Podium: Forgive, but never forget
From a speech by the American theologian to a symposium at St Antony's College, Oxford, on forgiveness
Thursday 24 September 1998
In the long philosophic and religious examinations of the concept of "justice", we have at least a demonstration of its complexity and debatability. The Christian theological tradition has mandated justice as a prime political virtue, and this preoccupation has sometimes diverted the authors of this tradition from careful attention to the compatibilities and incompatibilities between justice, mercy, and forgiveness. The shelf of Christian books on justice is long, the shelf on forgiveness as well. But few have been the Western theologians who have thought that relating the two would be useful for political ethics.
Contemporary political experience, and not only conceptual tradition, furnish some clues to how the two might be tied together. Here, briefly, are proposals for doing so.
It is a truism that there is no need to talk of forgiveness if there is nothing to forgive. Not truistic is the hope of evildoers to cover up traces of their deeds. Hitler wanted to plow under all evidence of the death camps. Those who tortured ANC members in the prisons of South Africa taunted them with the assurance that no one would ever hear of their suffering. A French journalist, David Rousset, survived several of the Nazi death camps, including Buchenwald, and he wrote about the intention of perpetrators to bury their crimes utterly: "How many people here [in the camp] still believe that a protest has even historic importance? This scepticism is the real masterpiece of the SS. Their great accomplishment. They have corrupted all human solidarity.
"Here, the night has fallen on the future - when no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony. To demonstrate, when death can no longer be postponed, is an attempt to give death a meaning, to act beyond one's own death. In order to be successful, a gesture must have social meaning. There are hundreds of thousands of us here, all living in absolute solitude."
In the context where Jonathan Schell quotes these words, he also quotes W H Auden on the solidarity of art: "Through art," said Auden, "we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead, a fully human life is impossible." A Yale historian remarked recently that the job of the historian is "the resurrection of the dead", the making of their story so real to the present that we cannot doubt that in their time they were as real as are we in our time.
We have it from many a witness before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the chance to tell their painful stories can be a great step towards their own healing. In as much as the stories enter into public record, and thence into future history writing, we can say that a certain justice has been done, justice to truth and the justice of truth.
If forgetfulness is the enemy of justice, so also is it the enemy of forgiveness. We imply an erroneous version of forgiveness when we adopt the motto, "Forgive and forget." No: "Remember and forgive" is the threshold of forgiveness as well as justice. Only a false utilitarianism neglects the relevance of dealing with the past as a resource for beginning to shape a new future.
There is one warning to heed about the indispensability of memory to justice: the danger to political healing of compulsive dwelling in memory. As I have written elsewhere, indulging in a bit of psychology: "... the mind that fixes on pain risks getting trapped in it. Too horrible to remember, too horrible to forget: down either path lies little health for the human sufferers of great evil."
Culturally speaking, I may venture the opinion that Americans tend to write off the past with the superficial form of pragmatism; we escape too easily from its shackles. The Irish, on the other hand, are super- specialists in memory. Was annual headline attention of the Irish News in Belfast to the anniversary of Bloody Sunday a contribution to the Good Friday peace agreement? I think not. Can the new commission investigation of the facts of that case help put the case, if not to rest, at least in the service of peace? I hope so.
It is often said that there can be no peace without justice. In South Africa, I think they are aware of the companion truth: no justice without peace. Democratic politics requires a principled retreat from the politics of violence, and systematic resort to the politics of debate, listening, and dialogue. Where that context is lacking, how can courts or legislatures be confident that law will be obeyed?
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