I’ve been reading some stuff on forgiveness lately. I happened across a short book written by Jacques Derrida entitled On cosmopolitanism and forgiveness. In it he takes a fascinating position on forgiveness
“In order to approach now the very concept of forgiveness, logic and common sense agree for once with the paradox: it is necessary, it seems to me, to begin from the fact that, yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venial sin’, then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself.”
I find this a brilliant starting point. He later goes on, in fact, to make this position one end of a spectrum.
I think I only discovered what forgiveness is when I stumbled into trying to forgive something which had broken me. It was only at this point that I stopped trying to will myself to forgive – my will was simply inadequate to the task – and started praying for the grace to forgive.
Forgiveness is a process I participate in, not something I can generate.
But I think we only learn this when hit up against the thing which we are incapable of forgiving – the unforgivable – that we stop believing that we can do it ourselves. It is only when we begin to truly face the thing that has broken us in some way that we recognise our need to forgive. Until then we don’t really grasp what it is to forgive.
This week Eugene De Kock – the man known as Prime Evil – was released on parole. He served just 20 years of the 212 year sentence that was handed down. And yet there were those whose family members had been murdered and tortured in the Apartheid era who spoke publicly of forgiving him (see Russell Pollitt’s article here).
How is that possible? And yet it is. I believe through grace (although that language may not work for the people who have forgiven him)
Pierre de Vos commenting on the same events speaks of the complicit silence of far too many white South Africans (his article is here). His invitation at the end I think is an important part of the process of forgiveness which ever side of the equation you are on – to dare to enter fully into the recognition of what happened.
What was the hurt? What was the harm?
Following Derrida, these are situations which have no reparation. There is no pay back, no vengence, no possible restoration. There is only forgiveness of that which is unforgivable.
And I know I am not capable of forgiving. I can only stand in my brokenness and in woundedness with my desire to forgive and trust that, in God’s good time, the grace will be given.