The Nature of Forgiveness

At a fundamental level debate about the legitimate role of forgiveness in post-conflict politics rests on contending conceptualisations of what forgiveness itself entails. Although some writers define forgiveness in terms of a decision on the part of the victim of an injustice to relinquish the pursuit of justice for the wrong they suffered (Digeser 2001), most conceive it in psychological terms.

In its most common form, forgiveness is conceived as ‘a process of overcoming attitudes of resentment and anger that may persist when one has been injured by wrongdoing’ (Govier 2002: viii; Hampton 1998: 54-55). Although anger and resentment are natural and understandable responses to undeserved harm, proponents of forgiveness caution that when permitted to exist in excess, they tend towards revenge (Butler 1726: 2). Thus, forgiveness is also conceived in this sense as the counterpoint to revenge. Understood in this way, forgiveness requires the suppression of both the negative emotions precipitated by wrongdoing and the vengeful actions that may result from them. That is, the practice of forgiveness entails a motivational change in the victim of a wrong, from desiring or even seeking revenge against a transgressor to specifically avoiding the pursuit of revenge (McCullough 2002: 44). Forgiveness thus demands forbearance, ‘tolerance and restraint in the face of provocation’ and, in this way, is conceived as the ‘exact opposite of vengeance’ (Bole et al. 2004: 41 & 47; Arendt 1998: 240).

In contrast to these minimal or restrictive understandings of forgiveness, more expansive definitions mandate the replacement of negative emotions with positive ones and the pursuit of positive interactions with the wrongdoer. Thus, Enright and the Human Development Study Group do not simply define forgiveness as ‘a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgement, and indifferent behaviour towards one who has unjustly injured us’ but add the positive requirements that the victim of a wrong foster the ‘undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward’ their transgressor (1998: 46-47). This understanding of forgiveness does not simply entail cold indifference towards one who has caused harm but includes positive expressions of emotions, thoughts, and behaviour. Forgiveness, conceived in expansive terms, is thus more than ‘accepting or tolerating the injustice’ and more than ‘ ceasing our anger toward the injured (Enright et al. 1998: 47-48). It is not a passive relinquishing of the hurt and all that goes with it, or ceasing to express a negative judgement of the wrongdoer’s actions, but an active undertaking on the part of the forgiver (North 1998: 20).

At its most demanding extreme, forgiveness thus seeks the active reestablishment of right relationships between victims and perpetrators of wrongs. It is a demanding practice that forms part of the process of reconciliation without being synonymous with reconciliation (Roberts 1995: 289). Although it is conceived as an outcome in some contexts, reconciliation is most commonly understood as the ‘process of addressing con- flictual and fractured relationships’ (Hamber and Kelly 2004: 3). It may entail some or all of the following practices: acknowledgment, reparations, restorative punishment, apology, forgiveness, repentance, remembering, and making promises (Philpott 2008). Thus, while it is possible to forgive in a minimal sense without reconciling, complete reconciliation requires some form of forgiveness (Schimmel 2004: 32; Enright 2001: 31).

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