Holden Village Staff Experience August, 2003

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We only forgive the ones we blame

We don't like to blame others; in fact, we prize the ability to stand in someone else's shoes and understand why he did what he did.  Or we like to think his intent was good and that he never meant to wound and wrong us.  "Judge not" may have been drummed into our heads from the first time we got angry at someone for treating us badly.


However, insists Smedes, when we fail to blame people, we cannot forgive them either.  However unpopular this stance may be, he feels we need to adopt it before we can forgive.  But first, he deals with the fallacious beliefs that do not allow us to blame the persons who have wronged us.


The "Who Am I to Judge?" fallacy asserts that imperfect people have no right to judge others.  Its designed to keep us humble.  But this type of humility keeps us from judging evil when we see it; it keeps us from holding those who do us wrong accountable for their actions.  We, as rational human beings, have the right and the obligation to size up others actions and to assign responsibility to them; that is, we must not fail to place the blame for hurtful and wrong actions on the perpetrators.


The "blame-share" fallacy states that if we share responsibility for a wrong done to us, we are disqualified from blaming the person who did it.  While it is desirable to accept our responsibility in any situation, we cannot believe that doing so disqualifies us from holding the other responsible.  We can, however, temper our blaming with humility in these situations, but we must, in all humility, hold the other accountable for his actions.


How about the fallacy that "to understand someone is to forgive him"?  All we have to do is walk a mile in the others shoes, and we realize why he did what he did.  But when we understand someone in this way, forgiveness is not necessary, because we find ourselves able to excuse his behavior.  And if we freely excuse the behavior, we do not need to forgive.  We only need to forgive the behaviors that we fail to understand, no matter how hard we try.  In fact, when we say we've forgiven someone because we've come to understand why he did what he did, we have not, in fact, forgiven him.  We've excused him.


The final fallacy is the belief that someone could not help his wrongful behavior because he was somehow scripted to do it: by genetic disposition, the environment, or by God.  Although I understand that some people actually believe this, I won't give it my time, because I cannot give fatalism the time of day (or the cells of my brain).


How do we know when someone is to blame for the wrongs we have suffered?  Smedes suggests three tests: (1) The person did the deed.  You know it; he knows it.  If you don't know for sure, hold on until you do.  (2) He meant to do it.  He knew what he was doing and intended to do it, not because of fate, or by accident, but by choice.  (3) He initiated the action.  No one forced him to do it. 


If all tests check out, then he is accountable for wrongdoing.  If what he did wounded and wronged you personally, you blame him.  Only then do you consider forgiving him.


But dont rush into blame.  You could be wrong.  But Smedes' point is that forgiving always comes with blame attached.  Its for the tough-minded; for the ones who know their own faults, but who recognize a wrong and dare to name it.