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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



Forgiveness is a contested concept. Psychologists tend to separate it from the related process of reconciliation and to emphasize the intrapersonal aspects of the phenomenon. On the other hand theologians and philosophers see an important connection between forgiveness and reconciliation due to relational factors. Culture adds further complexity to the study of forgiveness in that it questions the universality of dominant understandings of the concept, developed from a Western perspective, which are based on individualist values by testing those understandings in a collectivist context. This brief essay concludes with a brief representative illustration of forgiveness in traditional Japanese villages.

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 Forgiveness is one of those concepts that are part of common knowledge but that mean something dissimilar to different people. A Catholic Priest may hold a view of forgiveness that is inherently connected to religion while a psychologist may view forgiveness as an individual process that helps a client improve his or her mental health. Furthermore, a political scientist involved in post-conflict reconstruction would probably view forgiveness as a necessary prerequisite to rebuild a vibrant civil society [Grodsky: 2009; Minear: 1991] or a philosopher, the act of forgiveness may be of greater importance for the offender than for the victim since it marks a return to the moral community. Those are just some of the many different understandings of forgiveness not including subtypes and nearly infinite cultural variants.

The following sections will compare and contrast some of the well known views of forgiveness such as the traditional psychological view, the theological perspective, and the philosophical approach. A final section will deal with culture and how it influences forgiveness in traditional Japanese villages.

Forgiveness as a Healing Intrapersonal Process:

The dominant secular understanding of forgiveness in the West has been largely influenced by Psychology [Hook, Worthington & Utsey: 2008; Watkins & Regmi: 2004]. “Forgiveness is understood as an intra-individual experience that is contextualized in social and societal interactions involving transgressions” [Hook et al.: 2008]. As a field, Western Psychology tends to be centered on the individual and its main goal is to help the client achieve internal happiness [Thomas-Cottingham: 2004]. It should be noted that this happiness is individual and highly subjective. Thus, psychologists are supposed to be nonjudgmental and treat their clients with unconditional positive regard. Disciplinary assumptions and practices have influenced the way in which forgiveness is understood in North America and parts of Western Europe. Forgiveness is viewed as an important individual process in which the person let’s go of anger and bad feelings towards the offender in order to regain mental health. The goal is the elimination of the emotional externalities of the offense, not to deal with the event itself. This makes the process an internal exercise which can succeed regardless of the actions of the offender or of the wider community. Therefore, according to this understanding of forgiveness, the victim can let go of his or her negative feelings without even communicating so to the offender [Hook et al: 2008]. Furthermore, mending the relationship with the offender or renewed interaction with the offender is not required for forgiveness to take place. An apology from the offender is also of secondary importance. Forgiveness is mainly an intrapersonal process according to this view.

It is clear that this psychological understanding of forgiveness is compatible with an individualist world view and treats the individual as independent from the wider community and society. The individual’s only duty is towards himself or herself. A result of this view is that reconciliation is considered to be separate from forgiveness. Reconciliation is not considered to be necessary and the only benefits it can present include the possibility of receiving a formal apology from the offender and the influence that may have on the individual’s progress towards intrapersonal forgiveness. Thus, reconciliation is not a goal in and of itself but rather an instrument in the process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness as a Religious Duty

“From a theological perspective, true forgiveness culminates in a healing of what has been broken. It is a struggle where both culpability and wrongdoing are examined and ultimately overcome by the restoration of community. The purpose of forgiveness is not to feel better, but to deepen and enrich community. It is a way of life; not an inner way of life, but a way of living with others” [Frise & McMinn, 2010: 84-85].

Theologians tend to disagree with the individualism of the psychological view of forgiveness. In the case of Christian Theologians, forgiveness is about reestablishing harmony among God’s children. It is about turning the other cheek in the same way Jesus did in order to bring peace and harmony to the world. There is an emotional aspect to it but there is also an important relational component. According to this view, forgiveness cannot be separated from reconciliation since reconciliation is considered to be the telos of forgiveness [Frise & McMinn: 2010].   The process is also expected to take place starting with the conscious decision to forgive, then moving on to reconciliation, and ultimately to complete emotional forgiveness. Thus, the individual Christian is supposed to decide to forgive the offender and to change his or her behavior towards the offender, then he or she is expected to try to mend the original relationship, and with time the emotional aspects of forgiveness will come about. Notice the different order in comparison to the psychological view in which emotional forgiveness is the starting and ending point.


The theological view is guided by clear value judgments which place the wellbeing of the entire community at the same level to that of the individual. Thus, while the individual is not devalued in any way, he or she is asked to take into consideration the needs of the wider community. Therefore, theologians hold a more contextual and relational view of forgiveness than psychologists. It is a view that is “other” oriented rather than “self” oriented [Frise & McMinn: 2010].

Forgiveness as a Way to Rejoin the Moral Community:

Some philosophers take a different approach to understanding forgiveness and emphasize the importance of the event for the offender. According to Benn forgiveness is important in that it allows the offender to reconcile with the moral community [Benn: 1996]  Thus this view of forgiveness emphasizes its connection with reconciliation. Reconciliation in this case is not only between the offender and the victim but also between the offender and society in general. Therefore, an apology and the possible forgiveness that follows can be considered a ritual in which the offender rejoins the moral community by accepting the wrong that was done and thus accepting the point of view of the victim and of the wider community. This view of forgiveness is emphasizes the interpersonal aspects of the process rather than the intrapersonal ones and stresses the important social role played by forgiveness and reconciliation.

It should be noted that one challenge presented by this approach is the decision of when to forgive and when not to as well as who can forgive. According to this philosophical view forgiveness becomes morally desirable when the offender has apologized and has accepted responsibility for the wrong committed [Benn: 1996]. At this point the victim cannot feel indignation due to the lack of acceptance of the wrong and moral order by the offender since the offender has accepted guilt and as well as endorsed the values of the community. While this does not make it imperative for the victim to forgive it becomes morally desirable since it would mark the rejoinder of the moral community by the offender which is both socially desirable as well as morally appropriate. Nevertheless it is harder to determine whether someone who has wronged a third person can be forgiven when the victim is absent [Benn, 1996: 377]. The problem here is that the main wrong was not committed against the person present and while there may be some indirect harm in terms of losing a friend or grief, the main moral obligation is towards the absent victim. Forgiveness in this respect would be dubious and thus would be an incomplete forgiveness.

In summary, the philosophical approach to forgiveness shows that there is an inextricable connection between forgiveness and reconciliation. The link is moral and social and thus ultimately relational. Emotions are the unintended externalities of the event but what really matters is what is morally proper. It is clear that this view is not as individualist as the psychological one and shares some aspects of the theological view such as the importance of the victims return to the moral fold and to the community.

Culture and Forgiveness: Collectivism and Individualism

It is clear from the previous discussion that the different disciplines view forgiveness differently and that they emphasize intrapersonal and interpersonal factors to different extends. A second factor is the weight given to emotions vis a vis the cognitive conscious decision to forgive. This is an important difference that is identified by Hook et al and that provides an strong conceptual link to understanding the role of culture in forgiveness [Hook et al: 2008].

Culture is a very broad concept that shapes an individual’s worldview [Clark: 1989; Pieterse: 2007; Trujillo, Bowland, Myers, Richards, & Roy: 2008]. If culture is inextricably linked with most aspects of human behavior then it can also be expected that such as complex phenomenon as forgiveness is also influenced by the construct. Since culture shapes the way events are interpreted and that interpretation triggers emotions, culture will exert some influence on the way forgiveness is felt by the victim and by the offender. Another way to approach the possible influence of culture on forgiveness is to explore whether the phenomenon is experienced as an individual or a relational event. This brings up the well worn distinction between collectivist and individualist societies. While the previously mentioned categories are very broad they are useful in that they provide some important information regarding the orientation of an individual from a certain cultural group. A member of a collectivist culture can be expected to be more other-oriented than someone from an individualist culture. Moreover, a person from a collectivist culture is expected to view group goals as more important than personal ones. Thus, culture affects the way goals are prioritized. The sources of happiness and feelings of adequacy also differ between members of the two broad groups. Individualists tend to find happiness in personal enjoyment and success, both internal sources. On the other hand collectivists find success in the group and personal enjoyment entails acceptance and approval by the larger community [Hook et al: 2008; Nisbett:  2003].

Based on the previous tentative assertions it can be expected that forgiveness in collectivist cultures will differ from that in individualist ones. Studies show that decisional forgiveness is more important in collectivist cultures than in individualist ones, and that reconciliation is viewed as the natural consequence of forgiveness by collectivists while considered optional by individualists [Hook et al: 2008].  The final section of this essay explores how forgiveness takes place in a rural Japanese village, a good example of a collectivist cultural milieu.


Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Rural Japan: The Attenuation and Externalization of Blame through Spirit Possession

Japan is considered to possess a culture that approaches the ideal type of a collectivist society [Chambers: 2007; Morton & Olenik: 2005; Sakamoto, 2008; Smith: 1997]. Anthropologists and historians claim that its present day collectivist culture is a direct product of life in the countryside and the need to cooperate for the rise harvest [Morton & Olenik: 2005)] Harmony is greatly valued and disruptions to normal relationships are viewed with alarm due to the interdependence of the villagers’ livelihoods [Krauss, Rohlen, & Steinhoff: 1984].  Nevertheless conflict is present and at all levels of Japanese society. In traditional villages most conflicts, whether interpersonal or between larger social groupings are translated into inter household conflicts [Yoshida: 1984]. Thus, the basic social unit in Japanese villages is the extended household.

Since residence in Japanese villages usually takes place over several generations, the maintenance of harmonious relations with the rest of the community is of great importance. Due to the possible consequences that a dispute between two individuals can have over the intricate relationships of the rest of the inhabitants of the village, several rituals and conflict management systems have been developed over the years. One of the most interesting conflict management methods is the externalization of blame through spirit possession. Japanese families are believed to have spirits which follow them from generation to generation [Yoshida: 1984]. Those spirits are usually those of animals which sometimes behave selfishly and are believed to have the ability to cause great damage. Due to the link between family members and the spirit when a family members holds a grudge, feels envy, or holds any other negative feelings towards a member of another household or group, the spirit will attack in one way or another a member of the other household.

For example, if the younger son of the of the Yamato family envies the son of the Kubo clan, his familiar spirit, which could be a fox, will attack or cause harm to a member of the Kubo clan such as the mother. As Yoshida aptly concludes “this appears to be an expression of the traditional Japanese tendency to merge the identity of the individual in the household to which he or she belongs” [Yoshida, 1984: 93].  When something bad happens to a family member, the head of the household will call a faith healer who knows all the members of the community very well. The faith healer will then consult with other members of the community about which families have strong spirits and also inquire about any unusual activity. Indirectly the faith healer will be informed which family holds negative feelings or a possible grudge with a member of the other family and he or she will go visit them.  The head of the offending family will question family members about any possible negative feelings they may have and once identified they will be asked to accept that they have them to the faith healer. Once that is done, the head of the “offending household” will pay and participate in several rituals meant to assuage their animal spirit with food and incense. At this point the faith healer will inform the head of the “victim’s” household that the offending spirit has been identified and that a ritual is being carried out to assuage the spirit. A parallel ritual will be carried out in the victim’s house in which the spirit will be exorcised from the victim showing the symptoms of the attack. Depending on the damage of both the original conflict that gave rise to the bad feelings and of the supposed possession, the offending family will make a payment in money of in food to the aggrieved family in front of the entire community.

Now let us analyze the ritual for what it really is, a public ritual of forgiveness and reconciliation. Negative feelings are supposed to cause harm to the other party through supernatural means. Thus, the offender and the victim are both supposed to let go of their ill feelings so as to not disrupt their familiar spirits which cause harm not to them directly but to their families. Therefore, ill feelings, held by both the victim and the offender, are considered to be detrimental to their entire households [Yoshida: 1984]. This is represented by the way in which a related family member gets sick or attacked by the familiar spirit. The attribution of the direct attack to a spirit externalizes the blame for the direct offense and thus makes it easier for both sides to offer and accept forgiveness. Moreover, the use of a faith healer as a third party who knows the parties intimately and who serves the community as a whole, helps the parties deal with the problem indirectly enough to save face and avoid direct confrontation, but directly enough to deal with the source of the dispute and providing comfort and reparation to the aggrieved party.


Thus, in this process, reconciliation is the goal since the beginning and without reconciliation forgiveness is not considered to be useful. Moreover, both emotional and decisional forgiveness are supported by the emphasis on the powerful effects of ill feelings. The final ritual in front of the entire village reestablishes harmony in the village by marking both forgiveness for all of the related disputes between the two families and also the reentry of the offending family and individual into the moral community of the village. Thus, the spirit can be considered to be both an escape goat as well as a buffer between the two families. The families in turn also filter out the interests and personal animosity that might be held by the individuals and the faith healer further represents the interests of the entire community.


The previously described conflict management process is a clear example of how a Western based Psychological view of forgiveness fails to explain how the phenomenon is practiced and experienced by members of other cultures. Moreover, the division between forgiveness and reconciliation seems to be arbitrary and not applicable to other social contexts such as collectivist traditional cultures such as that found in rural Japan and also in South Asia. 

Some Final Thoughts

This brief exploratory essay has presented several perspectives on the meaning and function of forgiveness. Psychological, theological, and philosophical perspectives were briefly compared and contrasted consideration as an important factor shaping the phenomenon of forgiveness. The interesting case of the use of spirit possession in rural Japan provided an example of the way in which culture, in this case a collectivist one, changes the meaning and the practice of forgiveness by making it more relational and transforming it as an early step towards the ultimate goal of reconciliation. in the early sections of the essay. Important differences as to the relative importance of emotions and relationships were shown to exist. The relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation was also shown to be perceived differently by the various disciplines. Finally, culture was taken into account.




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