Taylor Swift and the Ministry of Retribution

True fans of Taylor Swift will smell something fishy about the New York Times headline, […]

CJ Green / 9.9.19

True fans of Taylor Swift will smell something fishy about the New York Times headline, “Taylor Swift, Philosopher of Forgiveness.” Because when it comes to Taylor’s philosophy of forgiveness, what songs come to mind? Maybe her early hit “Picture to Burn”? Or its music video in which she fantasizes about breaking into an ex’s house and trashing the place? Or maybe you’re remembering “Mean,” in which she dismisses a critic as “a liar, and pathetic, and alone in life”; or “Blank Space” or “Bad Blood,” about anger, rivalry, and destruction. Maybe you recall “Better Than Revenge,” in which, referring to her career of writing songs about individuals who have slighted her, Swift admits, “There is nothing I do better than revenge.”

Even when her songs aren’t about revenge, Swift nevertheless exacts it with thinly veiled exposés of private moments with former lovers, offering hints and Easter eggs to aid listeners in identifying the particular humiliated party, such as in the sarcastic “Forever and Always” (Joe Jonas), and “Dear John” (John Mayer), and the masterpiece—really! it is so good—“All Too Well” (Jake Gyllenhaal).* In the Swift archives is one song, “Innocent,” which is sweeping and epic and all about forgiveness. But that is not what Dr. Hershovitz has in mind when he refers to Taylor as a “philosopher of forgiveness.” He is talking, more precisely, about her philosophy of un-forgiveness:

In an interview on Aug. 25 on “CBS Sunday Morning,” Ms. Swift spoke up about our culture’s obsession with forgiveness. “People go on and on about you have to forgive and forget to move past something,” she said. “No, you don’t.”

She’s right. You don’t have to forgive and forget to move on. And sometimes, you shouldn’t forgive or forget. You should resent.

To see why, imagine that you’ve been wronged. Let’s say Kanye West just busted up your big moment onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards. So what? Why not be Jay-Z and brush the dirt off your shoulder? The reason — as many philosophers will tell you — is that wrongdoing sends a demeaning message that shouldn’t go unchallenged.

Most problematically, Dr. Hershovitz paints Christianity as ambivalent on the issue: “[D]oesn’t Christianity teach that people must forgive? Not exactly.” Briskly, Hershovitz cites one translation of Luke 17:3 but fails to mention other more challenging Scriptures like Matthew 18:21-25 and Mark 11:25; in light of the whole, you would have to stretch pretty far to make the preceding argument. Jesus demands forgiveness, emphatically. That said, his emphatic standards are also impossible to live up to (“be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect”!); and many of Swift and Hershovitz’s points are merely practical. Indeed, some assaults are so grave the hurt party cannot forgive. And it is true that there are ways to find inner peace that do not require forgiveness. But from a Christian perspective, the question is not “What should I do?” but “What if I can’t do what I know I should do?”

To forgive, you must release your resentment for the right reasons. You must release your resentment because you see that you can repair your relationship.

What if you can’t? Ms. Swift advises that you don’t have to forgive and forget; instead, “you just become indifferent and then you move on.”

Choosing indifference will surely work, as Taylor attests with her new song, “I Forgot You Existed,” in which she forgets her offender long enough to write a song about them and in all likelihood sing about them on tour for months on end. With indifference as the goal, there remains some begrudgment, some maintenance of a structure in which the victim is responsible for keeping him or herself aloof and elevated above the offending party. In the words of Swift herself, “I mean, this is exhausting, you know?”

The main kicker, though, is that advice like “you should resent” leaves us empty-handed when we become the injuring party — which we all will, at some point, if that is not already the case. Taylor is no exception and she knows it on Lover’s highlight song, “The Archer.” “Combat,” she sings, “I’m ready for combat. I say I don’t want that, but what if I do?” Then she identifies, at last, as the aggressor: “I’ve been the archer / I’ve been the prey / Screaming, who could ever leave me, darling? / But who could stay?” This song is the real deal. Of the myriad exes and sour relationships logged over the course of her impressive 7-album discography, there is one common denominator after all. Her wondering dissolves from “Who could ever leave me?” to “Who could stay?

All the king’s horses, all the king’s men
Couldn’t put me together again
’Cause all of my enemies started out friends

When you feel unforgivably broken, these are the times to remember that when Jesus was asked his opinions about forgiveness, he could only respond “pro.” Even as he hung on the cross, he said of the archers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And God responds that it will be so: “I will be merciful toward their iniquities / and I will remember their sins no more.”

* Maybe it is obvious, but I write all of this as a lifelong listener of Taylor Swift. I even liked reputation (just not “Look What You Made Me Do” which is most casual listeners’ main association with that album). As one reviewer noted, “The old Taylor Swift is hiding within reputation”; highlights are “jewels in a dagger hilt.”

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3 responses to “Taylor Swift and the Ministry of Retribution”

  1. Sam says:

    “Forget, then, the idea that forgiveness is some sentimental means of the victim thinking well of those that have done them harm – often this is impossible. Rather, Christian forgiveness is much more practical and empirical: it’s about not answering back in kind, not returning violence with more of the same. In essence, it represents a stubborn refusal to act in the same way as the violent other, it is a refusal to become like them.”

    ~ Rev. Giles Fraser


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