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Forgiving, Both Active and Passive

April 19, 1998|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty is a professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago and senior editor of the Christian Century magazine. He directs the Public Religion Project, a nonprofit group analyzing the role of religion in public life

The precarious Northern Ireland agreement has an uncertain future. Its success will depend largely on the forgiving acts of people labeled Republican or Unionist, Catholic or Protestant. The choice before them seems simple. They may forgive and follow up the act with consequences, which means beginning the long process of finding peace and enjoying productive lives. Or they can continue to act on the basis of anger and the impulse to wreak revenge.

Forgiving in such circumstances is not forgetting; the aggrieved and raging partisans cannot forget their wounds even if they try. If they feel wronged, as they do, they will not let wrongdoers off the hook and excuse them with a "never mind!" The mind, conscience and emotions do not work that way. They are wrenched by the temptation to hold on to their instinct for revenge, but they do not give in to it. The South African reconcilers do want to hold the guilty responsible for their evils. They will not let the experience and recall of evil have the last word.

Their kind of forgiveness also occurs in one-to-one relations. When, a few years ago, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago met with a young man who had falsely accused him of terrible acts, or when Pope John Paul II met the man who had almost succeeded in killing him, they both forgave. In no case did they contribute to a world in which everything is allowed. In both traumas, they had suffered terrible wounds, in the pope's case, of a physical sort that must have hurt almost as much as Bernardin's psychic wounds. These Catholic leaders were not wiping a slate clean or softly excusing people. They were actively, willfully, turning their natural impulse to store up rage into gifts that showed their self-respect and that were liberating for themselves and their wrongdoers. They would say they could act and will this because God was their forgiver, their model.

Did Pope John Paul and the Vatican come sufficiently clean with their regrets about Catholic passivity in the face of the Holocaust? And who today is qualified to give forgiveness to the descendants of enslavers and those who stood by while death camps operated? Does talk about apology and forgiveness on such terms cheapen the transactions and do any kind of justice to circumstances?

Merely to mention God does not solve all the questions about human forgiving. Not every leader who is called Christian embodies the Good Friday theme "Father, forgive . . . " In Northern Ireland, Protestant fundamentalist Ian Paisley stays in the news, stirring up his Democratic Unionist Party in the name of a different God than the forgiving one, preaching: "God will turn back the enemy and we will be delivered in this matter. We have a weapon our enemy knows nothing about, the power of believing, and God will turn the tide." The enemy here is not only the hated Catholic but anyone who helped propose peace. Archbishop Robin Eames, who heads the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, pronounced a verdict on Paisley: "All he has done is to destroy and destroy."

Whether forgiveness is expensive, as in the Northern Ireland case, or inexpensive, in Americans' acquiescence in a situation where they say to accusers of their president, "Let's get on with it," they at least show that they are postponing their need to deal with the fabric of a society torn by wrongdoing. Meantime, they are no longer busy keeping accounts, nourishing grudges, remaining victims or fueling their furies. By giving the gift of forgiveness, whether dearly or cheaply, they become truly free. While others destroy and destroy, the forgivers create something new.

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