HOW TO FORGIVE WHAT IS ‘UNFORGIVABLE’?
FR. TOMASZ JAKLEWICZ
Forgiveness is never easy. This is generosity and sometimes even heroism. Especially when harms are so enormous that they seem to be unforgivable. But is there a different way to peace?
What is forgiveness? Is it always possible? Does forgiveness mean forgetting? What is forgiveness in relation to justice? And the most important question: is forgiveness possible without God?
‘Vertical’ dimension of forgiveness
‘Love your enemies and pray for those who are persecuting you; only then will you be sons of your Father who is in Heaven’ (Mt 5, 44-45). Calling for love to enemies, Jesus refers to the behavior of God. Forgiveness is first the work of God. We are always debtors of our Creator but we behave to Him in a hostile way. However, God allows for sins and pardons them. This is the essence of the Good News. Christ’s Mission can be called one great God’s gesture of forgiveness. The man who forgives his culprit, is the follower of God.
We often omit this ‘vertical’ dimension of forgiveness and we only focus on human forgiveness, understanding the whole thing as a psychological dimension only (important but not the only one). Christian understanding forgiveness takes the fact as the starting point that God forgives us our sins. We are culprits first towards God and then towards others. Christ’s blood poured out onto the cross purifies everybody, changes enemies into friends. Without considering this ‘vertical’ dimension of forgiveness, all human gestures will remain incomplete, imperfect, impermanent, and often even empty.
Peter used to ask: ‘Lord how many times shall I forgive if my brother does something against me? Is it even seven times” (Mt 18.21). After experiences of the last two world wars, one can ask, referring to Peter’s question: Is there such a measure of evil, such an accumulation of crimes, injustice, cruelty that one can say: ‘Enough, it is impossible to forgive it’? Is there a border of forgiveness? How many times can one forgive? The answer of Jesus yesterday and today sounds the same: seventy-seven times. This number has a reference to the biblical person of Lamek, one of descendants of Kain, who was eager to revenge even seventy-seven times (see The Genesis 4, 24). Jesus contrasts the world of boundless forgiveness with the logics of revenge. The answer to enormous evil can only be much more goodness – love which forgives what is unforgivable. Strength to such a heroic love does not come from the man. It can be given only by God. Deep and permanent reconciliation of enemies is possible only at the cross of Christ.
What isn’t forgiveness?
Forgiveness does not mean a kind of easy amnesty which trivializes evil, blurring the difference between somebody doing harm and somebody suffering or neglects justice. Forgiveness to a culprit is not the same as ignoring cruelty. Forgiveness is an act of love and love must always go together with the truth. As John Paul II taught: ‘forgiveness does not oppose to searching up the truth, but even demands the truth. Committed evil must be recognized and repaired as long as it is possible’. Therefore relativising history, blurring a fault or escaping from responsibility are not favourable to forgiveness. Forgiveness has nothing in common with political correctness – which often spreads a lie and false instead of harmony among people, which results in new suspicions and divisions. War will always be evil, death and wounds will always hurt in the same way, regardless of a uniform but in 1939 it was clear who was an aggressor and who was defending homeland from the invader. We must not blur this historic truth.
Forgiveness is an act of mercifulness. It has a character of a kind of excess which is generosity of heart by definition, going beyond pure justice. But it does not mean negating justice. St. Thomas from Aquinas warned that ‘mercifulness without justice is a mother of disorder’. ‘There is no contradiction between forgiveness and justice – John Paul II emphasized – for forgiveness does not remove nor diminish the necessity of repairing evil, being an order of justice, but is going to including people and groups to societies and countries to the community of nations again’. But ‘punishment should not step on the inalienable dignity of the culprit’.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, either. ‘Memory about the crime belongs to the heritage of humankind and has a lively significance for the future of humankind’ – noted Fr. Piotr Mazurkiewicz. However, for the future of humankind there is much higher significance of memory about reconciliation, about the fact that in the context of ‘unforgivable cruelties’ forgiveness is possible. In this sense one should not separate memory about cruelty from memory about forgiveness. Only together do they open the future generations a way to the future’ –he emphasized.
Culture of forgiveness
However, forgiveness is mainly an act of a person done in freedom. On the basis of analogy, there is also forgiveness in the social, national and political dimension. Only in the second case can we speak about a single act. This is rather a kind of a process which may last even for years. Pope from Poland, appealing for peace among nations, wrote about the necessity of creating ‘culture of forgiveness’ based on evangelical rule of love to enemies. ‘Accepting and giving forgiveness makes it possible to give a new quality to relations among people, stops the spiral of hatred and revenge, breaks the chains of evil restraining the hearts of opponents’ - John Paul II emphasized.
The element of the forgiveness culture is ‘purifying memory’. And it does not concern removing the difficult past from memory. It rather concerns the skill of making conclusions. Painful historic experiences should be a lesson in the future, especially for politicians. Only love builds, and hatred brings destruction and ruin. Logics of revenge or pure cold justice should give in a place to liberating novelty of forgiveness.
In the context of growing aggression of secularism in Europe, there appears an urgent question: Does forgiveness culture have a chance of development in civilization which is getting separated from God so radically, and even negates the existence of the objective truth? One does not have to be a believer to understand the value of forgiveness and its significance in personal and international relations. But is it possible to heal deep wounds caused in the past without awareness of the existence of the Supreme Instance? Does the purely human forgiveness have a chance to overcome the painful heritage of conflicts without referring to Divine Mercifulness?