I have pondered forgiveness from a Pagan perspective for several years because holding a grudge is a family trait I have to resist. I started thinking about it again last week when I outed myself as leaving an oath unfulfilled.* I find myself in a position of having to either set things right or make up for the wrong incurred. Does that mean I need to seek forgiveness? This is a good time for me to explore this question since I don’t have a beef with anyone at present.** At least not as the beefer — the one with an issue. I don’t know if I’m a beefee. Okay, this is getting weird. Beef colloquialism ends here. Anyway, since I am to-my-knowledge-beefless (d’oh!) I can be thoughtful about the issue of forgiveness and attempt objectivity.
Before I get started, I should set the stage for this article. I’m referring to person-to-person forgiveness here, not divine-to-person forgiveness. I’ll talk about that in just a bit. Nor am I talking about forgiveness in the context of offenses that require legal, economic or any systemic intervention. Just peep-to-peep conflict and peep-to-peep forgiveness. Also, the goals of this post are to (1) help non-Pagan readers understand how forgiveness does or doesn’t fit into Paganism and (2) engage fellow Pagans in a discussion of how forgiveness does or doesn’t fit into Paganism.
I’ve been surfing the Pagan blogosphere and reading posts on forgiveness off and on since we launched TPP. I didn’t employ a strict methodology, mind you. I just asked The Oracle about Paganism and forgiveness and then read everything I could. Many authors compare the concept of forgiveness in the “big three” religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) to the practice of forgiveness in Paganism since forgiveness is a major tenet of these faiths. But forgiveness is not a major tenet in most (if not all) Pagan faiths.
“We don’t ask our deities to forgive us, instead, we should try to learn from our mistakes and live our lives as honorably as possible.” — Gabriella
I think the reason why forgiveness is not an edict in Paganism is because there is no divine judgement in our faith. The gods don’t review our lives and decide our eternal fate. We don’t recognize the need for divine salvation. Our actions during life decide our eternal fates sans the possibility of divine intercession.§ It might also help to know that Pagans don’t consider our gods perfect. In the “big three” God is perfect and, as I understand it, acts of contrition (including seeking forgiveness) help followers strive for a human version of that divine perfection. Like many religious practices in the “big three” divine forgiveness is about being close or getting closer to God. This is a beautiful idea, but not part of my faith. Pagans don’t try to emulate gods to reach personal or spiritual perfection. Asking for forgiveness (or even being granted divine forgiveness) doesn’t bring us closer to spiritual purity. I made a cartoon that attempts to provide a visual for this idea. Major misdeeds matter to us, though, even if we aren’t looking for divine forgiveness. A wrong must be righted by the misdeeder (uh…misdeediator? misdeedicker? misdeedite? er something like that).
This is why the idea of self-responsibility is an edict in Paganism — the idea that you have the greatest impact on what happens to you through your decisions and behavior. There are some who view us as an “anything goes” religion, but treating people with respect and dignity, contributing to your community and honoring the social contract are high on the list of Pagan values. Jax talked about many of these issues earlier this week. Now, you can certainly have both divine intervention and self-responsibility! And I think the “big three” do have both. But we don’t. Since our gods don’t judge us, we have to judge ourselves.
“If we hurt someone, if we make a huge mistake, we are supposed to learn from the experience and shift our pattern of behavior.” — Starhawk
What about when you do something wrong and it affects other people? How does self-responsibility fit in? My impression from others is that Paganism is focused more on redemption than on forgiveness. I mean redemption in the “change for the better” sense of word. Mark Ludwig Stinson over at Kansas City Heathen provides a really good discussion of this from a Heathen perspective. I believe his argument is applicable to Pagans in general, based on my readings of other blogs. Stinson says you have to be thoughtful about what you’ve done and admit it to the people affected. An apology is a good start, but it’s not enough. You have to actively make amends for the wrong you’ve committed.
By extension, the focus on redemption (rather than forgiveness) highlights a critical difference between Paganism and the “big three” on this issue. This difference lies in who is the active agent — the person expected to do something to resolve an offense. In Paganism, the offender is the active agent — the one who must make amends (in good faith). In the “big three,” the offended is the active agent — the one who must forgive. I am not suggesting followers of the “big three” don’t think offenders have to or should make amends. When I screw up with my non-Pagan friends (which is not as rare an event as I would like), they darn tootin’ expect me to set things right. I am suggesting these faiths advise followers to grant forgiveness in the absence of recompense from the offender; this forgiveness has spiritual value on a person-to-person and a person-to-divine level according to sacred texts (the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an). These texts teach followers to “turn the other cheek.” Not that followers always do that, but it is a spiritual option. Sure, Pagans can forgive! And we do! But that doesn’t change anything spiritually. Paganism teaches that the offender has to step up and either change or make amends (ideally do both) to correct their spiritual path. While it may be a daunting task — messing up, then fessing up, then fixing it — it is also empowering because you have at least some control over the resolution of an offense. It’s true, you have little to no power over whether or not you are forgiven by those you have offended, but again that’s not the focus of conflict resolution in Paganism. The focus is on what you (as an offender) do to remedy a wrong.
“I’m a Wiccan, not a Christian, and we’re not into that forgiveness crap.” — Unknown
What about when someone else does something wrong and it affects you? What can you focus on then? I get what you are saying Unknown, but I don’t agree forgiveness is crap. While it isn’t a Pagan edict, it is a healthy lifestyle choice. Holding onto anger and frustration will buy you nothing, save a trip to the ER or the psychologist. Mortir over at Serpent Stone does a great job explaining why holding a grudge is anti-self-responsible (because holding a grudge inflicts self-harm) and suggesting a healthy process for letting go of anger.§§ So I try to forgive when offended, even if takes a long time.
What about my first question, do I need to ask for forgiveness because I did not (and cannot) fulfill an oath made last year? I think the answer is “no”. I need to learn from the mistake (and oh, brother did I learn!) and do what I can to redeem myself.
What about you, realm? What are your thoughts on forgiveness? Is it a major part of your faith practice?
* The oath (to myself) in question will remain unfulfilled so long as I can’t remember it. Oy!
** Not that I go around having beefs with people. I mean, I eat hamburgers and steaks with my peeps, but that’s not the same thing.
*** Nor am I referring to self-forgiveness, though there is some emphasis on this in some circles.
§ The folks at Wednesbury Shire make an interesting argument for divine forgiveness may have been a recruitment tool in the conversion of Heathens to Christianity.
§§ In contrast, some may believe you should seek recompense if offended. This belief is not isolated to any one religion, it is pervasive across time and peoples. Heck, that’s mostly what our legal system does, right?! But like I said, I’m not talking about conflicts that require systemic intervention. Interesting note about the Norse on this topic though. Some argue Viking raids were borne out of a cultural system of seeking recompense after an offense.
+ Featured image, Wall of Forgiveness by Guilhem Vellut. Citizens of Vancouver started signing a wall to show remorse for a riot that broke out after the 2011 Stanley Cup.