Forgiveness does not focus on ‘an eye for an eye’

Academy Awards presenter Chris Rock, left, reacts after Will Smith slapped him onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on March 27, 2022. Photo: The Associated Press

By Barbara Gutierrez

Academy Awards presenter Chris Rock, left, reacts after Will Smith slapped him onstage during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on March 27, 2022. Photo: The Associated Press

Forgiveness does not focus on ‘an eye for an eye’

By Barbara Gutierrez
University of Miami experts reflect on the virtue of forgiveness and why it is so important in the lives of many people.

It was the slap that everyone was talking about.

When actor Will Smith walked onstage during last year’s Academy Awards ceremony and slapped comedian Chris Rock for making a joke about Smith’s wife, it seemed like a staged moment.

It was not. The repercussions of that act linger.

Smith has issued two public apologies to Rock. Instead of accepting the apology, the comedian hosted a live Netflix show March 4 where he berated Smith. His anger was still palpable.

Forgiveness is a virtue that most world religions address as part of their doctrine. To take responsibility for one’s transgressions and ask to be forgiven is at the core of most faiths, University of Miami experts said.

“It is fundamental in the Christian tradition,” said David W. Kling, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies. “There is a close analogy between human and divine forgiveness. Just as God offers forgiveness for sins committed, so followers of Jesus are to offer forgiveness to others.”

But it goes farther: the offended is to seek to bring the wrongdoer to the realization of the wrong committed.   

The ultimate act of forgiveness is when Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross by Roman soldiers, says to God: “Forgive them father for they know not what they do.”

The New Testament says to forgive others as God would forgive you, said Kling, but in the divine-human relationship, there are some conditions.

“If you want God to forgive you, you have to confess your sins,” said Kling. Confession or the act of reconciliation, as it is now called by the Catholic Church, involves contrition, confession, and satisfaction (or penance for the sins committed).

As an example of reconciliation and forgiveness, Kling mentioned the South Africa Truce and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the apartheid system was abolished in South Africa.

“They brought together those who had been victims and affected by the system and the offenders themselves with the idea of seeking reconciliation,” he said.

This was an attempt to free the victims of resentment and hatred toward those who had oppressed them and at the same time an acknowledgment on the part of the perpetrator to own up to their offense.

“Forgiveness is often more important for the victims since it relieves them from carrying the resentment,” he said. But forgiving does not mean you forget the deed, he said.

This year, for the first time in many years, the religious holidays of Passover (Jewish), Ramadan (Islam), and Easter (Christian) fall within the same time period, and among other things they spotlight reflection and forgiveness.

Lent, a period of reflection and self-denial, observed by most Christian religions, began two weeks ago. Ramadan, a time when Muslims detach from worldly pleasures and fast, begins in late March. And Passover, which celebrates the freedom of Jews from slavery in Egypt, will take place in early April—a few days before Easter Sunday, the day Christians celebrate Christ’s resurrection.   

In the Jewish tradition, followers believe the words quoted in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, that reads: “human beings are made in the image of God.”

“The idea is that one elevates oneself to be a morally righteous human being,” said Henry A. Green, professor of religious studies.

Judaism teaches its followers to lead a virtuous life. This is part of daily prayers and every week offers the Sabbath, a day of rest for reflection when followers should take stock of their deeds and misdeeds, according to Green.  

And once a year on Yom Kippur, the date of atonement and the holiest day of repentance in Judaism, one fasts to cause individual and collective purification by the practice of forgiveness of the wrongs of others and by repentance of one’s own wrongs against God. During Yom Kippur one can atone for sins between man and God but not for sins between people.

“In terms of other people (you have aggrieved), you should ask for forgiveness from them,” Green said. “God cannot forgive you for actions you have taken against other people.”  

Unlike Christianity—where a follower can be forgiven for most sins by a final confession—Jews are judged by how they behaved throughout their life, noted Green.

“In the Jewish religion there is not one end where you get grace,” said Green. “It is all based on your deeds, your actions, and sincerity of reflection, so you can elevate yourself.”

Buddhism does not teach about forgiveness as such, said Justin Ritzinger, associate professor of religious studies. The goal of Buddhists is to work toward nirvana or at least be as good a person in their present life as they can. Buddhists believe in rebirth; thus, the person leads many lives.

“When we talk about forgiveness in the U.S. it is often focused on the relationship between two people, and if you wrong someone then you incur a kind of debt to them,” he said. If wronged, one should never follow “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” from a Buddhist point of view, he added. 

Instead, one should focus on forbearance. Holding on to anger is dangerous because it can lead to worse actions and can undermine all the spiritual progress a person has made, Ritzinger pointed out.

“A single spark of anger can burn down an entire forest of virtue,” he said. In Buddhism there is a meditative exchange of self when one imagines being in the other person’s shoes.

“You try to imagine why they have done what they have done,’’ said Ritzinger, “which also leads to the realization that you are also capable of that same sort of act under similar conditions.”