" 'To err is human; to forgive, divine.' These well-known words from the English poet Alexander Pope strike many as the right way to think about forgiveness: as something good but almost impossible to do. For that reason, many people found the Amish almost saintly for their expressions of forgiveness at Nickel Mines. A local dentist, expressing Pope's idea without the poetic refinement, put it like this: 'Those Amish people — they impress the bejeebers out of me!'

"Although forgiveness earned the Amish high praise, it also brought them criticism. The act of forgiveness did not take the crime seriously enough, said some. It was offered too quickly, said others. It repressed natural and necessary emotions, claimed a third chorus of voices.

"These complaints raise important questions: What exactly is forgiveness? How do we know if someone has really forgiven someone else? Do the words I forgive you mean that forgiveness has happened, or is more required? What are the conditions, if any, for granting forgiveness? Is it possible to forgive someone who does not apologize — like a gunman who shoots your children and then takes his own life?

What is Forgiveness?

"Forgiveness is a concept that everyone understands — until they're asked to define it. Many Christians say that people should forgive because God forgave them. The Amish say that people should forgive so that God will forgive them. But those statements point to theological motivations for offering forgiveness; they do not define what forgiveness is. Others argue that forgiveness brings emotional healing to the forgiving person, but this psychological motive for forgiveness also fails to define forgiveness.

"In recent years, psychologists such as Robert D. Enright and Everett L. Worthington Jr. have helped to define forgiveness and examine its effects. As a result of their clinical research, both Enright and Worthington have come to believe that forgiveness is good for the person who offers it, reducing 'anger, depression, anxiety, and fear' and affording 'cardiovascular and immune system benefits.' To make that claim, however, they've needed to clarify what forgiveness is — and what it is not.

"Enright, in his book Forgiveness Is a Choice, uses philosopher Joanna North's definition of forgiveness: 'When unjustly hurt by another, we forgive when we overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence, and love.' In Enright's view, this definition highlights three essential aspects of forgiveness: that the offense is taken seriously ('the offense was unfair and will always continue to be unfair'), that victims have 'a moral right to anger,' and that for forgiveness to take place, victims must 'give up' their right to anger and resentment. In sum, forgiveness is 'a gift to our offender,' who may not necessarily deserve it.

"Forgiveness, then, is both psychological and social: psychological because the forgiver is personally changed by the release of resentment, and social because forgiveness involves another person. That other person, the wrongdoer, may or may not change as a result of the forgiveness. In fact, Enright and many other scholars argue that forgiveness does not and should not depend on the remorse or apology of the offender. Rather, forgiveness is unconditional, an unmerited gift that replaces negative feelings toward the wrongdoer with love and generosity. 'In spite of everything that the offender has done,' writes Enright, forgiveness means treating the offender 'as a member of the human community.'

"There are certain things, however, that forgiveness does not mean. Partly in response to their critics, forgiveness advocates have developed a long list of things that forgiveness is not: it is not pretending that a wrong did not occur, it is not forgetting that it happened, and it is not condoning or excusing it. To the contrary, 'forgiveness means admitting that what was done was wrong and should not be repeated.' Similarly, forgiveness is not the same thing as pardon. In other words, granting forgiveness does not mean that the wrongdoer is now free from suffering the disciplinary consequences of his or her actions (for example, legal or other forms of discipline).

"Finally, forgiveness should not be confused with reconciliation — the restoring of a relationship. That's because 'reconciliation requires a renewal of trust, and sometimes that is not possible.' Forgiveness may open the door to reconciliation, and in some ways is a prerequisite for reconciliation, but a victim may forgive an offender without reconciliation taking place. For instance, a victim of domestic abuse may forgive her abuser but at the same time seek legal means to keep him at a distance. Forgiveness advocates such as Enright even argue that forgiving a dead person is both possible and appropriate, even though reconciliation cannot take place in such cases.

"These ideas suggest that some of the reactions to Amish forgiveness at Nickel Mines resulted from mistaken, or at least questionable, assumptions about forgiveness. For instance, when one columnist asked, 'Why Do the Amish Ignore Reality?' she assumed something that all forgiveness advocates, would challenge: that forgiveness means pretending an evil did not occur. Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright likewise challenges the notion that forgiveness implies indifference. 'Forgiveness doesn't mean "I didn't really mind" or "It didn't really matter," ' says Wright. 'I did mind and it did matter; otherwise there wouldn't be anything to forgive at all.'

"Other critiques of the Amish response were more formidable than the suggestion that they 'ignored reality.' The problem wasn't that the Amish offered forgiveness, some remarked; it was that they offered it too quickly. Others suggested that the speed with which forgiveness was offered stifled healthy emotions. For instance, one observer reduced the Amish reaction to one sentence: "They have responded to the massacre of their innocents by repeating that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away" — charging the Amish with substituting trite theological mantras for heartfelt grief. In reality, however, the Amish emotional response was much more complex than this one-sentence summary. Similarly, their gift of forgiveness was not as quick or as easy as some commentators thought."