The word ‘forgiveness’ is in vogue among psychiatrists, social and pastoral workers, and liberal philosophers, yet forgiveness remains unpopular where it could most make a difference – in matters of crime and punishment, war and peace, and relations between communities that hate each other. In Hollywood films and US presidential speeches, in the dominant rhetoric of law and order and the voices of victims as transmitted by the media, it is vengeance that carries all the glamour. Forgiveness belongs to the shabby world of wimps and losers. Even fundamentalist Christians who make much of forgiveness will confine it to their private negotiations with the Lord about sexual peccadilloes. We hear good things about reconciliation in South Africa or even in the genocide zones of Burundi. Closer at hand we see how glacially slow the pace of such a process is in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, to talk of forgiveness or reconciliation – between Israelis and Palestinians, for example – is so premature that it would amount to spitting in the wind.
Apart from the difficulty of “selling” an ideology of forgiveness, there are stubborn moral objections to forgiving outrageous crimes. Victims remember, but offenders blithely forget. To recommend forgiveness to the victim can easily become a way of confirming the offender’s convenient self-absolution. Constructing a culture of forgiveness must begin with a full understanding of the difficulties of forgiving another person. Yet despite these difficulties, the spiritual wisdom of both Buddhism and Christianity issues in a clear imperative. To refuse to forgive, is to refuse that wisdom. Forgiveness is a supreme enactment of Buddhist and Christian vision, a way to give practical embodiment to these faiths.
Dialogue with Richard Holloway
Bishop Richard Holloway brings a seasoned and sceptical mindset to his advocacy of forgiveness, and this may recommend it to those who are suspicious of facile edification. However, his scepticism goes so far that he is in danger of cutting off the branch on which he is sitting:
Like the rocket that has to fall away when it has established its satellite in space, religion has thrust its best values into the human orbit where we hope they will continue to do their work long after the vehicle that got them there has disappeared. What happens to the launch engine is not as important as the future of the ideals it has carried, though there will be some sadness as we see it disintegrating now that its purpose has been achieved. This approach continues to accord a high value to the impulse behind religion, though it no longer takes any of the particular religions at their own self-estimation.
In the Christian vision, forgiveness is more than a question of ‘values’ or ‘ideals’. It is an action made possible only by grace. We are able to forgive because God in Christ has first forgiven us. Coming from an Anglican churchman, Holloway’s reduction of religions to a formless ‘impulse’ sounds like armchair radicalism, the comfortable donnish idea that it really does not matter what one says. Perhaps it is best seen as a misstatement of a truth that might more positively be expressed as the mutual tempering and circumscribing of the claims of individual religions as they enter a situation of dialogue with one another. Christianity is humbled, even relativized, in dialogue with Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, but rather than disappear as a religion, it becomes more authentic, restored to its biblical roots and purged of delusive metaphysical excrescences. What should emerge more clearly from this is the foundational Christian experience of being forgiven, of receiving the gift of forgiveness from a gracious God – a gift concretized in the teaching of Jesus and his death for sinners.
I prefer to Holloway’s rocket image the gospel metaphor of the seed that falls in the ground and dies to produce an abundant harvest. The ‘impulse’ behind religion is nothing less that the powerful dynamism of the cosmos itself, coming to consciousness of the mystery at its core. That impulse may melt or shatter the frozen forms of established religions, but in doing so it may release their dormant core vision. The Gospel, and the Church as well, are attuned to the dynamics of creation at a level beyond the archaic representations of Scripture and the decaying structures of clericalism. If they ‘will not pass away’ (Mt. 25), it is because the living reality they attest to cannot pass away. The cancer of fundamentalism and the firestorm of rage that abusive churches have kindled may depress the potency of Scripture and tradition for the moment, forcing religious seekers into wayward paths. But hope is growing on the fringes, notably in the interreligious encounters in which Christianity may be receiving the charter of its future role. The theme of forgiveness is one that least of all spells the end of religion. All religions have talked of forgiveness, and if that theme at last becomes a vital one, a matter of urgent necessity, then this surely should galvanize what is best in the religions, advance their cooperation, and accelerate their liberation from dysfunctional traditions.
Holloway insists that the Bible is not a blueprint, and points out that every effort to make it one has had lethal effects. The Bible is to be used, creatively and imaginatively, in response to the unscripted conditions of the present. ‘There are honestly different ways of using and understanding religious narratives. What is important is to use them to improve rather than damage the health of the human community. We are more likely to agree on that objective than on establishing their precise theological meaning’.
To say or do something only ‘because the Bible tells me so’ or ‘because the Pope tells me so’, with no further reflection, is irresponsible. The context of one’s choices and actions must always be taken into account, and the Church as a whole must never stop reading ‘the signs of the times’. What we choose to accentuate in our rehearsing of biblical or magisterial pronouncements is always oriented by some conscious or unconscious purpose. À la carte selectivity is unavoidable. All the more needful then to develop a wider culture of sensitivity to the healing potential of religion, in order to choose correctly and apply skilfully the various items in its medicine-chest. If our own outlook is diseased we may use the Church’s medicines to spread disease. If we misinterpret the symptoms of those we would help, we may give them new sicknesses by forcing unsuitable medicines upon them. Nor is everything in biblical and church tradition necessarily wholesome. A healing of tradition has to go on as well.
Bishop Holloway is quick, perhaps too quick, to recognize the limits of what can be expected of human nature:
We do not have the right to order people to act in ways of which they are incapable, such as commanding them to forgive. The justice and revenge impulses are strong in us and seem to be intrinsic to our humanity… We ought to acknowledge that a primitive kind of moral coherence is in operation there… One of the difficulties with offering an appropriate moral judgment on the current war on terrorism is the recognition that, whether we thought it was the wisest thing to do in the long run, it was impossible for the USA not to offer some kind of response in kind to the original outrage against Manhattan and the Pentagon.
On that last point, it should be noted that the kind of ‘response’ a nation offers to aggression testifies to the nature of its political and religious culture, and that citizens can be educated in the art of finding appropriate responses. A military rather than a police response to terrorism was dictated by US traditions rather than by impulses intrinsic to being human. A political culture educates primitive impulses, channelling them for constructive use.
Rowan Williams, who was near the World Trade Centre on that historic morning, said on the following day that ‘we are not forced to act in revengeful ways, holding up a mirror to the terrible acts done to us. If we do act in the same way as our enemies, we imprison ourselves in their anger, their evil. And we fail to show our belief in the living God who always requires of us justice and goodness’ (Archbishop of Canterbury website). Speaking to Muslims in Cairo he added: ‘So whenever a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew refuses to act in violent revenge, creating terror and threatening or killing the innocent, that person bears witness to the true God… The believer says, My safety is with God, whose justice can never be defeated. If I defend myself, I seek to do so only in a way that honours God and God’s image in others, and that does not offend against God’s justice’.
It may be said that we are ‘forced to act in revengeful ways’, if that is the only response that politicians can sell to their electorate. Many had doubts about the Afghanistan war, America’s first major response to 9/11, but they felt that they needed to cut the USA some slack, that it had to give some belligerent expression to its understandable anger. As the Bush administration exploited this anger for the further aggression against Iraq, it presented that as a truly Christian response, as administering the Almighty’s gift of freedom to the Arab world, instead of repaying evil with evil. What gave momentum and popularity to this, however, was an underlying dynamic of taking revenge. A substantial Christian response had failed to materialize.
Is it hopelessly idealistic to imagine that a nation need not have reacted like this? That their press and their government could have educated them in a wiser and more decent response? One need only look at other nations to see that the American response is not based on some invariable trait of human nature. Spain has offered no response, at least no response in kind, to the outrage in Madrid on March 11, 2004. Countries bombed or invaded by the USA, such as Laos or Panama, have offered no response, having no power to respond. If it is impossible for the USA to refrain from such a response, namely from repaying mass slaughter with mass slaughter, then that is because the USA is so heavily armed that it itches to use those arms to solve its problems, even when a military action is inappropriate. Also, the moral culture of the USA primes it for reactions of revenge, and its inexperience with terrorism leaves it wide open to the projections of a ‘war on terror’ that more experienced nations would embark on with more misgivings.
Holloway believes that ‘it makes no sense to command people to forgive’, yet such a command may be a blessing for those who hear it, saving them from actions of which they will later be deeply ashamed. Holloway thinks that ‘there are clearly situations where every instinct of justice commands us not to forgive’. In that case, the commandment to forgive frees us from being prisoners of those instincts of justice, frees us from the Law. Does justice ever in reality command us not to forgive? Are there such things as ‘instincts of justice’? Perhaps justice is always established only when we take a critical distance from our instincts. What most corrupts institutions of justice may be emotive appeals to instincts of revenge and condemnation, or a general reduction of justice to the level of soap opera.
Holloway continues: ‘Nevertheless, when true forgiveness happens it is one of the most astonishing and liberating of the human experiences. The tragedy of the many ways we trespass upon each other is that we can damage people so deeply that we rob them of the future by stopping the movement of their lives at the moment of the injury, which continues to send out shock-waves of pain that swamp their whole existence’. The Gospel imperative to forgive, however, serves precisely to enable such astonishing and liberating experiences. To undercut their authority is to reduce forgiveness to a spontaneous and inexplicable self-healing. The command to forgive is not just a gentle counsel; it comes from the same depth of reality as the command, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Often Gospel commands are read as paralysing, depressing, guilt-inducing impossible binds. They must be reread as liberating words, encouraging us to move on and not to be trapped by a dead past. They implicitly direct us to a radical dependence on divine grace for their fulfilment. ‘Find the strength to forgive within yourself’ may be bad advice, side-stepping this openness to grace. It may be better to say, ‘await the situation that unlocks the barrier to forgiveness and allows bitterness to drop away as a dead thing’.
Jeffrie G. Murphy argues that ‘vindictiveness and vengeance possess some positive value’. ‘What Nietzsche really argues is that vindictiveness (what he calls ressentiment) will poison if repressed; and this is as much an argument in favour of expressing our vindictiveness in acts of revenge as it is an argument for the elimination of vindictiveness’. This misses the negative connotations of the word ‘vindictive’, which always entails a poisonous excess. And is it a correct reading of Nietzsche? Nietzsche has to be read with an eye for the constructive potential of his thought. If one tries to build a morality on his testier obiter dicta one will come to grief. I think of him as a very forgiving man, who would see inability to forgive as the sign of a weakling. He wrote that strong natures have ‘the power to grow uniquely from within, to transform and incorporate the past and the unknown, to heal wounds, to replace what is lost, and to duplicate shattered structures from within… There are people so lacking this energy that they bleed to death, as if from a tiny scratch, after a single incident, a single pain, and often in particular a single minor injustice’. Such strong natures are hardly interested in expressing vindictiveness in acts of revenge. Getting your own back, satisfying vanity, gung-ho war spirit, have a place in sports, perhaps, or in political or professional rivalries, where they can remain confined within the game-like sphere of their application, not allowed to linger and fester – it’s what is called sportsmanship. But in handling situations of interpersonal or social conflict they do not provide a good orientation for ethical action, and should be curbed or defused.
Perhaps it would often be counter-productive to command forgiveness to someone in the immediate throes of grief or rage. But the Gospel nonetheless commands it in the sternest terms. And even where forgiveness is not commanded, at least vengeance can be forbidden. The sign of civilization is that if someone rapes and tortures my next of kin I do not go and do the same to his. Responding in kind is not the function of law and justice, but a compromise with savagery. It was an excellent pedagogic gesture of the Vatican to place The Count of Monte Cristo on the Index of Forbidden Books on the grounds that it glorified revenge. The glorification of revenge in American law and as a motive in warfare has borne bitter fruit. And a chronic failure to forgive, such as we see in Northern Ireland, can also be seen as a sin against the divine will, even if individual cases can be understood. The word ‘unconditional’ in the following sentence seems defeatist: ‘We have to say an unconditional yes to the inability to forgive; indeed, we may have to go further and acknowledge the appropriate moral force of the refusal to forgive and the sense of revulsion that the very thought of forgiveness induces in the victim’. We cannot be unconditional about an inability that can be overcome with time. Present resolutions of undying hate may yield to another perspective after a while. The worst crimes have been forgiven when the victim has met the perpetrator, who himself may have changed in the interval. ‘I cannot forgive’ is a declaration that lends itself to deconstruction. Tease at it a while and you will find at its core the resolve, ‘I will not forgive’. But grace can create the power of forgiveness. So the correct translation of the sentiment is, ‘Teach me to forgive.’
In 1961 Jomo Kenyatta urged Kenyans to forgive and forget the horrors perpetrated by the British in their struggle to put down the Mau Mau rebels, with the result that they were written out of history until resurfacing in recent books and law-cases. ‘For the sake of unity, Kenya’s leaders (which included many British loyalists) chose to bury the truth about the assault on Mau Mau, the methods used and the people ultimately responsible for the movement's violent suppression. Given history’s tendency to repeat itself, one must question the wisdom of such a path – then, and now’. Yes, there is a duty to remember, if only to prevent the crime from being committed again. But does this mean that ‘the refusal to forgive can be the righteous thing to do, the thing that justice commands’? The phrase ‘truth and reconciliation’ gets the balance of the two duties right. The truth must be exposed, but with a view to working toward reconciliation. There is a difference between, ‘I cannot forgive you, yet’ and ‘I will not forgive you, ever’. The latter statement presupposes that the criminal will never repent, and freezes the victim, too, in a stance of eternal resentment. If a refusal of forgiveness can sometimes be a prophetic gesture, as Holloway rather plausibly suggests, it cannot be the last word, ever, especially if we are trying to attune our acts and attitudes to the divine perspective, that despairs of none.
The idea of a righteous refusal to forgive can in any case apply only in extreme cases of unrepented criminal malice. In the give and take of everyday life, it is a notion better left on the shelf. As Bill Clinton discovered, ‘if we are not prepared to forgive those who have trespassed against us, then the time will surely come when we ourselves will be denied the forgiveness we need’. There is a sternness in the commandment to forgive that signals the qualities of steel needed to enact it. It is not a soft yielding, but a capacity to keep ultimate values in view even in the midst of one’s personal hurt. If pardon of a grave injury is a slow growth, prepared by gradual changes in the depths of the unconscious, there are countless lighter injuries which should be pardoned immediately and not allowed to take root at all.
Even if forgiveness is not practised in obedience to divine commands, it can recommend itself for purely pragmatic reasons, like confession, apology, and compensation, as ‘an attempt to impose some kind of order and rationality on the chaos our conduct has created… confession may change the psychological reaction of the victim to the event and interrupt the expected sequence of revenge’. Forgiveness is recommended by common sense, and should be instilled by education.
Hannah Arendt counsels us to ‘focus not on the act or the trespass, but on the person who committed it, because forgiveness is always of individuals, never of actions’. We cannot forgive the monstrous acts of Eichmann, and it revolts our instincts of justice to imagine forgiving them. But the man and the acts can be distinguished, and the man can repent of his acts, or can be taken in charge for rehabilitation even if he is incapable of repentance.
Talk of punishment has no place in a vision that wants to undo the sources of pain: ‘Instead of laboriously working out the exact and proportionate revenge that is someone’s due, we should refuse to get involved in the punishment process at all’. The refusal to punish has often been the act by which rulers most winningly manifested their sovereignty. Only divine grace offers us ‘pure or absolute forgiveness’, but politicians may mimic it in royal or gubernatorial pardons, gestures of clemency. Edmund Burke knew this: ‘Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom’. For all these ideals, we must resign ourselves on many occasions to a residue of past trauma that cannot be wiped out: ‘none of it can be undone, nor can it be appropriately avenged or made sense of’. But even on this we can bring to bear the wisdom of the forgiving spirit, a wisdom that should permeate even the historical textbooks that shape children’s attitudes.
Our reflections on forgiveness have again brought us close to Buddhism, which cultivates a cool, critical distance from impulse and instinct, in order to get at the roots of suffering and heal it. Once again I should like to trawl through some Buddhist literature, searching not only for grains of insight such as Hannah Arendt or Bishop Holloway might equally well provide, but also for a more systematic clarification of the message of forgiveness that can underpin and fill out what we have learned from Christian and philosophical tradition.
Much of the Buddhist lore is bound to be irrelevant, but it has at least the merit of the unfamiliar. The rhetoric of Christianity has staled through over-use. A saturation point has been reached, ensuring diminished returns on any further use of this language unless it is renewed by a shift in perspective. Such a shift is favoured by the unflappable logic of Buddhism, and its provision of new words and categories for handling the old issues. Buddhist meditation and analysis corrects blind spots in the Christian tradition. The latter’s Platonic frameworks of thought were a source of psychological obtuseness as well as of insight; and even the Bible can produce venom and fanaticism as well as moral wisdom. We reach out for the Buddhist medicine and accept it with relief and gratitude, as a sick person gratefully drinks the funny-tasting potion that will restore lost health.
Talk of forgiveness and reconciliation has fallen on jaded ears as a facile, predictable, even noxious moralizing. Buddhism might seem to offer only a new coating of vacuous, ineffective talk – a milk and honey solution to a bread and water problem. But Buddhism has explicitly set out to find a practical method for dealing with entrenched attitudes of fear and hatred, a method based on probing analysis. The analysis would be impotent if it were merely speculative. But Buddhist analysis is for immediate practical application, in mindful correction of one’s own unwholesome attitudes. Meditative analysis already begins the overcoming of these and plants the seeds of more wholesome dispositions. It is a matter of practical urgency to learn whatever we can from this tradition, given that our planet is being torn apart by fear and hatred. In addition, the study of Buddhism can reanimate our spiritual and religious culture at a time when the inspiration of conventional Christianity seems to be at a low ebb. Buddhist therapy aims to be precisely tailored to the ailments it would address. Christian language needs to find the same precise functionality, in a sober adjustment of its words to concrete situations of human need. For such a reform, a cool gaze from the outside is required, and Buddhism is the most constructive and enlightening of such external perspectives.
The topic of forgiveness may seem at first sight remote from the concerns of Buddhism. Buddhism does not conceive ultimate truth or reality in the guise of a personal God. Its conceptions of error and defilement do not readily translate into the biblical categories of sin and guilt. The Buddhist solution to unwholesome dispositions is to overcome them by following the path that leads to release; acts of pardon and grace have little to do with it. In some early Buddhist texts it sounds as if forgiveness is just a matter of mental hygiene. The emphasis falls not on forgiving but on the foolishness of taking offence in the first place:
‘He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ – in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.
‘He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ – in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease. (Dhammapada 1.3-4; trans. Radhakrishnan)
In contrast, biblical rhetoric is full of references to enemies, slanderers, persecutors. Buddhism might unmask a delusion here, rather than go on to talk of forgiving one’s enemies and blessing one’s persecutors. The biblical healing comes too late, when we are already fixated on imagining the other as enemy. Biblical salvation is atonement for evils that have occurred; Buddhist salvation is more negative, an effort to prevent the evils from arising in the first case. When they have already arisen, it calmly proceeds to dismantle them by going back to their roots. One universal process of karmic causality presides over all evils and the cure for them. Even the ultimate goal of undoing the chains of karma and entering the freedom of nirvana is attained through following this analytical procedure. There is no supernatural dissolution of bondage to evil by an act of grace (at least in early Buddhism). Thus when we seek resources in Buddhism for a clarification and underpinning of the biblical ideas of sin, forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, and atonement, we face the risk that these notions themselves will disappear, as primitive approximations to the higher wisdom of Buddhism.
There is a deep tension between, on the one hand, the Indian wisdom that grasps ultimate reality in impersonal terms and regards the idea of a creator (Îsvara) or any personalizations of the ultimate as at best provisional skilful means (upâya) for those who need them, and, on the other, the Christian conviction that ultimate reality is most fully and concretely known when it gives itself the voice and face of a personal God. Within Christianity there have been efforts to transcend the image of God as personal Creator, notably that of Eckhart, or to combine the personal conception with an impersonal one such as the Thomist ipsum esse subsistens, ‘being itself subsisting’. Today that debate can continue more broadly and fruitfully on the interreligious plane. Even as we remain convinced of the primacy and centrality of the personal God of Scripture, we can allow the impersonal conceptions to play against it critically, providing a perspective that prevents the personal language from becoming positivistic or literalistic and thus prevents the drama of sin and forgiveness from being reduced to an infantilizing schema of placating an offended Father.
Mahâyâna Buddhism, with its plethora of saviour figures, makes place for a warmer, more positive conception of forgiveness than we find in early Buddhism. But even here salvation lies not in being forgiven, but in being released from delusion and suffering through meditative insight into the nature of reality. We have seen the foundational role of compassion in the Mahâyâna vision of salvation. Compassion plunges into the world of delusion in order to end the suffering it weaves. Forgiveness, in Christianity, could be seen as the divine plunge into the world of sin, in order to dissolve it as an obstacle to the dawning of wisdom. The thoroughness of Buddhist analysis, in which compassion is never divorced from wisdom, can show up a hollowness and ineffectuality in our talk of forgiveness, insofar as it attempts to enact a Christlike drama in a merely emotional manner, without reasoned insight into the delusory character of hatred and resentment. Buddhism queries the reality of the passions that make forgiveness necessary and queries also the reality of the objects of those passions. My anger, resentment, hatred are a delusion, and so is the crime or offence the other is thought to have committed against me. Indeed my very conception of myself and of the other is pervaded by delusion and fixation. Even if these Buddhist ideas were totally untrue, it would still be very wholesome to meditate on them at a time when national, ethnic and religious identity has so often shown a murderous face.
The person harbouring resentful thoughts may as a matter of fact have been abused, struck, overcome, robbed, yet his brooding on this imprisons him in delusion and fixation. The remembered offence retains a life of its own long after the act that occasioned it has passed away. Memory of past offences plays a huge role in contemporary culture, and there is insufficient reflection on the dangers of clinging to such memory. Much current rhetoric makes the hurt, anger, traumatization felt by victims into a kind of sacred cow that cannot be questioned. Instead of seeking to heal and dispel these psychic wounds, victims are encouraged to nag at them and to seek ‘closure’ by some form of vindictive payback. Hatred is still regarded as a strength rather than a poison and a bondage. One must seek to understand the rage of the oppressed, but without forgetting how rage tends inherently to become blind and rigid, feeding on itself, which limits its efficacy as an agent of historical change. Rage finds stereotyped expression in destructive acts. Its delusional aspects must be undone if the energy of indignation is to be converted into a motor of flexible and strategic action.
Forgiveness for early Buddhism was largely a matter of preserving one’s equanimity, one’s spiritual freedom. It takes on a more positive complexion within the altruistic bodhisattva ideal built up in later Buddhism. The bodhisattva recognizes in the enemy an occasion for practising forbearance, a stimulus to spiritual activity. But he practises forgiveness for the enemy’s own sake as well. Ksanti, patience, the third of the six perfections of a bodhisattva, is primarily shown in forbearance of enemies:
He forgives them for what has been done in the past, for what is being done at present and for what will be done in future... He forgives all without exception, his friends, his enemies, and those who are neither... He is like a dumb sheep in quarrels and squabbles. In a word, his forgiveness is unfailing, universal and absolute, even as Mother Earth suffers in silence all that may be done to her. A bodhisattva should cultivate certain modes of thought and ponder on some great principles, so that he may understand why he should forgive others... His enemy of to-day may have been a friend, a relative or a teacher in a previous existence and should therefore be regarded as an old comrade. A bodhisattva also knows that there is no permanent substantial individuality in any man or woman. Hence it follows that there is really no one who reviles, beats and injures, or who is reviled, beaten and injured. All beings are ephemeral and mortal; it is improper to be angry with such miserable creatures. They are also afflicted with pain... A bodhisattva should try to alleviate their pain, not to increase it by lack of forbearance. He should also be more or less of a determinist in judging others, who harm him. Those enemies are not free agents: their wicked deeds are produced by causes, over which they have no control... Further, a bodhisattva cannot really blame others for the injuries that they may inflict upon him, because he suffers on account of his own sins and misdeeds in his previous existence. His enemies are only the instruments of the cosmic law of karma. In fact, they are his best friends, and he should thank them for their services... A wise bodhisattva should forgive others even from fear, as vindictiveness always ends in evil.
To regard your enemy as your best friend, as a bodhisattva sent to help you, is an attitude enjoined by the Lotus Sutra, which shows the Buddha describing his arch-enemy Devadatta as one who benefited him in a previous existence and one who is destined to become a great Buddha. What facilitates such attitudes in Buddhism is the notion that there is no permanent identity in either the offender or the offended. Practice of the difficult art of forgiveness entails willingness to recognize our own lack of substantial being, the totally contingent, dependently arisen, empty texture of our existence and our history. Compassion (karuna) is based on ‘realising the equality of oneself and others and also practising the substitution of others for one self. When a bodhisattva cultivates the habit of regarding others as equal to himself, he gets rid of the ideas of “I and Thou ” and “Mine and Thine”’. What is enacted in forgiveness and reconciliation is the discovery of ourselves and others as vulnerable, relative, empty entities, and with it the discovery of ultimate reality as something empty of all bullying and threatening self-insistence (as in distorted conceptions of God), as something gracious and trustworthy, so that we have nothing to fear in letting our ‘selves’ go. The doctrine of non-self is not hammered home in Buddhism; it is diffused as a kind of perfume throughout the attitudes of equanimity, freedom and compassion that are practised. If a community can pass from civil war to a culture of reconciliation, they enact a conversion of mind with profound philosophical and theological implications. They undergo a melting and enrichment of national identity just as the individual grows and changes through loving relationships, no longer clinging to ‘self’.
Note that when the bodhisattva discovers some offence that might induce rage, he sees it instead as an occasion to practise forgiveness. The memory of past wrongs is put to a spiritually profitable use. Following the lead given in the Vatican on Ash Wednesday 2000, the churches everywhere should integrate into their liturgies ceremonies of apology for wrongs inflicted in the past and also ceremonies of forgiveness for wrongs suffered. The point of this is not masochistic self-abasement, but freedom – freedom from the burdens of guilt and of bitterness, and freedom to relate to the other communities from whom we have been alienated for centuries by a refusal to apologize or to forgive.
Forgiveness comes from a reflective taking of distance from one’s natural and immediate reactions. It queries even noble sentiments of indignation. ‘Why are you concerned with the cluster-bombing of Iraqi children?’ is a question that probes the authenticity of one’s indignation. To a large extent our indignation is directed to an imagined object, one in which we project our uncritical emotions and prejudices. It can become a flight from ourselves and from the real tasks facing us in the here and now. Bringing the critical gaze back to ourselves sharpens and refines our awareness. When compassion and indignation are aimed selectively at ideologically satisfying targets, they become a continuation of war by other means. Reflective distancing of these convenient emotions can help us raise our emotions to a more objective level, applying them more judiciously.
The bodhisattva's benevolence even seems to abolish the law of karma. ‘It is really difficult to reconcile the law of karma with the spirit of forbearance. Such frigid metaphysics may teach passive resignation, but not loving forbearance... We forgive with the heart, and not with the head’. The bodhisattva practice of transference of merits likewise transgresses the boundaries of strict karmic thinking. ‘The doctrine of karma in its unmitigated form repudiated the bond of social solidarity and dissolved society into a vast number of isolated spiritual atoms’. If, rather than being an inconsistency, this transcendence of karma has a basis in the experience of emptiness, then emptiness would play a role analogous to the grace which in Pauline theology frees us from the Law.
Forgiveness as Relationship
A major objection against Buddhism is that it creates sages who are disconnected from humanity. One can easily persuade oneself that to take offence, or to believe in the real existence of offenders and offended, is a delusion to be transcended. One can wrap oneself in an impenetrable offence-proof cloak, never getting angry, never having anything to forgive, since one has forgiven everything in advance, pre-paid as it were. But this sagehood seems to mean that one has disentangled oneself from human relationships. Human beings can no longer ‘get at’ someone who is securely installed in the beatitude of the sage. Why, such a sage is even wiser than the God of the Bible, who still frets about people offending him and even gets angry with them!
Buddhism certainly discourages us from taking offence easily, or yielding to intemperate emotions, or clinging to negative attitudes of resentment, nursing injuries. It encourages the cultivation of a forgiving disposition. But this leaves the space free for the real human experience of forgiveness. That experience begins with the trauma of an offence, a real, crushing blow. The rage one may feel then is not a passion wilfully indulged, but a condition that one has to undergo. There is a path that leads from this initial trauma and rage to a final position of healing, reconciliation and forgiveness, and it is a path full of events. Forgiveness itself is an event of many dimensions. To forgive is dangerous, it may feel like loathsome self-abasement, and entail the moral danger of colluding in the offender’s crime by letting him or her off the hook. To forgive is also a spiritual achievement, a fruit of grace at work in the conscious and unconscious mind. When the capacity to forgive ripens, a threshold is crossed. The enemy may become a brother or sister, even if the enemy has not asked for forgiveness.
This journey from rage to reconciliation is often aborted in real life. The process stops at a fixed position of resentment, which is firmly sustained, or lapses into a dull ache. This is the stock on which fomenters of hatred can always draw. There is something pure about the first heat of anger. But this fetid accumulation of bad vibes, this stored up stale resentment, has the ugliness of settled vice. The reason we should work forward to active forgiveness is to clean the air of our souls and of our society. There are people we love and admire, and the more such people there are the more buoyant and radiant our life becomes. There are people we hate and despise, and they are the ones who drag our lives down, or at best stimulate us to indignant crusades against them. Objectively, it may be that many of those we hate are as deserving of love as those we love, and vice versa. Defusing the subjective associations that make us think of so many people as hateful is a wholesome exercise. And if we cannot help thinking that someone’s character, views or behaviour is repellent, then we could reflect that those people are pitiable, and need someone to love them and be kind to them is order to save them from the prison of their evil character and behaviour.
To judge another as ‘evil’ is in any case meaningless. We do not know enough about anyone to make such a judgement. The only judgement that is valid is that the person has done evil things, or that the person has inflicted real pain on the victim. Are killers with no respect for human life ‘evil’? Their acts are, but their own moral blindness and perverted instincts can be viewed as a monstrous malformation. Faced with this, even the victim may say: ‘I shudder at the sight of a human being behaving like this, I tremble for humanity, and I see the inhumanity of the offender as more pathetic than the agony of the victim’.
But perhaps most offenders are shabby rather than malicious, or if they are malicious it is because of a mistaken sense of the righteousness of their cause. Before erupting in rage against the behaviour of others, it would be a good idea to reflect on aspects of our own behaviour that would strike some beholders as equally shabby. When robbed and cheated, we can reflect that if we have never robbed or cheated it is only because we could afford not to. When insulted or betrayed, we can reflect that our own private thoughts about others, even when not put into speech, would not stand scrutiny in a court seeking to convict us of insult or betrayal. Often an offence so spoils our illusions about another person that it seems a waste of time and energy even to formulate a reproach. One just moves on. But in today’s mobile world, we move on too often and too easily, even dropping acquaintances of years’ standing because of some slight frictions or simply because they have become boring. Instead of at all times sustaining actively and generously a number of relationships, with people of different ages and walks of life, we drifting passively amid ephemeral acquaintance with no positive project in mind. It becomes quite unnecessary to practice forgiveness if one merely changes one’s relationships blithely according to how comfortable one feels with them. Can dead relationships live again? There is no ontological impossibility in this. To bury the hatchet seems an unnecessary activity to many people, they just walk away, embark on new relationships. But the construction of reconciliation is a rich part of the texture of human interaction and if our mobile and fickle world leaves it undeveloped, it is not surprising that intransigence and war prevail on the larger stage.
It is easier to forget than to forgive, for forgiveness implies a relationship, or an ongoing negotiation, with the one to be forgiven, and it may be just such a relationship that is not desired. The kind of human relationships forgiveness entails are at the polar opposite from the war mentality that objectifies the enemy. Peace-building means cultivating an intimacy, a mutuality of concern, with the one that had been comfortably categorized as the enemy. To meet someone you have been hurt by, and to explain your feelings, or if this is impossible, to imagine such a scenario, is a way of replacing the fixated image of a loathsome figure with a human being, Political hatred leads us to fixate the individuals who are the agents of great institutions, Indeed any political or church leader exposes himself or herself to such hatred. To think of them as human beings may make us politically soft, but it can also make our judgments wiser and more prudent. No close relationship is without hurts and injuries, just as no vigorous physical life is without them, so we needs a band-aid box in readiness, and the bandage is forgiveness.
Sustained relationships, such as those between the members of a family or a local community, demand a constant application of forbearance. We feel a bond and a duty to family members and to some friends. But the bond and duty extends more widely, and indeed extends to everyone we meet. We have a debt to our fellow humans that we have not even begun to pay. A private and genteel ethics of forgiveness, useful for smoothing over family spats, falls short of what the world requires today and of the horizons the Gospel opens. We should write off no class as uninteresting to us or as unattractive. Every group is a field for the application of fellow-feeling. If we find one group of people dull, we may end up finding the vast majority of the human race dull, and hankering after thrilling companions who exist only in our imagination. Our profit-making ethos makes us overdo the quest for attractive or instructive company and to indulge the snob mentality that asks, ‘What am I doing wasting my time with these people?’ The purpose of mixing with others is not only to profit, but also to help’ and others are always in need of help. Forgiveness is not a spiritual beauty cream, but the response to a need. ‘We forgive for our own sakes’ is a truism of psychologist and spiritual writers. But the deeper reason is that the one we forgive deserves our compassion, not our condemnation.
To love one’s enemies also has the very practical sense of tackling the situation of enmity in a constructive fashion. Conflict resolution is a sophisticated art, involving psychological and management techniques. The idea is to reason with people’s beliefs until you find a common solution. Even to think in this way is a form of love. To recognize the other side’s legitimate grievances, or even to make the effort to imagine their grievances even if these are illegitimate, to seek and share information, to adopt an open mind – all these attitudes require love. The usual objection is that such open-mindedness would not have helped the Jews in dealing with the Nazis; but such analogies should be used sparingly; to presume that one’s enemy exemplifies intractable malice of a Nazi order it to build up the figure of the enemy to mythic and inalterable proportions.
Pressing the Flesh
The possibility of a frank discussion between the Western nations and the Islamic ones on the rights and wrongs of recent violent events seems remote just now. Yet a shared destiny not only as human beings but as inheritors of biblical tradition makes this discussion the obvious step for those on both sides who are concerned with the welfare of the human race and with the integrity of their religious tradition. Christianity is disfigured if it identifies itself as anti-Muslim, as Islam is when it paints itself as anti-Christian. The liberal outlook that makes the quest for an interreligious wisdom possible is rejected by the masses who follow the lure of fundamentalism and who seek the triumph of one religion over the other. This situation can be healed only by an immense labour of ecumenical education. What most impedes that labour on the Western side is our deep ignorance of Islamic tradition. The Italian essayist Pietro Chiari has deplored this, urging Europeans to study the vast literature on Islam available in translation, especially in French. Any Christian who devotes time to reading it, even without fully understanding what he or she reads, is doing a work of mercy, making a small contribution to closing the gulf of incomprehension between the two civilizations. It is not only meritorious but quite pleasurable to delve into the glories of a foreign culture. In this case pleasure is virtue.
Such a plunge into the alien world of Islamic culture, history, literature, philosophy, religion, is no longer orientalist escapism, in the manner of Richard Burton, the translator of The Arabian Nights. Even to read the sensual love-poems of the Islamic world is a way to overcome the barren abstractions that put us at war with one another and to find a path to mutual comprehension. In old accounts of the Atonement we talk of Christ as humbling himself by taking on human nature. As the Te Deum puts it: ‘Thou didst not abhor the virgin’s womb’. We were too puritanical to imagine that Christ might actually have enjoyed the fleshly condition of humanity, might have loved to delve into its labyrinth. The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels in fact seems full of curiosity about human nature, delighted to interact with his fellow humans, and bursting with human insight as his parables disclose. When Christians delve into the labyrinth of Islam they imitate the dynamics of the Incarnation. They sacrifice a self-deifying aloofness to embrace as equals fellow-humans who share the same pleasures and sorrows and who seek God along similar paths. This is not religious tourism, but a gesture of self-emptying and of atonement for the hubris that has scorned Islam over the centuries.
Atonement begins with dialogue, with mutual fascination. If Jesus is a bridge-builder between God and humanity, a Pontifex or High Priest, that activity began not with some abstract decree of divine justice, but on the roads of Galilee in conversations with people of all sorts, in which Jesus broke down barriers between people; only at a second stage did he open their minds to rethinking the nature of God. ‘First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift’ (Mt 5.24). The Incarnation and the Atonement have been travestied in our high theology, and their concrete human texture, as shown in the Synoptic Gospels, has been lost from view. The story of the Son of Man, who gives his life as a ransom for the many (Mk 10.45), is not about some abstract God who clothes himself in human form. It is the story of a prophetic, human bridge-builder, whose human role is recognized as bearing the stamp of the divine. The massive theological superstructures built on the prophetic activities of Jesus ended up hiding them from view, transporting them into a mysterious realm in which God goes through various acrobatics to save God’s creature and demands of the creature a corresponding set of exercises to appropriate the salvation. Salvation happens in a very down-to-earth way: be reconciled with your brother, by practising justice, forgiveness, peace, and the rivers of divine mercy and love will then flow freely; close your heart to your brother and you close off the divine as well. Here is the divine-human interplay we call Incarnation. It is not a metaphysical amalgamation of two substances or natures, the human and the divine. It is an encounter of human and divine, which takes place through an inter-human encounter. The word of salvation comes from God but is spoken by the human Jesus to his fellow-humans: ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (Mk 2.5), ‘You are worth more than many sparrows’ (Lk. 6.7), ‘This is the blood of the covenant poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 26.28). To speak such gracious words to our Muslim brethren is to speak to them words from God. To hear such words from them would be the sweetest sound of the Gospel to our ears today.
The image of Jesus as a crosser of social barriers and as a friend to sinners seems too soft and ‘pally’ to many, and they prefer to call in the big guns of dogma, or at least the basic Pauline vision of Christ as a propitiatory victim who reconciles sinners with an angry God. But dogmatic declarations count for little in our world. We must step back to the humble beginnings of the Christian outlook. It is a piquant irony that the massive structure of Christian dogma and of the Church’s institutions reposes on the totally undogmatic and anti-institutional teachings of Jesus. Since Jesus is the criterion of the Church, not the other way round, this puts the Christian movement in a perpetually instable situation. The teaching of Jesus is in devastating contrast to all inflated language about God that exceeds the modest proportions of daily human existence. Keeping God’s name holy, in Jesus’s understanding, is a matter of preserving it from poisonous abuse, from all the pomp and falsehood of inflated theological references. ‘But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool… But let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No”, “No”. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one’ (Mt. 5.34-7). Christianity begins not in the clouds but in the truth and falsehood of human interchange.
We can find an equivalent for these gospel transactions in practical, constructive steps that have nothing formally Christian about them, efforts at healing, dialogue, forgiveness, protest against injustice. Of course Jesus himself acted not as a Christian but as a Jew, and with an openness and freedom that brought out the universal aspects of Jewish religious vision. Starting not from dogma or from the distinctive claims of Christianity or from any concern with ‘identity’, we can reweave the texture of Christian life, rooting it in the activity of communication rather than in some massive set of truths to be communicated.
Theology all too often begins with such lumps of truth, and asks, ‘what sense can we make of the Trinity or the Resurrection or Original Sin or Justification or Grace today?’ This is to put the cart before the horse. We need to reshape the theological landscape, so that the riches of the dogmatic heritage can be drawn on with more functional and strategic point. Or perhaps it would be better to say that theology needs to wither away, to be entirely transmuted or sublated into a wider, more humanly sensitive religious thinking. The dogmatic tradition, in a critical revisionist retrieval, can find its due, modest place in that reflection as it unfolds. But to think that its dominant concerns should automatically be our dominant concerns all these centuries later is to court obsolescence from the start.
What Christianity can now most salutarily offer the world is not a set of dogmas but a revival of the gospel style of conversation. Apply that style to the meeting of Christians and Muslims, and its healing, atoning impact will be manifest. Dialogue between Christian and Muslim cannot start with the antique controversies about Christology and the Trinity. These have only an academic interest. Nor can it start with criticizing Islamic doctrines about the status of the Koran etc. It must take as its theme the practical issues of peaceful coexistence, drawing from both traditions things new and old that can contribute to this goal. In fact, the point of departure for dialogue is not even our shared faith in God but our shared human tragedy, our failure to find the gracious saving words that would have averted terrorism and war. That tragedy is what teaches the necessity of forgiveness and reconciliation. We need not present these values in the name of a religious authority, Christ or Muhammad, but simply in the name of common sense and common humanity. Along with Muslims Christians can seek to build up a platform of human wisdom, a healing milieu for dealing with the scars of recent history. Such a humanitarian focus would not be a sell-out to secularism. It would reflect the earthliness of the original teaching of Jesus, and perhaps of Muhammad as well.
The name of God has been cheapened by its use as an instrument of aggression, on both sides. To make it holy again we have to correlate it with the faces of our human brothers and sisters. We have lost God, not because God ‘doesn’t exist’ but because what the word ‘God’ designates is something very hard to keep in focus. The same is true of ‘justice’, ‘goodness’, ‘beauty’, ‘love’. To get a concrete handle on any of these realities, we have to begin where we are, facing one another, trying to ‘love our crooked neighbour with our own crooked heart’ (Auden). To encounter other human beings in their suffering is the quickest way to be brought into the region where the word ‘God’ can acquire resonance again.
The Art of Apology
Small gestures can have a huge influence in healing broken relationships. The operation on an Iraqi boy’s eye in Japan, in June 2004, might be exploited for propaganda purposes. It nonetheless brought the Japanese in direct contact with Iraqi suffering in a way that may influence future policies toward Iraq. Another gesture that can have immense repercussions is the apparently meaningless one we call ‘apology’. More often than not, apologies are ungraciously delivered, or fall flat, or cause embarrassment. Indeed, it is often as uncomfortable to receive an apology as to have to offer one. People who call for apologies are seen as noisy nuisances. When public figures are forced to make apologies they trim them, to control the damage, and their gesture never seems to satisfy anyone. Yet a culture of apology is emerging, and it is surely a salutary development. Can apologies from the slayer, met by forgiveness from the slain, restore hope in a constructive shared future, and deny to death and destruction the last word?
For the victims there is no consolation, and the blankness of their losses remain. But to get up on one’s feet, after terrible bereavement, and to think of creating a future for the children, offers at least a way to retrieve honour and dignity. Again and again humanity has crawled out of the abyss, and no tragedy has destroyed its capacity to rebound. A supreme creative response would be for the belligerents to make peace, and face together the dangers threatening the entire planet. The bravery of that cannot undo the starkness of tragedy. The surge of post-war jubilation is a defensive erasure of the recent past. Constant mourning for the victims would weigh down and paralyse the whole society, so people wisely decide to let the dead bury the dead. This is part of the reason for the silence about the Holocaust in the two decades following World War II, and the silence about Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well. Only in the sixties could these horrors become a theme of sustained public reflection. Britten’s sublime War Requiem of 1961 deals with the horror of war, but not with the concentration camps. It is only very recently that public exhibitions about the Holocaust have become mainstream events, along with films of sometimes doubtful taste such as Schindler’s List. Shakespeare plunges us into the dark heart of trauma in King Lear, as Tom Murphy does in Famine, and in both cases it is hard to see how any ‘catharsis’ can be experienced. Only the long healing work of time and oblivion can relieve the pain. Apologizing to the victims might seem merely a ceremonial dance about these dark places of agony. Yet an apology can be a moment of grace, and can release deep springs of consolation.
The United Nations and the churches are institutions that can express humanity’s longing for such reconciliation. Afflicted by their own mediocrity, these institutions need not be ashamed to raise anew a clamour for the values on which they are founded, those of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and those of the Gospel. In decrying sins against justice they must in the same breath apologize for their own failures. This does not weaken their message, but rather makes it possible for the message to be heard. Calls for justice on war criminals are a relatively primitive response to human tragedy. Perhaps the immediate aftermath of tragedy is not the right time for commissions that rake over the past. Truth and reconciliation are better served by a general confession and absolution rather than by minute inquiries. They can be left to later.
Today we are taking the first steps to a culture of forgiveness, when it will be normal and normative for nations to work at forgiving those who have injured them and seeking forgiveness from those they have injured. When nations actively set out to seek forgiveness for the wrongs they have inflicted, they make it easier for the wronged nations to express forgiveness, and even in some cases to ask for forgiveness in return. The hour of apology has struck for the churches in particular, for the crimes of the past were often sanctioned by Christian rhetoric that allowed them to be committed in good conscience. Popes launched crusades with the cry, ‘Dieu le veut’, and not until Islam had ceased to threaten Europe did people call this in doubt. Elizabeth congratulated her genocidal adventurers in Ireland, telling them they had given glory to God. Crimes thus sanctified were painted into a glorious pageant so that their horror could not be perceived.
The scandal of religious crime is a topic for endless meditation and analysis, not to be swept away by an opportunistic expression of regret. Indeed, the recent gestures of apology from the Vatican have been attended by some signs of unwillingness to probe very deeply into causes. It is argued that the Church in its intangible essence and in its authoritative magisterium remained entirely innocent; only its erring, unworthy children engaged in betrayal of the Gospel – sometimes in their excess of laudable zeal for the defence of truth. This zeal itself, and that fixated notion of truth, are immunized to critical questioning. The crimes of the past are seen as something ultimately unintelligible, part of the unfathomable mystery of evil, of Original Sin. Instead of seeking healing through radical analysis it is easier to shrug and sigh about being a Church of sinners, with the fatalistic implication that we are bound to sin again in the future. Such language is designed to prevent recognition of the fact that it was not weak, lukewarm Catholics but saintly and orthodox ones, including Doctors of the Universal Church such as John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux and Robert Bellarmine, who vilified Jews, preached Crusades, and lit the fires of the Inquisition.
The complacent assumption that it is easy to be enlightened and to be free from racism and other disapproved attitudes thrives on the contemplation of the crimes and follies of great saints and thinkers in the past. A more pertinent reflection would be that if they did not escape such blindness, we are no more likely to, as indeed the daily record of our behaviour continues to show. Perhaps we cannot forgive the crimes of the past on behalf of their victims, but we can learn that our own crimes, conscious and unconscious, will also need forgiveness, unless we have indeed attained a state of enlightenment which both Christianity and Buddhism agree to be rare. The depths of blindness that history reveals are the depths in which we still grope, but the study of history makes us aware of our state, and can a step to awakening. Deludedness is our lot; yet we are also assured by both religions that ultimate gracious reality is immediately present to us and in us, so that the overcoming of delusion is not to be feared but to be longed for.
Apology is still not a popular policy in Christian circles. The Stuttgart Confession of 1945 in which German church leaders repented for the suffering caused by Nazism (no mention of the Holocaust) ‘provoked a widespread anger in German Churches, media and politics’ and even Jürgen Moltmann thought the Confession had no raison d’être: ‘a person who acknowledges their guilt becomes vulnerable. They have their head bowed down so as to no longer remain in control of their acts, whilst on the other hand, the victims keep for longer their vivid memories’. What makes apology and forgiveness difficult is that they imply an emptying of the ego, a humiliating kenosis. Institutions are as self-protective as individuals, fearing that too much humility will result is a sell-out, a dissolution of inherited identity.
Religion has performed a noble task in upholding the victim’s memory, and using it to instil vigilance for the rights and freedoms of oppressed people. To expose the sacred history of these wrongs to a revisionist reading, it is felt, would be a betrayal of the dead and a form of blaming the victim. It is true that one of the effects of historical oppression is to induce a great lack of self-confidence in the victims – Jews, gays, colonized peoples have often suffered from self-hatred. Fear of apology today is fear of a negation of what the Church has been, a nihilistic loss of identity. But ancestral memory turns poisonous when it becomes a source of resentment and prickly self-righteousness, breeding the sense that revenge is a sacred duty, or that the results of historic injustice must be undone by such methods as ethnic cleansing.
The fixated quality of such memory is based on the purism with which the myth of identity is upheld. Yet the practice of apologizing for the crimes of one’s predecessors, or accepting forgiveness in their name, raises many tantalizing problems. By what right do we speak on their behalf? And what good does our apologizing do for their victims? It is good to meditate on this issue, for it is another path leading to the Buddhist insight into the non-substantiality of the self. Even when apology or forgiveness bear on a crime committed by an individual in his past life, the one forgiven is no longer precisely the one who committed the crime. The crime was the product of a contingent congeries of conditions which can neither be recreated nor undone. Apology and forgiveness in regard to long past events are bound to work with simplistic reifications of those events, and with feelings about them that are full of delusion. But the effect of these practices is to break the hold of this reification and delusion, for it replaces one set of attitudes to the past with another set that lays a better basis for present and future relationships. Apology and forgiveness allow the past to be past, so that it need longer extend its paralysing spectral clutch to the present. Coming to terms with the past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) is a futile, merely academic business if pursued as an end in itself. The active initiative of apology and forgiveness takes the past as theme for addressing present relations between the one who apologizes and the one who forgives. To be skilfully brought off, such initiatives must be more than arbitrary spur of the moment gestures. They should be the precipitate of long reflection, just as the realization of non-self comes from long practice of meditation and analysis.
Often the apology intensifies the insult. When terrorists or imperialist armies apologize for some of their deeds they legitimize the others; they apologize for killing civilians, but treat anyone who bears the slightest military connection as a legitimate target, even in a war of aggression. The apology as a carefully calculated political ploy has brought apologizing into disrepute. Sometimes such apologies are delivered by a faceless spokesman or in bureaucratic form. Apologies can wipe out offences and the memory thereof when the offences are minor. But apologies are only a small contribution to resolving the bad karma of major crimes, and they by no means entitle the criminal to blandly define the status of his deeds. Oscar Wilde said something about repentance changing the past, and I suppose even more so forgiveness can be seen as changing the past. Grudging apologies are a small step to the culture of repentance and forgiveness that may one day be born in Northern Ireland and in Israel/Palestine.
Central to the Gospel is the idea, or rather the event, of divine forgiveness: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself’ (2 Cor. 5.19). That is correlated with mutual forgiveness between human beings: ‘Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Eph. 4.32); ‘As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also [must forgive]’ (Col. 3.13). To be set right with God is to be set right with one another, as the barriers of the past yield to the construction of a loving community. ‘You who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph. 2.13-14). To break down the dividing wall between Israel and Palestine, or between American and the Islamic world, the churches can draw on their own experience of breaking down the walls of hatred and fear that separated them from one another for centuries.
The idea of the atonement, and every aspect of the ancient ideology of sacrifice that is taken up in Christianity, can be understood in terms of the dynamics of forgiveness. Jesus shed his blood ‘for the forgiveness of sins’. Forgiveness is at the centre of his healing ministry, more fundamental than physical healings or exorcisms. Mutual forgiveness of one another sets us right with the source of our being. Sin is not merely wrong acts, but a deadly blockage between human and human and between humankind and ultimate reality, and forgiveness is the only way to dissolve this blockage. The study of anthropology and the experiences of recent history have shown us how deeply rooted the instincts of arrogance and hatred are in our nature. The aggression that powered human evolution has now become a perilous legacy, an original sin, transmitted not only in our education but in our genes. The forgiveness of sin has less to do with appeasing an offended God than with releasing humankind from the grip of this disease. But the notion of an offended God is not one that can be brushed aside either. There are crimes that cry to heaven for redress, and only if we have been assailed by the full impact of this cry can we point to the blood that ‘speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel’, and that cries for forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against ‘cheap grace’. That is likely to be taken as a rather Pelagian message: ‘Pull up your bootstraps! God helps those who help themselves!’ But a deeper meaning would be that grace and forgiveness must not be dispensed as cheap consolation, a superficial band-aid for mortal injuries. To work, redeeming grace must meet the full force of the cry of grief that goes up from the victims. The lacerated body of Christ is the symbol of that meeting. He transforms our mortal bodies into his own glorious body by meeting them in the depths of their pain. Pain that makes our bodies alien to us, that makes them a burden we could be rid of, is the same pain as Christ assumed, and it is in that site of pain and shame that he planted the flag of resurrection, changing our alien, oppressive bodies into a spiritual bodiliness obedient to our deepest longing.
René Girard has attempted to rethink the Atonement along anthropological lines. Jesus, as the scapegoat of human mimetic rivalry, faces death in such a manner as to contest and undo the deadly machinery of sacrificial violence. His attitude of non-violence and of forgiveness seems weak and inept, yet it reveals something that lies at the depth of reality, the perpetual graciousness of God. Jesus draws on himself the violence generated by human greed and ambition, eloquently countering it in his death with an expression of forgiveness, compassion, humility, and love: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23.34). Even in the furnace of persecution the bodhisattva does not forget to put forth the healing energies of loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity. Jesus has a bodhisattva’s insight into the bondage of his enemies to delusive passions and delusive objects of passions, rooted in a delusive idea of self, and he exerts educative compassion on their condition, to release them from suffering. Wherever the Cross is made known, the same compassionate education is continued. The truth revealed in the event of the Cross is as old as creation – the truth of God’s loving-kindness constantly pressing on his creatures despite their closed hearts. God’s reconciling of the world to himself works not by magic but through the eloquent expression of forgiveness and compassion in all the gestures of Jesus culminating in his death. Wherever the Cross is remembered God’s work of healing, through the Spirit, is something phenomenologically accessible. To human arrogance it is a stumbling block or mere folly, but when its meaning is discerned this exhibition of failure and weakness is understood to be ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1.24). But the redemption should not be reduced to a simple message of wisdom. It is a wisdom backed by the full proof of compassion: ‘He died for me’.
It may be objected that the Cross has been an emblem of violence and tyranny in crusades and colonization. That means that the Cross has not been understood. Today we understand it better, because we see more clearly how damaging is the disease to which the Cross brings the cure. Greed, hatred, and delusion are writ large in contemporary history and are studied in depth by psychoanalysts and sociobiologists. Alongside the wisdom of the Buddha, the power of the Cross is increasingly being recognized as the supreme antidote. Buddhist gentleness suggests to us the question whether the harshness of biblical language – especially in the gospel denunciations of Pharisees and ‘the Jews’ (refreshingly resisted in Luke-Acts) – has been an appropriate method of conveying the wisdom of the Cross. Against substantializing and magical theories of the Atonement, we do well to set in high relief the salvific impact of the Cross as registered in human experience; that impact reaches far, to the very depths of humankind's biological and psychological make-up, and it can correct even what is human all too human in the letter of Scripture and the activities of the Church in history. Redemption, too often conceived as a magical behind the scenes process, is worked out in history as the deconstructive impact of the figure of the Cross, dissolving the barriers set by human arrogance and fixation against the liberating space of divine ultimacy. God’s reconciliation of humankind with Godself takes phenomenological profile as the power of the Cross – epitomizing an entire trajectory of awareness and enactment – to put humans back in touch with gracious ultimacy. What is experienced as dramatic divine intervention can also be grasped as the human process of opening to the ever-available ultimacy, an opening supremely expressed and enabled in the life and death of Jesus. A phenomenology of breakthroughs of ultimacy need not overlook the conventional processes which are the vehicle and the basis of such breakthroughs.
A religious culture which enables one to react intelligently and constructively to the knocks of history should not be the preserve of academics. The daily life of the churches should be the constant transmission of such a culture, and when concrete problems have to be faced, the church should be a place where the community come up with a Christian response to them together. A Buddhist culture of insight joined with a Christian culture of forgiveness could offer a potent response to every trauma of history. A response, not a solution. To say that all suffering is a redemptive sharing in Christ’s or can be an occasion of growth in Buddhist insight is hardly persuasive faced with the suffering of children or the mentally ill. Caring for such sufferers is a response that brings out the depths of Christian and Buddhist insight, but that cannot magically transform the suffering and make it meaningful. Nonetheless, the response can light up the orientation of the history toward the Kingdom of God, can reveal the values of heaven present on earth.
The Goodness of Being
Focussing on these phenomena, we realize that grace is not an abstruse invisible substance. It is the core of reality itself, constantly operative, awaiting our realization of its power and presence. One might compare this presence of grace with the notion of ‘original enlightenment’, central in Japanese Buddhism. For Buddhism, at least in the optimistic form that prevailed in medieval Japan, the status of Buddhahood is open in principle to any human being; indeed we already have the Buddha-nature and need only wake up to the fact; even grasses and trees can be Buddha, or rather already have the Buddha-nature just as they are! The reason for this is that Buddhahood is identical with the suchness of things; to become a Buddha is to be what one is and to be it to the full. This is attained not by the intercession of a Buddha but by each individual discovering and following the path to Buddhahood, or simply awakening to Buddhahood. Such a system of salvation seems a blank denial of Christian claims about sinful humanity's radical need of a Redeemer. But let us remember that Christian thinkers have always rejoiced in the radical goodness of being, none more so than that prince of soteriological pessimists, Saint Augustine. All that exists is good to the core, and evil is a mere deficiency in being.
Forgiveness has deep foundations in the universality of grace and the basic goodness of being. If to understand all is to forgive all, then understanding the aggressor is the foundation of enduring forgiveness. The enlightened one is able to forgive the enemy even when he is immediately threatened by him or is suffering at his hands. ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Mt. 5:14) is not the slogan of some masochistic ethic of impossible divine agape, but a practical strategy for dissolving the bonds of hatred. It issues from insight into the very texture of existence. But a morose self-condemnation that battens on the memory of old failures, and that spreads a pall of melancholy over one’s existence and throughout one’s environment, is not what the Christian awareness of sin demands. The past and its failure are not a vast debt to be paid off, but simply set the conditions under which faith can begin anew in the living present. Here and now we have the energy for victory in Christ. To forgive ourselves means to accept the liberation Christ offers here and now. We are liberated from the ‘body of death’, the weight of settled habit, by his ‘upward call’. ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8.1). To drink in the deep security this assurance brings is to be freed from the melancholy burden of self-reproach. ‘Neither do I condemn thee’ (Jn 8.11). That deep and quiet word of forgiveness touches and heals us in the intimacy of our being, if we only attune ourselves to it. Secure in the divine forgiveness we can then be non-condemnatory toward all others. ‘The law of the Spirit of life’ that sets us free from ‘the law of sin and death’ (Rom. 8.2) bears down on us at every moment. It is the command to live to the full, accompanied by the power to fulfil that command. It conquers morose brooding through the spirit of thanksgiving and gladness, it conquers lethargy as it inspires us to creative action. The law of the future – a future of possibility – frees us from the law of the past – a past of failures, limitations, dead habit. What binds us to the past is the inability to forgive others, but even more the inability to forgive ourselves. We feel that nothing is to be expected from others or ourselves, that nothing can really change. We bind our identity to what we have been. But what we have been is only a poor parody of what we yet can be with the aid of the Spirit of God. We cannot set limits to the possibility of growth either for others or for ourselves. The past stamps a dead mask on others and on ourselves. But the living face beneath the mask may yet emerge. Our forgiveness of others allows that face to emerge, refuses to imprison them in their mask. ‘You are no longer under the dominance of the flesh but of the Spirit, since the Spirit of Christ dwells in you’ (Rom. 8.9). The mask of the flesh, of all that is stale and dead, yields to the face-lift of the Spirit.
The forgiving spirit rises to a godlike view on people and acts, hating the sins but loving the sinner. Third world peoples crushed by American bombing sorties come to see war as something like a natural catastrophe, attaining perhaps that ‘mood of acceptance of the benign indifference of the world’ which Holloway sees as ‘close to the springs of what we mean by forgiveness’. Their acceptance of fate could even be a heroic acceptance of the complete, rather than benign, indifference of the world. Such Stoic or Spinozan calm is not just the refuge of proud misanthropists; it can also lay the foundations of a benevolence towards our fellows that overlooks aggressions and betrayals to focus instead on undoing the actual suffering.
The command to ‘Love your enemies’ can be fulfilled only if we raise ourselves to a God’s eye viewpoint, looking on the enemy as a deluded and suffering creature, for whose salvation we can pray. There is a sort of triumph in this capacity of rise superior to the enemy, to outstrip the enemy’s hatred and malice, in which he is imprisoned, in the freedom of a constructive vision that the enemy cannot even imagine. Forgiveness is a victory of over the enemy, a defusing of the enemy’s malice, which can now be borne as a painful ordeal of a purely external kind rather than something that makes one writhe with an agony of hate and resentment at every moment in a way that doubles the pain. The fatalism of those third world countries subjected to periodic bombings by military superpowers is a kind of anaesthesis that may also be religious: just as the bombers pursue their destructive activities impersonally, as part of their country’s war plan, so the victims view the bombings impersonally, as an ‘act of God’ and concentrate only on survival.
Forgiveness is a refusal to recognize that evil has any real existence in the ultimate scheme of things. What is, is essentially good; being and goodness are convertible; evil is merely a deficiency in being. Some wish to desert this classic doctrine of Augustine and Aquinas in order to recognize the singular metaphysical monstrosity of Auschwitz. They see metaphysical assurances about the goodness of being as mere abstract wishful thinking that refuses to look the concrete reality of evil squarely in the face. But to surrender belief in the basic goodness of being because of the actions of a group of gangsters, or even of a whole society that colluded with them, is to hand them a great victory, allowing them to destroy our sense of reality itself. The testimony of some camp prisoners that they clung to a belief in the perpetual goodness of nature and of friendships in the nightmare world of the camp should weigh against this. Vice is a triumph of unreality, a bad dream. It is not a revelation of the true nature of reality. All sorts of horrors are possible. But faith overcomes them by seeing the basic defect of being that lies at their root. Forgiveness doubly overcomes them, reasserting the goodness of being over against them. Forgiveness deepens our own roots in the goodness of being and invites the evildoers who are estranged from these roots to rediscover them if they can.
The Promise of Love
The book of Leviticus has a fairly well-deserved reputation of bloodthirstiness, but it has some very humane moments too: ‘You shall not have hate for your brother in your heart… You shall not take revenge on or harbour resentment against the children of your people, and thus shall you love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19.17-8). To love your neighbour as yourself is not a command that falls from the sky. It is the reward promised to one who cultivates a generous and forgiving outlook, by training the imagination to see others welcomingly, compassionately. The Book of Sirach speaks in unexpectedly ‘Christian’ tones as it offers an exegesis of the Leviticus text: ‘He who takes revenge will experience the vengeance of the Lord… Forgive your neighbour his transgressions, and then, when you pray, your sins will be remitted. If a man cultivates hatred of another, how can he ask God for healing’ (Sir. 28.1-3). Indeed this is an exegesis of Lev. 19.18. The idea that forgiveness is an imitatio dei is deeply Jewish, not a Christian specialty: ‘My people children of Israel, as your Father is merciful in heaven, so you must be merciful on earth’ (Targum Ps. Jonathan on Lev. 22.28).
Can the victims of violence rise to the vantage point in which they view their oppressors as victims too, and thus forswear all thoughts of revenge? Many believe that this is humanly impossible, and that the command of love of enemies must be taken as a metaphorical exaggeration:
This is his usual custom: to opt for a maximum of exaggeration in order to underline what he is attempting to convey. No teaching exemplifies this more than the command to his disciples to love their enemies. The saying has been the source of much misunderstanding and misinterpretation for there is no denying that to love persons motivated by hatred of oneself, or who subject on to abuse and persecution, must seem unnatural and humanly impossible. But Jesus’ words are no more to be taken literally than in that other text requiring the would-be follower to hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters (Luke 14.26), or than his instruction to his disciples, ‘To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also’ (Luke 6.29; Matt. 5.39)… The commandment to love one’s enemies is as it were an overstatement intended to impress on his hearers that the perfect manifestation of love is to offer it quite freely, gratis. ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who abuse you… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you…? And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you…? But love you enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return… and you shall be sons of the Most High’ (Luke 6.27-35; Matt. 5.39-45) – ‘sons of your Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 5.45).
But Vermes omits the final words of Luke 6.35: ‘for He is good to the ungrateful and the wicked’. The imitatio dei resides not merely in one’s personal attitude of generosity, but also in the creative purpose and impact of this as directed to the other. To love the enemy is to undo the destruction caused by hatred and to counter it with the constructive work of love. It means turning the tables on the enemy, by defeating the counter-creative intention of his malice.
True, Matthew 5.45, ‘He makes his sun to rise on the wicked and the good, and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust’, strikes a different note. Love of enemies would be a sign of inner freedom and detachment, beyond the discrimination of people into good and wicked. To love one’s enemy is to practise a godlike freedom, to rediscover oneself as made in the image of God by one’s freedom. Indeed Vermes himself sees an element of universalism in the commandment to love one’s enemies, ‘fellow-creatures under the one God to whom charity must be shown’. From a Buddhist angle, one can say that this attitude undercuts the reality of the enemy. One puts forth the energies of love without discriminating between worthy and unworthy objects of it.
I end these reflections by recalling a word much used in Greek theology, the word ‘divinization’. I would suggest that divinization is forgiveness and forgiveness is divinization. When we forgive our brother from our heart, we act in unity with God, we experience the freedom of the divine, we are reconciled with and have access to the godly depth of our own being. The non-duality of divine vision, that clothes the sinner with righteousness and sends forth saving grace to just and unjust alike, is imitated when I forgive, establishing a non-duality between offender and offended. This is not a demeaning Stockholm syndrome, a masochistic identification of the abused with the abuser. Rather it reaches down to the depth of human nature, in which both parties know themselves as sinful and exposed to temptation, and in which both parties know themselves as the recipients of unconditional forgiveness.
In Buddhism and Christianity there is a certain equality between the Founder and his disciples. The arahant of early Buddhism, who has attained final release, is every inch a Buddha, and the only privilege of the Buddha is that he sets the headline that the arahant follows. The Christian likewise can be all that Jesus was, even to the point of having his or her humanity ‘divinized’ in sharing Jesus’ intimate union with the divine. This non-duality between Jesus and the disciples is lived in the act of forgiveness. Humans may be only a step on the evolutionary ladder, and Buddhism and Christianity may only be religions adapted to the Axial Age in human evolution, if there is such a thing. But something of eternal value is also afoot in them. ‘We hold this treasure in vessels of clay’ (2 Cor. 4.7) and we hold it by a mindful imitation of Jesus or following the Eightfold Path. The ultimate transcendental significance of these religious paths escapes our final controlling view. The clearest thing in both religions is the here and now of the way of life they inculcate. That it is a way of life, and of the highest life there is, we discover as we follow it. All the other religious convictions are only a spin-off from this basic phenomenon. Forgiveness, reconciliation, atonement, not solitary mystical exercise, are the ways we take to ourselves this divine life, becoming ‘partakers in the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 2.4), ‘children of God’ (1 Jn 3.1; cf. Mt. 5.9). What God is becomes ever more obscure to the eye of the philosophical intellect, but the site of the divine reality is marked ever more clearly for us by the horrors of our time, which best confirm the wisdom of the Gospel. Whatever God is, whatever eternal life may be, they are no further away than the one who is nearest to hand – our neighbour.
 Richard Holloway, On Forgiveness (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002), 5.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 12.
 Getting Even: Forgiveness and its Limits (Oxford University Press, 2003), 95.
 Ibid., 23.
 Quoted, Holloway, 34.
 Ibid., 53-4.
 Daphne Eviatar, ‘In Cold Blood’, The Nation, February 21, 2005.
 Holloway, 55.
 Ibid., 56.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 73.
 Ibid., 78.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 86.
 Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1978), 210-11.
 Ibid., 179.
 Ibid., 212.
 Ibid., 191.
 Of course it could be edifying to see theologians deal respectfully with Islamic critiques of Christian doctrine, such as the remarkable tractates of Abû ‘Îsâ al-Warrâq (9th century), which are directed against formulations of Christian doctrine that are superior to the bulk of today’s fanciful Trinitarian musings. See David Thomas, Anti-Christian polemic in early Islam (Cambridge University Press, 1992). But such exercises are far from the core-issues that Christians and Muslims must face together today.
 Tharcisse Gatwa, ‘Mission and Belgian Colonial Anthropology in Rwanda’, Studies in World Christianity 6 (2000), 1-20; 17.
 See P.J. Tomson, ‘Gamaliel’s Counsel and the Apologetic Strategy of Luke-Acts’, in J. Verheyden, ed. The Unity of Luke-Acts (Leuven University Press, 1999), 585-604.
 Holloway, 42.
 See Serge Ruzer, ‘From “Love your neighbour” to “Love your enemy”: Trajectories in Early Jewish Exegesis’. Revue Biblique 109 (2002), 371-89. ‘Love your enemy’ (Mt. 5.44) is ‘a midrashic elaboration of Leviticus 19:18’ (372). Some tried to limit Lev. 19.18 to the community, some widened it to include outsiders or even enemies.
 Quoted, Geza Vermes, Jesus in his Jewish Context (London: SCM, 2003), 48.
 Ibid., 50.