Recent events with John Edwards’s affair have gotten lots of people saying lots of things about betrayal, the nature of forgiveness, who deserves to be forgiven and under what circumstances. Most of it has been pretty angry stuff, which won’t help address the real issues. So, at the risk of adding to the pile up of unhelpful approaches, I will give it a shot. After all, we are all in need of forgiveness for something, and probably could repair a relationship or two if we were more able to forgive.
It’s really pretty simple. There are no limits to that which can be forgiven, but there are limits as to who can forgive any given thing. The issue is our relationship to the thing which needs forgiving, not the severity of the act, which might render it beyond forgiveness. We are always free to forgive anything, but we can only forgive that which has been done to us.
We cannot demand that others forgive what has been done to them and we cannot forgive people for the hurt that they have caused others. That is why even in the Jewish tradition which annually asserts on Yom Kippur, that no sin is beyond God’s forgiveness, for sins committed against fellow human beings, one must get forgiveness from those they have wronged.
The idea that some things are “unforgivable” per se’, flies in the face of any faith which asserts the existence of an infinitely understanding and loving God. Any act judged from that perspective would always be forgivable because both the actor and his actions would be seen in a context which would render each as understandable and possible to get beyond – hence forgivable.
But we are not God and so we can’t, and perhaps should not, always do that. I think that we seek the limits of forgiveness in order to feel okay about those things we can not, and do not, forgive. If the act is “unforgivable”, then there is nothing wrong with us for not forgiving it. Perhaps we should worry less about what should be considered unforgivable, and focus more on those things that we might stretch ourselves to forgive and even more so, for which we should seek forgiveness.
As to the recent story with John Edwards’ infidelity, and frankly I don’t know why its a news story at all, the only thing to decide about his wife’s decision to forgive him is why we think she did it. We could read her forgiveness as a cynical ploy which the furtherance of his political career demands. Or we could interpret it as a testimony to her capacity to support the man who has betrayed her, finding within herself the power to forgive a man she still loves. Our decision about that though, probably says more about each of us (and the relationships we are in) than it does about either John or Elizabeth Edwards.