The problem

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THE idea of revenge and, in contradistinction to it, the ideal of forgiveness, have preoccupied me since I was a teenager. Maybe I was born under a sky which seemed to be overfilled with violence. Or possibly because when one suffers from injustice and cannot think about anything else, what overpowers the mind is the thought of revenge. I soon realized that vengefulness was not an accidental or a horrific interlude in our history, but a reality of human existence itself, the terror of which had no beginning or end.

True, in both revenge and forgiveness the individual is aware of the full and irreducible otherness of the ‘other’, but it is only through forgiveness that we can live with the world and not only in it. After all, we are dialogical beings even if we occasionally kill and destroy each other. Therefore, forgiveness reveals the relation between persons that makes dialogue possible. It is both a precondition for dialogue and, equally, is most realized in dialogue. Above all, it presents shared values, especially moral, as the minimum background that shapes forgiving persons such as to make dialogue possible in the first place.

Yet, even if forgiveness eschews revenge, it has problems of its own in bringing humanity together. Simply put, revenge is like scratching a cat because the cat scratched you, an eye for an eye morality which escalates violence rather than restoring justice and fairness. Revenge is a negative form of reciprocity marked by the rejection and destruction of the other. Forgiveness, as opposed to revenge, is a noble sentiment of mutuality accompanied by a sense of empathy and compassion. It is characterized by a series of changes that occur within an individual or a nation wronged by another person or another nation. It is the call of the heart, especially in its relationship with the otherness of the other. Forgiveness is often an individual choice or a political act of abandoning vengeance and resentment, replacing it with reconciliation and tolerance.

It goes without saying that if we use violence and adopt a vengeful attitude towards our enemies, our own dignity and liberty are diminished. If we do not bring about lasting communal harmony, the day may come when no one among us will be safe from an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation. We must act, therefore, not only for the sake of our own interests and to overcome our own desire for revenge, but for all humanity. We must remember that the history of humanity has always been marked by violence and that people around the world are always faced with horrendous wrongdoing. Centuries of societal conflict – violence, murder and genocide have created a general human trauma that requires healing, peacemaking and justice, but justice and peace cannot be partners without the vision of forgiveness. This is why forgiveness is more than a simple event; it is a paradigm shift to a new outlook on human affairs.

Without pretending to have a prophetic recipe or a magical formula and by referring only to my own life experience or that of others as revealed in literature, philosophy, religion, or politics, I have suggested the noble goal of forgiveness as opposed to hatred, vengeance and resentment. I am convinced that if we seek forgiveness, whatever form it may take, we must labour to find it rather than work for an insignificant world based on values such as greed, power and hatred. This is a responsibility that our human civilization should accept without fear or apprehension. I do not know if it is possible to divert the future of our world in another direction. But, I do know that the two most difficult things in life are accepting the errors of the past and preparing for the truths of the future. Each one of us has a different understanding of the past, but we all like to look at our future as offering positive changes and progress in the right direction. Yet, I have no doubt that if our contemporary world is to attain maturity and common sense, moving beyond its pre-sent violent lunacy and destructive madness, it must be attuned to the aim of forgiveness and reconciliation as the sine qua non of living together.

My general conviction is that there can be no human civilization without compassion. The ethos of shared responsibility finds its best expression in the process of taming violence through an act of forgiveness. This is where we should look for a political exercise of moderation and empathy and where a climate of cooperation and reconciliation could flourish. Today, in a world suffused by insignificance and violence, indifference is no longer an option. To fail to recognize this is to betray our conscience. Indifference has cheapened our human life. Therefore, forgiveness is a quality that cannot be manufactured by businessmen and politicians. It is the quality of a person pursuing decency and human dignity beyond all forms of arrogance and hostility. Its ongoing relevance makes forgiveness all the more compelling in current debates on violence, democracy and culture.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu affirmed in the context of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, ‘It is ultimately in our own best interests that we become forgiving, repentant, reconciling and reconciled people, because without forgiveness, without reconciliation, we have no future.’ While some will follow Tutu, others will think that what he suggests is madness. But, as the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis says in his book, Zorba, the Greek: ‘A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.’

If there is only one beautiful madness in the world which can free us from all forms of political and religious lunacy, it’s the act of forgiving the person while not forgetting the event. As such, forgiveness, as a new beginning, is not when the past is forgotten or hidden in a corner of our mind, it is when our past sufferings are not repeated and we do not repeat each other’s. This is when we enter the stage of history not from the back door, but by being fully present in the Agora in order to predict the horrors and warn others about it.