30 Jan

Relational Living (4): Forgiveness

parity and justice

Ill-health and even violence in a relationship between individuals, groups, tribes and nations is likely most often due to an asymmetry in power. More likely it’s due to an abuse, real or perceived, of that asymmetry by the powerful over the powerless. And even more likely it’s due to an acute sense of injustice over past abuses and an unwillingness or inability to forgive.

When you’ve been the victim of what you perceive to be an injustice you feel like someone owes you something. There’s a debt outstanding. And until that debt is paid, until “justice is done”, you cannot rest easy and certainly your relationship with that person or tribe or institution will not be happy or healthy. The deep tragedy of those unwilling to forgive, however, is that non-forgiveness represents a holding on, almost a dependency, almost a sense of powerlessness. It’s as though the offender dominates you, controls and manipulates you, keeps you from sleeping, keeps you from enjoying yourself, keeps you from “moving on” to form new and better relationships. And all this while they, usually, walk around blissfully unaware they’ve done anything wrong!

Relational Proximity Dimension #4 is Parity or Balance. The greater the asymmetry of power between me and someone else, the greater the potential for difficult and strained relationships. This asymmetry can be real or perceived, and its affect on relationships can be more about the use and misuse of power than the mere existence of power disparity.

That all sounds like a major power asymmetry to me. But in this case the exercise of that power, in what almost feels like even further abuse, is entirely self-inflicted. Yes, of course, if the offender somehow repays something then in a sense justice is done. But their attempts at righting the wrong mean nothing if you don’t forgive them.

It seems that one of the major reasons for relational problems caused by power asymmetry is that we equate power with value. The second major reason is that we ascribe or devolve power to another simply by not forgiving them. These two things we can evidently do something about. Can you imagine the mental and relational liberation if we saw people as equally valuable (no matter how powerful they were) and if we forgave them (even if they didn’t seek forgiveness)? These things are within our responsibility and ability to do.

However, the Power problem of forgiveness also works the other way, maybe more so. It’s less about you having a sense of powerlessness because you can’t let go of the offense of the other person. Rather, YOU hold the power over the offender because you refuse to forgive. This is where the language of ‘debt’ is helpful. Who holds the power, the lender or the person with the debt? If you know what it feels not to be forgiven when you’re desperately sorry, you know how much power the offended person has.

In any case, whether you’re the offender or the offended, whether you feel powerless or powerful, an awareness of this dynamic can help explain why the relationship feels as it does. It also points to the need for candid and courageous conversation where confession and forgiveness can happen.

In the series Relational Living, Simon Fowler explores what Relational Thinking means in our day-to-day lives. The articles appeared earlier on his personal blog and are republished with his permission. The first three in this series were published on 9,  16 and 23 January.

  • Lindsay McMillan

    Well said Simon. We here in Australia are launching a major thrust to address family violence. Your thoughts on power begin to address some of these issues. I appreciate your wisdom
    Lindsay McMillan

    • http://sifowler.wordpress.com Simon Fowler

      Thanks Lindsay. The way that power is exercised in a relationship seems so much more complex than commonly understood. Violence, it seems to me, is the end and final resort of the urge to have power over others. But that urge manifests in a ton of other ways, and it’s usually in response to the fear of losing power. But ‘power over’ is not the only form of power. In fact, vulnerability and humility demonstrate a paradoxical ‘power’, but it’s for others (forgiveness being the example above). So if we can change how people perceive and demonstrate power (especially men), perhaps that’s one way to keep violence at bay? (You might want to check out Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability if you’ve not come across it already),
      – Simon