On Forgiveness

"There is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgiveable" - Jacques Derrida

Derrida's provocative paradox is the epigraph and starting point for Richard Holloway's book subtitled:

How Can We Forgive the Unforgiveable?

Holloway tackles the complex theme of forgiveness. It is a subject that he explores from both a personal and political perspective but underpinning this examination is his belief that religion has given us many of the best stories and metaphors for understanding how to forgive. He relates forgiveness to such events as 911, the Truth Commission in South Africa, and the ongoing conflicts in Palestine/Israel and Northern Ireland.

On Forgiveness is a discourse on how forgiveness works, where it came from and how the need to embrace it is greater than ever if we are to free ourselves from the binds of the past.

Holloway states: The fundamental insight is that we can and must retain an attitude of disgust towards the offending act, if we are to justify the legitimate claims of human justice; nevertheless, we must find a way of preventing these irreversible offences from locking us permanently into the past; and the remedy for the dilemma is forgiveness of the person, not what the person has done.

Do you agree?

Posted March, 4, 2007


D. Putin said...

Anybody read "Forgive and Forget" by Lewis Smedes? I saw a great quote about it ... something to the effect that anger does more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than the object upon which it is poured. Bit trite but it keeps coming back to me. I think Smedes does a great job though I agree with Holloway that one doesn't forgive the act just the one committing the act. He could have develop his concept on justice a bit better. For example, shouldn't we design the punishment that goes with justice to be restorative rather than retributive?


Anonymous said...

nice slick website Michael

very professionally put together!


Vinny Hall said...

Dave - I'm not sure you would find many Jewish relatives of those who died in Hitler's gas chambers prepared to forgive him and why should they?

It's an interesting question but Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor. I wonder if anyone knows if his family ever expressed forgiveness for his hanging? That would clearly be an example of the type of forgiveness that Derrida and Holloway might applaud.


Neil said...

Vinny There was a good article on March 3, 2007 directly on this question at Spokesmanreview.com entitled “Exploring the Power of Forgiveness”


Virginia De Leon was the author and she quoted John Roth, an internationally recognized scholar in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies who said:

"We all know that forgiveness could be a good thing, an important thing that's needed much of the time, but whether it's something that should always or can always be given by people who are asked to forgive is an issue. … There's a question of whether forgiveness is always the right thing to do." While some believe forgiveness is necessary for healing, others say the crimes committed during the Holocaust are beyond atonement and that the act of forgiving could lead some to forget the horrors that took place. Roth brought up the idea of "cheap grace," a major concern of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who believed that forgiveness sometimes comes too easily, Roth pointed out – that if given too generously, forgiveness could actually contribute to injustice. Forgiveness remains one of those topics that continue to vex people, he said, because the right thing to do isn't always clear. "There is a tension between the value of forgiveness and the difficulty of granting it."


Pianoman said...

I don't forgive if the other guy doesn't apologize. Simple but it works for me.


PRD said...


Bonhoeffer wrote “The test of whether we have truly found the peace of God will be in how we face the sufferings which befall us. There are many Christians who bend their knees before the cross of Jesus Christ well enough, but who do nothing but resist and struggle against every affliction in their own lives. Whoever regards suffering and trouble in their own life as something wholly hostile, wholly evil, can know by this that they have not yet found peace with God at all. Actually, they have only sought peace with the world, thinking perhaps that they could cope with themselves and all their questions with the cross of Jesus Christ; in other words, that they could find inner peace of mind. Thus, they needed the cross, but did not love it. They sought peace only for their own sake. When sufferings come, however, this peace quickly disappears. It was no peace with God because they hated the sufferings God sends....Whoever loves the cross of Jesus Christ, whoever has found peace in him, they begin to love even the sufferings in their life, and in the end, they will be able to say with Scripture, "We also rejoice in our sufferings."”

Undoubtedly he forgave those who persecuted him even at the moment of his execution.


Joan Ferguson said...

An interesting suggestion by some jurors from the Scooter Libby trial is that even though they found him guilty they would like to see him pardoned. I wonder if Bush pardoned him would that be seen as an act of forgiveness or does forgiveness depend on what political party one belongs to? Joan

MIchael N. Hull said...

I am from Northern Ireland which was holding elections yesterday for a power sharing parliament.

In this book Holloway mentioned the NI conflict as well as the Bosnia one and that between Palestine and Israel as places where forgiveness of the unforgiveable is needed.

I am watching the papers to see if at least in the land of my roots forgiveness will finally click in. Strange as it seems NI and Israel are two of the most fundamentally religious regions of the world where one would think forgiveness would have been the first place to appear and not the last.


PRD said...


I would agree that Libby should be pardoned, not because I think he should be forgiven since he has not yet accepted responsibility for what he did, but because as Dave said there has been enough "retributive" justice in what he has been through to date with the expenses he has had to put out defending himself. A pardon with some agreement by Libby to do some pro bono legal work for the poor might be good "restorative justice".

Pianoman: In a way I agree with the way you put it but I'm not sure I agree with the reasoning behind it :-)


Peter said...

Hi Michael:

Dream on there is no forgiveness here! This is from the Belfast Telegraph:

"The ebullient Mr Paisley, who described the poll as a vote for righteousness, yesterday maintained his usual stance of refusing to speak to his potential coalition partner Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. Passing close to Mr McGuinness at an election count, Mr Paisley said: “I will not be greeting him. He needs to be converted to democracy. They need to repent and turn from their evil ways.”"

Take Care,

Michael N. Hull said...


Time will tell! We should know soon but it is surprising to me countries that are quite 'religious' (including the South in the USA) are the least tolerant. Maybe the ministers over there and here should stop talking about the afterlife, being saved etc. and start to talk about forgiveness in the present life.


Peter said...


After I saw your post I got a copy of the Smedes book from the library and had a breeze through it.

It's a good read! One quote struck me which went as follows -

"Anger and forgiving can live together in the same heart. You are not a failure at forgiving just because you are still angry that a painful wrong was done to you. Remember you cannot erase the past, you can only heal the pain it has left behind."

Take Care,

Thomas G. Nimick said...

I would like to suggest that we differentiate between forgiveness and forgetting. I fully agree with the Holloway quotation that forgiveness is so that we need not be locked into the past. Without forgiveness, the harm done continues to do harm within us; it turns to bitterness. Forgiveness is setting the hurt aside within me as part of the past and no longer allowing it to poison my life. It does not require that we forget the offense; that should still inform us and we should learn from it.

Ironically, the way to forgiveness within ourselves is to face the evil for what it is and to declare it evil. It is pretending that it has not happened or that it is not as serious as it is that prevents the forgiveness. What that means is that no forgetting is required for forgiveness. Rather acknowledging clearly what has happened is the appropriate response.

Forgiveness also does not mean setting aside the consequences of the action. If someone breaks the law and harms an individual or the community, the consequences of that act on the community are real. It is reasonable for the community to enforce the rules. It is a matter of realistic known consequences, not retribution. The punishment is partly for the offender, but also for the sake of the health of the community. Acknowledging the action and its consequences opens the door to forgiveness. Later, however, when the punishment is fulfilled, there is no reason for the community to ignore the memory of the action. If it was embezzlement, forgiveness does not mean that we trust the individual with funds without close oversight. If it was rape, we do not allow our women to accompany the man alone in situations where he will have power over them.

Forgiveness is what happens within ourselves and determines whether the original evil will continue to do harm. That the act is not forgotten and the person is not easily trusted is just the realistic consequences of the act.


Desmond. said...

To Michael--ref your comment to Peter--maybe they should do both. Our Lord did.
He was able to forgive those who put him to death & it was also He who said that we should forgive others as we are ourselves forgiven.
That does not preclude the necessity of salvation. Do I detect an aversion to the concept of "being saved" I wonder?

As for the politics in NI--sadly, Christian values can be pushed aside when the prospect of power looms.It probably comes under the heading of "sin" !! Ah well, nobody's perfect.

Michael N. Hull said...

Desmond asked: ‘Michael - Do I detect an aversion to the concept of "being saved" I wonder?”

In the sense of ‘saved’ as used by fundamentalist Christians, I guess the answer is ‘yes’. I am averse to that.

But as Marcus Borg points out in the book “Heart of Christianity” discussed earlier in this blog, salvation in the bible is mostly concerned with something that happens in this life. In the New Testament, the primary meaning of the word "salvation" is transformation in this life.

One can see this in the roots of the English word 'salvation', which comes from "salve," which is a healing ointment. Salvation is about healing. We all grow up wounded, and salvation is about the healing of the roots of existence.

So if you are wondering if I am averse to being healed in the ‘roots of my existence’ then the answer is ‘no’ nor am I averse to offering such ‘salvation’ to others who lead lives that are wounded is some sense or other.

Maybe Tom and Peter would like to make additional comments


Desmond. said...

Michael--always interested in the term "Fundamentalist Christian" and the suggestion that it somehow connotes something unsavoury.

Would I be correct in understanding that those who use the term mean those whom they would decsribe as "born again Christians"?

My understanding is that a Christian is indeed someone who, however ineffectually, endeavours to following the teachings of Christ as presented in the New Testament and, given that Jesus Himself told Nicodemus that "you must be born again", it is hardly surprising that those who believe themselves to be His followers, claim this experience.

I would be interested to hear what other definitions of "Christian" are out there and how they might manage to exclude the concept of the "new birth" and at the same time (I presume) say they they follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

As for salvation, according to Borg, mostly "something that happens in this life", later in John 3, Jesus clearly relates it to the afterlife-v 16.

Ask me do I go with Borg or Jesus Christ and I think you will guess my answer!

Peter said...

Michael, Desmond and Tom:

Of course, one follows the teaching of Jesus before the teachings of Borg. However, the teachings of the bible and Jesus are subject to personal interpretation. I think that is obvious. So although I don’t agree with everything that Borg offers in his interpretation of the bible and Christianity, I think I do agree with him on the question of salvation and ‘born again’.

I read an interview that Borg gave in which he was asked specifically about his understanding of ‘salvation’. Michael has captured most of it in his comments but Borg also said and I quote:

“The Bible has specific images of salvation. Salvation is about light in the darkness, liberation from bondage, return from exile, or reconnection with God. It's about our hunger being satisfied, our thirst being quenched, and so forth. The identification of salvation with "going to heaven" in much of popular Christianity not only impoverishes the meaning of salvation but I also think really distorts what being a Christian is all about. Whenever the afterlife is made central to being Christian, it invariably turns Christianity into a religion of requirements. If there is an afterlife, it doesn't seem fair that everyone gets to go there regardless of what they do before death, so there must be something you have to do or believe. And then suddenly Christianity ceases to be a religion of grace and instead becomes a religion of measuring up to what God requires.”

I think that fundamentalist Christians (the term does not connote anything ‘unsavoury’ to me) are too concerned with questions of the ‘afterlife’. That is just my personal opinion – not a fact open to dispute – just my personal experience and observation. I have met many fundamentalist Christians and the question that always quickly comes up is where do I intend to spend eternity. Frankly, I don’t think I have any control over that matter and I am perfectly willing to trust God’s decision. However, I do have control over the present and I can be ‘saved’ and ‘save’ others by practicing the Christian faith. I leave aside all labels such as liberal, fundamentalist, born again etc. as being exclusive, negative, and serving no useful purpose.

Take Care

Michael N. Hull said...

Hi Guys:

A suggestion from the moderator - this thread is a discussion on "forgiveness".

Could we put further comments about Borg, being saved, born again etc into the 'Heart of Christianity' thread. I will be continuing an adult class in April discussing these aspects of Borg's book and it would be nice to have any further discussion located there.


Desmond. said...

Dear Moderator. Please forgive us for having strayed!

If the teachings of Jesus & the NT are "(obviously) subject to personal interpretation" then, per se, so are the writings of Borg and everyone else.

If believing that Jesus' teaching is superior to that of all of the others (including Borg) makes me a fundamentailst, then I am happy to be labelled as one!

I agree with Peter that there can be, what to some, would appear to be an over-emphasis by some Christians on the subject of where one will spend eternity. This in turn can see them being regarded as "fundamentalists", usually I find, most vociferously,by those who wish to avoid the issue.

Surely there can be a balanced approach? Jesus taught, in response to a question from a lawyer, that the two "great Commandments" were to
1) love God &
2) love one's neighbour as one'self. (Matt chapt 22 vv 36-40)

The first takes care of our relationship with God & therefore, with eternity secured, enables us to get on, in this life, with God's help, working on our love for our fellow-men/women.

Maybe it is because Jesus put them in this order that Christians, in trying to talk with non-Christians stick to he same sequence.


Peter said...

Archbishop Alan Harper was enthroned in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh, N. Ireland on Friday, 16 march 2007. In his sermon he talked about forgiveness here in Ireland. Part of what he said was:

“I want to speak of the single most important issue for all of us here, in this island of Ireland, today. I want to speak of forgiveness and reconciliation.

I doubt if there are any here today who have never suffered hurt and offence at some point in their lives. Similarly, if anyone here has never given hurt or caused offence I should be, frankly, amazed. Any one of us, looking deeply into the mirror of our true selves, will swiftly recognise that not only have we suffered offence we have given offence or stood by while offence was being given. That is part of what it is to be human.

Therefore the ministry of Jesus Christ, and the Gospels that bear witness to that ministry, resound with the themes of reconciliation and forgiveness, culminating in the cross, where Christ enabled the reconciliation of the penitent malefactor and forgave the very persons who were in the act of perpetrating his judicial murder. Here is the supreme exposition of the unlimited scope of forgiveness and the freedom delivered through reconciliation.

There are other events and stories, however, which explore the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. One in particular speaks urgently because it resonates precisely with our daily experience: the story we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, although it would be better to call it the Parable of the Loving, Forgiving Father. It is the story of the patient forbearance of a parent and the arrogant impetuosity of youth.

Despite the hurt and offence the father denies his son nothing. But then insult is added to injury as the son turns his back upon the whole family. The fabric of the family is utterly rent, from top to bottom. Henceforth they go their separate ways.

You know the story: the father, still looking and longing for his son, senses him approaching from afar. He rushes to meet him, refusing to compound his son’s humiliation by forcing the boy to grovel. He embraces his son, welcomes him, washes, clothes him, feeds him.

What did the young man see as he looked into the smiling face of the father he had counted as dead? Did he see grey hairs placed there by the pain of rejection? Did he see the deep furrows of strain that mark every parent’s anxiety over the child that they have lost? Did he see, in other words, the cost of the things that he had done? And did he marvel, at least a little, at the generosity - the fullness – of the father’s love, which alone made reconciliation possible and complete?

At a human level this gospel story could be replicated many times in the personal experience of people here today. But, even more significantly, this is a story we must ponder for our community life.

But this story of a loving father and a reconciled son is not yet complete. There was another son, the elder, and it is this son who earths our story once more in human experience.

The elder son had never disowned his father, never deserted his home or disgraced the family name. He had been loyal and diligent, respectful and caring, but now it is his turn to bring down his father’s grey hairs and to further furrow his father’s brow. The elder resents his returning brother. He resents the undeserved welcome; he is angry and hurt for all the pain and distress his father has suffered; he desires no swift reconciliation.

Such a reaction roots us in a reality we know well. The indignation of those who have watched the betrayal and injury of others is sometimes sharper and more sustained than that of the victims themselves. And that is where we find ourselves now in Northern Ireland: some exhausted by pain and enmity yet longing to begin anew; others finding old hurts hard to put away, reminded, by the ravages of pain in the faces of the people they love, of a past they find it hard to leave behind. Therein is the challenge confronting us all but, especially, those newly called to elected office.”

Hopefully his advice will be followed here!

Take care,

Michael N. Hull said...

I think that the oldest son in the Prodigal son story always is portrayed as some sort of ‘deficient’ person. In many sermons about the Prodigal Son I have heard him spoken of as ‘judgmental’ or 'unforgiving' or 'resentful' while the Father and the Prodigal Son somehow come out as ‘heroes’ of this story.

Are we really being fair to the eldest son?

The Father’s story is one of forgiveness and love. It seems to me that Archbishop Harper got it right when he said the story should be called the ‘Parable of the Loving, Forgiving Father’ as he is the one whose actions are totally admirable. He loved and forgave unconditionally.

The Prodigal Son’s story is one of repentance. He got into a mess, came home, claimed he wanted to work as a hired hand, and then went on to accept the ring, sandals, and the festive meal. His is a story of ‘repentance’ but where beyond a few words is his repentance exhibited? Where was the ‘act’ of repentance? I do not find him admirable – to me he would have been admirable had he rejected the material benefits heaped on him by the father and had insisted that all he be given was the job of the ‘hired hand’ as he had requested.

And is not the story of the eldest son one of justice? Surely this son is a completely admirable person - his story is one of ‘restorative justice’ as Dave Putin alluded too. Did the oldest son become angry because the father forgave the prodigal son or did he become angry because he saw that in the act of forgiveness the father was giving short shrift to ‘justice’ (not ‘retributive’ justice but ‘restorative’ justice). Is this not what Neil was getting at when he mentioned Bonhoeffer saying “if given too generously, forgiveness could actually contribute to injustice.” Is this not where Holloway was going in the book ‘On Forgiveness’ when he said that one must forgive the person while still holding an attitude of disgust towards the offending act?

I think this fits in with what Tom Nimick said in which he distinguishes between forgiveness and forgetting. Unconditional forgiveness and unconditional love does not mean setting aside the consequences of the act itself.