Forgiveness is a very difficult matter. Many varieties of behaviour go by that name, and not all of them are admirable. There is the kind that says: “I forgive her as a Christian, but I shall never speak to her again.” This is adequately dealt with by the caustic definition: ‘‘Christian forgiveness, which is no forgiveness at all,” and need not be discussed, any more than the self-interest of those who:
Drink the champagne that she sends them
But they never can forget.
There is also the priggish variety, which greets persecution with the ostentatious announcement, “I forgive you, Jones, and I will pray for you.” This, though it can base itself strongly on ethical and Scriptural sanction, shares with pacifism the serious practical disadvantage of so inflaming the evil passions of Jones that if the injured party had malignantly determined to drive Jones to the devil he could scarcely have hit upon a surer way. There is the conditional: “I will forgive you on condition you say you are sorry and never do it again.” That has about it something which smacks too much of a legal bargain, and we are forced to remember that no man is so free from trespass himself that he can afford to insist on conditions. Only God is in a position to do that; and we recall the Catholic teaching that confession, contrition and amendment are the necessary conditions of absolution. But if we assert that Divine forgiveness is of this bargaining kind, we meet with a thundering denial from poet and prophet and from God Himself;
Doth Jehovah forgive a debt only on condition that it shall
Be payed? Doth he forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity?
That Debt is not forgiven! That Pollution is not forgiven!
Such is the forgiveness of the gods the moral virtues of the
Heathen whose tender mercies are cruelty. But Jehovah’s salvation
Is without money and without price in the continual forgiveness of sins.
In the perpetual mutual sacrifice in great eternity. For behold!
There is none that liveth and sinneth not! And this is the covenant
Of Jehovah. If you forgive one another, so shall Jehovah forgive you
That He Himself may dwell among you. William Blake, Jerusalem
God’s conditions, it appears, are of another kind. There is nothing about demanding repentance and restitution or promises not to offend again; we must forgive unconditionally if we hope to be forgiven ourselves: ‘‘as we forgive our debtors” — “unto seventy times seven.”
The whole teaching of the New Testament about forgiveness is haunted by paradox and enigma, and cannot be summed up in any phrase about simple kindliness. “Whether is easier: to say Thy sins be forgiven thee or to say Arise and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins (then saith He to the sick of the palsy) Arise, take up thy bed and go.” The irony is so profound that we are not certain which way to take it, “Do you think forgiveness is something glib and simple? To be sure — it is just as simple as this. Does it seem to you formidably difficult? To be sure, so is this — but you see it can be done.” Whereat, according to St. Luke, everybody, though pleased, was a little alarmed and thought it a very odd business.
It may be easier to understand what forgiveness is, if we first clear away misconceptions about what it does. It does not wipe out the consequences of the sin. The words and images used for forgiveness in the New Testament frequently have to do with the cancellation of a debt: and it is scarcely necessary to point out that when a debt is cancelled, this does not mean that the money is miraculously restored from nowhere. It means only that the obligation originally due from the borrower is voluntarily discharged by the lender. If I injure you and you mulct me in damages, then I bear the consequences; if you forbear to prosecute, then you bear the consequences. If the injury is irreparable, and you are vindictive, injury is added to injury; if you are forgiving and I am repentant, then we share the consequences and gain a friendship. But in every case the consequences are borne by somebody. The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant adds a further illuminating suggestion: that forgiveness is not merely a mutual act, but a social act. If injuries are not forgiven all round, the grace of pardon is made ineffective, and the inexorable judgment of the Law is forced into operation.
One thing emerges from all this: that forgiveness is not a doing away of consequences; nor is it primarily a remission of punishment. A child may be forgiven and “let off” punishment, or punished and then forgiven; either way may bring good results. But no good will come of leaving him unpunished and unforgiven. Forgiveness is the re-establishment of a right relationship, in which the parties can genuinely feel and behave as freely with one another as though the unhappy incident had never taken place. But it is impossible to enjoy a right relationship with an offender who, when pardoned, continues to behave in an obdurate and unsocial manner to the injured party and to those whom he has injured, because there is something in him that obstructs the relationship. So that, while God does not, and man dare not, demand repentance as a condition for bestowing pardon, repentance remains an essential condition for receiving it. Hence the Church’s twofold insistence — first that repentance is necessary, and secondly that all sin is pardoned instantly in the mere fact of the sinner’s repentance. Nobody has to sit about being humiliated in the outer office while God despatches important business, before condescending to issue a stamped official discharge accompanied by an improving lecture. Like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God can see repentance coming a great way off and is there to meet it, and the repentance is the reconciliation.
If God does not stand upon His dignity with penitent sinners, still less, one would suppose, should we. But then, God is not inhibited, as we are, by unrepented sins of His own. It is when the injuries have been mutual that forgiveness becomes so complicated, since, as La Rochefoucauld truly observes, it is very difficult to forgive those whom we have injured. The only fruitful line of thought to follow is, I think, to bear in mind that forgiveness has no necessary concern with payment or non-payment of repara tions; its aim is the establishment of a free relationship. This aim is in no way advanced by mutual recrimination, or by the drawing up of a detailed account to ascertain which side, on balance, is the more aggrieved party. If both were equally and immediately repentant, forgiveness — mutual and instantaneous — would be the right relationship.
But are there not crimes which are unforgivable or which we, at any rate, find we cannot bring ourselves to forgive? At the present moment, that is a question which we are bound to ask ourselves. And it is here, especially, that we must make a great effort to clear our minds of clutter. The issue is not really affected by arguments about who began first, or whether bombs or blockade are the more legitimate weapon to use against women and children, or whether a civilian is a military objective; nor need we object that no amount of forgiveness will do away with the consequences of the crimes — since we have already seen that forgiveness is not incompatible with consequence. The real question is this: When the war comes to an end, is there going to be anything in our minds, or in the minds of the enemy, that will prevent the re-establishment of a right relationship? That relationship need not necessarily be one of equal power on either side, and it need not exclude proper preventive measures against a renewal of the conflict — those considerations are again irrelevant. Are there any crimes that in themselves make forgiveness and right relations impossible?
If we again look at the New Testament, we shall find that what some people, with unconscious sarcasm, persist in calling ‘The simple Gospel” presents us, as usual, with a monstrous and shattering paradox. The most spectacular sin recorded there is the deliberate murder of God; and it is forgiven on the grounds that “they know not what they do.” Is ignorance, then, an excuse? Can a man qualify for Heaven by pleading that he cannot tell right from wrong? Is not that the most damning of all disabilities — the final blasphemy that “shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, nor in the world to come”? Here is a distinction drawn like a sword at a point which we can scarcely see on the map.
Or perhaps the dividing line is clear enough, after all. The soldiers who crucified God had not, it is true, the heroic imagination that could see beyond their plain military duty to the eternal verities. But there was nothing in their ignorant hearts impenetrable to light. To such dim glimpses as they had, they seem to have responded. One ran for the hyssop; another said: “Indeed, there was something divine about this criminal.” Forgiveness might work here and find no obstruction. But those others — all of them highly respectable people — had seen the healing power of God blaze in their eyes like the sun; they looked it full in the face, and said that it was the devil. This is the ultimate corruption that leaves no place for pardon; “I have so hardened my heart” (said the man in the iron cage) “that I cannot repent.”
I do not know that we are in any position to judge our neighbours. But let us suppose that we ourselves are free from this corruption (are we?) and that we are ready to greet repentance with open arms and re-establish with our enemies a relationship in which bid wrongs are as though they had never been. What are we to do with those who cannot accept pardon when it is offered? And with those who have been corrupted from the cradle? Here, if anywhere, is the unforgivable — not in murdered citizens, ruined homes, broken churches, fire, sword, famine, pestilence, tortures, concentration camps, but in the corruption of a whole generation, brought up to take a devil of destruction for the God of creation and to dedicate their noblest powers to the worship of that savage altar. If for the guilty there remains only the judgment of the millstone and the deep sea, we still have to ask ourselves: What are we to do with these innocents?
For whether is easier: To say. Thy sins be forgiven theel. Or to say, Arise and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins (then saith He to the warped mind, the frozen brain, the starved heart, the stunted and paralysed soul) Arise take up thy bed and go to thy home.
No: forgiveness is a difficult matter, and no man living is wholly innocent or wholly guilty. We, as a nation, are not very ready to harbour resentment, and sometimes this means that we forget without forgiving — that is, without ever really understanding either our enemy or ourselves. This time, we feel, forgetfulness will not be possible. If that is so and we make up our minds that no right relationship will ever be possible either, I do not quite see to what end we can look forward.