and what his rules are like, that I take them into account instead of imposing my own rules on him.

Courses for intercultural competences often focus on differences between cultures, as if our own culture is very normal and other cultures are totally different and therefor difficult to deal with for us.

But Levinas doesn't write specifically about intercultural contact. He says that any other human being that I meet is totally different from me. It doesn't make much difference if we share the same culture or not.

I am the only one who can stand in my own shoes, who can think my own thoughts. Nobody else knows how it feels to be me, and I don't know that about anybody else either.

If I think that I know the other, if I determine that the other is the same as me, then I start to treat the other as an object, I reduce the other to the image I have of him in my mind. But the real other is not in my mind but standing in front of me. We will always remain separated, we will never be the same.

When I meet a complete stranger this is clear from the beginning, that we are not the same. But a couple who has lived together for a long time, who shares many memories, could start to think that they know each other completely and that they are the same. They can start to talk for each other instead of letting the other talk for him or herself.

So the risk of of totalisation / objectification / dehumanisation is bigger when people consider each other more as the same. There should be a clear distance / separateness for me to be able to respond to the appeal of the other. I should accept the total otherness of the other to really listen to him and not to my own thoughts about him.
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