Help with being able to forgive

It matters what we think about, what we meditate upon. In his 2005 book Love Alone is Credible, theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes "after a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child's smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child- the child awakens to love". In the same way, Balthasar continues, God interprets himself to us as love. "He radiates love, which kindles the light of love" in us. (Balthasar, 2004). In Balthasar's framework, which has been described as a framework of theological aesthetic, in order for goodness to be re-cognised, it must first be experienced.

Balthasar's reasoning reminds us that it matters what we experience in the world, and what we experience at the hands of others. Given that for many people what they experience of evil may be beyond their control, the next question is, what are we to do with the experience of violence oppression and evil? What response does Christianity ask us to make to the sometimes terrible things that others inflict on us?

My feeling is that the Church has been pretty good at emphasising what we are to do about the evil that we have done. The liturgy contains a version of the sacrament of reconciliation; an honest confession of our own sinfulness and an asking for forgiveness. When absolution is given we hear "God pardon you and set you free from all your sins", but what if we were not asking to be free from guilt but instead for healing; asking "how am I to be free from the effects of the sins of others?"

Initially we might say that our response to sin ought to be along the same line as God's;" just as God has forgiven us so we in turn ought to offer forgiveness to those who sin against us. We are to forgive"

But forgiving others is much easier said than done. What is needed is deeper analysis of how forgiveness works so as to be better informed about how we might truly forgive those who sin against us.

What does our culture do in response to sin? One cultural response can be seen in the saying "we rehearse the lessons of history, or else we are destined to repeat them". But does this really work? I don't mean to contradict this statement entirely, just to hold it up to the light of critical enquiry for a bit. For instance, this year is the centenary year of the outbreak of World War One, the "Great War to end all wars". On Anzac day we say "lest we forget" and solemnly vow to keep the memory of the futile carnage of the First World War trenches alive and yet how many wars and how much bloodshed has there been in the twentieth century and now the twenty first century that followed?

My supervisor went, on one of his many study trips to Germany, to one of the sites of a former Nazi death camp. He was taken on the usual guided tour and shown the terrible ovens, the lists of names, the collections of belongings of the victims etc. etc. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something that made him stop and think. A team of people concerned with the operation of the site as a tourist facility were re-stringing a perimeter fence with fresh razor wire. The old razor wire from the World War Two era had rusted away, and in order to keep the memory alive, these people were fitting out the fence with fresh wire.

Time and the elements, the rusting process, had begun to break down the wires on this monument to captivity, slaughter and evil. In a surreal sequence survivor's families and friends were working to put them up again.

I think that time is an incredibly important dimension to consider when we think about how forgiveness works. It seems that the greater the trauma inflicted, the more heinous the evil that is done, the longer the period of time that will be required for forgiveness to be even possible. We cannot expect survivors of incredible violence to forgive the very next day. They will be traumatised. A critical question might be "how does a Christian articulation of the requirement to forgive give an account of real trauma?"

Many modern accounts of forgiveness owe much to the work of Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752). Traditionally he is cited as having preached that forgiveness demands that we forswear or overcome negative feelings of resentment towards our wrongdoers, however, Ernesto V. Garcia in his 2011 article argues, convincingly in my view," that for Butler forgiveness is rather forswearing revenge, and then managing resentment. (Garcia, 2011, p. 1-2)". I am persuaded by the feasibility of such a model of forgiveness. It is an envisioning of forgiveness that Christians, who are also real human beings, can actually live with. Among other things it allows for the reality of persisting resentments, whilst providing for their diminution over time. If we had enough time, a line of reasoning might run, even the greatest resentments might be diminished and eventually forgotten. Which brings us to another popular saying: "I can forgive, but I can never forget".

Is it really possible, we might ask, to forgive without, at least to a partial extent, forgetting?