This article, a revised version of an essay from our free, downloadable Conversations About Forgiveness guide, ponders what, if anything, is unforgivable.
What would you have done?
In Simon Wiesenthal’s now classic book, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, he shares his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp when a dying SS soldier, guilty of a horrific war crime, asked Wiesenthal for forgiveness. Wiesenthal, who did not respond to the soldier’s request, asks religious leaders, scholars and other distinguished thinkers to mentally put themselves in his place and answer the question, “What would I have done?”
The question of whether to forgive atrocities, institutionalized injustice, murder and other horrific acts triggers strong emotions, controversy, deep discussions and collective soul searching. The carefully thought out and complex responses to Wiesenthal’s question explore whether and/or when it’s appropriate to offer forgiveness, whether it can be offered on behalf of others, and whether atrocities of the magnitude of the Holocaust should be forgiven at all.
A way out of the labyrinth
In his response to Wiesenthal’s challenge, Hans Habe, writer, reporter and news editor, wrote, “One of the worst crimes of the Nazist [sic] regime was that it made it so hard for us to forgive. It led us into the labyrinth of our souls. We must find a way out of the labyrinth—not for the murderers’ sake, but for our own.”
What, if anything, does forgiving horrific, murderous acts, or injustices offer us? Can such blights on our humanity as genocide, slavery, apartheid, rape, or murder be forgiven? Should they? What would forgiveness accomplish in such situations?
In No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu writes about “ubuntu”—an African worldview of interconnectedness—and its role in the development of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). “A person with ubuntu,” Tutu writes, “… has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a forum with which to process people’s experiences of the horrors and injustices of apartheid to be heard and, ostensibly, for the seeds of national unity and reconciliation to be planted. In that forum some spoke eloquently—in words and actions—of forgiveness. Sometimes these and other incredible gestures of forgiveness are met with awe and sometimes with anger and disbelief.
One such story is that of Beth Savage, who survived a deadly grenade attack by the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA), the armed wing of one of South Africa’s liberation movements, the Pan Africanist Congress. Badly injured in 1992, she endured months in intensive care and a difficult recovery. Four years later her father died from what she believes was a broken heart. Still, she said the experience had enriched her life. And when asked how she felt about amnesty for a member of the APLA, Savage said, “It’s not important to me, but … what I would really, really like is … to meet that man that threw that grenade--in an attitude of forgiveness and hope that he could forgive me too for whatever reason.”
Judgment separates us from perpetrator
You may wonder, why would she ask the perpetrator to forgive her? Why did she think she needs to be forgiven? It is easy to stand in judgment. Especially when it comes to others’ travesties. And when we are injured, or someone we love is injured, we are often blinded by our own pain and outrage. Part of our judgment may be a wish to separate ourselves from those who are capable of horrific transgressions. That is human. Yet how many of us are immune to our shadow side? In the heat of the moment or living in an unsafe, unjust, or violent environment, do we know what we would do?
Forgiveness requires us to traverse mental, emotional, ethical and, for many, spiritual territory. It cannot stand apart from the need for justice, grieving, emotional healing and, in some cases, reconciliation and restitution. And it does not and should not trivialize, condone or absolve the wrongdoing. Whether it can help heal the pain, anger, hatred and destruction left in its wake is, however, an important question to ponder.
The experience of South Africa’s TRC, many believe, did help begin the process of healing. “We have survived the ordeal and we are realizing that we can indeed transcend the conflicts of the past, we can hold hands as we realize our common humanity …” Tutu wrote. “The generosity of spirit will be full to overflowing when it meets a like generosity. Forgiveness will follow confession and healing will happen, and so contribute to national unity and reconciliation.” South Africa’s example allowed a peaceful transition to a democratic state while acknowledging and providing a forum for its citizens to express their pain, hurt and forgiveness for the injustices of the past. While not all agree with Tutu or the success of the TRC in achieving reconciliation, he held and still holds a vision of hope and healing.
Not just for saints
Forgiving horrific acts does not require religious faith, nor is it just for the saints among us. For some, however, it has been too trivialized in a culture that popularizes and commodifies even the most personal and sacred. For some it seems to demean the victim and downplay the crime.
What role could forgiveness play in stopping present-day horrors? State-sponsored torture or terrorism? Entrenched societal or interpersonal conflicts? How could forgiveness help people affected, either directly or indirectly, by acts of terror or injustice? Is anything unforgivable? It’s a question that deserves contemplation.
Roselle Kovitz, a member of Fetzer’s social media team, is a writer and communication consultant who lives in Seattle.