Is forgiveness dependent upon our being sorry and showing remorse? When we do say sorry, is it primarily for the sake of the person we have wronged or is it for our sake?
At the Crucifixion, even as the nails were being driven in, Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’(Luke 23.34) In these words, Jesus exemplifies, in his death, his understanding of forgiveness. The way in which people die can summarise the way in which they live. Forgiving those who have wronged one is an act of freedom, a denial of victimhood: forgiving those who are killing one is the ultimate sign of freedom and liberation. If it is not possible to forgive until the perpetrator of evil confesses and shows remorse, then the person being wronged will still be under the control of the perpetrator and locked into victimhood. Jesus was never freer than when he was on the cross. Jesus’ action is the ultimate example of forgiveness when reconciliation was brought about between humanity and God. What is significant here is that the guilt and condemnation of those responsible is not a precondition for forgiveness. If they had known what they were doing, it would have been different, but Jesus did not ask for the repentance of those nailing him to the cross before uttering those words of forgiveness. Yet the way in which he showed forgiveness and compassion and embodied reconciliation elicited a response of wonder, amazement and faith:
When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ (Luke 23.47).
A remarkable example of a person praying for forgiveness even though there was no remorse is to be found in the Civil Rights’ Movement in the USA. In the 1960s, schools, which were for white children only, were desegregated. One black child, six year old Ruby Bridges, attended her school alone, escorted by police past angry white mobs. Ruby sat in a class-room all day with one teacher. American child psychiatrist Robert Coles came to know Ruby and he questioned her about a report from her teacher that the little girl’s lips were moving as she walked passed the baying white mob. When Coles asked Ruby what she was saying, she replied:
‘I was saying a prayer for them.’
‘Ruby, you pray for the people there?’
‘Why do you do that?’ ·
‘Because they need praying for.’
‘Why you especially?’
‘Because if you’re going through what they’re doing to you, you’re the one who should be praying for them.’
And then she quoted to me what she had heard in church. The minister said that Jesus went through a lot of trouble, and he said about the people who were causing the trouble, ‘Forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.’ And now little Ruby was saying this in the 1960s, about the people in the streets of New Orleans. How is someone like me supposed to understand that, psychologically or any other way?
Just as the sight of what the centurion saw and heard elicited a response of wonder, amazement and faith, so too seeing and hearing about Ruby elicited from Dr. Coles a response of wonder and amazement – faith too?
Another person who, using Jesus’ words of forgiveness on the cross, was able to transform the situation in which he found himself was Bishop Leonard Wilson of Singapore. Bishop Wilson was imprisoned during the time of the Japanese occupation and on 13th October 1946, he broadcast his story on the BBC:
I was interned in March, 1943, and sent to Changi jail. It is not my purpose to relate the tortures inflicted upon us, but rather to tell you some of the spiritual experiences of that ordeal. I knew that this was to be a challenge to my courage, my faith and my love.
I did not like to use the words ‘Father forgive them.’ It seemed to blasphemous to use our laws words; but I felt them, and I said, ‘Father, I know these men are doing their duty. Help them to see that I am innocent.’ When I muttered, ‘Forgive them’ I wondered how far I was being dramatic, and if I really meant it; because I looked at their faces as they stood round, taking it in turn to flog me, and their faces were hard and cruel, and some of them were evidently enjoying their cruelty. But, by the grace of God, I saw those men not as they were but as they had been. Once they were little children, with their brothers and sisters-happy in their parents love, in those far-off days before they had been conditioned by their false nationalist ideals. And it is hard to hate little children. So I saw them not as they were, but as they were capable of becoming, redeemed by the power of Christ, and I knew that I should say ‘Forgive.’
One of the similarities shared by the story of Ruby Bridges and Leonard Wilson is that the depth of their faith in God enabled them to offer forgiveness. Forgiveness becomes a political possibility for black Christians in the USA and for Leonard Wilson because of the depth of their faith in God. As will become apparent, forgiveness is not prominent in politics which means that politics alone will not enable a break-through when searching for reconciliation. Countries in which Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have had a reasonable success in bringing about reconciliation, namely South Africa and Sierra Leone, have not only had religious leaders in high profile positions on the Commissions, but they are also in countries where the Christian faith is widely practised and where the vocabulary of forgiveness will be known.
So, is remorse necessary for forgiveness? If this were the case, then those unable or unwilling to be remorseful would still hold those whom they have wronged in their power. Forgiveness is an act of liberation for all concerned. In the story of the All-loving Father (discussed in June’s extract), remorse and regret were essential for the younger son because he had realised that he had done wrong. It was necessary in order that the son could experience forgiveness, but the father’s forgiveness was not conditional upon the son’s remorse. But in the case of Jesus on the cross and Ruby Bridges’ facing the howling mobs, remorse was not necessary.
The same view is expressed in the final report of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission published in August 2007. In a similar spirit to the South African TRC, the Sierra Leone Commission was convened to help the country move forward after eleven years of bitter fighting. The Commission’s chairman, United Methodist Church Bishop Joseph Humper (note that a Christian leader was again, like Archbishop Tutu, asked to lead the task) wrote in his preface:
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. Where the act of forgiveness is genuine it does not matter whether the perpetrator declines to express remorse.
It is in the environment created by forgiveness that justice can be pursued. It may be easier for the person who has been wronged to hear words of remorse and repentance before offering forgiveness, but it is not necessary. Forgiveness can break the cycle of hatred, bitterness and resentment and open up new possibilities.
First image: 11 Station des Kreuzwegs in Zagorz bei Mariemont am Oslawa.
Adapted from my book, Reconciling One and All – God’s Gift to the World.