At the end of 2018, Merriam-Webster chose its word of the year: justice. It is well for Filipinos that it did so as we seem to have all but forgotten about this virtue. Justice is of course broader than what first comes to mind when you hear this world: criminal, juridical, and social. The more general Christian definition is more useful as it applies to both punishment and rewards; also, it includes everything, from political, economic, and judicial systems to personal behavior and comportment: put most simply, justice is giving someone what is due him or her. Justice is considered one of the “hard” virtues because it involves keeping your compassion and empathy in check to keep right order, as opposed to the countervailing “soft” virtue of mercy, which is—let’s be honest—much easier to practice for most people (except, perhaps for those dealing with anger management issues). Anyone who’s had to discipline a beloved child, or indeed a pet dog, knows this.
Our most crucial organizing institutions and practices necessarily reflect both justice and mercy, though if one steps back, it is obvious which one is more important to keeping a society functional. This country couldn’t exist for a week without the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. From Melbourne (1923) to Montreal (1969), even in the most advanced, peaceful, and wealthy societies, when the police go on strike, or indeed, even when just the power goes out for an extended period (New York, 1977), criminal mayhem quickly ensues. Not to put down any of the great work they do, but the Philippines could exist indefinitely without the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
Our strong, almost unidimensional bias for mercy—and lack of insistence on justice—I suspect is rooted in elements in our culture that stem from our Catholic faith. This bears some explanation: On cursory reading, the New Testament surely feels like its emphasis is on mercy—even though Jesus Christ talked about hell more than anyone else in the Holy Bible; despite His many warnings of narrow paths to Heaven and the fewness of those chosen for salvation; indeed, despite His dying on a cross to pay for the sins of man. For reasons unknown, this last act is usually interpreted by us Filipinos as purely an act of mercy. It most obviously is not just that: someone had to pay for mankind’s sins, and God had to send His Son to do pay the ultimate price. Being perfect justice, He couldn’t simply write mankind’s transgressions off. Moreover, Christ and His Church both teach one has to then accept this gift of redemption in word and deed, the latter by following Christ’s teachings, for it would be unjust to benefit from a gift you don’t accept.
How then are we as a society supposed to balance two plainly contradictory but necessary principles, mercy and justice? The plain answer is: as best we can as mere mortals with limited powers of knowledge, understanding, and reasoning. God can be both infinite mercy and perfect justice, but we can only scratch our heads and plod along, keeping both these virtues in mind. The existence of opposing natures is not confined to religion and politics. We know from our limited knowledge of science that light is both particles or waves, depending on how it’s observed, but particles cannot be waves—these are two different things that behave differently. We ordinarily say something cannot be in two places at one time, but we already know that at the subatomic level that this can be so for electrons, for instance—we call this quantum superposition and many of our electronic gadgets wouldn’t work without it.
Perhaps our cultural unilateralism towards mercy may be tempered if we understand that there are three kinds of forgiveness, only one of which is commonly understood, but all of which are morally valid:
First, there is exoneration or absolution. This is what we Filipinos are most familiar with—complete forgiveness essentially—simply because this is what we (wrongly) usually assume is automatically given to us Catholics after the sacrament of confession. What people often forget is that such absolution comes with very serious prerequisites of true penitence (regret for what was done and a firm commitment to do your best not to repeat it), admission of guilt and apology, and finally, penance (or restitution—you have to make things right). Unfortunately, this last element is normally confined to mere prayers in confessions, which I think demeans its seriousness. Apparently, our current president agrees though I wish he maid (pun intended) his point in a more stately manner. Therefore, the usual notion we hear that we should forgive all as we are forgiven as well by God is not accurate at all. Absent those three conditions, even an all-loving God will not give complete absolution to a person because He is also all-just, and you should act in the same manner by extension. It is worth noting that in the Jewish tradition, one cannot even ask God for forgiveness, unless one has made all efforts to apologize and make restitution to the person(s) affected by one’s offenses.
The second form of forgiveness is forbearance. This applies when apology is only partially made (disingenuously, lightly, or with an attempt to share the blame), or an invalid excuse is given, or when full restitution is not made, but there is reason enough to maintain a relationship with, or a position for the person. The proper approach here would be more akin to “forgive but don’t forget”, or the Russian adage of “trust but verify”. The previous state of affairs need not be restored, but further punishment or restitution is no longer sought. For instance, in many jurisdictions, a released felon who has served his/her time or has been granted clemency is not allowed to hold public elected offices nor certain sensitive (e.g. stock broker) jobs anymore. More mundanely, under this precept, one would be allowed to no longer invite an offending relative to all your parties, even though you may choose to still keep in touch in other ways.
The third form of forgiveness is release. This is to be applied when the person in question is not repentant in any way and has not made any restitution. If no sufficient reason exists to maintain the relationship, releasing the person is the proper course of action. That is, one severs the relationship altogether, but since this is a form of forgiveness, one does not seek revenge or harbor ill will for the offending party any longer. The reason for such is not related to justice, but merely practical: harboring a grudge or anger is not healthy for anyone. But it does not preclude application of justice; for example, one may still testify truthfully in court about a crime for justice, but not for revenge. Moreover, neither is one obligated to maintain any sort of contact or privilege previously afforded the offending party.
In our cultural context, we tend to mix all of the three into the first category. Thus, the myriad expressions for forgiveness in Tagalog–kaawaan, pagpasensiyahan, pagbigyan, kalimutan, pabayaan, patawarin, etc.—give no distinction to the different forms of forgiveness above. There are no exact one-word translations for forbearance and release; we don’t even have it in our native language. Moreover, how many times have you heard someone admonish another person for not speaking with an offending party, without any context, as if the act of cutting off a relationship is itself automatically an offense? Or alternatively, how many times have you seen fellow Filipinos give a pass to a friend or relative who did a grave moral wrong like stealing large amounts, and continue inviting him/her to parties after a “cooling off” period for the sake of mercy, when none was requested? (To be continued)
(This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP. The author is the CEO of FIGS, Inc and part of AHS ’86 and AGS ‘82. Feedback at <email@example.com> and <Rafael.Reyes@figs.com.ph>. For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>).