The Freedom of Forgiveness: Perspectives from Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Religious leaders discuss what our faith traditions can teach us in the nation’s difficult moment as part of GSEHD’s annual Conversations that Matter event.

September 25, 2020

Forgiveness Panel

From left: Erica Brown, Mohamed Magid and Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli discussed the meaning of forgiveness in their religious faiths and how it could help heal a divided society.

By Tatyana Hopkins

Religious traditions can teach American society about the process of forgiveness, said Erica Brown, director of the George Washington University Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.

“I’m very concerned that with cancel culture and ghosting, basically what we’re saying is if I don’t like you or something that you’ve done, I don’t have to reconcile,” she said. “I’m worried that instead of wrestling with these things, now we’re creating a culture where we just erase other people.”

Dr. Brown, who is also an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, joined a panel of religious leaders to discuss what the teachings of their faith tell them about forgiveness and how those lessons can be applied to a nation stricken by a pandemic, civil unrest and ecological disasters.

The virtual discussion, hosted Thursday evening as part of GSEHD’s “Conversations that Matter” series, also featured Mohamed Magid, executive imam of All Dulles Area Muslim Society, and Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli, senior pastor of the Foundry Methodist Church.

David Gregory, former host of NBC's "Meet the Press" moderated the discussion, and GSEHD Dean Michael Feuer offered welcoming remarks.

As a member of the Jewish faith, Dr. Brown noted preparing for Yom Kippur, which marks the last of 10 days of atonement and penance, where she and many other Jews have attempted to make amends and ask for forgiveness for sins committed during the year to secure their fate according to their religious tradition. The day is typically observed with a day-long fast, intense prayer and synagogue services.

“The Yom Kippur prayer service is a confessional for sins,” said Dr. Brown. “We beat our chests, and we name them. Very often we’re reading someone else’s script, and it can feel archaic. So, every year, I try to modernize them.”

On her own list she marks light-hearted offenses such as flooding friends and family with Internet memes via social media and text and leaving her camera off on Zoom calls even when her colleagues had revealed themselves, as well as more serious ones such as “living at work instead of working from home” and passing judgment on those less fastidious in regards to following COVID-19 guidelines as “careless” and those more particular as “finicky.”

She said her faith encouraging her to name and acknowledge her own wrongdoings has taught her that forgiveness is not “two or three words” but rather a “deep emotionally-invested, non-linear process.”

The other panelists echoed her sentiments.

“Forgiveness begins with an inward acknowledgement,” Ms. Gaines-Cirelli said, noting that in Christianity the baptismal covenant requires repentance before a remission of sin.

“Without that, you have cheap grace,” she said.   

However, she said in today’s politically-charged climate, people are not so forgiving, especially on social media, where she asserts members of society have moved away from engaging with one another as human beings, but instead treat each other more like ideas.

“It’s about having some kind of purity of platform,” Ms. Gaines-Cirelli said. “If you apologize, you’re wrong. You can’t compromise. If you change your mind on an idea because you’re a thoughtful person who learned new information, then you’re flip-flopping or you were just lying before. It’s all about attacking.”

However, she emphasized the importance of apologies being sincere and followed by a genuine change of action.

Mr. Magid said while he has personally witnessed Facebook posts about political opinions turn into personal attacks, he has rarely seen apologies when civil discourse becomes unfriendly.

“People believe that if you post an apology on Facebook, that you’re not confident or that you’re showing your weaknesses,” he said. “But there is a strength that comes from apologizing. It is not about doing a favor for anybody; it’s about taking care of yourself.”

This perspective, he said could possibly change the whole paradigm of forgiveness and the way we interact in an increasingly divided society.