The ifoga of the Samoan culture is pretty much a foreign concept to a Palagi. To offer and receive forgiveness in a formal manner simply doesn’t have an equal in the Western world. While our justice system increasingly requires that criminals face their victims and see the consequences of their crimes, this is still a long way from the Samoan ifoga.
For the record, I believe the ifoga in its formality has more of a biblical orientation that understands the loving heart of God than the ways of Western world, in which the emphasis is strongly on the law and the legal aspects of crime. It is rare that we have a Palagi visitor who does not marvel at the entire process in which an entire family in disgrace can be formally forgiven and relationships within society restored.
The social expectations surrounding the ifoga also raise eyebrows too. That an aggrieved family is expected to forgive another family that has formally humbled itself, can be a cause of stress for a Palagi who does not readily understand nor accept that social obligations (a culture) could be so strong as to override an individual’s freedom. Many a Palagi struggles to understand how people would submit what they perceive to be their individual human right to retain resentment (essentially to harbour unforgiveness) to anything of mere “culture”.
The practice of offering formal forgiveness in a Samoan context is the reverse extreme from the naturally selfish and self-centered Western world lifestyle, but there are two dangers resulting from a cultural expectation of forgiveness. The first is that the all-important aspect of personal responsibility for our thoughts, words and actions is minimised. Abdicating direct personal responsibility for groupthink, peer-pressure or any other culturally normal family responsibility counters the teaching of Christ who spoke to, preached to, helped and saved individuals, with whom He all built a personally saving relationship, individually.
Biblical forgiveness from Father to creation has a corporate place, such as when a nation turns to the Lord in forgiveness but at its heart is always an individual who hears and turns to God in repentance, thus exercising faith.
The second problem is that personal resentments can often fester under the surface, and are never truly dealt with. Unless the human heart changes from within, no amount of spoken words or outwards ceremony has any more substance than a pretty face. Just as swimming or bathing in the sea a thousand times makes us no more of a dolphin or a whale than when we first started out, or going to church every day of the year makes us a “good” Christian, so too the mere speaking of words (especially when they are required of us) can ever change the heart.
I am aware of family feuds in Samoan villages that have long historical roots that span generations. Some of these generational tensions (literally caused through curse) are not even fully understood by those still maintaining the warfare, even if they do it only subtly.
The evidence of true biblical forgiveness is that any tarnished relationship will begin to thrive following any act of forgiveness. Whereas previously pride ruled the day (manifested through racism, dislike, contempt, tension below the surface or mistrust), a genuine humility is noticeable where the other party’s best interests are viewed supreme and sacrificial love is evident.
From a biblical perspective, Samoan culture does not have the balance between encouraging individual responsibility and the social expectation of forgiveness right. The Western world though has too much emphasis on the law with the rights of the individual. In this context Samoa needs to toughen up. The West needs to soften up.