Forgiveness as a kindly feeling towards a wrongdoer is that it is impossible for most of us
Giles Fraser Guardian/UK 11 April 2014 18
On 6 April 1994, the president of Rwanda's private plane was shot down near Kigali. It was the spark for the 100 days of murder that we now know as genocide. Neighbours hacked neighbours to death in their beds with machetes. Bodies and body parts were piled up at the side of the road. Wild dogs fed off the corpses. In that three months, something like three-quarters of Rwanda's Tutsi minority were exterminated by the Hutu majority.
In the 20 years since then there has been much talk of forgiveness and reconciliation – some of it glib, some of it enormously impressive. And I'm perfectly aware that someone like me probably can't talk legitimately about forgiveness when I find it so hard to forgive people myself – even for things that are pathetically small.
But I am going to risk it only because I suspect there is so much sentimentalising of forgiveness that it blocks out much of our understanding of the real thing. And by sentimentalising, I mean the idea that forgiveness involves person A coming to have warm and kindly feelings towards person B when person B has done them some enormous harm.
This basic logic of reciprocity is built into our very understanding of justice, which is why, for instance, there are weighing scales above the Old Bailey. Crime deserves some punishment in proportion to the crime committed. It's the same logic that evangelical Christians have built into their understanding of the cross: that Jesus's suffering and death are a sort of cosmic payback for human sin.
Forgiveness looks too much like letting people off – that forgiveness is fundamentally unjust, that it represents unpunished crime. The problem with reciprocity is that it often just kicks the can of resentment down the road.
We fantasise that getting even is an end to it. But often it only prepares the ground for a new set of resentments, and so the wheel of anger and violence just keeps on spinning. The problem with justice is that it is sometimes too closely aligned with revenge. And as we know, tragically, victims can easily become the next set of victimisers.
Forgiveness, as in the refusal of reciprocity, does not make us feel good inside. We are still bitter and angry. But if this is the burden we have to bear for peace, then so be it. Forgiveness breaks the cycle of revenge and makes possible a future that is not trapped in the violence and hatred of the past. @giles_fraser