As We Forgive Those

Author: Lawrence Cunningham

Editor’s Note: “How I admire those families who stand before the courts to plead against the death penalty for the murderers of their sons or daughters. They do it in the name of forgiveness, but they also know that forgiveness does not translate into freedom from consequences,” Lawrence Cunningham wrote in 2003. Just such a story appears in our Spring 2021 issue, recalling Cunningham’s meditation on forgiveness and the perpetual human struggle to fulfill the call.

The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel tells a beautiful Hasidic story about forgiveness. A wealthy Jewish timber merchant in Eastern Europe settles into a train carriage, the story begins. Just before departure an aged, somewhat unkempt, malodorous rabbi settles into the same compartment. Throughout the journey the merchant pointedly, and with fastidious disdain, ignores the old man. When the train arrives at its destination, the merchant sees hundreds of people milling about in eager anticipation. He discovers that the object of their devotion is the old rabbi whom he had so rudely snubbed. The rabbi, he learns, is widely regarded in pious communities as a living saint who possesses profound wisdom and a reputation as a healer.

The merchant pushes his way through the ecstatic crowd to find the old rebbe: “Rabbi,” the merchant pleads, “please forgive me for my rudeness and please say a prayer for my son, who is chronically ill.” The old rabbi responds: “Be assured that I will pray for your son, who, God willing, will gain his health. However, I cannot forgive you. If you want forgiveness, you must seek it by apologizing to every poor old man in the world.”

The wisdom narrative carries with it a lot of moral freight. To seek forgiveness demands that the person who desires it must understand the gravity of what has happened prior to the need to seek forgiveness. First comes confession, then forgiveness. Sometimes the act of forgiveness is only a banal matter: We hurt someone’s feeling or do someone a petty injustice or simply omit an act of courtesy. Once we understand the facts, we seek forgiveness. Often it is granted. At other times, the capacity to forgive seems beyond human reach. The parent of an abused or murdered child cannot find it possible to forgive the perpetrator. At other times a person has been so hurt by the cruelty of another that an untreatable canker burrows into the heart of the victim.

Whole peoples have been so victimized in history that the issue of forgiveness appears unthinkable, perhaps even unjust. Do the concentration camp victims forgive the persecutors? Should they? Can they? Should forgiveness even be in the vocabulary of those who have been tortured or murdered or ground down by generations of oppressors? Such questions are not abstract exercises in ethics seminars but sad realities. Can we really expect those who were horribly mutilated in recent African civil wars to forgive their enemies?

Closer to home are those ugly rifts within families. Some are brought on by betrayals, others by unpremeditated words hurled in a moment of anger or as a momentary desire to wound. The result can be estrangement between parent and child or one side of the family against the other. This kind of break creates the world of icy silences within the home or of distant family members who are remembered only with bitterness or contempt or anger. It is a world in which every word is seen as venomous and every slight intended.

To be on the receiving end of a terrible injustice, either as a person or as a group, carries with it an even worse wound. Father Virgil Elizondo, a visiting professor at Notre Dame, put it well in an essay he wrote for the journal Concilium nearly two decades ago: “The greatest damage of an offense is that it destroys my freedom to be me, for I will find myself involuntarily dominated by the inner rage and resentment — a type of spiritual poison which will permeate all my being — which will be a subconscious but very powerful influence in most of my life.”

The issue of forgiveness and healing is especially complex because Christian faith has such a prominent rhetoric of forgiveness and the promise of pardon embedded within it. After all, at the nadir of his earthly life, abandoned by his disciples, Jesus looked out at his Roman executioners and the braying crowd to say: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” That act of forgiveness put into practice what Jesus had preached in his public life. Some of those words have become among the more famous of his teachings: “If anyone strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:39). “Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 44-45). “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6: 14). “Do not judge so that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). And, of course, the Lord’s Prayer makes our right to ask forgiveness from God dependent on our willingness to forgive others: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Should we forgive seven times? the apostle asks Jesus. Seventy times seven is the instant response (Matthew 18:22).

The Christian tradition not only proclaims that teaching of forgiveness but has in its possession more than one vehicle to effect forgiveness. The sacrament of reconciliation comes immediately to mind: We confess in order to be forgiven. In the Middle Ages bands of friars would preach mercy in the piazzas of the towns of Italy. At the culminating moment of the mission, people could reconcile and end ongoing vendettas while keeping their honor intact. Contemporary church members at both the informal and formal level seek to reconcile warring factions — reconciliations made difficult because of decades or even centuries of bitter animosity that militate against such mutual forgiveness, as strife in Northern Ireland so clearly attests.

Even though the imperative to forgive is at the heart of the Christian message — after all, the saving mysteries of Christ reconcile us to God and to each other — when we are called upon to forgive in specific moments there is a natural tendency not to do so. Jesus relates a parable about an unforgiving servant whose master forgives his debt. The unforgiving servant, however, mistreats a fellow servant who happens to owe him money. When the master finds out, he consigns the wicked servant to his tormentors until his once-forgiven debt is paid. Jesus concludes: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).

How literally can we take that parable?

Do not many of us go to church or interact in our family or neighborhood while seething with anger or hurt or thoughts of vengeance at ills directed towards us? How many times have we seen heartbroken families outside courthouses demanding the full enactment of the law (even death!) against those who commit terrible crimes against them? How could I put down on paper the evil thoughts and boiling anger I felt a few years ago against those who broke into our house while we were at Christmas Eve Mass and stole our children’s gifts, my holiday wine, our cameras and other personal goods? That was some years ago, but I still feel the need for revenge at the thought of those intruders. When we came home that snowy Christmas evening, the thought of forgiveness never entered my mind.

Many have pondered this call for forgiveness so clearly articulated in the Gospels. In our own day, no Christian has thought, spoken and acted on this issue with more clarity than Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. With the fall of the apartheid regime in that country — with its history of suppression, displacement, torture, murder and violence against the Black majority — it would have been easy to turn the pent-up rage of the majority against their former persecutors. If there was any country ripe for a bloodbath it was South Africa. The extraordinary lengths that the South African government went to avoid wholesale revenge against their former oppressors by establishing a reconciliation commission is a model of civility. Tutu and Nelson Mandela fought for such reconciliation because they understood that if a large segment of society lived with hatred and revenge in their hearts, they could never construct a humane society.

Reconciliation in South Africa did not occur by a blanket absolution issued like some kind of presidential decree. The reconciliation commission made an irreducible demand that has deep religious resonances: A policeman or agent of the government who persecuted, betrayed or killed people had to come before the commission, admit to crimes and plead guilty. Only then could reconciliation occur.

The calculus is quite simple: I am guilty and I want forgiveness. In order to receive such, I must confess and ask for forgiveness. The language is almost sacramental. As Tutu wrote in No Future without Forgiveness: “Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. . . . It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end dealing with the real situation helps to bring about real healing.”

It is not given to many of us — who would want such a task? — to work on reconciliation between warring countries or feuding cultures or antagonistic religions. Most of our moments when forgiveness becomes an option are at a more precise local level. Nor should we be too prodigal in advising others to “forgive and forget” until we ourselves have experienced that painful process where we might have reached the point where we can forgive even if we cannot forget. How I admire those families who stand before the courts to plead against the death penalty for the murderers of their sons or daughters. They do it in the name of forgiveness, but they also know that forgiveness does not translate into freedom from consequences. Those same families may be inspired to forgive, but they will never forget. Universally, such families almost always say that they will live their entire lives with the memory of what has happened? Would we not think it quite odd if they did not say something like that?

What does the wisdom of the Christian tradition say about this terrible issue? What can we say about forgiveness that does not sound like “cheap grace”? It may not be possible to speak in a totally satisfactory fashion about this topic, but we can at least establish some basic propositions that may bring us out of a state of resentment, a thirst for revenge, and all of the other powers that gnaw at our vitals when we actually need to forgive or yearn for forgiveness.

The refusal to forgive generates an internal poison that takes on a malignant life of its own. The refusal brings with it a brooding rehearsal of past events that, especially when it involves a social crime, erupts in violence when the opportunity affords itself. Does not the inability to forgive and reconcile stand behind the cycle of violence that we read about in the macabre stories that appear in the media: Hutu against Tutsi; Protestant against Catholic; Muslim against Hindu?

Forgiveness is an act requiring dialogue, as the petition in the Lord’s Prayer makes plain: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Does anyone think that it is better to war than to talk, whether it be a warring couple in a fractious marriage or two peoples who glare across a demilitarized line? Is not the desire to reconcile always a gesture for peace and against violence?

Forgiveness does not exclude the righting of wrongs. That truth is deeply embedded in the sacrament of reconciliation, where confession is never enough: There must be penance and a firm will not to relapse into old sins. Forgiveness demands at the very least justice and, at best, charity. Speaking of religious dialogue in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II wrote that all authentic dialogue is also an examination of conscience to force people to see where they have been wrong and to find ways of righting those wrongs. When what is past cannot be undone, justice must be tempered with a kind of “letting go.”

Forgiveness becomes more difficult if we focus only on the act(s) that create the need for forgiveness. Forgiveness becomes less difficult when we can turn from the deed to the person. Forgiveness is not about the resolution of deeds as much as it is a reconciliation between persons. It is precisely at this point where a genuine conversion must take place, because it is only when we can turn away from the hatred we feel for this person or that group that forgiveness can occur.

To forgive, however, does not mean to forget. We as a people have a moral duty not to forget precisely because the remembrance of terrible crimes is a warning against allowing such things to happen again. Was it not Hitler who infamously remarked that nobody in his time remembered the genocidal Turkish attacks against the Armenians? The ever-cynical Hitler understood that if the memory of atrocity remains alive in historical memory, the temptation to act violently becomes more difficult when opportunity arises. We need the memory of those who recall past crimes as a warning against future crimes. What forgiveness or reconciliation accomplishes is to take the poison out of remembering and remove the blockages that do not allow us to move beyond past crimes and outrages. Even in the sacrament of reconciliation, we must do penance for what we have done.

The parable of the prodigal son is instructive here. The father knew that his son had squandered his inheritance. What he also knew, despite the fact that the elder son was resentful as he welcomed back his son who had come from a far-off land was this: “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found.” The alternative would have been an alienated family, a father eternally grieving, a son permanently lost.

To reach that state when it is possible to “celebrate and rejoice” rarely comes from the sheer dint of the human will. The natural impulse to forgive is rarely present; the desire to strike back is almost always our first instinct. To forgive in the face of grievous injury comes from some impulse that Christians would call grace.

The African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed the convicted apartheid death squad leader Eugene de Kock for long hours in his prison cell, where he serves a life sentence for his crimes. In her recent book A Human Being Died That Night, she writes that she was not sure she could forgive a man who did such violence to her people. She did find herself profoundly touched by his evident pain. In the end, as a reviewer of her book wrote, it was not so much that the person forgiven was absolved of his crime (only God can forgive such crimes) as it is that the one who seeks to forgive finds herself cleansed.

I think that gets it right. To forgive the one who seeks forgiveness is to purge oneself from those venoms of hatred and the thirst for vengeance (it is quite another thing to ask for justice) that eats at our very humanity. To forgive the person who does not seek forgiveness is a far greater act that comes only under the impulse of grace. As it comes, it also demonstrates that the graced power to forgive overcomes the power to hate, wound and destroy. That graced power is the deep secret of the Gospel.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is John A. O’Brien professor of theology at Notre Dame.