Personal view FioreIla Sultana de Maria
AHolocaust survivor tells the story of walking through the death camp shortly after its liberation. He stumbled upon the body of the Commandant, whom the other prisoners had murdered and horribly mutilated. Hardly an unjust death, brutal though it was, but this prisoner's reaction was quite different from that of his comrades.
As he looked down at his most bitter enemy, he found that he pitied him. The dead man had almost certainly died unre pentant, but in the act of forgiving, the victim regained some of the human dignity that his persecutor had tried to take from him.
It did not occur to me until quite recently that forgiveness was a controversial issue, but it is quite reasonable that it should be so. Christ's words of forgiveness from the Cross — so often quoted in this newspaper in recent weeks — are controversial, precisely because (at the risk of bringing an avalanche down on my head) it is difficult to argue that Christ's forgiveness was as conditional as we would like it to be.
The people who put Christ to death may have failed to understand the gravity of their sin —that they were putting the author of life to death — but on a basic level, they knew perfectly well what they were doing. Christ's murder was premeditated and deliberately cruel, it would have taken minimal intelligence for the soldiers concerned to work out that scourging a man, pressing thorns into his head and forcing nails through flesh and bone would inflict terrible pain upon their victim. 'We were just obeying orders' would have held as much water as it did at Nuremberg – the soldiers crowned him with thorns for their own entertainment and showed how sorry they were for putting him to death by sitting around and gambling
for his clothing.
Is it likely that what Christ actually meant was "Father forgive them, they know not what they do, but not those sadistic thugs down there who have tortured and humiliated me without rhyme or reason and couldn't care less"? What makes forgiveness so difficult is that it is fundamentally unjust. Why should a person have the benefit of forgiveness when they acted vindictively, cruelly and do not even feel remorse for what they have done?
But perhaps this is the wrong question. Instead of asking ourselves whether our adversary deserves forgiveness, we should perhaps be reminding our selves that we have a right to the freedom that forgiveness offers. To forgive a person is to let them go. It is to say, 'I will not define myself by your actions towards me. I will not allow you to have any power over me.'
Forgiveness may be unjust, but how are we to define the alternative — hatred? No matter how much more reasonable it may seem, how often does hatred ever punish the guilty party? It can only ever be a negative impulse and it has a nasty tendency to take on a life of its own. It is far more likely that an innocent party will become the target of transferred hatred rather than that the guilty person will suffer.
I cannot be the only person who has seen innocent German tourists insulted by elderly people who have never forgiven the soldiers of two generations ago who killed their loved ones, or a girl venting her anger on a younger brother because her abusive father was far beyond her reach.
What had these people done to deserve this treatment? Nothing, they were paying for some one else's crimes. The only hope was that, having become victims themselves, they would be able to forgive and thereby stop the spiral of hatred descending any further.
To suggest that hatred should be conquered through forgiveness is not to condemn anyone who struggles to do so (which would include most of us, I suspect). But is it really such a terrible act of abuse to suggest that forgiveness is worth striving for?