Scott Hurd’s groundbreaking book on forgiveness has been revised and updated, and the new Forgiveness: A Catholic Approach will be available September 20. Pauline Books & Media’s Jeannette de Beauvoir caught up with him to get some of his thoughts on forgiveness in the current age.
Jeannette: Why a revision of this book at this particular time?
Scott Hurd: A lot has happened in the eight years since the book was first published. Pope Francis was elected, and he speaks about forgiveness a great deal. I’m very grateful that he places such a strong emphasis on forgiveness in living a Christian life, and I’ve incorporated some of what he’s said. Also, I wanted to address certain topics I failed to explore in the first edition. There’s the matter of forced or premature forgiveness, which can be a real issue in certain religious and therapeutic circles, and some have written about in light of the #MeToo movement. I also wished to nuance the common assertion that God won’t forgive us until we forgive others first. And then, in light of the anger and disappointment felt by so many Catholics today, I’ve explored the question of forgiving the Church itself.
Jeannette: What is the chief obstacle to forgiveness?
Scott Hurd: I had to think about this one; I’m not sure if the chief obstacle is ongoing pain from a hurt we’ve experienced, or the desire for justice in response to that hurt. Of course, they’re both intertwined, because ongoing pain can fuel a wish for retribution. Forgiveness involves letting go of the desire for revenge, which is an essential element in allowing our pain to be healed. But forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to us; it has to be learned, as it conflicts with our “natural instinct to pay back evil with evil,” as John Paul II once explained. And resisting a natural instinct is not easy. The path to forgiveness can be a long, hard road along which we sometimes take one step forward, followed by two steps back. At some level we realize this when we begin the journey, and that fear can prevent us from taking the first step.
Jeannette: Why do people find it difficult to forgive others? And to accept forgiveness from others?
Scott Hurd: There are many reasons why people find it difficult to forgive. Sometimes people find the concept of forgiveness difficult because they misunderstand what forgiveness is, and fear that forgiving someone lets them “off the hook.” But that’s not the case. While forgiveness does indeed require letting go of the desire for revenge, it does not require that we abandon the quest for justice. “I forgive you” it not the same as “That’s okay; don’t worry about it.” If we’ve been hurt, that’s definitely not okay. Forgiveness isn’t a denial of our pain and doesn’t pretend that nothing happened or condone what’s been done to us. In the Christian worldview, strict justice is tempered with mercy, but actions still have consequences. To give a rather lighthearted example, a teenager who lies about missing curfew can be forgiven, but they’re still grounded next weekend!
Jeannette: I’ve always been in awe of the forgiveness exhibited by the Amish families of Nickel Mines after the shooting there. Not many people can be that clear about what is necessary to follow Christ in times when emotions run high. Is there a way to open our hearts to that kind of utter forgiveness and love?
As I said earlier, forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to us. It has to be learned, and it can be practiced. It’s for good reason that the Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies families as schools of forgiveness. With the Amish, it seems that they had created a culture in which forgiveness was an essential part. In face of the horrific tragedy at Nickel Mines, forgiving wasn’t counter-cultural to them. While those of us who aren’t Amish may admire that, it can also seem foreign and even unrealistic. But perhaps their witness can challenge us to help change our cultures.
I’m glad you mentioned “when emotions run high.” When we’ve been hurt, it’s natural for us to feel angry, and that’s okay. That’s a normal reaction, and we need to acknowledge and process that anger as we heal. But anger and forgiveness aren’t mutually exclusive. The baseline of forgiveness is the choice to not retaliate and respond to hurt with additional hurt. And we can make that choice, even when our emotions are running high.
A distinction can be made between “decisional forgiveness” and “emotional forgiveness.” Decisional forgiveness concerns the choice to forgive, regardless of our feelings, while emotional forgiveness is achieved only when we feel that we have forgiven. Just because the Amish quickly extended forgiveness to the gunman who killed their children doesn’t mean that they didn’t experience immense grief, anger, and sadness. They did. While they began with decisional forgiveness, emotional forgiveness only came later, after sadness and tears.
Jeannette: Do we have to think about forgiveness, work through a mental process, before we can do it?
Scott Hurd: Forgiveness is a choice and not simply a feeling, so yes. People sometimes consider forgiveness as an option only after their other ways of dealing with the pain and grief of their having been hurt aren’t working for them anymore. They become sick and tired of being sick and tired and wonder if there’s a different way forward. Then they’ll think: “Maybe I’ll try forgiveness.” And that choice to consider forgiveness will hopefully lead to making the choice to forgive – a choice that can often need to be made over and over again.
Jesus said that we should forgive others “seventy times seven times.” And sometimes we have to do that for a single hurt- especially a grave one- as we continue to contend with our feelings and perhaps a desire for revenge.
Jeannette: Forgiveness is often coupled with restoration or reconciliation of some kind. How necessary is restoration/reconciliation in the forgiveness process?
Scott Hurd: I’m glad you asked this as forgiveness and reconciliation are sometimes confused. Reconciliation is the restoration of a broken relationship, and it can be a beautiful thing. Sometimes, however, reconciliation isn’t always possible, such as if a person who hurt us has died or is no longer a part of our life. And it might be that reconciliation is inadvisable, as with dangerous or abusive people. We can forgive from a distance the people we should keep at a distance. While people who hurt us are always worthy of our forgiveness, they may no longer be worthy of our trust.
In short, true reconciliation requires forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. Forgiveness only requires one willing party; reconciliation necessitates two.
Jeannette: Please share one story from your book that you find the most enlightening.
Scott Hurd: My favorite story is that of the old army sergeant who was dying in a VA hospital from internal bleeding ulcers. I encountered it years ago in an issue of National Geographic, which is the last place I thought I’d find a good story about forgiveness! Thirty years after WW2, he was still wrestling with resentments against old enemies, and it was literally killing him from the inside out. It was only after a burly cigar-chomping doctor (this was the ‘70s…) blurted out, “Good God, Sarge, who do you hate?” that this hurting, tough, and dying man burst into tears and began to confront the pain he’d been carrying for decades.
While this story is certainly colorful, I also think it’s deeply compelling as it can give hope of healing for anyone who struggles under the debilitating burden of great pain and anger.
Jeannette: Why is it so easy to hold a grudge?
Scott Hurd: For many reasons. Sometimes the prevailing culture doesn’t help. While forgiveness may have been popularized in recent decades- which is a good thing – a belief still persists that forgiveness is a sign of weakness or defeat
Plus, when we’re in a wounded state we can be tempted to exploit our situation to what we think is our advantage. We can play the martyr in a quest for sympathy. We might enjoy feeling smugly superior to the one who harmed us; we’re the “good guy,” and they’re the “bad guy.” Our identity can even become one and the same with our hurt; we’re known as the cheated spouse, the unappreciated child, the wronged employee.
Because it’s so easy to fall into these traps, it’s also easy to hold a grudge. But forgiveness, thankfully, offers us a better way forward.
Jeannette: What happens if we cannot forgive someone?
Scott Hurd: The science is pretty clear about this. If we get stuck in anger and resentment, we place ourselves at risk for depression, chronic back pain, struggles with anxiety and sleep, high blood pressure, heart attacks, and cancer. Even our memory and our ability to think straight are compromised.
But failing to forgive can impact our relationships too. Perhaps our response to being hurt is to retreat into a shell, cutting ourselves off from others and their friendship and love. Or, since misery often loves company, our bitterness can drive people away.
Those who refuse to forgive should dig two graves, warns an ancient Chinese proverb. But those who forgive can enrich their lives, benefitting not only themselves, but those around them too.
Jeannette: What happens if we cannot forgive ourselves?
Scott Hurd: There’s an old wisdom that says that we can’t give what we don’t have. And I think that’s true of forgiveness. If we don’t forgive ourselves, we’ll find it that much harder to forgive anyone else. Even more, when we don’t forgive ourselves, we often end up punishing ourselves.
Guilt is not a bad thing; it’s a sign that we have a conscience and are in touch with reality. But seeking to make amends or restitution for what we’ve done is far healthier than getting stuck in chronic guilt. It’s better to do good, than to feel bad.
Jeannette: How do you forgive an institution?
Scott Hurd: That is a complicated question! Some would insist that only people, not institutions, can be forgiven. Bernie Madoff might be forgiven by those he ripped off in his Ponzi scheme, but how might Enron be forgiven by those who lost jobs and retirement—especially since Enron no longer exists? No, it’s the Enron decision-makers who are candidates for forgiveness.
Some say that this is true of the Church as well. Then again, the Church is no ordinary institution, but is like a sacrament, meant to be a sign of God’s love to the world. It is the Body of Christ: Christ is the head, Christians are the members, and the whole body is filled with the Holy Spirit. “We are the Church,” it can be rightly said, which is why some maintain that the Church itself can be forgiven for when it reflects God’s love imperfectly, or not at all. However, the traditional understanding is that while the Church as Christ’s perfect body isn’t a candidate for forgiveness, its sinful members are.
When we’re in pain, distinctions like these may not matter much. As I say in the book, maybe who or what we forgive depends on how we’ve been hurt, and what approach will best help us heal.
Jeannette: How do people explain to others (lapsed Catholics, nonbelievers, etc.) how they can still love the Church?
Scott Hurd: That’s a hard one; there’s a lot of understandable anger toward the Church right now, especially in view of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. This scandal exemplifies the Church at its institutional worst. But even those outside the Church might be able to love it, I guess, through admiring its witness and fundamental commitment to serving the sick, the poor, and the disenfranchised- those “on the margins.” This, I believe, is the Church at its institutional best, which can elicit the admiration and support of those who themselves are not a part of it.
I think of what the French philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus said to a Catholic audience just three years after the Second World War. Camus was certainly an agnostic, and quite possibly an atheist. But he understood that the Church could be a great force for good, and he wanted to encourage that.
Here’s what he said:
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. […] Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?