by Sheryl Anderson.
For a long time now I have been very exercised by the notion of forgiveness. It seems to be a word that Christians use freely without giving much thought to what exactly it means. It is one of those concepts that everyone thinks they understand until asked to explain, and then it becomes clear that actually it is a slippery term that it hard to define and of which it is difficult to give a proper account. What is forgiveness and what does it mean to forgive?
One of the things we like to teach our children, when they get into conflict with others (often siblings) is to say sorry and make friends. I am sure you remember that from your own childhood, or with brothers and sisters, or at school? Mostly children co-operate with this, and will sulkily and grumpily say “sorry” – sometimes complaining that it wasn’t their fault or the other person started it!
Christians often seem to think that it is an imperative for us to forgive others, and many Christians pray every day the Lord’s Prayer which contains the line, Forgive us our sins (trespasses) as we forgive those who sin (trespass) against us, as though we are in some sort of bargain with God, which means God can only forgive us if we are forgiving of others. Therefore we have to say sorry and make up…like we were taught as children.
The philosopher Richard Swinburne, in his book Responsibility and Atonement[i] argues that forgiveness follows when someone has properly atoned for the wrong that they have done you. According to Swinburne atonement involves four stages; penitence (recognising that you have wronged someone), apology (saying sorry for doing the wrong), reparation (doing what you can to put the wrong right), penance (going beyond merely putting the wrong right – offering compensation). Swinburne indicates that once someone has fulfilled these requirements, forgiveness should inevitably follow.
However, in real life serious wrongs are very difficult to put right. Personal wrongs – killing someone (deliberately or accidentally), sexual abuse or rape, exploiting someone’s vulnerability – can result in psychological damage that is not easily repaired. Similarly, collective wrongs – the death of 6 million Jews (and others) in the Holocaust; genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Darfur; the effect of warfare on a population; the torture, persecution and oppression of blacks by whites in South Africa – these acts often have consequences that continue for generations.
In Country of my Skull[ii], Antjie Krog relates a story told by Father Mxolisi Mpambani during a lunch time panel discussion at the University of Cape Town.
“Once there were two boys, Tom and Bernard. Tom lived right opposite Bernard. One day Tom stole Bernard’s bicycle and every day Bernard saw Tom cycling to school on it. After a year Tom went up to Bernard, stretched out his hand and said, ‘Let us reconcile and put the past behind us.’
Bernard looked at Tom’s hand. ‘And what about the bicycle?’
‘No,’ said Tom, ‘I’m not talking about the bicycle – I’m talking about reconciliation.’”
She then goes on to make the point that traditionally the Western Church says you must forgive, because God forgave you for killing God’s Son. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu translated this for the post-apartheid situation in South Africa. ‘You can only be human in a humane society. If you live with hatred and revenge in your heart you dehumanize not only yourself but your community. Perhaps reparation is not essential for reconciliation and forgiveness.
It seems to me that forgiveness cannot happen outside of a relationship, for it is a performative act. To forgive one must be willing to endure the consequences of someone else’s wrong and overcome resentment. To achieve this one has to consider the breach in the relationship a greater evil than the injury caused, and this is not always the case. In some instances reconciliation is neither sensible not healthy. Survivors of sexual abuse, for example, can find themselves re-victimised by the pressure to forgive that comes from those who assume that if the perpetrator says sorry then forgiveness must follow. In these circumstances, perhaps it is enough to ask God to forgive the one who has wronged us, which is actually what Jesus did.
[i] Swinburne, Richard, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford University Press, 1989
[ii] Kroge, Antjie, Country of my Skull, Jonathan Cape, 1998 pp 109-110