By Dr. Sulekh C. Jain
Every religion discusses the concept of forgiveness in some shape or form. The question arises, then, what is forgiveness? I believe that it is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense and lets go of negative emotions such as revenge, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.
The need to forgive is widely recognized by people, yet they are often at a loss for ways to accomplish it. For example, in a large representative sampling of American people on various religious topics in 1988, the Gallup Organization found that 94% said it was important to forgive, but 85% said they needed some outside help to be able to forgive. However, not even regular prayer was found to be effective. Other interesting polls by
Akin to forgiveness is mercy, so even if a person is not able to complete the forgiveness process he or she can still show mercy, especially when so many wrongs are done out of weakness rather than malice. The Gallup poll revealed that the only thing that was effective was "meditative prayer".
It goes without saying that forgiveness is essential for the human soul. As a psychological concept and virtue, the benefits of forgiveness have been explored in religious thought, the social sciences and medicine. In most contexts, forgiveness is granted without any expectation of restorative justice, and without any response on the part of the offender (for example, one may forgive a person who is incommunicado or dead). In practical terms, it may be necessary for the offender to offer some form of acknowledgment, an apology, or even just ask for forgiveness from the wronged person.
As a tool forgiveness has been used in restorative justice programs, after the abolition of apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (South Africa), run for victims and perpetrators of Rwandan genocide, the violence in Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and Northern Ireland conflict, which has also been documented in the film, Beyond Right and Wrong: Stories of Justice and Forgiveness (2012).
Another Gallup Poll found that 57% of respondents to a study on spiritual contentment agreed that because of their faith they have forgiven someone who hurt them deeply. Granted the respondents were all Christian, but the study delves into the deeply spiritual nature of forgiveness and mercy. Next month I will continue the theme of forgiveness by highlighting some concepts of forgiveness in the world's major religions.
Dr. Sulekh Jain is Chairman of the Governing Council of International School for Jain Studies, a Senior advisor to Center for Jain Studies at Claremont Lincoln University and a trustee of Mahatma Gandhi Library in Houston. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.