Robert C. Sutton

While working on a book exploring how Jesus might have suggested that persons deal with evil, I became very perplexed about his crucifixion.  I remember remarking to Dr. Dey, Professor of New Testament at Drew University, that I could not understand why Jesus was crucified when he taught the need to forgive and be merciful. After publishing that book, Human Existence and Theodicy:A Comparison of Jesus and Albert Camus, the question still disturbed me, how could forgiveness arouse such hostility?  When I saw The Bad Lieutenant I saw just how disturbing forgiveness could be.

Abel Ferrar's 1992 movie, The Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel, is an unsettling depiction of a person's descent into the hell of a moral wasteland where life is devoid of meaning and value. The Lieutenant drops his children off at the parish school and begins his daily routine of horrors by getting high. To say that he is stressed is like saying that the atom bomb made an explosion.  Working to solve cases of human destruction that litter the streets of the modern city, the Lieutenant fills the day in an orgy of hedonistic consumption (gambling, drugs, drinking, and sex). Far from granting him release, his decadence only speeds his headlong rush to his own destruction.

The absence of any values, sacred or otherwise, is amply revealed through one violation after another of our moral sensibilities. There is none as disturbing as when a nun is raped on the church altar with items from the altar used in her violation and stolen by her assailants. The nun knows who her attackers are, identifying them as boys in the parish. However, she refuses to identify them any further, claiming that their actions are cries for forgiveness. The Lieutenant, who has sold his soul to an unforgiving bookie by betting thousands of dollars he does not have on a losing team in the World Series, cannot understand the nun's moral failure to hold the rapists accountable for their immoral actions.  He pleads with her, "What right have you to forgive these boys?  By whose authority?"

Seeing the nun forgive her attackers raises questions about a pervasive moral intuition on the value of forgiveness. Most of us have heard, "to err is human, to forgive is divine," that folksy expression meant to inspire us to forgive those who have wronged us. Jesus was supposed to have urged persons to forgive their enemies and even while being crucified, Jesus was said to have pled, "Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34a).  Desmond Tutu has said that Christians should follow the example of the "Jewish Rabbi" for, according to Tutu, "Without forgiveness, there is no future" (Wisenthal 268). Despite these moral intuitions and the claims of religion, there is something disquieting about the nun's willingness to forgive her rapists and her failure to hold them accountable for their actions.

Leaving aside the motivation of the Lieutenant's outrage, ethicists from several perspectives, especially a Kantian approach to moral accountability, would agree with the otherwise immoral Lieutenant in seeing the nun's forgiveness as morally indefensible. In fact, Joram Haber employs just such a Kantian approach and argues that forgiveness is morally acceptable only within certain parameters.  A person who is wronged is willing to forgive the person who wronged them if that person repents of the wrong and promises not to act that way in the future. (Haber 90).  While maybe not as intuitively disquieting as the nun's willingness to forgive, Haber's position would seem too restrictive and run counter to the pervasive belief that forgiveness is a moral good. Under what circumstances should forgiveness be extended or withheld? Who can morally forgive whom?  To forgive or not to forgive? Before answering this question, it might be helpful to clarify Haber's views.

Rejecting several ethical perspectives, Haber "... simply assume (sic) the Kantian view of moral worth, which sees persons as having value in and of themselves as members in a kingdom of ends"(Haber 85). Taking this position as his starting point, Haber views forgiveness as a failure to recognize one's own value, not to mention the value of others, and it is also indicative of a failure to recognize the value of the moral law. Instead of forgiving those who have personally harmed us, or intended to do so, Haber argues that "... resentment is the proper response to a personal injury and that the failure to resent under certain circumstances is indicative of a moral defect" (Haber 70). He restates this same point later,

…resentment is the morally proper response to injury--that a self-respecting person is open to moral criticism if she fails to resent those who have wronged her. Given this thesis, it follows that, all things being equal, we ought not to forgive those who have injured us. (Haber 89)

Haber stipulates that forgiveness is only morally justified when the wrongdoer repents of the specific harm done to the injured party and that it is only the injured party who is in the position to extend forgiveness. (Haber 90)

The ideas that forgiveness presupposes repentance and that one is not able to forgive on another's behalf are also commonly expressed in religious discussions.  These ideas are also part of Wisenthal's moral agony in The Sunflower.  Wisenthal tells the story to his friends in a concentration camp about how he was taken to the bedside of a dying SS Officer who requested that he, as a Jew, forgive him for his crimes against Jews, something Wisenthal could not do.  One friend, Josek, responds to this story,

...I feared at first, that you had really forgiven him. You would have had no right to do this in name of the people that had not authorized you to do so.  What people have done to you yourself, you can, if you like, forgive and forget.  That is your own affair.  But it would have been a terrible sin to burden your conscience with other people's sufferings. (Wisenthal 65)

Eva Fleishner also addresses the issue of persons forgiving others when they themselves are not the victims of that person's wrong-doing.  She argues that it is a misreading or misinterpretation of Jesus' injunction to forgive if this demand of Jesus' is understood as a requirement "...that we are to forgive anyone and everyone, whatever the wrong done to anyone" (Wisenthal 141).  She explains that this perspective fails to understand that "...Jesus challenges me....Nowhere does he tell us to forgive the wrong done to another" (Wisenthal 141).

Given what Haber has suggested, is it not the case that the “bad” Lieutenant's moral position is superior to that of the nun who refuses to hold the young men who raped her accountable? Before answering this question, I would point out that Keitel has a change of heart after seeing a bloodied Jesus in the church where the nun was raped. His Jesus turns out to be a woman who is returning the cross that was stolen by the nun's rapists and she tells the Lieutenant where the boys are to be found. Finding the nun's attackers, Keitel handcuffs them, watches his team lose the last game of the series, and smokes their crack. Taking the boys to the Port Authority, he gives them several thousand dollars, places them on a bus telling them that "she forgave them." Returning to his car parked outside of New York's Port Authority, he is shot in the head for not paying the bookie.

"She forgave them." Certainly Haber and others would not have been so forgiving of the nun's attackers. In what sense might such an act of forgiveness be morally justified? It seems possible that one avenue of inquiry could be an examination into the legitimacy of assuming the Kantian perspective in deciding this question. However, I would like to start at a more fundamental level and ask two questions.  First, is the moral value of an individual a given as Haber suggests?  Or, asked slightly differently, which beings are members of whose moral community?It seems to me that this is an important question in a variety of moral contexts, from abortion to animal rights. Second, might mercy or forgiveness be appropriate moral responses where ideas like "luck," "chance," or the "tragic" carry as much moral force in our ethical deliberations as "responsibility," "accountability," and "rationality?"

At this point I could only suggest that these questions require greater attention than I think Haber has given. Haber is right to call our attention, as does Ferrar's movie, to the fact that many persons, especially those in religious circles, use the word forgiveness without recognizing the full moral difficulty that the word entails. Yet, for all its moral problems, is it true that the ethicist is justified in banishing it from our moral vocabulary, except in rare cases as specified above?  It is interesting to note that when discussing the difficulty of making moral choices, particularly as presented in The Bad Lieutenant, Keitel suggests that ethics is not equal to life, with its moral ambiguities and complexities.  He says,  "The need to deal with what is is bigger than any ethic" (Schnabal 140).

To illustrate these questions, without resolving the issues, I would simply refer the reader to the strange case of Jesus. It certainly seems that Jesus preached forgiveness of sins.  In fact, when Peter asked Jesus to define the limits of forgiveness, suggesting that 7 times was appropriate, Jesus countered with the demand that it be "Not seven times but seventy times seven"  (Matt 18:21-22). How is such a claim to be understood?Does this injunction contain the conditional qualities surrounding forgiveness described above? Not only are there several passages believed to be authentic sayings of Jesus in which he urges the practice of seemingly unlimited forgiveness but, persons found his demand an offense and even asked him by what authority or power he granted forgiveness (Mk 2:7ff). For those who believed in the moral indefensibility of forgiveness and the moral flaw it represents, maybe Jesus' demand for forgiveness could be seen as a major reason for his execution.

If forgiveness is such a morally bad practice, why would Jesus have asked this of persons? It seems to me that the reason he did so is his recognition that schemes of moral value are human constructs that artificially privilege certain groups and practices above others. In other words, moral accountability might also be used to justify a moral scheme that divides persons into arbitrary categories, such as the in and out, the clean and the unclean, the sinner and the saved, which were designed to designate the privileged in these pairs and to guarantee their position.  In other words, life does not conform to our ethics. Furthermore, it seems that Jesus understood, as many looked forward to, that the times demanded a break or rupture with the past. The practice of forgiveness might be the best way to disrupt patterns of destructive or regressive relationships, both personal and social. The importance of the latter point seems to have been recognized in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.In an interview Derrida remarked about the goal of the Commission.He said,“That's obviously the goal-closure. To put an end to what might be otherwise an endless process of revenge; to put an end to the mourning and to get on with the future. Mandela and his associates and his allies wanted South Africa to survive”(Derrida).

Again, Haber might be correct in suggesting that not to be disturbed when harm is done might be an indication of a lack of an adequate moral sense. But, suppose one also has some ironic distance from the moral law which Haber assumes that one must be committed to in order to be moral? Given an awareness of the humanly constructed character of the moral law and its relative good (as well as its relative evil), why would a slavish devotion to it be preferable to the cultivation of  "fellow feeling" which might engender forgiveness based upon the experience of human frailty and limitation? I believe it is Wisenthal's sense of these realities that collided with his sense of justice that precipitated his moral dilemma. I do not have answers to the important questions raised by Haber and Wisenthal regarding the morality of forgivness.  Haber's work challenges those who believe in the morality and the value of forgiveness to think about the conditions within which forgiveness is, in fact, morally acceptable.  However, I do not believe that Haber's position warrants complete agreement until the questions raised in this essay can be further explored and resolved.


Derrida, Jacques.“An Interview with Jacques Derrida,”Cardozo Life. Fall 1998. 3 Mar. 2002<>.

Haber, Joram Graff. Forgiveness: A Philosophical Study. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1991.

Keitel, Harvey.  Interview with Julian Schnabal. "Bad Lieutenant,"  in Interview. 22 Dec. 92: 138-41.

Wisenthal, Simon.  The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York, NY: Schocken Books, Inc., 1998.