Podium: Forgive, but never forget

From a speech by the American theologian to a symposium at St Antony's College, Oxford, on forgiveness

IS THERE a justice that is not only compatible with political forgiveness and reconciliation, but one that is indispensable to that of forgiveness and reconciliation. Where is the justice in forgiveness.

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?

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star