"The whole spiritual journey might be summed up as humble hope." Thomas Keating

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Forgiveness, Revenge, and Justice

At yesterday's meeting my group ended up discussing righteous indignation, resentment, and the desire to see others punished.  I think this is an area where the Big Book and the other literature I can think of right now are insufficiently clear.

At the end of the meeting a newcomer asked me where to draw the line, how to give up all resentment and anger without becoming a doormat. That, of course is a very important question and one we hear a lot.

I think the answer lies in the distinction between justice and revenge.  The program's ban on 'righteous indignation' is not a ban on moral evaluation.  Forgiveness does not mean being a judge, bringing down the gavel and declaring 'not guilty'; it means letting go of the pain.  When we evaluate a situation in which we have been injured we have to be careful not to seek vengeance, to find joy in seeing others punished.  But that does not mean we stop seeking justice, both for ourselves and others.


  1. I have found that I have to forgive others in all situations to maintain any real spiritual progress. The vital importance of forgiving may not be obvious to me at first sight, but my studies tell me that every great spiritual teacher has insisted strongly upon it. I must forgive injuries, not just in words, or as a matter of form, but in my heart. I do this not for the other persons’ sake, but for my own sake. Resentment, anger, or a desire to see someone punished, are things that rot my soul. Such things fasten my troubles to me with chains. They tie me to other problems that have nothing to do with my original problem.

    From "Daily Reflections"
    Seems pretty clear to me...

  2. High marks to jimc above me.

    I agree that we need to forgive whenever forgiveness is sought of us, and even when it isn't. How can we possibly embark on a journey where we are asking for a measure of forgiveness, and be holding back forgiveness to others at the same time? Step nine teaches us that grace is something that enters us and leaves us, and to be carriying a resentment for someone is an imbalance in that grace. How hypocritical am I to expect forgiveness and acceptance of others for the harm I've done, while I'm taking a stance of self righteousness, and raising the bar higher for others to get over. If we are truly seeking peace, a peace with our fellow man, forgiveness needs to come easy to us. It is more important to understand than to be understood. Do we truly understand those with whom we hold a resentment?

  3. I agree that forgiveness should be granted. That is not the issue I wanted to raise. The issue is the difference between forgiveness and passivity in the face of wrong. Martin Luther King forgave wrong, but demanded justice be done for the the lynchers, the church bombers, the architects of segregation. This distinction between forgiveness and passivity becomes very difficult when the injustice has been done to you but it remains vital.

    Two books I have found very useful in thinking this through are Amish Grace by Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, and David L. Weaver-Zercher and The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. There are profound ethical issues here,

  4. Only when our "passivity", or capacity for forgiveness is being deliberately used against us are we being a doormat. This doormat syndrome is something that we can easily fall into when we are in the early stages of sobriety and are learning an imbalanced concept of humility. I believe it is something that sponsors should warn their sponsees against, because it only makes a wounded relationship worse.

    As for issues of public concern; sure a certain passion can provide purpose to the individual, but when we bring this pattern of outrage into our personal life we are in dangerous territory. Keeping the boundary between the public outrages and private resentments clear will be difficult to maintain. I still believe that self righteous indignation is dangerous for the alcoholic who is seeking peace in his life. Demanding justice is fine for MLK, but he wasn't an alcoholic.

  5. Passivity and capacity for forgiveness are totally different things.

    Forgiveness consists of letting go of resentment, letting go of the pain, and releasing the issue from a personal dimension. It is a humble stance, while resentment, focusing the issue on me, is an instance of pride.

    Passivity and it's opposite, quest for justice, are also issues that relate to humility and pride. The quest for justice is a humble attitude, indicating a person's understanding that they exist as a part of a whole and share responsibility for what happens in that whole, in society. Passivity is, ironically enough, a proud, self centered attitude, saying in effect that I don't count, that my contribution will not matter, so I shouldn't do anything. In short, I am not part of the whole and bear no responsibility.

    As for your last sentence, that "Demanding justice is fine for MLK, but he wasn't an alcoholic", I couldn't disagree more. To say that as alcoholics we should not seek justice means we should not care about others. Why, then, does the 12th step exist?

  6. Perhaps. However, if your objective is peace, to be at peace with yourself and those around you, a quest for justice is counter to that goal. If you don't make some concession that life isn't fair, and at very least choose your battles, you will just occupy yourself with anger and resentment.

    Often I will make a concession just to keep the peace. I will be passive and allow something that I passionately disagree with, just to keep the peace. What do we lose to saying nothing, instead of inserting our opinion where our emotions demand? It may appear that we are passive, i.e. "proud self centered", but really the cost of inserting our position is greater than not.

    Seeking justice =/= caring for others. Seeking justice is often more about our own ego than it is about the actual issue at hand. We don't help others to get sober so we can send them out on the battlefield of life, but rather help them find a way to live normally as an alcoholic, at peace with themselves and the world around them.

    We need to acknowledge that as alcoholics our emotional states are often immature and volatile, and the consequences for some may lead to a drink. Doesn't mean we withdraw from the world, but rather engage in it with caution.

  7. Being passive is still an action that one person makes based on his/her mental state and the situation. Without knowing the details behind the passive action I think we are unable to put it in its honest context and therefore each situation is different. In my recovery I have made choices to be passive for my mental well being and so was it passive at all? Thanks for the post. today was an unhealthy angry vengeful day for me and you gave me great insight. If interested (wyowifeandmom.wordpresa)