Sunday, August 26, 2007

How can there be forgiveness without remorse?

The final report of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) appeared this month. Established by the Lomé Peace Agreement in 1999, the TRC aims to draw a line under 11 years of bitter conflict. In his preface the commission’s chairman, the United Methodist Church Bishop , roots the work of the commission in the need for reconciliation. Few would quarrel with the first part of what Bishop Humper says: “Reconciliation is strengthened through acknowledgment and forgiveness, those who have confronted the past will have no problem in acknowledging their roles in the conflict and expressing remorse for such roles.” But the assertion Bishop Humper goes on to make is more controversial: “Where the act of forgiveness is genuine it does not matter whether the perpetrator declines to express remorse.”

Legally, psychologically and morally, uncoupling forgiveness from remorse raises hard questions. The force of these questions is illustrated by a passage in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In an incident that was based on a contemporary newspaper account, Ivan tells his brother Alyosha the story of a landowner passionate about hunting with dogs. One day, an eight-year-old serf boy lames his master’s favourite hound with a stone. The following morning the landowner gathered all his serfs, the boy’s mother included, ordered the boy to run, then released his hounds, which tore the boy to pieces. Faced with such a terrible act, should the mother forgive her master — even if he shows no remorse? For Ivan, such forgiveness would be outrageous: “I don’t want the mother to embrace the torturer . . . She has no right to forgive him! If she likes she can forgive him for herself . . . but she has no right to forgive him for the sufferings of her tortured child.” If that is what the Christian gospel demands, Ivan concludes: “I’d rather remain with my suffering unavenged and my indignation unappeased.”

It is easy to see what tradition Dostoevsky is addressing here and also from which tradition Bishop Humper believes he draws his philosophy of reconciliation. Forgiveness was central to Jesus’s teaching. In one exchange, reported in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter asked Jesus how many times he ought to forgive a member of the Church who offends against him: “As many as seven times?” Jesus replied: “Not seven times, but . . . seventy times seven” — which is to say that forgiveness must be limitless.

But it is by no means clear that Jesus taught that forgiveness may be given where there is no remorse. In Matthew, Jesus explains his comment to Peter by means of a parable of a king who decides to write off the debts of one of his servants who owed him 10,000 talents — a vast sum. When the king hears later that the same servant has thrown into prison a fellow servant on account of a piddling 100 denarii debt, he changes his mind and consigns his unforgiving servant to jail until all his debts are repaid. The suggestion seems to be that the servant’s subsequent actions exposed his earlier remorse as a fraud.

What is clear is that Jesus understood human forgiveness as an extension of God’s forgiveness. If we expect to be forgiven the wrongs we have done others, we must be prepared to forgive the wrongs others do us. As the Lord’s Prayer has it, we ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we, also, have forgiven our debtors”. For Jesus, forgiveness was not so much an alternative to justice but a radical form of it. Forgiveness cannot proceed where there is no recognition that an injustice has been done. Forgiveness achieves justice when, in forgoing the claims of legal reparation, it draws attention to the impossibility of redressing injustice. But, from the Christian perspective to which the idea of amnesty owes a debt, it is at the least an open question whether forgiveness can be given where forgiveness has not been sought.

How can there can be forgiveness without remorse? -Times Online