Forgiveness—Christian, and Otherwise

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This is the text of a talk I gave on March 8, 2020 as part of a Lenten program at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.


Thank you all so much for being here today. This afternoon, I want to share a story. It is not a particularly special story—there are countless others like it, told by others far more capable and articulate than me—but it’s a story that I nonetheless believe might be of some use to others who are struggling with some of the same challenges I faced while living it. It is a story about family, forgiveness, and ultimately about a curious discovery I made when I found the opposite of what I was looking for.

I want to warn you up front that this talk will not be particularly polite. I will be leaning into some grisly and likely upsetting details of my life—but as Fr. Raymond said in today’s homily, only in darkness are we able to see the light. I promise that all I’ll be sharing has a purpose: to show the small hole I found in the universe, through which God came flooding into my life.

My father’s name was Michael Leonard Keegin. He was a really interesting guy. He was a jazz musician—primarily tenor sax, though he knew his way around the trumpet and flute—and an accomplished photographer. I’ll tell you more about his life in a little bit. But before I do, I want to tell you about his death. In late January of 2018, I flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico to sit at his bedside and give him comfort as he lost his last fight with congestive heart failure. He’d been battling it for years, but in 2017 things took a turn toward catastrophic: the major heart surgery he underwent that spring failed to bring him back to full strength, and he remained so sick and frail that a fall he took in a hotel lobby landed him in the hospital for three weeks. He was only 73. He’d been on oxygen for months, and was convinced that moving from the muddy, low river valley of Memphis to the high desert of Albuquerque had made his already difficult breathing even harder. Finally, after a few weeks of denial of his rapidly deteriorating condition, he agreed to be checked into the hospital again in the hope that they’d fix him up enough to get back to Memphis where he’d get better. This didn’t happen. He died on January 23, 2018.

My dad was interesting, but he was also a very difficult man. The stubborn fixation on a fantasy of restored health in the Mississippi Valley as his body rapidly deteriorated doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his difficulty. When I flew to Albuquerque, I had long known about his decades-long heroin addiction that he kicked in the 80s only to then make a transition to an angry, chaotic alcoholism. I had known about the three wives he had before marrying my mother, one of whom he wordlessly abandoned when the daughter they had together was three or four years old, and another he so constantly screamed insults at that their marriage ended with her checking herself into a psychiatric hospital. I had known about the dozens of affairs he had while married to my mother, and I had known about the severely cognitively impaired lovechild he hid from her for years, and whom she only learned about after following the thread of several hundred dollars being deducted from their bank account every month. After he said some nasty things to my mom at my brother’s first wedding, my sister and I decided to break contact with him; given that he didn’t reach out for the next 8 years, he seemed fine with this. How we regained contact is another story entirely, and I’ll spare you the details except to say that we eventually began speaking again after nearly a decade. But regardless, all of these things—and many others—were in the back of my mind as my plane hurtled over 2,000 miles of plains and mountains to land me in the New Mexico desert to sit with my dad while he died.

These things were also on the minds of my brother and sister, both of whose relationships with my dad were much worse than my own. My parents separated when I was 6: my brother and dad stayed back in Memphis, while my sister and I went to Florida to live with my mom. My brother’s relationship with our dad was strained and bizarre. At two points over the course of a decade, my brother took our hard-luck father into his home, and both times our dad had taken extraordinary advantage of him, both emotionally and financially. For my sister, my dad’s main problem had been his negligence: after nearly a decade of silence, he reemerged into her life only to be a constant source of judgment and shame. Both had, several years prior to his hospitalization, broken off contact again, and in both cases the hostility seemed mutual.

So though I wasn’t alone when I traveled to Albuquerque—my now-fiancée Bonnie was with me—I wasn’t with any of my siblings. And since at the time I wasn’t a Christian—both my Catholic father and Protestant mother had drifted far from the traditions of their families by the time I was born, and I was raised with no religion to speak of—I had, or so I thought, no God to call upon. When I told my brother the news he insisted on making the drive from Memphis to Albuquerque, but then my dad refused him. My sister seemed almost happy to hear of our father’s suffering. The old family hostilities were rekindled and reconfirmed. Over the next two days, I managed to talk my dad into letting my siblings call him on the phone, to make one last connection before they’d be unable to do so. My brother called the second night I was there and made some kind of peace: he told my dad that he loved him and that he forgave him. His heart clearly wasn’t in it, but he did the right thing, and I’m proud of him for that. My sister, on the other hand, called only after dad’s renal failure had left him unable to speak, and through a waterfall of tears she proceeded to release decades of resentment on him. I’m not even sure he understood. But she got to say what she needed to say, and that was that.

I got my dad settled into a hospice facility and flew back to Maryland. He died two days later. I was devastated, of course. But over the next few weeks, I was surprised to find myself thinking more about my sister than my dad. Why was I so miffed at her inability to forgive him when she still had the opportunity? Would I be able to forgive her for this? Why did I even think she should forgive him? When I really thought about it, what disturbed me most about her continued resentment was that in some kind of objective sense, I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was right. She had been wronged considerably by someone whom she had trusted and loved, someone who was directly responsible for her existence. It made perfect sense that this hurt would beget anger. And yet…

And yet…I was split in two. I remained nagged by the sense that something about this was wrong. That whatever our father’s wrongdoings, it was important to find some way to forgive him. And not just for our sake, so that we could be free of the damage he had done to all of us—though that was part of it. The man I sat with in the hospital was broken, lonely, afraid—and whatever sins he had committed, it seemed important to forgive him for his sake, to release him from his wrongdoings so that he could be free, in full knowledge of his misdeeds. I had no real justification for this; the drive was irrational, the idea absurd. It came as a nagging sense stuck in my gut rather than as an argument I could have articulated to my sister or anyone else. And as a student of philosophy—I was in grad school at the time, and had spent the previous 5 years studying ethics, among other things—it occurred to me that I needed justification, and the wisdom of the past might help me figure out my predicament.

A bit of a warning here: what follows will be extremely brief discussions of thousands of years of intellectual history, from traditions exhibiting enormous complexity of thought from serious and subtle authors. I apologize for the brevity, but I hope you’ll trust that the general shape of my conclusions is accurate.

Because I have always been concerned with the history of ideas as they unfold through time and find it helpful to see where such ideas might have emerged, my inquiries often begin at the beginning: in this case, with the beginning of Western literature, in the epic poems of Homer. Toward the end of the Iliad, after ten years of bloody battle between the Trojans and Achaeans, King Priam of Troy travels to the enemy encampments on the shore of his kingdom to beg for the return of his son Hector’s now-desecrated body. Priam is devastated by grief: he has lost his son, who was not just the bravest warrior of the Trojans but also a loving and devoted father, husband, and son. But so too is the Achaean prince Achilles, whose grief over the death of his brother-in-arms Patroclus led him to kill Hector, refuse him a proper burial, and ultimately to abuse his body by dragging it continuously around Patroclus’s funeral bier for nine consecutive days. Priam, guided by the god Hermes, sneaks into Achilles’s tent under cover of night and wakes Achilles by kissing his hands. As soon as he realizes what is happening, Achilles jolts awake, and Priam immediately makes a desperate plea for the return of his son’s corpse that concludes with an appeal to both pity and piety:

“Honour then the gods, Achilles, and take pity upon me

remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful;

I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through;

I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.”

What happens next is subtle but noteworthy:

So he spoke, and stirred in the other a passion of grieving

for his own father. He took the old man’s hand and pushed him

gently away, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled

at the feet of Achilleus and wept close for manslaughtering Hektor

and Achilleus wept now for his own father, now again

for Patroklos. The sound of their mourning moved in the house.

Achilles establishes distance from Priam and the two men, sitting next to one another, weep privately for their own personal losses. This continues for some time, and Achilles finally breaks the silence with a speech about fate and the irrelevance of human tears in swaying the decision making of Zeus. The two finally agree on a temporary truce between their respective armies and an exchange of bodies; after the respective funerals, however, the hostilities will continue. Zeus deals out the fortunes of men, whether glorious or terrible; fate controls all, the slaughter must continue, reconciliation is an impossibility. Neither man could dream of crying for the other. There is no forgiveness here.

But Homer is a poet, a bard of the triumphs and failures of heroes; he’s not a philosopher, not the type to subject experience to reflection and to puzzle over the riddles of human life and figure out better courses of action. So I left him behind and looked to Aristotle and the later Hellenistic and Roman Stoics, our earliest examples of systematic ethical philosophy. Looking again to these writers I began to notice a theme: forgiveness is understood primarily in terms of “withdrawing one’s anger,” and the arguments for it are by definition egoistic, concerned with the good only of the one who is doing this withdrawing. Here are a few examples.

In book 4 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the earliest treatise on ethical philosophy, Aristotle describes a person marked by what he calls megalopsychia, roughly translated as “greatness of soul.” A great-souled person has mastered all the other virtues—wisdom, courage, temperance, generosity, and so forth—and has achieved as a result a nobility of spirit that sets them apart from others in their community. They have a sense of self-importance derived, Aristotle believes, from being genuinely more worthy than others. In this respect, they are the ultimate ethical exemplar, our living and breathing model for what a good life looks like. Nonetheless, their nobility does not exempt them from having enemies:

Nor does [the great-souled person] remember past wrongs; for great-souled people do not store things up, especially a memory of wrongs done them, but rather overlook them. Nor does he talk about personal things—he will not talk either about himself or about someone else, since he is not anxious either to be praised himself or to see others censured; nor again does he tend to praise others, which is why he does not speak ill of them either, even his enemies, unless to insult them to their face.

Nor is the great-souled person’s refusal to hold grudges a sign of compassion toward the less fortunate. Rather, his leniency toward the faults of others is a reflection of his own nobility of soul, a way to glorify his wealth of virtue. Because greatness of soul  demands honor, here Aristotle segues into a discussion of the “virtue pertaining to honor,” what he calls being “good-tempered.” Here we see perhaps our clearest elaboration of forgiveness as simply a withdrawal of anger:

For being good-tempered means being unperturbed and not being carried away by one’s feelings but being angry in the way, in the circumstances, and for the length of time the correct prescription lays down; but he seems to err more towards deficiency, since the mild person tends not to look for revenge but rather to be lenient to them.

Aristotle’s elitist and egoist moral system wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but the Epicureans and Stoics had even less to offer. These philosophies are fundamentally therapeutic, set toward the ultimate goal of achieving ataraxia or tranquility, a freedom from mental disturbances and physical pain. Both are egoistic, concerned primarily with the good of the self; and where Stoicism is entirely world-denying, holding that one’s moral disposition is the only thing of importance, Epicureanism is a hedonistic philosophy that regards physical pleasure as the highest good of human existence. In neither of these doctrines is there much room for moral duties toward others that don’t primarily entail the self.

Epictetus is the perhaps the greatest articulator of Stoicism, and in his writing we see the egoistic dimension of Aristotle’s conception of virtue as the moral design of the self taken to its most extreme conclusions:

One who has had fever, even when it has left him, is not in the same condition of health as before, unless indeed his cure is complete. Something of the same sort is true also of diseases of the mind. Behind, there remains a legacy of traces and blisters: and unless these are effectually erased, subsequent blows on the same spot will produce no longer mere blisters, but sores. If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit; give it nothing which may tend its increase.

Anger is ultimately a decision: when we feel angry, we are deciding that anger is a good way to feel. And if anger is to be avoided, it is not out of concern for the well-being of others, but rather that anger destabilizes the proper functioning of the soul, which is to exercise its reason. Hostility, then, is wrong primarily because it is irrational, not because it is harmful to others. And because it is our duty as thinking beings to be maximally rational, we should avoid being angry.

Epicurus, on the other hand, left very little writing behind and we receive his philosophy mostly by way of his disciple Lucretius. And though neither of them had much to say about forgiveness as such, here is Lucretius’ view of the attitude one should take toward the suffering of others:

It’s sweet, when winds blow wild on open seas,

to watch from land your neighbor’s vast travail,

not that men’s miseries bring us dear delight,

but that to see what ills we’re spared is sweet;

sweet, too, to watch the cruel contest of war

ranging the field when you need share no danger.

So this doesn’t tell us much about forgiveness per se. But the implied attitudes toward the suffering of other people and the primacy of one’s own mental tranquility tells us, I think, all we need to know.

Having been disappointed by Greece, I turned my attention to the East. The Buddhist tradition endorses a similar understanding of the need for withdrawing one’s anger for the sake of one’s own spiritual health. Here we find echoed the doctrines of 1) the self as the principal object of ethical attention, and 2) self-purification as the ultimate goal of reflection. Entanglements with the world and with others get in the way of the individual’s journey toward enlightenment. If one is to be lenient toward the wrongdoing of others, it is simply because the karmic order of the world demands this kind of flexibility in order to be properly maintained. Thus, we read in the Dhammapada:

1. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

2. “He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

3. Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

4. There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

The goal here is a kind of system equilibrium at both the level of the whole and the level of the individual ego. My goal is to make the world have less hate in it, but the only way to do this is to have less hate in me. The specificity and particularity of another person disappears altogether, subsumed into a system which one maintains like a rock garden.

At this point in my studies, I felt exasperated. The only philosophical justification for forgiveness, it seemed, had to do with a reflective concern for one’s own condition, not for that of another. I complained to a friend that my search for the philosophical origins of forgiveness have come to naught, that I was beginning to recognize that my urge to prove my sister wrong was silly and that I needed to recognize the sense in her righteous indignation. This friend—a devout Catholic—looked at me with a puzzled look. “You haven’t looked in the Bible?” he said to me incredulously. The only response I could manage to that was “That seems…too easy!” I didn’t really know what I meant by this except that I had always been suspicious of Christianity as being somehow too good to be true, that it papered over the real ugliness of the world with a happy message about hope and love. As far as I could tell, we were alone in a universe that was slowly dying of its own accord, and all we could do in the meantime is stitch together beautiful stories of various kinds to build a shelter for ourselves from the cold indifference of the cosmos—but the indifference of the cosmos is what is real, not the stories we tell. Religion was cowardice, retreat; courage demanded facing the facts, owning up to the meaninglessness of things. And the central doctrines of Christianity, of course, were just so implausible: God and man at the same time? What could be crazier?

But then my friend suggested I read the Gospel of Luke. If you’ve been raised in a Christian tradition, you probably take a familiarity with the Gospel stories for granted. My lack of religious upbringing had meant that all I knew of Christianity was Christmas story and a few other utterly decontextualized tropes: “turn the other cheek” and all that. And though I had developed an interest in religious thinking as a complement to my studies of philosophy, I never actually opened the Good Book to see what was inside.

I want to look at just two places in the Gospel that showed me something completely new, something that as far as I can tell, never comes up in the history of ethical thinking before this moment. The first comes in the passages after the beatitudes, and is probably familiar to all of us here:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

The writers I cited earlier in this talk were not stupid: they were some of the smartest, most perceptive and thoughtful people who have ever walked on this planet. Aristotle invented logic; Epicurus was one of the first thinkers to suspect that the things we encounter in the world are actually made up of much smaller parts linked together in various ways. They observed the world with a remarkable keenness of vision, and the conclusions they’ve arrived at represent truly heroic attempts at comprehending the nature of human life using our natural ability to reason. Their thinking is good: they are right that it is good to avoid being angry, and to treat your own soul with kindness and care. And yet for each and every one of them, the idea that we should love our enemies would have registered as self-evidently absurd. They might insist that we avoid having our souls poisoned by grudges, but the idea that we should love people who harm us would be ridiculous to them

Here, Christ tells us to love our enemies; later, he shows us what it means. Let’s look to another passage in Luke, this time from Christ’s crucifixion:

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Again: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Hanging on the cross, in the process of being tortured and executed, Christ looks down onto the people responsible for his death and prays to God to forgive them. He is not ridding himself of anger to achieve spiritual tranquility; he is not trying to restore the karmic balance of the universe; he is not trying to showcase his own virtue. His concern, in the midst of his execution, is for the good of those who have wronged him. And it is entirely for their sake that he utters his prayer of forgiveness.

Of course, I didn’t immediately recognize the significance of what I had discovered in these passages. I went back to my friend and complained again that my mission had failed: I hadn’t found any evidence for what I was looking for anywhere but in the Gospels! What was I supposed to do with that? I was a philosopher, not a Christian. If the brilliant philosophers had completely overlooked something that only appeared later in the Bible, what was I supposed to do? After a few months of reflecting, and struggling, and fighting against the obvious like Jacob wrestling with the Angel, I understood that what I had found was a little hole in the structure of things. And it was through this tiny gap that God came rushing into my life.

So, to conclude, let me venture a few remarks about what I think the Gospel accounts imply for us, and what we simply couldn’t find in philosophy. What Christianity demands of us—what is modeled for us by Christ forgiving his executors as he hangs bleeding on the cross—is decidedly not an egoistic form of forgiveness, one that privileges the tranquility of our spirit over all other things. Christ does not want us to do good out of an urge to protect ourselves. Rather, he gives a new light to the world and tells us to look clearly at one another and to love what we see, in full knowledge of the other’s sinfulness. We are also challenged to see ourselves in this new light, to see the depths of our own wretchedness, and to know that help is always available. This is, I suspect, something of what Christ means when he commands us to “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” The thing that made the entire universe and each and every one of us in it loves us, all of us, and because he wants us to find and to love him, he came into our world to suffer at the hands of his own creation. He died on the cross so that we might finally understand what it means to love. He knew what we would do to him and came here anyway, out of love—and when we betrayed him, he nonetheless granted us forgiveness. Perhaps nobody has better articulated what I am really trying to say than St. Jerome: “Jesus was born in a dungheap because he knew that’s where he’d find us.” Thanks be to God.

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