Between Forgiveness and Unforgiveness

Zenon Szablowinski. Heythrop Journal. Volume 51, Issue 3. May 2010.

Although demanding and hard to grant, forgiveness has been treasured for centuries because it has the power to heal emotional wounds, restore human relationships and break the chain of violence. Some writers, though, have asserted that forgiveness found its boundaries in Auschwitz; the Nazi crimes against humanity reached the pinnacle there and cannot be forgiven. While discussing forgiveness in the context of the Holocaust and outside of it, this article pursues the following issues: Does forgiveness have limits? What would be the implications of being unable to forgive? Can punishment of the perpetrator help the process of forgiveness? Does the offended party forgive his or her hurt only?

All of us know how hard it is to forgive when we have been let down, hurt or cheated. How much more is this true when someone has been tortured, imprisoned, or his or her loved ones have been brutally harmed or violently killed. Jesus’ words: ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ (Lk 23:34), and his precept to forgive seventy‐seven times and to love our enemies echo powerfully over the centuries. We know that unconditional forgiveness is the ideal because it has the power to break the cycle of hatred and violence; it brings hope for a better future. But then we hear again stories of the most heinous and cruel tortures similar to that of the camp physician who forces a Jewish mother to make a choice which of her two children will have to die in the gas chamber, portrayed by William Styron in Sophie’s Choice. And we are not sure any longer whether such extreme barbarities are forgivable. What is more, while giving closure to the harmful event, forgiveness seems to erase or at least diminish the memory of what has happened. Thus, while forgiving, are we not likely to betray the past and the innocents who were violently murdered?

Should individuals always strive for unconditional forgiveness, however hard this might be? Does forgiveness presuppose trust in the oppressor? May victims sometimes, in extreme cases, join Elie Wiesel (who mourns the victims of Nazi crimes) and proclaim with him: ‘I hope that I will never forgive their murderers. I do not want God to forgive them for the things that they did to the children. Never.’ In this paper, I shall try to pursue these tough and challenging issues.

Forgiveness As a Remedy for Mending Relationships

Various everyday transgressions cannot be avoided. While relating with one another, people step on each other’s toes. Relationships have the power to hurt as well as to enrich. Through words and actions, individuals either invigorate or let others down. There are many ways in every culture and society in which people easily excuse themselves from trivial offences. But they still need means and methods to deal with serious trespasses and crimes. Forgiveness is one of the possible options.

In order to understand how forgiveness tries to deal with transgressions, one needs to perceive the slavery that evil acts introduce. Every offence establishes a bondage that locks the tormentor and the victim together. Robert Enright notes that people often presume that through their anger, resentment and bitterness, they are able to bar the offenders from themselves and keep them in ‘a kind of emotional prison’. Only after a longer period of time they are surprised to find out that it is not the one who hurt them but themselves who have become prisoners of the hatred. ‘Our hatred’, he contends, ‘affects us emotionally more than it affects the one who hurt us.’ Everett Worthington pictures resentment as a red‐hot rock which the offended are carrying with the intention of throwing it at the offender when an appropriate occasion occurs. Instead the rock burns them and makes them tired. If the offended persist, resentment and hostility will push them into the condition of despising themselves and perceiving themselves as victims. Additionally, these negative emotions will cause long‐lasting stressfulness. Chronic stresses inevitably lead to unhappiness and various health risks.

When victims decide to forgive a harm done to them, they move into the direction of overcoming their desire for revenge, resentment and hatred towards a perpetrator, not by denying the right to such emotions but by trying to view the perpetrator with compassion, kindness and love. This definition indicates that the offended have a right to negative emotions after they have been hurt; they have a moral right to be angry because no one has a right to abuse them or their dear ones. Forgiveness is not denying but bringing to full light the truth about the unfairness of the offence. But at the same time, while aiming at a higher good, it expects sacrificing something to which the offended have a right, namely their negative emotions embodied in resentment and anger.

Worthington distinguishes between forgiveness as a decision and forgiveness as emotional replacement. The former forgiveness takes place when the offended decide to control their negative emotions, such as revenge and anger towards the wrongdoer and continue their relationship. They hope that sooner or later the passing of time will reduce or even eliminate their negative emotions and motivations. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus commands decisional forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Mt 6:12). And further on: ‘For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Mt 6:14-15). Undoubtedly, it is easier for the offended to say that they want to control their behaviour than to change their emotions against the person who shattered the trust. The latter forgiveness makes an attempt to change the heart by setting positive emotions (empathy, compassion and love) against either the fresh emotions of anger and fear experienced after the hurt, or the lasting emotions of unforgiveness that come after reflecting upon the transgression. The positive emotions start the replacement by reducing the intensity of the negative emotions. If the emotional replacement is long and powerful enough, it may replace the negative emotions totally, and complete emotional forgiveness will occur. This type of forgiveness we find in the Scripture in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32). The father’s forgiveness there clearly illustrates forgiveness from the heart. Decisional forgiveness, therefore, intends to change the forgiver’s behaviour towards the offender while emotional forgiveness expects to heal the heart.

Emotional replacement, however, does not annihilate the harmful memories. The victim cannot forget serious hurts and offences which become part of his or her experience. But after forgiveness, the victim just remembers the hurts in a different way. When he or she talks about them, they do not cause much pain any longer. They remain rather as scars than open wounds. This is because positive thoughts and feelings have reduced to a great extent resentment, hostility and bitterness. Consequently, forgiveness is far from wiping out or changing a wrong into a right. Neither does it minimize or absolve the guilt or the responsibility of the perpetrator. What it aims at is changing the emotional attachment to the offence. When we say that forgiveness benefits the offender (is a gift), we mean that it decreases (in some cases even replaces) negative emotions and increases positive emotions towards the offender; it invites him or her back to the relationship and society. By the act of forgiveness, the positive will overpower the negative, until the offended one experiences another hurt, or returns, for some reason, to the negative emotions about the past offence.

Mona Gustafson Affinito feels uncomfortable with forgiveness as emotional replacement and prefers to explore forgiveness as a decision. She defines forgiveness as ‘the decision to forgo the personal pursuit of punishment for the perpetrator(s) of a perceived injustice, taking action on that decision, and experiencing the emotional relief that follows’. As an example, she presents a case of her client Gloria who has suffered sexual abuse from childhood. Even after a long therapeutic process, Gloria felt very uneasy to spend time with her family of origin. But she desired to sustain a family connection, so she kept sending them birthday cards and postcards from holiday, and visiting them on special days. For such visits, she would always go with her husband and stay only for a short time. This was as far as she could expose herself towards her offenders. For Gloria, Affinito contends,

working out a comfortable and distant relationship with her family did a great deal to solidify her marriage, which had been getting shaky under the influence of her agitation. By applying these principles, she was able to shape a solution that was right for her. … Gloria ceased to be obsessed with the effects of the abuse and was able to move on with her life and improve her relationships with others, but it would be a stretch to say she felt compassion and love for her abusive parents.

Still, looking at this case from a different angle, Gloria’s decision to continue the relationship with her parents, however distant the relationship might be, is going further than just abstaining from ‘the personal pursuit of punishment’. Moreover, the openness and desire for reconciliation has helped her deal with the negative emotions. This means that emotional forgiveness is here at work. Maybe it is too much to say that she began to feel ‘compassion and love’ for her parents. But she, no doubt, has diminished her negative emotions and has regained as much trust towards them as she could. Regaining trust is an indication of seeing the offenders not as totally evil but people who are a mixture of good and bad; people who err and make mistakes but are capable of changing. Although still not feeling at ease with them, there is some degree of compassion and love in her relationship. Otherwise, she would most probably make a decision to forgive them and then stay away from them.

Forgiving from the heart (emotional forgiveness) does prepare the way for reconciliation. But reconciliation is not always possible. If the offender does not repent or is unable to change his or her behaviour, the offence is likely to be repeated. Thus, reconciliation cannot occur, because there is not enough trust to sustain a relationship. Worthington defines reconciliation as ‘re‐establishing trust in a relationship after trust has been violated’. An atmosphere of safety, care and prudence contributes to the restoration of trust and leads to reconciliation.

Charles Griswold looks at the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation from a different aspect. He differentiates between reconciliation as ‘acceptance’ and as ‘affirmation’.

If ‘reconciliation’ is taken to mean ‘acceptance’, in the minimal sense of non‐interference, then we may say that forgiveness may lead to it. But if reconciliation means ‘affirmation’– the relevant sense of which here would be something like friendship and support or a renewal of any previous ties of affection – then there is no reason to think that forgiveness must lead to ‘affirmative reconciliation’ as one might call it. Such an outcome might be neither warranted nor desirable.

He supports this interpretation with the following example: ‘one could forgive one’s partner for infidelity but no longer wish to remain together as a couple; forgiveness does not necessarily restore the love that was destroyed by infidelity, even if it does restore a certain level of mutual respect, and dissipate resentment and guilt’.

According to the understanding of forgiveness as emotional replacement, forgiveness does not lead to reconciliation as acceptance; forgiveness already contains acceptance ‘in the minimal sense of non‐interference’ in itself. What is more, it goes beyond this and opens up to reconciliation as affirmation. Reconciliation, however, needs to involve both parties, and it is only possible when the offender repents and works hard at rebuilding the shattered trust. The example with the partner who ‘forgives’ infidelity but does not like to stay together any longer as a couple, seems to exemplify partial forgiveness. Forgiveness does restore love but not necessarily the trust needed for mending the relationship. Provided that the unfaithful party admits his or her fault, apologizes and expresses signs of genuine repentance, the forgiver should give him or her another chance, and the relationship is likely to be restored. If, after repentance, the relationship is still not restored, it means that forgiveness is only partial, reaching probably the level of decisional forgiveness. Forgiveness from the heart is still missing. The forgiver is still unable to regain enough trust to heal the relationship.

Total forgiveness appears to require both decisional and emotional forgiveness. Some people make a decision to forgive first, which is followed by a change of emotions. Others may be stirred by forgiving emotions, before they come to a decision to forgive. In both cases forgiveness conveys approval that the offender is able to change and atone for the harm done, that reconciliation is possible. Still others do not consider forgiveness as an option. They, for one reason or another, prefer to remain unforgiving. Can unforgiveness be justified? Are there deeds that should not be forgiven under any circumstances? Can one step over the boundary of forgiveness and deprive oneself of forgiveness?

The Boundary of Forgiveness?

For centuries forgiveness has been nourishing and sustaining unity between people because it has the power to heal human relationships. Without it, there will be no fellowship of trusting life together. Still such a fellowship comes with great struggle and difficulties. Some writers insist though, that ‘the history of forgiveness came to an end with Auschwitz;’ the Nazi crimes against humanity cannot be forgiven. While discussing the impossibility of forgiveness in the context of the Holocaust, they have presented the following arguments.

A French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch states his conviction on two grounds. Firstly, the Nazi crimes, according to civil law, do not have a statute of limitations. Consequently, they cannot find their closure in forgiveness either. Closure puts things in a distance in human memory and helps to forget. Forgetting such crimes against humanity, according to him, would be like committing another crime against the human race. Secondly, it is the victims’ right to forgive their oppressors. No one, even the survivors, has the right to forgive on behalf of those who were murdered. On the other hand, it would be great arrogance, he contends, to ask the survivors to grant forgiveness to those who denied Jews their very status as human beings and ruthlessly set about slaughtering them all.

A British journalist and humanitarian worker Mark Goulden points out that the Nazis, in the most malicious and merciless ways, murdered six million Jews only because they were Jews. Among them were about 960,000 children poisoned in gas chambers. Such monstrous deeds only moral monsters could perpetrate, and moral monsters do not deserve forgiveness. Forgiveness belongs to the victims, and most of them cannot forgive because they are dead. And ‘if the dead can’t forgive, neither can the living’.

An American writer on the Holocaust, Lawrence Langer, maintains that those Nazis who took part in the slaughter of European Jewry and mercilessly murdered so many innocent men, women and children cannot repent from such monstrous deeds. By agreeing to commit the mass murder, they ‘permanently’ cut themselves off from the possibility of forgiveness. Thus neither mercy nor forgiveness should be given them. This, he adds, ‘may not be true for other crimes – but the mass murder of European Jewry is not an ordinary crime’.

A Holocaust survivor, Sidney Shachnow, supports absolute unforgiveness towards the Nazi oppressors. Through their inhuman treatment of the Jews, the Nazis denied their own humanity. Those individuals, he argues, who were ‘directly and personally involved in these atrocities deserve no mercy. … [They] stepped over the boundary where forgiveness is possible.’

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin also considers some acts as unforgivable, especially if they have not been atoned for in any way. The ones who could offer forgiveness, he highlights, are the murdered, and because they are dead, they cannot do it. ‘Cruelty’, he contends, ‘is evil, and the murder of innocent people an unforgivable evil’.

All the above representatives seem to agree that the Holocaust was unique in its objective and cruelty, and reached the peak of human viciousness. Here humanity, they claim, has crossed the boundary where neither the crimes nor those who engaged in them can be forgiven. Is it really true that the Holocaust was the cruellest crime against humanity? What would be the implications of such unforgivability?

Crimes Against Humanity and the Implications of Unforgivability

The horrors of the Holocaust were enormous, but ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity did not finish with them. History presents examples of genocidal crimes that are comparable in the size and brutality with that of the Holocaust. In the Ukraine, for instance, Stalin deliberately brought about a famine that very likely killed more than twenty million men, women and children. In China, communist soldiers engaged in mass murders of their opponents in the struggle for political power. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge murdered about 1.7 million intellectuals and adversaries of the new communist order. In Rwanda, Hutus killed around 800,000 Tutsis and their supporters, brutally chopping them to pieces with machetes. In the former Yugoslavia, Serbs, Croats and Muslims organised ‘cleansing’ massacres, in hundreds of their towns and villages, which included humiliation, rape, torture and murder against those whom they perceived as ethnic enemies. This evidence challenges the claim about the uniqueness of the Holocaust and forces one to reflect on the implications of unforgivability in a broader arena.

Reflections on unforgivablility in the context of the Holocaust, Trudy Govier notices, are significant, but they can easily lead us astray. They lack the ‘practical urgency of many contemporary issues of transitional justice’. The Holocaust, first of all, took place over sixty years ago. Most of the survivors and oppressors are dead. Germans and Jews of that time do not have to struggle to rebuild a society in which they would have to live side by side on a daily basis. Many contemporary countries, such as South Africa, Rwanda, Cambodia or former Yugoslavia are less fortunate in this regard. They have to deal with the vital issue of accommodating both the survivors and perpetrators in the same society and create at least a form of peaceful co‐existence for both groups. If such countries regarded the perpetrators and their supporters as absolutely unforgivable, the only reasonable thing to do would be to bring them to court and punish them. But the questions which seem to remain unanswered are: what if there are too many offenders and only a few of them can be handled by the judiciary? What if atrocities had happened on both sides; should both parties be punished? What if the transition from totalitarian regime to democracy is built on a promise of amnesty for the perpetrators?

The advocates of unforgivability are right when they say that only those who have suffered atrocities are entitled to grant forgiveness; when they are dead, no one is entitled to do it for them. But suffering, insult and security go beyond the immediate victims. Sooner or later it falls to the survivors and secondary and other victims to face the problems of co‐existence, forgiveness and reconciliation. Thus, they are forced to follow either the path of forgiveness or unforgiveness with all of its consequences. When these forgive, they do not do it for the sake of the murdered, but for their own sake. They forgive their own pain, trauma and loss, and shape their new future.

There are also examples of unforgivability apart from the Holocaust. Some cases come from the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa. Thandi Shezi, a black South African girl, belonged to a community organisation fighting against apartheid when she was arrested with other activists by the police in 1988. She was beaten, raped, electrocuted repeatedly, and kept in solitary confinement for roughly a year. When she was released, she did not want to share with anybody her journey through hell. But her friends from the Kulumani Support Group convinced her to testify before the TRC and to get over her trauma.

She agreed and testified before the TRC. She also attended the second part of the TRC procedure where her oppressors came forward to tell their stories in exchange for amnesty. To her surprise, one of the white policemen who brutalized her most, not only refused to accept his participation in the crimes she described but also denied knowing her at all. Thandi had anticipated a completely different scene, one in which he would acknowledge what he had done, and she would accept his remorse and forgive him. She was ready to tell him that she would forgive everything that he and his colleagues had done to her. But she was unable to follow through because he was saying that he did not know her; he had not seen her. As a result, she got even more traumatized and instead of uttering words of forgiveness she said: ‘You are the one who suggested that black policeman should put a sack over my head. You are the one.’ He answered: ‘No, I don’t remember.’

Sepati Mlangeni – the widow of Bheki Mlangeni, a lawyer and activist who had been killed by a parcel bomb – also found the idea of forgiveness problematic. At the TRC hearing, she wanted the murderers of her husband to be punished. She heard that one of them, Eugene de Kock, was asking for amnesty from the Commission. She opposed it because, she explained, his actions had been premeditated; he had known that someone would die when he had been sending those bombs. Then she quizzed the Commission: ‘How do you go about forgiving a person who is a cruel murderer?’

The family of murdered Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, in turn, tirelessly questioned the fairness of the TRC granting amnesty for gross human rights violations. They spoke publicly about their unwillingness to forgive the five white policemen who had killed Steve. In their opinion, criminal acts must be fully acknowledged by the oppressors and justice satisfied first (at least to a certain extent) before taking steps towards the process of reconciliation.

Another more recent case is from Iraq where Margaret Hassan, a British‐Iraqi humanitarian official, was kidnapped and killed in November 2004. She lived in the country for 30 years and was the director of the relief agency CARE International there. A videotape sent by the kidnappers showed her being shot while blindfolded. Earlier her abductors had broadcast Ms Hassan’s anxious plea for her life. As a condition for her freedom, they demanded the release of female Iraqi prisoners, and Britain to withdraw its army from the country. After the murder, CARE suspended its operations and withdrew its staff from Iraq. Ms Hassan’s family commented on their dire loss: ‘Those who are guilty of this atrocious act, and those who support them, have no excuses. Nobody can justify this. Margaret was against sanctions and the war. To commit such a crime against anyone is unforgivable. But we cannot believe how anybody could do this to our kind, compassionate sister.’

These stories indicating the enormous difficulty of forgiving apart from the Holocaust, however, seem to raise more hope for the possibility of forgiveness. They demonstrate, on the one hand, how deep the wounds are, and how easily survivors can be re‐traumatized when trying to deal with them. On the other hand, there is a certain longing for granting forgiveness – or rather for restoration of some trust and harmony – expressed in a willingness to do so after some justice has been done, or even if the oppressors show signs of genuine remorse. Still, some people wrongly associate offering forgiveness with justifying brutal acts. That is why forgiveness needs a clearer definition and a deeper examination.

When forgiveness is granted, it does not mean that the evil deeds are excused (treated as if they had a sufficient explanation for being committed), condoned (accepted as wrong but still being within the margin of tolerance), or forgotten (wiped out from the memory) as many supporters of unforgivability seem to be afraid of. Forgiveness deals with the issue of how the deeds will be remembered, with or without feelings of hatred and resentment. Unforgiveness is incapable of breaking the chain of violence, mending relationships, or even enhancing a form of peaceful co‐existence. Is there a way of helping individuals and groups make a move from unforgiveness to forgiveness?

The Gap Between Forgiveness and Unforgiveness

While inflicting harm upon victims, offenders effectively convey a message that they are superior to the victims because they can do such things if they want. This contributes to the attitude that, after being hurt, those offended usually demand justice appropriate to the offence. Justice represents fairness and seems to help balance both sides of the relationship. For smaller offences, acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and apology may be enough to maintain the relationship because through them the offender lowers himself or herself and the balance is restored. For bigger ones, more is demanded from the offender in order to express accountability for his or her deeds. Everett Worthington calls the imbalance an ‘injustice gap’ and describes it as ‘the difference between the way I want events to settle out ideally and the way I perceive them to be at present’. The larger the injustice gap is, the more difficult it is to grant forgiveness. A few examples may shed some more light on this issue.

At the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when Ms Msweli testified about the murder of her sons, she said:

I want the people who killed my sons to come forward because this is a time for reconciliation. I want to forgive them, and I also have a bit of my mind to tell them. I would be happy if they could come before me because I don’t have my sons today. Their father died at an early age, and I put them through school. Now, they’ve never been criminals. They’ve never had any problems, even with the neighbours. They were Christians. I also want to speak to [my sons’ killers] because I want to speak to them before I forgive them. I want them to tell me who sent them to come and kill my sons. Maybe they are my enemies, maybe they are not. So, I want to establish as to who they are and why they did what they did.

Another case in point is an Anglican priest from New Zealand, Michael Lapsley, who lost both his arms and an eye while exiled in Zimbabwe, as the effect of a letter bomb sent to him by a government agent from South Africa in 1990. Currently, he is a chaplain of the Trauma Centre for victims of violence and torture in Cape Town (South Africa). In his reflection on forgiving, he insisted that forgiveness should not be demanded just as part of a reconciliation process, but rather encouraged, along with some signs of repentance from, and forms of justice for, the perpetrators:

Forgiveness yes … but no one should suggest that forgiveness is glib, cheap, or easy. What does it mean to forgive those who have not confessed, those who have not changed their lives, those who have no interest in making it up to the relatives of victims and the survivors of their crimes? If you forgive your murderer, does that mean there should be no justice?

Eric Taylor was involved in the killing of the Cradock Four during the apartheid time. While applying for amnesty under the TRC, he was sure that he was meeting all its requirements. However, he also wanted to ask his victims’ families for forgiveness, so he did. This forgiveness and amnesty, he believed, would help him to leave the past behind. Nomonde Calata’s answer to the plea of her husband’s murderer was:

Ah Mr. Taylor, it is going to be very difficult for me to say that I forgive you, for what you did to me. Because you have caused so much pain to me and my family. You actually robbed my children of their father’s love. Because Fort loved his children very much. He was my husband, but he was a friend also, he was everything to me.

Sincere apology, revelation of the truth, request for forgiveness, reparation or punishment are some of the ways of reducing the gap of injustice and, as a result, diminishing unforgiveness. Reducing unforgiveness, however, does not necessarily mean shifting from unforgiveness to forgiveness because no matter what might be done, a gap will always remain which will call for an act of forgiveness from the offended.

Aspects of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of those complex concepts that is difficult to adequately describe because, when you think you have grasped its meaning, you discover that it goes beyond the sum of its fundamental parts. This is evident in any concept which has religious and emotional connotations. Nonetheless, forgiveness has some aspects that can, when victims are aware of them, help them practice it more effectively and, consequently, enrich their lives.

Forgiveness, on a religious level, restores individuals to a right relationship with God, others and self after a period of alienation and sin. This enhances their harmony with nature as well. In the Christian tradition, forgiveness is, first of all, the sinner’s acceptance of the unconditional mercy and love of God through Jesus Christ. Then he or she, in gratitude for having been forgiven, extends this experience to other persons by forgiving them their wrongs as described in the Lord’s Prayer. But do Christians forgive more and better than other people? Research done by Everett Worthington with his team and Joann Tsang and her colleagues give us a positive answer:

Christians as a whole tend to be more forgiving than are people of other religions, who are in turn more forgiving than are people who don’t profess a religious orientation. These differences are not as much as Christians might hope, given the centrality of forgiveness in Christianity. Yet the differences are consistent.

The possible reason for more openness to forgiveness by Christians is the radical teaching and example of Jesus Christ who commands to forgive even one’s enemy. Furthermore, members of the same moral community tend to give much needed encouragement and support to each other in practicing virtue. Finally, for Worthington, there is something mystical about Christ’s Church in which the Lord acts and constantly empowers it. He warns, though, that Christian forgiveness is an expression of decisional forgiveness rather than emotional forgiveness. Christians might be more forgiving in the sense of making a decision to reject revenge or to avoid the person. This does not mean that their emotions have changed. Emotional forgiveness may be as difficult for Christians as for others. Dealing with hatred and resentment involves much more time and effort.

On the practical level, forgiveness raises the following issues. First, forgiveness is called for when a transgression has been committed leading to, using Donald Shriver’s words, ‘a remembering and a moral judgement of wrong, injustice, and injury’.32 But this raises the following questions: Who should challenge the wrongdoer: only the person directly hurt or may others claim it as their right? What if the offended and the offender come from different religious or moral backgrounds and their understanding of right and wrong differs?

Second, after establishing that injustice which requires forgiveness has taken place, the choice to abandon revenge and violence needs to be made. (This is the most basic and universally accepted aspect of forgiveness.) If forgiveness is to take root, the abandonment of revenge has to be complemented with diminishing negative emotions towards the offender. Professional help is often required while dealing with negative emotions that are experienced after a serious harm. What if such help is not available or affordable?

Third, forgiveness (especially on the emotional level) is difficult and takes much time. Therefore, many who work as peacemakers try to use only a few basic features of the process of forgiveness to reach a form of peaceful co‐existence; a workable relationship between survivors and perpetrators that would bring stability and co‐operation in society. Such reduced ‘forgiveness’ would focus on the practical benefits of giving up revenge and violence, leaving the past behind while creating a new history, and persevering to live peacefully for the betterment of all. No matter how reasonable this practical ‘forgiveness’ may sound, substantial evidence from all over the world shows that it does not work well; it often ends up only with a truce, not with reconciliation. The former, however, does not attend to the wounds from the past. And when the wounds are not healed, the negative emotions well up on some other occasions, stirring violence and disunity. Hence, while establishing a truce is valuable, especially in order to stop people fighting, in the longer run, an in‐depth process with apologies, true forgiveness and reparation appears to be essential.

Finally, in Theological Investigations, Karl Rahner places forgiveness in a broader arena. He maintains that human forgiveness goes beyond human reasoning and power; it originates from and complements divine forgiveness and reconciliation.

Worldly wisdom often demands that people forgive one another, but it is at a loss to know how this can really come about. It feels that people ought perhaps to forgive, but that they are not able to forgive. Hatred, infidelity, elemental injustice, and murder can deal such a lethal blow to our fellow human beings, one from which they can never recover, that it is impossible in this world and its history to see what reconciliation and forgiveness might bring about. Only God’s self‐communication in love can wipe out that guilt which has created these unfathomable gulfs dividing human beings from one another. But then again this unity between love of neighbour and love of God also means this: when human beings really forgive one another’s guilt, something that they are not capable of doing by their own power, and therefore when they do it they are consciously, or without even recognizing it, being born by God’s forgiving love, there is also a reconciliation of the world with God.

Accordingly, when people forgive, they actually do not forgive their own hurts and suffering alone. They transcend their own ability and connect to God’s forgiving love, the love which has the power to heal the forgiver, the perpetrator and the world. Perpetrators, who do not want, request or accept forgiveness from their victims and God, could not have a share in this healing love.


Pain caused by atrocities should not be forgotten, and often cannot be forgotten. But the way the offended party chooses to deal with it, will contribute to the shaping of the future. Forgiveness and unforgiveness come as options. Unforgiveness means either doing nothing about the hurt or trying to punish the perpetrator in any way possible. Anger and bitterness caused by the evil deed will occasionally trigger an emotional response, making the condition of the victim worse. The chain of violence and hatred is strengthened and is usually passed on to the next generation. The victims remain victims for life.

Forgiveness, in turn, is difficult and takes time, especially when both decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness are at stake. When genuine, it has the power to heal and stop violence. Although it does not remove all pain, it makes whatever pain which remains bearable. Survivors are able to restore their relationships and go on with their lives.

A better understanding of forgiveness, appropriate punishment of the perpetrator and the requirements of restitution (tempered by mercy) may help persons forgive, but no one will ever be able to control forgiveness. When someone forgives, God’s forgiving grace is at work. For this reason, that person not only forgives whoever caused his or her hurts but at the same time contributes to the reconciliation of the world.