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.

5 thoughts on “Forgiveness

  1. That is quite beautiful, in its exquisite difficulty. Challenging to forgive what breaks you, particularly if you still feel you are being broken.

    • I have no answer to that (I suppose the question was rhetorical anyway), but seeing in this way is freeing in an odd way!

  2. I have been thinking about this, Mags, and don’t want to give up on ‘will’ too quickly. I agree with you: will on its own won’t cut it. But, there is the will-ingness to hold ourselves still and open for the work that needs to happen (our own, others’, grace’s). I think Gillian Rose (who often critiqued Derrida) is onto something when she writes (in her autobiog. “Love’s Work”: “When something untoward happens, some trauma or damage, whether inflicted by the commissions or omissions of others, or some cosmic force, one makes the initially unwelcome event one’s own inner occupation . . . In ill-health as in unhappy love, this is the hardest work: it requires taking in before letting be.” There is something that rings true for me in this ‘homeopathic’ response.

    And, on the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) . . . what a truly remarkable, extraordinary and miraculous process. What a monument to a nation’s people; what a teaching; what a learning!

    • Hey Kate,
      You are absolutely correct. It does take a willingness to stay in the discomfort.
      Btw – this is an initial stab at a much bigger project. So I’m grateful for your comments.

  3. This is wonderful, the notion that the unforgivable defines forgiveness. Eva Mozes Kor, for me, embodies forgiveness. Among 200 twin children that survived Auschwitz, she forgave the nazis for what they did. Many holocaust survivors don’t agree with her, think it blasphemous. She inspires me. I think, if she can forgive that, then surely I can find it in my heart to forgive those who’ve hurt me.

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