Riflessioni sul Perdono, sulla Dignità e sulla Riconciliazione

Geraldine Smyth

1. I negoziati di pace, generalmente, sono incentrati sulle dimensioni politica ed economica. Quale è la Sua percezione della necessità di toccare aspetti più profondi e genuini della riconciliazione e come si può ottenere questo?

That peace negotiations tend to be concentrated on the political and economic aspects and actors is an entailment of Western democracy, whereby the disposition of political – and until recently – economic power is predominantly state-centred and organised along party political lines according to an institutionalised formal majoritarian system. Thus, the leaders of the party in power are charged with political responsibility and policy decisions, inter alia, for the distribution of resources, justice and security provision according to the common law tradition or constitution. According to the social contract, powers are centralised and monopolised, although constrained by separation of powers, electoral process and time limits. Usually and notably, only a government has the authority to declare war and to make peace treaties. At such critical moments there is an expectation that party interests be transcended by cross-party commitment to securing peace and concern for the common good. Notably also, however, in the latter decades of the 20th Century increasingly, violent conflicts occurred within states and against the state, raising wider complexities and dilemma.
The very representative nature of politics, despite its democratic benefits, has shaped a paradigm that de facto short-circuits participative democratic process. As counterbalance, some countries provide for a second chamber sometimes in the form of a civic forum. Often, however this is not the case and in any case, governments and politicians tend to be suspicious of civic participation in the affairs of state, regarding organised social movements as gainsaying their political authority. The political scheme may also tap into the thinking of such social movements and instruments as ‘Think Tanks’, focus groups and consultative civic processes. These are described approvingly by Jürgen Habermas as constituting a dynamic “lifeworld”, while warning that such a “lifeworld” is liable paradoxically to be colonised or co-opted “the system”.
It is doubtless true that in many situations of conflict or transition from conflict, social movements, whether anti-systemic, assuming roles of advocacy or “watchdog”, or of promoting complementary visions, processes and structures of democratisation, human rights, restorative justice, or of initiatives of truth recovery and dealing with the past, such groups have had to struggle for recognition and influence within the prevailing régime. Such has been the case in Northern Ireland, which I allude to as a case study, in terms of securing a peace agreement (Good Friday Agreement, April 1994) and peacebuilding generally.
The Good Friday Agreement would not have seen the light of day without the transforming influence of agents and boundary-crossing movements in civil society. The mainstream political parties it must be said, in the 1980s and 1990s resisted these and sought to marginalise them – grass-roots neighbourhood groups, civil liberties organisations, local initiatives in community development, youth outreach, restorative justice and other boundary-crossing processes towards peace, conflict resolution, reconciliation and healing, often in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods or interface flashpoints and ‘no-go’ areas.
The turning point in the visibility and critical mass of such movements came with the Opsahl Commission – a Citizen’s Inquiry on a Way Forward for Northern Ireland organised by Initiative ’92 (1992-4). This was a public independent initiative, organised on the assumption that beneath the frozen lines of political division, people and civic groups were already crossing ethno-religious and cultural-political boundaries and forging alternative alliances and initiatives along pluralist, reconciling lines. Many though not all were female, jaded from the politics of ethnic division, economic and gender exclusion. Yet, in my period as coordinator of this initiative, the main attitude from mainstream political parties to its processes, proposals and to the international interest it generated was often publicly disparaging and un-cooperative, indeed obstructive. “Democratic politics is done by elected representatives”; “These do-gooders no authority” or “They should stick to neighbourhood concerns and leave the big picture to us,” were repeated mantras.
Negatively, post-Agreement, it is also well attested that the successive collapses of the power-sharing assembly and governing executive provided for in the agreement, were due in no small part to the fact that – mistakenly – the political attention and energy of those in power remained almost exclusively focussed on the formal Track One level. The active and effective role of civil society groups was deemed relatively inconsequential and although their significance was mentioned in the Agreement, there was little commitment to ensuring that the political peace agreement was embedded at community level. The important correlative role of “field diplomacy” was neglected, leaving those who had worked over decades to bring the agreement about were now sidelined and disempowered. It was virtually inevitable that momentum would be lost and sustainability weakened. With political and media attention almost exclusively concentrated upon the workings and posturing at the Assembly based on the D’Hondt (consociationalist) model of cross party voting representation and executive power. The Civic Form established by the Good Friday Agreement, whose purpose was also to ensure civic participation was deprecated and undermined by not a few political leaders.
That is a negative picture and its roots go back further. In responding to the question as to how peace processes can be civically embedded, one must look not only at the political, social and democratic infrastructure of civic engagement, but ensure that its due place in public flourishing is recognised, resourced, and otherwise supported. This will not happen without the political will of the powers that be at every political and sectoral level – from sovereign governments (of Great Britain and Ireland), to the NI Assembly, to local councils, churches and faith bodies, educational institutions, social services, housing. Another key factor is supporting legislation with reasonable time- frames and clear accountability measures to ensure that civic initiatives are enabled to find legitimate channels of influence on the necessary transformation of public life – e. g., on matters of social justice and inclusion, parity of esteem, human rights, pluralism, and reconciling and ecumenical measures bent on building bridges across old cultural, political and denominational rifts.
An example may illustrate: Until the mid 1990s Northern Ireland had not one female member of parliament and derisorily few local councillors. That passed as normal and change was simply not on the agenda of the mainstream parties. It was from grass-roots politics, from the university and community education sector and trades union movement, and the lifeworld of community development associations that the Women’s Coalition emerged on a cross-cultural inclusive basis. It was they, together with several other new parties emerging from the political wings of (former) paramilitary groups, who helped break the stalemate at key points in the negotiation of the Good Friday Peace Agreement (1999) and who were crucial to the achieving of that agreement and the establishment of a Civic Forum as part of the new political dispensation. Ethics as well as interests, civic and constitutional politics, cross party consensus and adversarial party process, inclusion, pluralism and financial support for emerging initiatives or reconciliation and post-conflict healing were all elements in the new political vision. Mandatory policies of inclusion via the workings of an Equal Opportunities Commission were needed. So too section 75 of the new framework for government set out the enforceable legal requirements of pluralism. Such legal mechanisms are necessary but it is not a substitute for the transformation of prejudice, institutional mentalities and cultures of exclusion such lines of gender, sexuality, disability and religion. There is recent, troubling evidence of sectarian attacks transmogrifying into other forms of “hate crime”. So also, intergeneration approaches are needed, and an integrative framework of reconciliation and peacebuilding that is multi-levelled and multi-sectoral, “top-down”, “bottom-up”, intermediary and lateral, i.e., inclusive of all concerned, embodying practical initiatives of social transformation and liberating expressions of cultural identity that do not hinge on mutual antagonism, that take account of past memories and traditions, present realities and future-focussed (short-term, medium-term and long-term).

2. Quali sono le condizioni nelle quali, al di là dell’assicurare gli interessi della parti in conflitto, può essere stabilito un processo incentrato su un senso di equità e dignità?

A convincing and confidence-building process of peacemaking needs to include all the relevant parties, though this may not be achievable all at once ‘in the same room’. In such circumstances trusted mediators and go-between agents can make a significant difference in establishing a sense of fairness and dignity for all the parties.
The conditions that gave rise to the conflict – e. g., human rights abuses, political and economic exclusion, cultural or religious discrimination, alienation from rightful land, for example must be addressed in any peace process, wrongs need to be confronted and acknowledged, and where possible redressed practically. Otherwise the danger of resurgent violence will be ever-present. In this regard, there is a need to move discourse and debate beyond a politics of blaming the immediate antagonists. Broader and historical dimensions need to be factored into the processes of mutual exchange and indeed longer term educational processes initiated for portraying a broader view and amore inclusive view of history. Thus, the international political context and prevailing dominant interests, now long forgotten, need to be taken into account in the analysis of the roots and development of the conflict. For example where – as in Ireland – the original holding paradigm of the conflict lay in larger regional dynamics and paradigms such as European Wars of Religion, empire building, colonial interests and strategies (preferential treatment of one cultural, ethnic or religious over another, divide and rule tactics and economic disparities that shape an “ethnic frontier society.” In other words, where the internal factions have been historically aligned, sponsored or supported by opposing sovereign governments (as in our case, the UK government with the Unionists and the Republic of Ireland with the Nationalists). The transition from conflict to peace in Ireland took an exponential leap forward in 1985 when for the first time the two sovereign governments, in signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement committed themselves to an epoch-making inter-governmental policy change, taking whatever constitutional and creative steps deemed necessary by the other towards ending the conflict and finding a joint solution.
External agents from other contexts can also play significant roles – as happened in Ireland too, with sustained support from the US and the EU, for example in the work of mediation and economic investment in peace. So too the exemplary role and practical support of countries like South Africa proved enabling and lent perspective where it was lacking on how to resolve conflict and find a common way forward, even while seeking to deal with the past. Positively, the finding of global resonance for one’s own cause and from that, active networking and solidarity can also be significant – thus the impact on the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, was strengthened by the vision and alliances with such struggles and successes in places like the USA and South Africa. I remember hearing one civil rights activist in Ireland following the shooting by the British Army of 13 unarmed civilians in Derry in 1972, crying out on the media waves, “We have had our Sharpeville” – alluding to the massacre by government security forces of unarmed protesters in the Township of that name in South Africa a few years previously.
Human Rights groups rightly warn against losing sight of justice concerns, and particularly, claims about state repression or violence. So too, many tend to view reconciliation as a matter concerning the direct victims-survivors of the conflict and the perpetrators, but often for victims-survivors, reconciliation and forgiveness are not a primary need, but rather, public recognition of personal or institutional wrongs done, acknowledgement of loss, truth recovery, legal justice or restorative justice, and reparation or recompense are more urgent needs. Certainly no process can succeed that does not put those very people who were most directly affected and for decades shamefully neglected.
Dealing with the past is a difficult, but necessary task and process that should be facilitated at every level and resourced by government, with strenuous effort made to overcome partisanship and politicisation of victimhood and “hierarchising” of victims. Personal sensitivity is required at stages of the process which, however necessary, are likely to reopen wounds. In matters of public commemoration for example, inclusiveness as a value for some is an obstacle for others who cannot stomach seeing their loved ones commemorated in the same memorial space or ritual process alongside those whom they deem to be directly or indirectly responsible for their deaths. So too, the conditions and manner of release of political prisoners was provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. But the enactment proved to be a highly charged and painful process especially for victims and their families who were now likely to encounter in their own streets those who had done them grievous harm. For many the idea of forgiveness was a step too far, and such media programmes as I have witnessed that attempted to mount scenes or “spectacles” of forgiveness, apology or reconciliation were badly misconceived and gauchely staged.
But so too the rehabilitation of former combatants is another complex area which needs to be approached carefully (yet taking necessary risks beyond the normal mechanisms of legal justice). Much has to be reckoned with and forethought – matters of reintegration into family, the difficulties of accessing employment, credit, travel visas, or generally finding a way back to ordinary life chances. Support systems and pastoral care are needed, and so too the building of capacity to equip them to take up their place as responsible citizens making a contribution in the new and hopefully changed society. The scope of forgiveness and reconciliation must not foreclose on these individuals and groups. But reconciliation, forgiveness and peace are also matters for society as a whole. Usually the numbers wounded seriously or suffering the lasting effects of trauma is massively underestimated. No-one remained unaffected. There is need for personal acknowledgement, and also to take account the role and responsibility of state, government structures and judicial instruments, and of society as a whole, whether in terms of wrongs inflicted, the impact of prolonged neglect and apathy, the hidden costs of the conflict on whole communities, or in terms of collective social responsibility to shape a different future where peace stands a chance.
It should go without saying, but needs to be emphasised still that even after official ceasefires and peace agreements, the whole process of dismantling the “war machine” – paramilitary weapons and official military installations and on the ground, needs time, patience and the mediation of independent “honest brokers”. The commitment to decommissioning is usually not delivered all at once and patience is needed in graduated nature of maintaining security in all its aspects while building trust and confidence. Undue insistence on modes of visible “surrender” prove counter-productive, and the international independent bodies established to oversee the decommissioning of weapons or reform of security systems (policing for example) need to be allowed to proceed without political interference. But progress needs to be monitored and scheduled with appropriate transparency and necessary legislation enacted in timely fashion. Time and patience are needed if politics is to make the seismic shift beyond the old “zero-sum game” where one side’s loss is deemed the other side’s gain. Everyone needs to contribute and share in the peace dividend.
Good mediation resources and safe neutral spaces for dialogue and capacity-building are also priorities. Attention to adopting non-confrontational language within such spaces, in the media and in all official discourse is also highly desirable (nomenclature is often polarised and mutually offensive and compromises need to be found about the deployment of cultural symbols and creativity expressed in new shared forms of symbolic expression. So also, leadership and initiatives at civic and official level which address the losses and the wounds of the past, and the need for a fair-minded approach to matters of memory and memorialisation, to the structures of ethical narrative, truth recovery and acknowledgement are liable to be painful and deeply contested, but these cannot be neglected if the peace is to be sustained. Cultural amnesia needs to be overcome while taking on board Todorov’s warning against any “excess of memory” Here the potential contribution of religion and churches, whatever their ambivalent role during the conflict, needs to be considered. They have within them sources, traditions and practices that can bring forgiveness and reconciliation to mind: through sacred stories, symbolic gestures and rituals of loving remembrance, of lament and renewal of hope, of welcoming the stranger, forgiveness for the sinner, of comfort in times of darkness, and the gracious possibility that life and light can be renewed.

3. Quanto il perdono è essenziale alla dimensione della riconciliazione? Alla radice della Sua cultura politica e/o della Sua fede religiosa quali sono i principi che implicano o escludono il perdono? Quali versi o detti che fanno parte del Suo personale patrimonio spirituale possono, nella sua opinione, avere un significato universale

Where someone is saying, ‘I am angry,
I am frightened, I am justified.
Every favour, I must repay with interest,
Any slight against myself, the least slip,
Must be balanced out by an exact revenge.

This observation from the Irish poet, Tom Paulin, is a grim reminder that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the only or the most likely human responses to feelings of grievance or threat. Self-justification, with its correlative blaming of the other party, the bid for retribution via retaliation and exact revenge accompanied by self-aggrandising rationalisation and moral self-justification have a recognisable face across many contexts, cultures and histories. Such realities must not be naively overlooked in any claims (for example from a faith-based ideal or eschatological hope-filled vision) about the universal possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, although I shall also appeal to such below.
This cautionary reminder that notional or abstract claims must also take seriously the emotional field with its undercurrents of ideology and mythology, encompassing memory and imagination, and the social construction of past events around the political partialities and interests of the present (one easily concurs with Vamik Volkan’s pithy reference to the “time-collapse”) phenomenon, as collective responses to contemporary events are fused with and fired by selective memories of ancient defeats and victories, reinforcing mutually antagonistic moments by freezing them in time as “chosen traumas” or chosen glories.” The ritualising of resentful or triumphant memories of yesterday guards against minds that might begin to open to the possibility of positive change in the other group, and so the cycle of mimetic violence continues either in open outbreak or via “the tranquillity of mutual deterrence” (Frank Wright). In such a paradigm, forgiveness is an unthinkable betrayal of a sacred past, and the door is kept firmly closed against reconciliation.
This is not of course the whole story. Forgiveness is an essential dimension of reconciliation and many of the major faiths, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam bear witness to the necessity of both. I shall make some general points first and then move to offer some distinctions and correlations between each concept. I also make the assumptions that it is necessary to keep these concepts firmly moored between the (already overlapping) religious and secular spheres, and related to this, that these ideas have both an inner-personal and a social-political scope and remit.
It is also worth noting that these notions, although more familiar within religious experience, teaching and tradition, have become increasingly prominent on the stage of world politics and in secret negotiations to end conflict, and lay the foundation for a new beginning where peace stands a chance of being released from cycles of revenge and tit-for-tat retaliation. This has increased apace whether in high profile interstate gestures or more recently in inter-state and intra-state settings of conflict resolution, peace processes, and truth recovery processes.
Interestingly, it was Hannah Arendt, a secular Jew who prominently drew attention to the importance and religious provenance of the discourse and practice of forgiveness, proposing indeed that Jesus was the “discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs,” observing also that religious context and language do not take from its “strictly secular” relevance. For there too, the terrifying alternative to forgiveness is revenge without end. The more impossible it seems, the more necessary it becomes, for without it people become trapped on a wheel of no release: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.
In biblical texts, we find dramas of fidelity and betrayal as part of the human condition of relating to God and relating to others over such issues as land, food, or political power: Notably, we see there not a dualistic divide into the wholly good and thoroughly evil. Stories abound fraternal treachery and resentment, greed and violent murder, followed by a divine constraint on unlimited revenge (Cain and Abel). We see protagonists in whom goodness and sin coexist (Hagar; King David). In the prophetic literature (e. g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos we see humankind’s capacity for making and breaking covenant promises, drawing forth divine retribution and divine forgiveness and the possibility of restorative justice and a new beginning. From a Christian perspective, if we truly recognise the world as God’s creation, we cannot consign it to inevitable damnation. The world of society, politics and religion all come under God’s creative and reconciling purpose.
Before adumbrating further some of the religious and theological discourse of forgiveness and reconciliation, I shall try to establish some guiding definition of terms and in particular to elucidate some necessary distinctions and correlations between them.
Undoubtedly, reconciliation and forgiveness comprise a landscape of paradox with vexed contours and contested maps. There will be those who adopt a pragmatic approach seeing forgiveness and reconciliation as necessary and to be built into any peace agreement (it must be said however, that too often, such political arrangements are not sufficiently concerned to provide conditions and measures that would encourage forgiveness and reconciliation. That said, these are not open to political manipulation, but can only be engaged personally and freely). Nor must they be disconnected from the need for justice). Many will regard forgiveness and reconciliation as unattainable – hopelessly unrealistic, given the depth and extent of hurt; seductively “soft” because liable to be equated with cover-up of underlying causes, conditions and consequences of the conflict; worthlessly cheap concepts that risk brushing over legacies of loss, hurt and bitterness; unacceptably denying the legitimate demand for retribution and reparation. For such reasons reconciliation and forgiveness will, as often as not be deemed undesirable, unattainable and unsustainable. Tolerable and tolerant coexistence are often all that are sought or deemed possible.
In Northern Ireland, research shows that some are uneasy with the too close alliance between reconciliation and forgiveness and thereby with religion – the latter being deemed suspect, anyway, because of a history of politicised religion sacralised politics where religion was a force for securing sectarian division. For some others, preferring a purely secular analysis such concepts are deemed quite extraneous to real politik. I would argue that since analysis shows religion to have been part of the problem of alienation and sectarian estrangement, then its protagonists – in this case, Christians and churches – must be responsibly engaged in processes of redress and renewal. But I will argue shortly also that without a positive openness to the religious core of forgiveness and reconciliation, something of their transcendent core and inspirational power to do the humanly impossible will be lost to us.
There is no shortage of analytic descriptions of reconciliation: Hamber and Kelly draw on a number of influential texts in the field including Assefa, 2001; Barnes and Huyse, 2003; Hamber and van de Merwe, 1998; Lederach, 1997; Porter, 2003; Rigby 2001; van de Merwe, 1999. Hamber and Kelly’s working definition bears valuable universalisable elements, not least because distilled from a wide range of sources and are ground in reflection on actual experiences of work for reconciliation in South Africa and Ireland: They identify 5 strands which I paraphrase here:

  1. Developing a shared vision of an interdependent and fair society – involving the whole of society, whatever their conflicting political and cultural viewpoints.
  2. Acknowledging and dealing with the past, personally and institutionally, in ways that take appropriate responsibility for loss, hurt and damage caused and by learning from the past so as not to repeat it.
  3. Building positive relationships is key to overcoming prejudice and exclusion, by creating trust and opening to both commonalities and differences.
  4. Working for cultural and attitudinal change towards overcoming a culture of suspicion, intolerance and enmity which can so easily issue forth in denial of the human rights of the other and indeed violent acts, and towards the promotion of inclusive belonging and civic participation.
  5. Substantial social, economic and political change, which takes account of the structures and policies which contributed or gave rise to the conflict with a view to remedying and transforming the situation politically and economically.

The authors do acknowledge the existence of paradoxes, analytical and practical, the need at once to face the past and its memories, and the future with its undisclosed potential, and of course, imbued with ideological and moral tensions. I concur that any quasi-comprehensive working definition of reconciliation or to its actual realisation must include these approaches and the interrelated tensions and conflicts of interpretation. That the authors are reticent on any significance of religious dimensions of reconciliation is puzzling, but perhaps they were over-cautious about broaching the field, given the embedded sectarianism, or possibly because they are not trained in Christian history and theological analysis held too many hidden snares.
So, while fully endorsing what they include, where Northern Ireland is concerned and probably in other contexts where religion is significant in people’s history, cultural identification or part of their self-understanding and lifeworld, I would contend that the religious moorings of reconciliation is not so easily despatched, and where that happens a potential resource for is lost. One has only to consider the ancient fourfold theological paradigm of reconciliation – involving, acknowledgement, absolution, repentance and restoration to a life of grace – to see its renewable meaning and moral potential in exploring possible frameworks for reconciliation in our own day.
I shall now in turn examine some of the fundamental meanings of forgiveness, and through that, hope to justify the importance for contemporary peacebuilding of clarifying further and more specifically, the religious and theological foundation and potential of these concepts and their correlation within Christian imagination and theology.
The word “forgiveness” comes from the Old English for-giefan – meaning, to give away; with associated meanings also suggested: to overlook, to pardon a debt or offence, to give up, to show mercy or compassion, or give a pardon. The range of meanings assigned to the Old English prefix, “for-” is itself illuminating, intimating something thorough or utterly (intensive), “used in words derived from Old English to form adjectives with superlative force” (Chambers English Dictionary). A relational context is implied by the idea of preceding hurt, trespass or sin having damaged relationship. In Christian terms, this is construed in terms of reciprocity.
Many may recall that Jesus (as recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew, in response to the request about how to pray, addressed God in words that include, “Forgive us our debts/sins/trespasses as we forgive those who are indebted to us”. So too, this reciprocal religious aspect that comes through in the dictionary definition English Dictionary is the idea that for-giveness is construed as a gift free, beyond desert, operating as alternative to revenge. There also lies the suggestion that at a deeper existential level, forgiveness involves a giving away of oneself to another in self-transcending movement, with an accompanying hope or expectation that this may create a superlative impact on the recipient. Also, forgiveness implies a mutual orientation and reorientation. In sum, we have here, a basis for a theological anthropology of forgiveness as pivotally free, interrelational and self-transcending.
In more precise theological interpretation, forgiveness finds its point of reference within the theology of salvation. We must not however, view “forgiveness” as a serviceable synonym for reconciliation. Forgiveness is more specific. “‘Reconciliation’ is arguably the most generic term in the vocabulary of soteriology” [the systematic theological articulation of “salvation”]. From the perspective of theology then, the scope of Christian reconciliation is larger than forgiveness, while forgiveness is reconciliation’s most personal significant core, turning upon the experience of liberating love or grace.
Of course, it should be stressed that even in theological terms such language is symbolic or analogical and not literal, as is all language about God. They concern the analogical, metaphoric (not literal) significance of all speech about God. Linked to this, no one metaphor or model suffices when thinking or speaking about the transcendent or divine: theology requires and has classically and always furnished a plurality of models of theological discourse.
In Christian theology then, reconciliation is the larger soteriological model within which forgiveness operates. Both are understood to be a divine initiative of undeserved abundant grace made known in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and in his death and resurrection bearing a promise of free and abundant life and forgiveness to all. In the Christian economy reconciliation is the larger process within which forgiveness is experienced as transforming event. One must not, however, relegate forgiveness to a halting-station or half-way house to reconciliation. One way to resolve this difficulty is to refer to the vexed relationship within theology of forgiveness and repentance and to this we will now turn.

4. Il perdono richiede qualche forma di pentimento da parte di coloro a cui il perdono viene offerto? Il perdono ha condizioni o è senza condizioni?

Here it is worth stressing what forgiveness is not. It is not a substitute for justice or liberation or a bargaining tool towards ending violence. It does not take away the need for restitution or reparation wherever this may be possible. Though in respect of justice, restitution, and reparation, more creative responses are required than the traditional provisions of political or criminal justice systems.
Forgiveness does not commit one to nor should it result in denying or trivialising of the hurt and damage done to the bereaved and those wounded by violence. The need for healing remains independent of both forgiveness and repentance, and may remain for a very long time even where reconciliation is realised. The needs of victims-survivors must be kept in view, together with the recognition that the victimhood is not all on one side. Indeed victim and perpetrator can coexist within the same person. Both parties in historically divided communities are both sinned against and sinning, and there is no innocent place to begin. Again, a paradoxical position must be maintained: that repentance is not a prior requirement for forgiveness. In the Christian tradition, there is no sufficiency of evidence – in the Gospels or in the Letters of St Paul – to support this. To assert that repentance is a prior requirement would be to set conditions on divine freedom, confine the universal reach of the salvation offered by Jesus Christ and acknowledged in the Prophet Isaiah (ch. 49). It would be to deny the power of the Holy Spirit to release God’s forgiving love in the whole world. The paradigm here is a legal, forensic one. It cannot be denied that this has been a dominant way of framing salvation in the Western Church heavily influenced as it has been by the tradition of Roman law via the teachings of St Augustine. But there are other historically validated paradigms, which see sin not merely as something to be punished as in a court of law, but as something that invites God to offer liberation and healing (as is more to the fore in Eastern Christian traditions). The latter paradigm more explicitly highlights the relational over the legal understanding of forgiveness and the restorative over the punitive approach justice and holds open the intrinsic connection between the dynamics of forgiveness and the invitation to fuller reconciliation according to the model of Jesus Christ who died with words of unconditional forgiveness on his lips, as he had in his life embodied in a radical way the God’s all-embracing promise of reconciliation, irrespective of entitlement or desert (see for example: the parables in the Gospel of Matthew of the Prodigal Father and the Two Sons (ch. 21; or of the Wedding Banquet (ch. 22) ; Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness in Matthew ch. 21 followed by the Parable about the Unforgiving Servant).
In a Christian perspective, and I believe also in Judaism, keeping forgiveness connected to reconciliation and to “conversion of life” implies not simply a turning away from the sin or wrong done, but also a turning towards living responsibly towards the other in new relationship – reconciliation. Forgiveness, because it is pre-eminently a graced encounter invites us to accept the Other as also beloved by God and it orients us towards life in a pro-social way. The relational dynamic is crucial. While forgiveness does not require prior repentance, its defining moment bears an invitation and responsibility to move out beyond the boundaries of ego and isolation to live a reconciled life in community or society. Repentance is not so much a condition as a further gift opening one to the mysterious capacity for freedom and self-transcendence. Arguably, repentance and conversion are most critical to the inner unconditional freedom of the one who has perpetrated a wrong or been party to it. Hannah Arendt again is apt: Forgiving… is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”
Jürgen Moltmann reflecting on his experience as a German soldier, prisoner of war and on his own depth of guilt, speaks of the liberating power of visible vulnerable acknowledgement of the wrong he has been complicit it, rather than of repentance as a condition of forgiveness:
A person who thus admits his guilt and complicity renders himself defenseless, assailable and vulnerable. He stands there, muddied and weighed down. Everyone can point at him and despise him. But he becomes free of alienation and the determination of his actions by others; he comes to himself, and steps into the light of a truth which makes him free.
In the Gospel according to Luke, ch. 19, we meet Zaccheus a sinner and tax-collector whose, repentance and moral regeneration followed the grace of a new beginning experienced in his encounter and meal-sharing with Jesus. Another instance in the New Testament is in the Acts of the Apostles ch. 9 recounting the conversion of St Paul who had been slaughtering the followers of Jesus’s way. Even in that blinding moment on the Road to Damascus, he hears and encounters Christ and knows his sins are forgiven, Saul does not all at once experience reconciliation. This even is presented by the narrator as part of a dramatic sequence which involves the whole Christian community. Saul’s immediate experience is portrayed of being struck down, blinded and forgiven. But thereafter, that experience is amplified when he is welcomed by Ananias into the heart of the community. Reconciliation is the larger living context of forgiveness. Paul’s mission of reconciliation, of which he would speak so powerfully in his other letters find its foundational beginning here, but it does not end here (See for example, his classical statement in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 5, which sets out God’s gift and purpose for the world made known in Jesus Christ: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” This gift of reconciliation “while we were yet sinners”, Paul tells those who would follow in Christ’s footsteps, enables us too to become “ambassadors of reconciliation.
Hope is the horizon of forgiveness and reconciliation, for it is grounded in making the impossible possible real – that the human person is capable of change and of being changed in the very place where the hurt or sin imprisons all concerned – in the relationship of enmity. Under the horizon of hope memories of enmity can be find reconciliation. The hope within forgiveness does not presume prior repentance, but in its gratuitousness, it makes healing and new beginnings possible even though the pain and the wounds remain. Forgiveness if it is to be free and full must rest on truth, mercy and justice. The inscription above the government building in Rome – “Department of Mercy and Justice” bears witness to the fact that the opposite of one profound truth may be another profound truth, and they can and do coexist in peace.

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