I must have been really out of touch lately because I just recently heard (for the first time) a commercial that has apparently been on the air for quite a while, promising to forgive me if I am in a car accident and not push my rates through the roof. Seems innocuous enough. Who doesn’t want an insurance company that is going to say: we understand you messed up, but we are going to let you off the hook anyway.
On the one hand, this is awesome. People have accidents. Why should we pay for the rest of our lives for something we didn’t mean to do? After all, if I accidentally bump you in the hallway, I apologize; you say ‘no worries’; we go our separate ways and never think about it again. Why should it be any different when it’s a car involved?
On the other hand, I found myself really upset by this forgiveness marketing strategy, and because occasionally I need to rant, here are all the reasons why:
I realize that religious groups have a long and varied history of buying and selling forgiveness – we sacrifice lambs; we buy forgiveness from the church with huge donations; we kneel and self-flagellate until we feel we have paid enough in blood to be pure again. But paying the church or God or the temple at least makes sense. These are groups that, in some way, can be considered to be involved in a person’s moral or spiritual life. But I don’t ask my doctor to forgive me for needing stitches. I don’t ask my dentist for forgiveness if I get a cavity. These are unavoidable incidents that carry little moral weight and don’t need to be forgiven, which leads me to….
an accident is, by definition, something unintentional and unexpected. It isn’t an intentional wounding, a purposeful damaging of something. Now, if this unintentional and unexpected wounding happens to a person, then I can see the need for a brief apology, a quick forgiveness, a discussion about how to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. What I don’t see the need for is intense amounts of guilt – which is exactly what these marketing strategies of forgiveness foster. They tell us we have been bad, that we have done something wrong. They tell us to feel guilty for what we have done and then pay a little bit extra so that we no longer have to feel that guilt. Unless I was texting, drinking a mimosa, or arguing with my mother while driving, I don’t feel the need to feel guilty about a fender bender that was accidental and unexpected.
Guilt and forgiveness should be, I believe, deeply theological and moral issues – the general fender bender is neither of these. I am not going to pray on Yom Kippur for forgiveness for my fender bender, or my stitches, or the way I accidentally broke a glass last week. Forgiveness is for relationships – whether that relationship is between two people, between ourselves and God, or something we need to give our own selves.
And this forgiveness is hard enough, pressing enough, without allowing ourselves to be guilted into begging forgiveness from our insurance companies as well.