The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 16th, 2006

Forgiveness is an inhuman quality

‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” In the most important prayer in Christendom, the Lord’s Prayer, there are only seven requests and that is one of them. Forgiveness is central to Christianity (it is important in other faiths, too). Christians are taught that Christ sacrificed himself on the cross on Good Friday so that they might be forgiven for their sins and that they in turn, in the imitation of Christ, must forgive others. I was taught this myself as a child and I always found it incomprehensible.
I could imagine, just about, that God in his mysterious way, if he existed, could forgive whatever he chose, but I could not understand the meaning of human forgiveness, at least not in extreme cases. Forgiveness may be divine but I don’t think it is human. To me it seems either pointless or meaningless.

Holy Week is a time when traditionally the Christian world, and even heathen Anglicans like me, reflect on forgiveness. But it has been a bad week for it this year. The trial of terrorist conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui in Virginia has reminded everyone of the deliberate, orchestrated atrocities of September 11, 2001; the recording of the last minutes of the victims of flight 93 was played in court last week and must have sickened anyone who heard it or read the transcripts.

Equally disturbing is Moussaoui’s cold, contemptuous lack of remorse. “We want to inflict pain on your country,” he told the American court. “You are the head of the snake for me. If we want to destroy the Jewish state of Palestine, we have to destroy you first.” What can forgiveness mean here?

A member of one of the bereaved American families was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme and tried valiantly not to express his personal feelings about what should happen to Moussaoui, but in the end he could not restrain himself. He admitted that he would love to have some time alone in a room with Moussaoui; forgiveness was not apparently foremost in his mind.

Also last week an English woman vicar, whose daughter Jenny was killed in the London massacres of July 7 last year, spoke about her inability to forgive her child’s murderers. In fact, the Rev Julie Nicholson recently relinquished her parish duties in Bristol because she cannot reconcile her feelings with central Christian teachings on forgiveness. She cannot forgive the killers, nor does she want to.

She spoke of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan says, “I do not want the mother to embrace the torturer who tore her son to pieces with dogs! Let her not dare to forgive him! If she wants, she may forgive him on her account . . . for her limitless maternal suffering; but as for the suffering of her dismembered child, those she has no right to forgive, she dare not forgive his torturer, even if her child himself forgave him.” There are some acts, Julie Nicholson said, “which are humanly unforgivable, and rightly so”. I feel the same.

If someone dashed my baby’s brains against the wall, laughing, or cut my children’s arms off, I would think my forgiveness completely irrelevant. I might come to understand why it happened, I might come to terms with it somehow, I might put aside any feelings of vengeance. But either the wrongdoers could not really help what they were doing — they were themselves the victims of terror, superstition, abuse or madness and were not fully responsible for their actions — or else they were fully responsible and did it anyway. Forgiveness doesn’t seem to me to apply.

If somebody is not fully responsible for his actions, then by definition he is not fully answerable for what he does. And then also by definition he can never truly be either blamed or forgiven. That’s why in English law there is an idea of diminished responsibility, usually because of mental illness. In such cases the wrongdoer pleads not guilty, though admitting his actions; it follows that if he is not “guilty”, he can hardly be forgiven. You might as well forgive a cat for idly tormenting a bird. As Jesus said at his crucifixion, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Presumably, though no doubt theologians will disagree, this means that if they had known what they were doing Jesus would not have prayed for them to be forgiven.

There is a curious quirk in contemporary thinking about such things, with people supposed to have personality disorders. They are more likely than others to do things which are mad or bad or dangerous, but they are not considered mad because they are not considered treatable. Many, many people in prison fall into this category and they are at high risk of committing serious crimes.

He does what he does, tragically, because of the way he is. And that, equally tragically, is true of the rest of us to some degree. In western culture we start from a belief that we are all equally morally responsible, but while that might be a noble and useful idea it is not, unfortunately, true. We are not. It’s obvious from looking no further than one’s own extended family that some people are pretty much in the driving seat of their lives; others much less so and some hardly at all.

We are all formed by complex interactions of nature and nurture, which science is only barely beginning to understand; our aptitudes are inherited, our infant brains are rewired by our experiences, particularly traumatic ones, our behaviour is moulded by culture and habit, good and bad. This view is often ridiculed as crude determinism, but I think it is neither crude nor easy to refute.

Forgiveness has always been seen in our culture as a most noble, generous-hearted virtue and I don’t underestimate the courage and magnanimity of those who are able to forgive others for terrible wrongs. And I can understand forgiveness as a social construct; personal vengeance and vendetta cannot be allowed in a civilised society and forgiveness has no doubt developed as an antidote to the toxins of revenge.

But withholding forgiveness is not necessarily the same as demanding revenge. I do not think Moussaoui should be mistreated or executed, because I think both are wrong and bad for the executioners. But I do not think it is for me or for anyone else on earth to forgive him.