Saturday, August 23, 2003

truth and reconciliation

I was brought up a christian, but realised fairly early on that turning the other cheek is nine times out of ten guaranteed to get you twice the beating you'd otherwise have received. obviously, to have been raised a muslim or a sikh wouldn't have protected me from these early lessons in applying God's mediated advice about forgiveness, either, and yet the secular notion of the nobility of restraint, the moral superiority of forgiveness over revenge is strangely pernicious. certainly, a continuing attachment to the ethics of restraint is an essential counterbalance, at the domestic level of parenting and schooling, to the pragmatics of the current realpolitik which seems now to have reverted completely to a level of tribal simplicities that dispenses at a stroke with a thousand years of hard-earned liberalising (not to say civilising) checks and balances.

as long as the great nations persist in behaving like badly-behaved children (and profiting by it) it becomes most important that we parents continue to explain to our own children how and why they should not follow their example.

self-evidently, a violent response to a violent provocation always escalates. there are some cultures (the Irish for one - the SerboCroat for another) whose endless mutual recriminations refer back to an initiating outrage that predates living memory - by centuries, sometimes. clearly, it is possible for the vendetta to become so woven into the tribal consciousness that it becomes almost a self-replicating entity - a sort of non-biological gene - imprinting itself so firmly through patterns of ritual repetition that it becomes a totem of identity. (the northern irish orangemen's annual 'marching season' is a familiar example - it's very difficult for anyone other than an orangeman to identify with his - no women on the marches - 'right' to march along his catholic neighbours' roads banging drums, piping triumphalist anthems, and flourishing the banners and provocative accoutrements that 'celebrate' the protestant 'victory' of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. hatred and revenge are, after all's said and done, nationalism's nectar and ambrosia.)

equally self-evident is the truth that the only right way forward from a perceived wrong is to forgive and forget - the south african truth and reconciliation model as the polar opposite of the jew/arab kill-for-a-kill.

at such times as these, forgiveness becomes a moral imperative, even if forgetting seems, at first, impossible. but it (forgiving) is not something that just emerges, together with table-manners, as part of the domestic didactic package. it may be necessary to experience what it is to be forgiven before forgiveness has any real meaning, and in order to understand how to forgive great transgressions, it may be necessary to have transgressed greatly, and to have been forgiven. there is still much to forgive in the league of nations - no great nation is innocent of collusion in the worst crimes imaginable, of having sealed up a shameful cellar whose walls still ring with the screams of the uncountable innocent.

arguably, it may be possible to transgress so greatly against someone that they become effectively deprived of the capacity to forgive - if the damage done them has compromised their capacity to dissolve the corrosive links that chain the transgressor to the transgressed - in which case they're likely to become enmeshed in that murky, crypto-neurotic state of semi-resolution that's probably far nearer to the truth of most 'reconciliations' - both personal and political - than the sacharine and media-friendly felicities of 'closure' - that despicable hollywood placebo. hatred, after all, is only the twisted and bitter fruit of unwatered love - the hate-object as much a source of (malign, bilious, forever inadequate) nourishment to the hater as the lover to his ravenous love.

assuming the possibility of forgiveness, however, what does it actually mean?

does 'I forgive you' mean simply 'I release you from the threat of revenge' for example? or does it mean 'I absolve you henceforth of your burden of blame and guilt'? the former is the version the child understands - the latter is the evolved, grownup version - the hard one. to forgive someone is to assess the genuineness of their contrition, to accept it, and to release them of their share of the burden - for them, of remorse, for you, of pain. it is to accept that the one seeking forgiveness has come to understand and partially share the pain their actions have caused, and to allow him or her to divest themselves of that encumbrance - to proceed, enlightened, forgiven.

remorse, however, can be simply (cynically) an expedience - the effectiveness of a courtroom apology is often a reflection of the quality of the performance - and it is here, when the apology is perceived to be transparently insincere, or, tougher still, when there is no apparent contrition at all, that the notion of forgiveness becomes most personally challenging.

again and again, it is with astonishment and profound respect that one listens to or reads the always quietly spoken victim of some atrocity - terrorist or simply criminal - pronouncing their forgiveness on the often unidentified perpetrator of the violent act that has broken their heart. it is as if, in these moments of personal apocalypse, a door of perception is opened to some people, randomly selected by tragic happenstance, to reveal the absolute truth behind the moral relativism of the notion of forgiveness.

god willing, it will not have to come to this for more than a tiny fraction of us, but it is for us to listen and learn from them the necessity - the absolute necessity, if there is to be any progress in our efforts to secure a peaceful future for our descendants - of drawing that line in the sand that says, this is where history ends - beyond this all is forgiven.

No comments: