Stories like this pop up every so often – this is not so much about the particulars as it is about the relationship between these words that get played out in our public conversations: forgiveness, responsibility, and reconciliation.
Usually it happens like this: Those affected by the violent acts of others offer forgiveness, and then public commentary becomes “See, they’re forgiven, let’s all move on.”
But that’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
What is Forgiveness
Forgiveness is offered by the person who has been harmed. It is the decision on their part to set aside the anger tied to that wrong.
Forgiveness is not dependent on the offender.
I can choose to forgive you whether or not you accept that forgiveness. I can choose to forgive you whether or not you show remorse or take responsibility for your wrongs.
Forgiveness does not mean that I have forgotten what happened. It means that I have chosen to no longer carry the burden of anger and resentment. I may still decide to protect myself from further harm and change the nature of our relationship.
True forgiveness is entirely one-sided. How you choose to react is irrelevant to my forgiveness.
Offering forgiveness means letting go of the power of anger and resentment.
What is Responsibility
Responsibility is the other side of the coin. Responsibility is admitting the things I have done wrong, feeling remorse over them, and taking action to change my behavior so that it does not happen again.
Responsibility does not depend on the person harmed.
Responsibility lies entirely with the offender. I can take responsibility for my actions, express my remorse, make restitution for the wrong, and ammend my behavior regardless of whether or not you offer forgiveness. Responsibility looks both forward and backward – insofar as possible it seeks to set right what was broken, and to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Perhaps the person harmed will offer forgiveness, but perhaps not. Taking responsibility is what the person who caused the hurt does because it is who they are. The person harmed may choose to remain angry.
Responsibility means letting go of the power of being righteous, by admitting fault.
What is Reconciliation
Reconciliation is what happens when true forgiveness and true responsibility meet. It is the restoring of relationships – both on an individual and on a corporate level.
Forgiveness alone is not reconciliation.
This is why we don’t “just move one” when forgiveness happens. We are still waiting for – hoping for, praying for – reconciliation. Usually we are still waiting for responsibility: admission, remorse, restitution, and ammendment.
One-sided forgiveness and responsibility is likely to be seen from individuals and communities that are already on the losing side of power and authority differentials. Those of us who have cultural power and actual authority have a more difficult time being in the powerless position of either offering forgiveness or taking responsibility.
Ultimately, no one can force me to do either of these things. While responsibility can be encouraged, no one can make us feel remorse. That power lies with us (and God) alone.
And, it is more than unhelpful to try to force others into forgiveness. Very often we cause outright harm when we try to guilt and shame people into forgiveness.
So we celebrate forgiveness and responsibility when we see them, and we strive to live into them.