Thomas Wictor

On mandated forgiveness

On mandated forgiveness

Louis Zamperini died today at the age of ninety-seven. He was an Olympic distance runner and the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I read the book and enjoyed it until the end. Zamperini forgave the Japanese war criminals who tortured him, even though they were unrepentant, and he said that he now loved them. I’m not a proponent of mandated forgiveness. That doesn’t mean I’m right, however. I’ll see if I can explain myself without criticizing the worldview of others.

Unbroken was made into a film, directed by Angelina Jolie. Here she is with Zamperini.


That photo exemplifies why I didn’t like the ending of the book. Jolie is acting. I find her expression of gooshy love grotesque.

After the war, Louis Zamperini lost himself in rage and alcoholism. He turned his life around after attending a revival meeting hosted by Billy Graham. One of the things that Zamperini said he was commanded to do after he became an evangelical Christian was to forgive those who had caused him such pain. The man who’d inflicted the most damage on Zamperini during his time in the Japanese prison camp was Matsuhiro Watanabe, nicknamed “the Bird.”


You can see what a sick, preening thug he was. He liked to swing a leather belt at prisoners, as hard as he could, hitting them in the face with the solid brass buckle.

The Japanese military adhered to Bushidō, the “Way of the Warrior.” In 1878 the Japanese army established the General Staff, which was independent of civilian control. The Chiefs of the Army and later Navy General Staffs were subordinate only to the emperor. From 1931 the military began starting wars without the consent of the government. On May 15, 1932, army and navy cadets assassinated the prime minister. Found guilty, they were still considered national heroes.

Though in 1940 one national political party was declared, Japan never formally became a military dictatorship. Even so, the Japanese armed forces committed acts of incomprehensible brutality, rationalizing them by stating that any soldier who surrendered to them was no longer a true person. Unit 731, for example, conducted human experimentation, dissecting prisoners of war alive without anesthesia.

Japanese prisoner-of-war camps were game preserves where predators like Matsuhiro Watanabe were given free rein to indulge in their violent, psycho-sexual pathologies.

After Louis Zamperini converted to Christianity, he tried to locate Matsuhiro Watanabe to express his forgiveness and love for him.

Zamperini was a Christian, which means he followed the tenets of his religion. I can’t fault him for that. As a Christian reminded me today, the command to forgive is in the Lord’s Prayer. Here’s the version I learned in the Catholic Church.

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,

What follows is my opinion. Being opinion, it’s neither right nor wrong, nor is it any more valid than anybody else’s ideas.

I think that automatic forgiveness cheapens the currency of forgiveness. Even further, I think that when you forgive the unrepentant, it makes a mockery of the entire concept. That doesn’t mean I want you to think like me or to stop forgiving. This is only how I view automatic forgiveness.

Louis Zamperini and others Christians say that they’re required to forgive. How can forgiveness be genuine if you’re forced to give it? Here’s an even tougher question that I ask as respectfully as I can: Did Louis Zamperini substitute one addiction—alcoholism—for another? Did he become addicted to evangelical Christianity because it simplified his life and removed from him the responsibility of making agonizing decisions?


The reason I ask this is because I simply can’t comprehend the morality of forgiving those who are unrepentant. Zamperini and other Christians speak as though there are only two choices: hate or love. That’s not true. There’s a vast continuum of emotions between the two. And how can you love a smug criminal? Doesn’t that debauch the word “love” into meaninglessness?

Serious question: Do you really love a violent, smirking, nose-picking, farting, raping, unshaven, dumb, stinking anthropoid? What’s there to love?

It could be that I’m not qualified to speak on this issue, since I’ve struggled with rage, hate, and forgiveness all my life. The peace of mind I achieved after I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease on October 7, 2011, is gone. I’m as angry as I ever was. The only difference is that now I understand that this is situational and will dissipate in time. I also have the tools to gradually shed the rage again.

However, I have every reason to be angry. Some people deserve to be hated. That’s why I can’t understand Zamperini’s need to seek out his chuckling torturer and say, “I forgive you, and I love you.”

Watanabe would’ve laughed at him. The monsters I’ve known would’ve laughed at me if I’d done that. You think this porker would burst into tears and turn over a new leaf if I told him I’ve forgiven him?


C’mon. Also, he’s not deserving of forgiveness. As for Mutsuhiro Watanabe, he croaked in 2003, rich and untroubled, regretting nothing.

But I’m not criticizing Zamperini. He recovered and went on to live a happy, fulfilled life. Against the odds, he found the key that opened the door to his personal salvation. I wrote this post simply because he mystifies me.

Also, I request that people like Zamperini not tell me that I must follow his lead. That’s for me to decide. I think it’s unjust and immoral to tell others how they should deal with atrocities committed against them. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Unsolicited demands for forgiveness are, well, unforgivable. In my opinion.

The place where secular progressivism and religious conservatism meet is in the arena of automatic forgiveness. Both groups pressure others into forgiving the worst criminals imaginable. Progressives oppose “judging” because it’s antithetical to tolerance and diversity. Religious conservatives say judgment must be left to God alone.


I reject both views.

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

—Matthew 7:1-3

You can judge me. Why not? That’s fair. Judge all you want. And I’m sorry, even if I had a beam in my eye, I could still see that unrepentant criminals are not deserving of my forgiveness.

I believe that forgiveness must be earned. It’s too valuable a commodity for me to simply hand it out like Halloween candy.

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