Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Gianna Volonte: Constructing Forgiveness

Gianna Volonte

December 2, 2019

Professor Mahallati

RELG 390

Response Paper 4

Word Count: 1202

Going into this week’s session I thought I had gained a fairly clear understanding of forgiveness and apology. Each week leading up to this had left me with questions of my own concept of forgiveness and I often found myself altering my personal definitions and reconstructing the matrix that is forgiveness, apology and revenge. I came to a general idea of what I believed were the proper and appropriate methods of forgiveness, what warranted revenge or repentance or forgetting and I began placing myself in the situations we read about, trying to assess how I would handle the situation. I had developed a fairly consistent method and I was able to walk myself through the process and arrive at a conclusion. Each situation I tried to orient towards moving forward in life, and depending on the situation, I would reach an appropriate way of doing so. This week’s material, however, completely shocked this process I had psychologically developed. The movies, Dead Man Walking[1]and Flatliners[2],provided me with a more realistic perspective of forgiveness, apology and revenge. This perspective was one that I could never have imagined in my own mind for the visuals of each movie provided me with a new outlook on what sin and forgiveness can do to a person. 

            My own definition of forgiveness builds off of Jeffrie Murphy’s: “forgiveness is the forswearing of resentment—where resentment is a negative feeling directed toward another who has done one moral injury”[3]. Further, the aim of forgiveness is to move forward in one’s own life with a restored relationship between the transgressor and the victim. I find it important to include a restored relationship because without it I feel the act of forgiveness borders on forgetting.  Keeping this in mind, this process of forgiveness that I had developed to fit my own psyche relied heavily on repentance, effort and acknowledgement by the transgressor.  I also came to the realization that I require time for forgiveness, and the amount of time depended on the effort of the transgressor to mend the relationship.  I have found that I am not one of those rare people discussed by Govier[4], who can forgive serious wrongs without having reason to, I will only be able to forgive under the conditions of time and effort.  I did, however, think that I would be able to forgive anything that was hypothetically done to me under these two conditions.  That is why I was so shocked at my reactions to the two films we watched this past week.  I will first start with my reactions and thoughts on Dead Man Walking and then I will conclude with my thoughts on Flatliners.  

            Throughout Dead Man Walking I found myself questioning the actions and, in turn, the morality of many of the characters. I was constantly putting myself in the shoes of whoever was interacting with Matthew Poncelet in the particular scene and questioning if I would react the same as they did. By my own moral standards, I find it hard to believe that I would show as much grace and dedication towards Matthew as Sister Helen showed. I kept trying to convince myself that Matthew was redeemable and thought I had succeeded after seeing his interactions with his mother and brothers. At this point, right before his execution, I thought that he did not deserve to die, that he had learned and would be better off if he was given the chance to live. During the execution scene, however, my mind was changed. After seeing the truth of what had happened on the night he and Carl killed and raped the couple, I found myself incredibly unforgiving and I was questioning Sister Helen’s morals as well.  Despite the acknowledgement of his sin in the moments leading up to his death, Matthew has committed a terrible crime. Had he handled his judgement and reactions more appropriately I believe my thoughts would be different. If Matthew had acted in the following manner I believe his actions would then be forgivable: upon being proven guilty he accepts his punishment and the crime he committed, he admits his wrongs and acknowledges his actions to the victims- in this case, the Delacroix’s and the Percy’s, – he apologizes profusely and continuously until he either can no longer apologize or the victims ask him to stop, and he does not fight for a lesser sentence- for that right belongs in the hands of the victims. Only then would I, as a victim, believe that Matthew Poncelet is worthy of forgiveness.  Additionally, the film made two things very clear to me. The first is how in humanizing the transgressor, they become much easier to forgive. Prior to scene of the crime, I was willing to forgive Matthew’s actions solely based on his interactions with his family and Sister Helen. I felt that the guilt you could see in his expressions and the remorse he felt was enough to compensate for the lack of acknowledgement and apology.  Secondly, I realized the severe impact that witnessing a crime can have on your ability to forgive.  Throughout the class we have attempted to place ourselves in horrible situations, questioning whether or not we would forgive. Ideally, yes, we would have that heroic capacity to forgive under any circumstance. However, this movie demonstrated that witnessing or partaking- as an unwilling victim- in a crime completely shifts one’s ability to forgive.  I was simply watching the scene of Matthew’s crime unfold on a screen and my ability to hypothetically forgive was completely taken from me.  My reaction to Flatliners related in severity to Dead Man Walking, though my thoughts were different. 

            While watching Flatliners, I quickly noticed the different levels and variations of forgiveness. It made me realize how complicated and complex the whole idea of forgiveness is and how each situation of forgiveness typically follows its own process of forgiveness. For example, the difference between Rachel and David’s sin meant that they had to experience forgiveness is vastly different ways. David, as the transgressor, had to admit his fault and apologize; also, it is important to note that even decades after the transgression apology was still greatly accepted and forgiveness was still given. On the other hand, Rachel was actually the victim. In her case, she was seeking to forgive her father and, I suspect, also forgave herself for the guilt she harbored for those 20 some years.  Just in two examples we can see how intricate the act of forgiveness is and how influential it can be on the lives of the victims and the transgressors.

            The films Dead Man Walking and Flatliners, while jarring, were irrevocably helpful in clarifying my own definitions and understanding of forgiveness. Additionally, they solidified the uniqueness of each situation warranting forgiveness, further proving that it is near impossible to construct and full-proof system of forgiveness applicable to every person and every situation. 

[1]Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins, (1995; Anaheim, CA: Havoc Entertainment, 1996) DVD.

[2]Flatliners, directed byJoel Schumacher, (1990; Culver City, CA: Columbia Pictures, 1990) DVD.

[3]Norvin Richards, Forgiveness, Ethics, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Oct., 1988), 77

[4]Trudy Govier, Can Groups Forgive, Forgiveness and Revenge, 79.

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