The Compassion of Forgiveness: Reconciliation and Restitution

Archbishop Desmond Tutu chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995, in an attempt to “manage” the incipient conflict that he feared threatened the dramatic change of direction in South African politics. The accession to power of Nelson Mandela marked the end of apartheid, which Tutu believed had brutalized both victims and oppressors. If all could admit the truth about the past, perhaps resentment could be contained and mutual forgiveness could bring hope for a new society. Desmond Tutu held that everyone depended on their relationships with all others, if they were to become the fully human people God intended them to be.

This assertion is an attempt to hold together both the individual integrity of personal relationships and the many relationships within and between communities. Thus Tutu wrote, “Forgiveness will follow confession and healing will happen, and so contribute to national unity and reconciliation” (Tutu, 1999, p. 120). Gratitude for one’s inheritance is incomplete, unreal, unfulfilling, and ultimately untransformative unless it takes account of the injustices of the past: “It is ultimately in our best interest that we become forgiving, reconciling, and reconciled people because without forgiveness, without reconciliation, we have no future” (p. 165).

These dramatic statements illustrate the conditions for individual personal relationships, relationships within a society (between races, religions, classes, genders, generations), and relationships between nations, hence the depth, length, and breadth of gratitude Christians feel for the freedom they enjoy consequent upon their forgiveness by God—a freedom that includes the power to forgive and the eschewing of resentment.

Bernard Williams calls attention to the fact that forgiveness is an unfashionable topic in moral philosophy but a common experience in ordinary life. He writes, “To be forgiven is something we sometimes ask, and forgiving is something we sometimes say we do. To ask to be forgiven is in part to acknowledge that the attitude displayed in our actions was such as might properly be resented and in part to repudiate that attitude for the future (or at least for the immediate future); and to forgive is to accept the repudiation and to forswear the resentment” (Williams, 2008, p. 6).

Resentment has no place in the heart of God. Our behavior may require forgiveness, but even forgiveness can become a mere formality without feeling, sympathy, or even compassion for the circumstances of the person whom one is “forgiving.” To forgive in such a way is not really to forgive, because the expression of forgiveness is a performative. “I forgive you” is a powerful expression that reestablishes a relationship of trust, courtesy, and care. In the sacrament of penance, this is exactly what the priest does: he affirms the truth of God’s forgiveness of the penitent sinner. Assured thereby of the presence of God, the sinner is free to renew his or her humanity and recover his or her natural capacity to be compassionate.

“To know all is to make one tolerant,” wrote Mme. de Stael (de Stael, 1807, lib. iv, ch. 3). This is most especially true of that knowledge of oneself that comes from knowing the forgiveness of God. It is in this context that the dimension of sacramentality is important. For it is not the priest who forgives in the confessional; rather, he is the one whose priestly ordination gives him the authority to declare God’s forgiveness of sins. Of course, the sacrament of penance can itself lose its vitality, become devalued, and come to be no more than a transaction of compliance. But we know this. Freud taught us that the best can become the worst at the drop of a hat. To an extent, this is what the reformation was about: the reality of confession was too often replaced by institutional compliance, which was unsatisfying to both priest and penitent.

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