"He longed to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything." The Brothers Karamazov-Dostoevsky
Recently I've been thinking of the idea of forgiveness. With last week's shooting at the Amish school in Pennsylvania--and the act of forgiveness that community was able to bestow upon someone seemingly undeservant of this, I've sought to come to some sort of conclusion as to what forgiveness is and if it really is possible. The overwhelming question is---why do we forgive?
In On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Jacques Derrida says that "forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable... It can only be possible in doing the impossible." Dan at On Journeying with those in Exile says for Derrida (in this book) true forgiveness must be unconditional:
...and for Derrida this means that forgiveness is a form of "madness" (He embraces this model of forgiveness) that cannot be reduced to any of these other forms or to "the therapy of reconciliation" (i.e. any way of expressing the approach that treats forgiveness as a means to an end). However, in the day to day reality of life one must deal seriously with issues of penance, repentance, and reconciliation and thus Derrida finds himself with two indissociable, irreconcilable poles: unconditional forgiveness, and conditional "forgiveness."
Derrida's dilemma here shows the quandry in everyday life when dealing with forgiveness. These binary opposites pulled from the act of forgiveness represent a great deal of anxiety and tension in the lives of all of us. Do we forgive with the goal in mind of relieving ourself of inner turmoil--or only because simply we must forgive in order to be forgiven? I'd be more inclined to say that these are outcomes of true forgiveness, but not the cause and motivation for forgiveness. But what does motivate us to forgive?
Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace says openness to the "other" calls for the kind of self-giving that Jesus manifested on the cross--forgiving others even before they have recognized their guilt. This is complicated, though. We are humans and unforgiving by nature. But forgiveness is part of creation--singing through the birds and floating through the air we breathe--it is redemption at work in our everyday lives. Forgiveness is possible and we are called to it. The act of forgiving someone is truly difficult. I don't think I would be one who could forgive the murderer of my child. Of course, there are some obvious parallels here to the Christian story of Christ as God's only son and his death on the Cross--but I won't make this too much of a religious conversation. There are times in life when we forgive begrudgingly--when we're not inclined to do so by nature, but we feel we must. I argue that this isn't true forgiveness. Forgiveness is full acceptance--not a drop less. Back to Derrida's point that forgiveness has two polar opposites within. The madness of true forgiveness is not possible on our own. We must be motivated, called to it by the divine. But there is always a bit of the divine in our nature.
The painting above is Rembrandt van Rijn's "The return of the prodigal son". An image of true forgiveness, the father receives his son and celebrates his arrival. There is no condition in his forgiveness--just forgiveness and acceptance.
So why do we forgive?
In order that we might have hope.