I was asked by a local college student what our views on forgiveness were. These are my own answers to the questions, and I would love to hear input from you as to what you think forgiveness is in a Unitarian Universalist context.

How would you or your teachings describe forgiveness?

Unitarian Universalists believe in the goodness of humanity and divinity. In this view, restoration is always possible. We believe that most people are good and that evil comes from systems and power imbalances, and everyone participates in greater systems of evil. Therefore, when there is an injury, there must be a systemic response. We are called to reform these larger systems and believe that humanity is on a pathway to go, as James Freeman Clarke says, onward and upward forever.

Because Unitarian Universalists also believe in an immanent eschatology – ie, that we are in the business of making heaven on earth here and now, those who seek forgiveness must do all they can to repair the situation now and here, if it is possible. We also do not seek cheap grace – that is – insist on instant forgiveness from those who have been harmed. Authenticity to actually fixing the issue or changing our ways moving forward is important.

Should you forgive yourself (or ask for forgiveness) for harmful actions you have inflicted on other? How?

Seeking forgiveness, to Unitarian Universalists, is to seek to restore the relationship with the other. If you seek forgiveness without seeking to repair the trust that has been broken or make up for what has been done wrong, then you are seeking to absolve yourself and do not want true forgiveness, but to be excused. You must seek to restore relationships, so you must seek forgiveness when wrong has been done.

Forgiving yourself is another matter. Oftentimes, in our individualistic culture, we are very hard on ourselves and our choices, and blame ourselves for everything. This causes separation from one another. Forgiveness sought should be sought individually and in the larger context. Who taught you to do wrong? Who are the ones in power responsible for the situation? What is their relationship to you?

In looking at the larger interconnectedness, we see how others have harmed us and we hurt others in return. To forgive yourself is to stop this cycle. To forgive those who are responsible for creating these conditions in which we do wrong doesn’t give them a free pass to continue to do wrong too, but allows us to create a relationship with them in which restoration is possible.

Is there a situation in which forgiveness is not appropriate?

We seek to create the opportunity in which forgiveness could happen. A decade ago a man killed several people inside of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Tennessee. The minister there resisted pressure to instantly forgive the shooter for the lives he had taken. Instead, he offered a way for the murderer to seek forgiveness by repaying his debt to society. He offered a way for the families of those slain to grant forgiveness if they wanted to. We believe that we have this one wild and precious life, and so we must seek to create the world we dream about here and now. Therefore, we are sensitive to situations in which there is an ask for forgiveness but no attempt at justice, at healing the whole.

Can one heal without forgiveness?

It depends on the person, and what they mean by forgiveness and what they are seeking. To hate someone else, as the saying goes, is to drink poison hoping that the other person dies. If forgiveness helps one avoid hate, then healing is possible. However, if people are forced to forgive, but the issue is never addressed to their satisfaction, then the forgiveness can hurt people in their healing process. The ethics of consent must be considered. 

How do you forgive a person or group for actions that directly hurt you or someone you love?

  • The person who has done wrong must actually apologize for their behavior. Not “I’m sorry YOU felt hurt” but “I’m sorry I hurt you,” for example.
  • There has to be an authenticity in the wish to repair the damage and to change behavior moving forward.
  • People must admit as to what they did wrong openly
  • Those who have done wrong must wish to be held accountable for their actions
  • The acknowledgement of the system which created the wrong can be used as the reason for why it happened, but does not excuse the person from their individual action


Is the ability to forgive a quality of leadership?

The act of leadership is an emotional regulatory process. Leaders must be able to manage their own emotions and be open to the emotions of the people in the room. They can not deny their feelings and ignore the feelings of others. The ability to forgive is part of being emotionally and spiritually mature. It requires the depersonalization of the act, to see the larger picture in which the act occurred and to understand what is best for the healing of the whole community, not just oneself.

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