ROCHESTER — Forgiveness is tough stuff, according to Mike Sauter, noting that it’s a multifaceted and complex process that involves understanding, compassion and — no matter how seemingly insignificant — the change of another person.
Sauter shared his thoughts about forgiveness July 20 during a presentation at Johnny’s Irish Pub as part of the Monroe County summer Theology on Tap young-adult discussion series.
He was asked to lead discussion on the topic after Nora Bradbury-Haehl, youth-ministry director at Webster’s St. Paul Parish, which is cosponsoring the series, read an article on forgiveness that Sauter wrote and posted on SUNY Geneseo’s Newman Community website. Sauter is director of campus ministry at the college and also pastoral administrator of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Livingston County.
That article, titled "Forgive it Forward," served as the foundation for Sauter’s talk, which he began with a bold statement summarizing his personal philosophy on forgiveness.
"I tend to think that modern society is made up of virtues that mask as other virtues," he remarked, noting that one value can act as a facade to another genuine core value. For example, he suggested that optimism masks hope, care masks love, power masks authority, license masks freedom, and tolerance and kindness ultimately mask forgiveness.
Sauter said that he once was told people would rather perform a random good deed for someone than actually take an interest in that person.
"If that’s true, think of how many kind acts we would rather do for somebody who wronged us or against whom we hold a grudge than actually forgive them," he quoted from his article, which was based on Matthew 18:21-35. Whereas kindness is random and impersonal, forgiveness is a deeply personal act, he said.
Some of the 16 participants in the discussion chimed in with their own personal examples of forgiveness, including the daily struggle to forgive family members. Participants also agreed that there is real forgiveness and fake forgiveness, the latter of which is an effortless action that resembles tolerance. For example, one participant noted her tendency to tolerate, rather than forgive, coworkers.
The struggle to achieve real forgiveness involves the awareness of the wrongdoer, Sauter said, asking, "Does a person need to understand that he or she has done something wrong before they can be forgiven?" If you resent a person because of a wrongful act he or she committed but that person is not aware of your irritation, then the issue resides within you, he said.
That’s why forgiveness a complicated process, Sauter remarked. In an effort to clarify the ideal progression of forgiveness, he cited five principles from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
The first two theories state that forgiveness must involve a claim that the action was wrong and that an individual must experience a change in the way he or she views the person who needs to be forgiven. These steps are significant, Sauter said, as an individual must perceive that the person who needs to be forgiven has been baptized again. The individual must ultimately see the person to be forgiven in the way God sees that person, he said.
Forgiveness also should not be conditional or given with the expectation that the person being forgiven will change, Sauter noted. In addition, the process of forgiveness involves both emotion and action — we must demonstrate compassion, Sauter said, but also begin to treat the person as someone who has been forgiven.
Finally, Sauter noted that forgiveness can transform the wrongdoer and therefore has the potential to prevent wrongdoing. This transformation might not occur immediately, but in some way, an individual’s forgiveness of another person will change that person.
Sauter pointed out the cyclical nature of forgiveness, noting that forgiving yourself will help you to forgive others, which will in turn allow you to continue forgiving yourself.
"The duty (to forgive) is ours," Sauter said, noting that forgiveness is an inevitable process in life that entails commitment, concern and the dual transformation of oneself and another person.
Participants Katherine McCarty and Shannon Latchford viewed Sauter’s talk as a much-needed reminder.
"I liked having a clear outline of the five things involved in true forgiveness," said McCarty, a parishioner at Rochester’s Blessed Sacrament Parish, another of the discussion series’ cosponsors. "It’s a good kick in the pants."
"We have to work towards forgiveness every day," Latchford added. "It is not something we should take for granted."