Local Murder Raises Questions on Nature of Forgiveness
CAS prof probes when to forgive, when not to
Your only child, fresh out of high school, is found dead, strangled with a bungee cord and her throat cut. With reporters’ cameras and microphones in your face, what do you say when asked about her accused killer?
Malcolm Astley (SED’82) sympathized with the man’s family, his comments drawing praise from many local residents and media.
The murder of Lauren Astley, 18, has horrified her hometown of Wayland, Mass. Police say her ex-boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita, killed her July 3 following troubles in their relationship. He has pleaded not guilty.
“Lauren’s mother and I share the anguish of Nate’s parents, who put so much caring into Nate, and my daughter as well,” Astley said after Fujita’s arraignment. A former principal and admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59), Astley told a Boston Globe reporter that “anger will not match anger. You have to engage with what may feel like torment to you, to get at the roots. Then many more conflicts will yield to common interests. That has got to be the goal if we’re not going to destroy each other and ourselves.”
Charles Griswold, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of philosophy, has studied the nature of forgiving. He wrote Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration. He and the Rev. William Meninger, a Catholic priest, wrote dueling opinion pieces about unconditional forgiveness in a 2008 Tikkun magazine forum, and last year, Griswold revisited the topic in the New York Times.
BU Today asked Griswold his take on the issues raised by the Astley case.
BU Today: Have you followed Malcolm Astley’s public comments about his daughter’s murder, and what’s your reaction to them?
Griswold: I read one story in the Boston Globe. I was astonished by his apparent ability to stay his anger and to express, if not feel, empathy for the alleged murderer’s family. I am struck by his determination to contextualize his daughter’s death in a way that gives it meaning and provides room for some sort of reconciliation. I note that he is not quoted as speaking the language of forgiveness, but does indicate a sort of empathetic understanding for what he takes to be the alleged murderer’s motivations. This seems to lead him to something more like excusing rather than forgiving his daughter’s alleged murderer.
Do people like Whitey Bulger and Nathaniel Fujita, if they’re convicted, need forgiveness from the community as well as from their victims?
Whether they need forgiveness and whether they deserve it are, of course, two very different questions. I am skeptical, in any case, that members of the community who didn’t even know the victims and who were not themselves injured by the offender have the standing to forgive the crimes in question. In thinking through these complex issues, it’s helpful to ask yourself what exactly it is that is being forgiven.
Suppose that you do know the victim well: in forgiving the offender, are you forgiving, on behalf of the victim, the injury done to the victim (this is sometimes referred to as “third-party forgiveness”)? Or are you forgiving the offender for the injury done to you by means of, or as a result of, the injury done to the victim? They are very different things. It may be that you don’t have the standing to forgive on behalf of the victim, but do have the standing to forgive the injury indirectly done to you by the offender. Mr. Astley was certainly injured by the murder of his daughter, but in a very different way than his daughter was wronged by being murdered. He might be in a position to forgive on the one account, but not the other. The same logic arguably applies to excuse.
Your book argues against the Christian notion of unconditional forgiveness. Under what circumstances is it appropriate to withhold forgiveness? Do any recent public examples come to mind?
I argue in Forgiveness that when an offender refuses to take any steps that warrant forgiveness, that person is conditionally unforgivable—that is, should not be forgiven until and unless basic steps, such as taking responsibility for the injury, are taken. I hold that the notion of warranted anger makes sense. It doesn’t follow that the person is unforgivable no matter what—that is, even if he or she does take such steps. Nor does it follow that one should not put aside one’s anger even when the offender takes none of the appropriate steps, for there are other reasons that may commend letting go of anger—having to do, for example, with one’s own welfare. And there are means other than forgiveness for doing so.
That said, I am not convinced that Christianity has always spoken unequivocally in favor of “unconditional forgiveness.” Moreover, what is referred to under that name often sounds much more like excuse. Some of these issues are discussed in my exchange with Father William Meninger.
As for other public examples of appropriate withholding of forgiveness: where does one start?
Could you suggest some strategies for forgiving a person who has wronged us?
If the injury done is not humanly possible to forgive, and if the wrongdoer has at least taken some elementary steps, it may be possible to imagine empathetically that he or she would take further steps were a bit more time to pass or certain conditions in that person’s life were to change. By such means, it may be possible for forgiveness to gain some traction. It’s also useful not to demonize the offender or to paint oneself as exceptionally virtuous by comparison. Finally, it’s very important that one’s anger be proportionate to the injury, and for that, something like right perspective is indispensable.
You say in your book that the United States avoided confronting the morality of the Vietnam War, and therefore, the question of whether it should apologize. Some say the idea of group guilt unfairly blames members who didn’t commit the wrong and may encourage a false sense of victimhood among people who didn’t suffer.
I do think our country has, as a community, failed to confront the problem of the morality of that war, and that partly as a result, there is simply no consensus about it. We continue not only to reenact the same basic divisions, but to give ourselves not dissimilar reasons for venturing into new wars. Honesty and reason on the topic of the Vietnam War have long been politically impossible, and correspondingly there is little place for reflection on the possible appropriateness of apology.
The question as to whether successive generations bear any responsibility for the past wrongs of their country is very complicated. But note that we regularly assume an affirmative answer (and do so as well when discussing the liabilities of, say, corporations and other institutions over time). As to a false sense of victimhood: if it’s false, in the sense of unjustified, it’s certainly not to be encouraged. But what if it’s justified? Wrongs may be perfectly real even though inherited from an earlier generation and perpetuated by an earlier generation. Are not the inheritors of such wrongs due an apology, at the very least?
Rich Barlow can be reached at email@example.com Comments