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.