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Detail from Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver, 1629

Forgiving the Unforgivable?

On Guilt and Pardon

Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz

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Eva Mozes Kor, and other young survivors of Auschwitz in January 1945

Forgiving Dr. Mengele

“For most people there is a big obstacle to forgiveness because society expects revenge. We need to honor and remember our victims, but I always wonder if my dead loved ones would want me to live with pain and anger until the end of my life...”

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Stories of forgiveness, as the media has discovered, touch us powerfully. Who can forget the forgiveness offered by victims’ families after the recent church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina? Earlier, the families of Coptic Christians martyred by ISIS forgave the killers, as did the families of the Amish schoolgirls murdered in 2006 in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

Yet as the divided reactions to these cases show, for many forgiveness is suspect, even offensive. It seems too simple, too easy, a denial of the horror of the crime. At best, it’s dismissed as a weak concession to the need for closure; at worst, it’s condemned as an insult to the dead.

Seldom has the protest against cheap “ forgiving and forgetting” been raised more eloquently than by Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903–1985), who as a Jew had joined the French Resistance to the Nazis. Gerl-Falkovitz takes his response to the Holocaust as her starting point. —The Editors

“Should we pardon them?”

That was the question posed by the French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch in a 1971 essay of that title about Nazi war crimes.footnote Jankélévitch passionately opposed a statute of limitations for these atrocities.footnote He argued that crimes against humanity – those committed in Auschwitz, for example – are dehumanizing in the most basic sense: they attack the very essence of what it is to be human. Crimes like these, he wrote, cannot be covered by reconciliation:

It was the very being of humanity, esse, that racial genocide attempted to annihilate in the suffering flesh of these millions of martyrs. ... When an act denies the essence of a human being as a human being, the statutory limitations that urge absolution in the name of morality actually themselves contradict morality.footnote

Forgiveness, according to Jankélévitch, died in the concentration camps. (His essay had a powerful effect: as a result of it, in France there was no statute of limitations for Nazi collaborators under the Vichy regime.)

Jankélévitch then went on to ask what is required for reconciliation to be possible. Since both victims and perpetrators are dead, to whom could forgiveness be directed? Can the state “forgive”? Doubtless it can do so in the sense of granting a pardon and waiving punishment, but not in the sense of actually erasing guilt. Who then could grant such all-encompassing forgiveness?

Jankélévitch assumes that only a personal forgiveness is possible – a face-to-face forgiveness between torturers and victims, in a private encounter without any third parties. But this requires that the victim is still alive – if not, then the door to forgiveness has slammed shut.

In that case, the torturer’s remorse achieves nothing; it is inadequate and comes too late. Remorse is decoupled from forgiveness; the two are separated by an unbridgeable gap in time.

In Jankélévitch’s view, later generations may not presume to offer forgiveness – something they are not entitled to do in any case, in view of the sheer monstrosity of the guilt. When politics engages in the rituals of official apology, it is overstepping its proper boundaries in pursuit of a strategic benefit: apology becomes a semi-sacred event for the public. The rhetoric bandied over the mass graves is impure, even if it is the victims’ grandchildren who are speaking:

Thanks to indifference, moral amnesia, and general superficiality, pardoning today is a fait accompli. Everything is already long forgiven and forgotten.footnote

Nevertheless, Jankélévitch argues, the guilt still exists, since the agony of the victims “will remain until the end of days.” No handshakes, no yearning for social harmony on the part of later generations, can salvage what is unforgivable.

Now for a contrasting picture: Eva Mozes Kor and her twin sister, born to a Jewish family, were used for medical experiments on humans by the SS doctor Josef Mengele.footnote As she remembers it, she was defined by her status as victim. Half a century later, she met with another SS doctor, Hans Münch, who asked her for forgiveness. It was then that she recognized in his appeal a way to leave behind the harm inflicted on her. The “helpless little Mengele guinea pig,” in her words, possessed something she hadn’t been aware of: the power to forgive. By means of this power, which she had not previously suspected and which now overwhelmed her, she freed herself from the shadow of a lifelong status as a victim. She pronounced forgiveness and found freedom – including freedom in the face of accusations that she had betrayed her dead sister. Mozes Kor did not see it that way; for her, forgiveness was a way to honor the dead – perhaps the only appropriate way. It was a way that transcended all the requirements of a just punishment. The logic of retribution paled in light of her experience that forgiveness offers a way of liberation for both perpetrators and victims.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver, 1629 Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver, 1629
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The Reappearance of Guilt

Jankélévitch’s words about an essential, unredeemable guilt brought a bleak and long-forgotten tone back into the business of “processing the past.” Ever since Nietzsche and Freud, it had become usual to classify guilt in terms of unresolved “guilt feelings,” which could be treated by therapy. Wasn’t the sense of being guilty, produced by cultural conditioning, the sum total of what guilt was?

The end of the twentieth century, however, brought increasing attention to the history of crimes committed in the name of what Ernst Bloch called “the humane human being” (der menschliche Mensch). Ideologies of various hues, whether communist, fascist, or liberal-capitalist, had denied the humanity of millions because of their race or class, and had done so not in the name of any god but rather in the name of the advance of “humanization.”

This guilt has stacked up into an unbearably heavy inheritance for today’s generations. And shall it remain into all eternity? Auschwitz is one symbol of this guilt, and there are others too: the Gulag Archipelago, Pol Pot, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Rwanda... Meanwhile at this very moment, ISIS, al- Qaeda, and Boko Haram are carrying out killings in the Middle East and Nigeria in the name of an Islamist god. Horrors that had seemed to be a thing of the past are now back with a vengeance. Guilt, shorn of any disguise, has reentered the language of politics, faith, and philosophy.

The turn of the millennium was accompanied by a rash of apologies for guilt: the Boers apologized to the Khoikhoi, European Australians to the Aborigines, US politicians to the Native Americans. Before that, there were German gestures of penitence such as Chancellor Willy Brandt’s 1970 visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, when he fell on his knees to commemorate the dead. Yet in these apologies, the addressee has rarely been named clearly. In a non-religious world, who was the one who might grant forgiveness? The exception to this pattern is telling: in 2000, when Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for the historic guilt of Christians, he appealed neither to the dead nor to their descendants, but to God.

Jankélévitch specifically rejected the wishful dream that the descendants of the victims could (or should) forgive the descendants of the murderers. Neither group, he argued, is directly involved in the crime, even if they are caught up in its aftermath. But how then can one reach the dead torturers and victims? Time cannot be rolled back. What does forgiveness actually accomplish – if forgiveness is to mean something more than just the restoration of social harmony?

Most basically: Who is it who forgives? What difference does it make to the crime or to the criminal – if any?

Detail of Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver

Pure Gift: A Prelude to Pure Forgiveness

In order to understand forgiving, not least in its biblical depth of meaning, we must first reflect on giving. The basis of any economy is exchange – a fair balance of giving and receiving. Exchange represents a pragmatic justice that evens things out. In its drastic form, the concept of exchange is linked to the rule of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

Yet where human beings are balanced against things, where value is balanced against price, and where life itself is balanced against money and commodities, the blurry and debasing nature of exchange shows up clearly. To take a well-known example: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price...” (Matt. 27:9). Thirty coins are the “balance” that is exchanged for the Son of Man; when these coins are thrown back into the temple, they can just as easily be used to buy a potter’s field. Exchange breaks down when things that are unlike are treated as if they were alike. As this relates to our topic here: can murder ever be “balanced out,” or atoned for, or forgiven – even in exchange for remorse?

The opposite of exchange is the “pure gift.” Such a gift is supererogatory: it is above and beyond any price, any equivalent value, or any debt owed. Such a gift is gratuitousness itself, it is pure grace. “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt. 5:40–41). A pure gift is not given according to the logic of the Roman motto do ut des – “I give that you might give to me” – but rather in another sense: “I give because I have received.” Exact repayment is transformed into an attitude of free and unselfish giving-on to others.

The clearest example of this is love. Love cannot be balanced out through justice; love exists only when it is not owed, when it is freely offered. This pure gift is the heart of creation, and for Christians, it’s more: it is the heart of the still greater redemption to come. 

Detail of Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver

Pure Forgiveness: A Bridge to the Divine

Taking stock of the horrors of the twentieth century, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) proposed a heightened form of “pure giving”: he called it “pure forgiving.” (Derrida plays on the French terms don pur, “pure gift,” and pardon pur, “pure forgiveness.”) He did this expressly to oppose Jankélévitch’s bitter essay “Should We Pardon Them?,” arguing against putting conditions on forgiveness and thus turning it into a commodity to be exchanged.

Derrida speaks instead of the necessity for “pure absolution” from guilt: absolution as unconditional forgiveness, offered without receiving anything in exchange.

For-giving doesn’t depend on balancing guilt with expiation. That’s why forgiveness cannot be a provision in criminal law: it must remain outside of any balancing of legal rights. After all, to pardon a criminal means setting aside the law, and can only ever be done as an exception; but the act of pardoning arises from the transcendent “mystical foundation” of a justice that legal justice cannot catch up with.footnote

Derrida takes aim at Jankélévitch’s first thesis – that forgiveness may only be granted (if at all) in a one-on-one encounter of perpetrator and victim. If the possibility of forgiveness really ended with the death of the victim, then the perpetrator’s remorse would come too late; the perpetrator would no longer have an active role in the drama. Remorse and forgiveness would then be logically separated: forgiving would no longer have a giver, indeed forgiveness itself would become mortal. Derrida asks: can forgiveness really be so time-bound, so finite? And even more seriously: is forgiveness then actually something that is “exchanged” for remorse?

Derrida also detects in Jankélévitch’s second thesis a concealed logic of exchange, here in negative form: for certain crimes such as crimes against humanity, no adequate compensation could ever be offered. What sort of remorse could ever free a concentration camp commander from his guilt?

Derrida concludes that it must bepossible – perhaps it is even necessary? – to break this cycle of guilt and expiation. To that end, he turns to the biblical story of the original sin: the Bible speaks of the great sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), but it speaks too of Yahweh’s a priori forgiveness, granted already before the first sin was committed (see Exod. 6–10). Grace is more than a concept, a speculation, or a wish – grace “already is.”footnote

Forgiveness then, according to Derrida, must extend to forgiving the unforgivable:

It is necessary, it seems to me, to begin from the fact that, yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls “venial sin,” then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called “mortal sin,” the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. ... There is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible. ... What would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable?footnote

In other words: absolution is only possible in the sphere of the absolute, not in the relative sphere of human score-settling. What lies concealed behind this “absolute”?

Derrida’s argument accords with the biblical way of thinking: the Abrahamic faiths all recognize the possibility of an unimaginable forgiveness. Indeed, Derrida mentions the Catholic church, which actually offers such forgiveness. (Although Derrida, as a Jew, does not belong to the church, he is likely thinking of the Catholic practice of confession.) Pure forgiveness, in his view, can only come into being when the confrontation between two people (even if both are dead) is resolved through the presence of Another: a Giver of forgiveness who is not bound by time. The dimension of this Other transcends the realm of human possibilities while drawing them toward the horizon of what is impossible, yet nevertheless imaginable:

Is forgiveness a matter for human beings, something belonging to humankind and within the scope of human capability – or is it reserved to God? ... Is it divine/otherworldly or this-worldly, consecrated/holy or not? All debates about forgiveness have to do with this boundary and with trespasses of this boundary.footnote

In contrast to rituals of political renewal, then, forgiveness involves something more.

Detail of Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver

Sending Guilt Back into Nothingness

Can what has been done be undone through forgiveness? Certainly, the mystery of evil cannot be solved by erasing history (2 Thess. 2:7). Augustine’s insight is relevant here: according to him, sin serves to build up a false reality (he calls it the “privation of good”). Fundamentally, evil can exercise its power only by using a stolen mask – it works only under the false pretense of being good. The lie consists of inflating evil, as if it were something good.

In no way does this deny or diminish the horrible reality of guilt or the irretrievable absence of the victims. Forgiveness means neither undoing the crime nor belittling its horror. Face-to-face with the absolute, something else happens instead: evil is exposed as futile, void, nonsensical, even miserable – and it is then sent back (remissio) into the nothingness out of which it emerged. Evil disappears in the nothingness of its usurped power, extinguished in its claim to be “something.” What does this mean?

Indulgentiam, absolutionem et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum – so runs the prayer for forgiveness in the Roman Mass, which literally asks for “clemency for, freeing from, and sending back of our sins.” Remissio refers to an objective process: sending evil back into its nullity, returning the lie back into its non-being. Forgiveness directs our gaze toward the past, but only in order to allow the past to vanish by itself into its own nothingness.

Forgiveness takes away from the past its power to remain present – to remain in the appalling “eternal now” of which Jankélévitch speaks.0

Forgiveness frees the present and the future from the corpse of what has been.

Forgiveness, then, doesn’t remember the past in order to keep it eternally present. Rather, the past is sent back and vanishes, and forgiveness forgets it. This is the sense in which God will, in the words of Psalm 103, “cast our sins behind us” – “as far as the morning is from the evening,” to translate Jerome’s rendering literally. As the Psalmist declares:

Bless the Lord ... who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. ... He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.

Augustine remarks: “To the rejected he has promised glory.”0

Echoing this, the sinner can only say with Kierkegaard: “That you have forgotten and forgiven, I will always keep in remembrance.”0

Forgiving thus becomes a gift in an augmented sense: it means giving back (remissio) what is death-bringing into its own death.

Detail of Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver

Happy Guilt?

According to Augustine, the most elementary meaning of life is summed up in the phrase videntem videre – to see the One who has always seen me. Or in Nicholas of Cusa’s words: “Your seeing is your enlivening. ... Your seeing is your working.”0

God’s gaze and our insatiable looking back to him are something far different than our relationship to anonymous abstractions such as justice or forgiveness. To see, to let ourselves be seen, brings a greater joy than dissolving into a Universal Everything or Universal Nothing. To forgive, then, does not mean sinking back into detachment, but rather it means entering into a new, exhilarating relationship: to another human being, but even more deeply, to the source of life, to God.

Seen this way, forgiveness is grasped not as the neutral cancelation of guilt, but in terms of a Person who is the source of forgiveness. One pebble does not forgive another pebble, nor does the second pebble experience remorse. To repent and to forgive are not mechanical processes. They are acts carried out by persons.

Each year on the night before Easter, the Exsultet hymn is sung in churches around the world. This joyous hymn includes the words of Augustine:

This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin. This is the night that, even now throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin ... when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld. Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed. ... O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ! O happy fault (felix culpa) that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer! ... The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners.0

C. S. Lewis once remarked that the apostle Peter, in his later life, would likely have told everyone the story of how he betrayed the Lord – and done so with a radiant face, since on that night he had been drawn into an unimaginable depth of love through a single glance: “The Lord turned and looked at Peter. ... And he went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61–62). Only in this light can we grasp the decisive statement: Guilt is only felt where there is forgiveness.

Normally we think that guilt comes first, then remorse, then forgiveness. This reflects ordinary human experience. But it is not true of God: it is Jesus’ glance of forgiveness that prompts the pain of remorse, which in turn brings about an awareness of guilt.

In God’s way of redemption, remorse is not made a condition for “pure forgiveness.” The “happy fault” not only dissolves this chain of connection, but it also puts the remorseful person’s insight into his guilt onto a different basis. The divine goodness that eternally sees every moment in time has already – long before there was any guilt – opened up a place where guilt is permitted to speak itself out and be confessed. Confession is already the first fruit of forgiveness. The glance of love is itself the basis on which evil is repented of. In other words, guilt can only truly be confessed when it comes face-to-face with forgiveness.

What is more, when guilt is confessed, it has already begun to disappear. One might say that guilt only becomes evident when it comes within reach of divine forgiveness. Only as our burden is being lifted do we feel its weight.

Divine forgiveness is an unconditional gift that “overtakes” remorse. Remorse isn’t what brings on forgiveness, but the opposite: forgiveness draws out remorse – not as a condition for finding freedom, but as a result of an overwhelming experience. It is in this moment that guilt becomes happy, for it has found its liberator: “Wave upon wave gushes out of you inexhaustible, ever-flowing, billows of water and blood ... rushing over the deserts of guilt, enriching overabundantly, overflowing every heart that receives it, far surpassing every desire.”0

Detail of Repentant Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver

Footnotes

  1. Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, Verzeihung des Unverzeihlichen? Ausflüge in Landschaften der Schuld und der Vergebung (Text & Dialog, 2013).
  2. Vladimir Jankélévitch, “Should We Pardon Them?,” trans. Ann Hobart, Critical Inquiry 22, no. 3 (1996): 552–572.
  3. Ibid., 555–556. (Translation here by Peter Mommsen.)
  4. Ibid., 566.
  5. Eva Mozes Kor, interview with Harald Welzer, Frankfurter Rundschau, June 13, 2003.
  6. Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell et al. (Routledge, 1992), 3–66.
  7. Jacques Derrida, Pardonner: L’impardonnable et l’impréscriptible (Galilée, 2005), 70.
  8. Jacques Derrida, “On Forgiveness,” trans. Michael Hughes, in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (London & New York: Routledge, 2001), 32–36. See also Derrida, “Das Jahrhundert der Vergebung: Verzeihen ohne Macht – unbedingt und jenseits der Souveränität,” interview by Michel Wieviorka, in Lettre international 48 (Spring, 2000): 10–18.
  9. Derrida, Pardonner, 74–75.
  10. Vladimir Jankélévitch, “Schuld und Vergebung,” in Sinn und Form: Beiträge zur Literatur 50, no. 3 (1998): 378.
  11. Aurelius Augustinus, Enarratio in Psalmos, 110 (109), 1.
  12. Søren Kierkegaard, “Love Hides the Multiplicity of Sins,” in Taten der Liebe (1847), GW 19 (1966), 309ff.
  13. Nicholas of Cusa, De visione Dei 4,13, 5,18, in Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Nicholas of Cusa, trans. Jasper Hopkins (Arthur J. Banning, 2001), 685–687.
  14. The Roman Missal, Third Edition (ICEL, 2010).
  15. Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (Ignatius Press, 1979), 153.
Contributed By Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz

The author is professor emeritus of philosophy at Dresden University and head of EUPHRat (European Institute for Philosophy and Religion) at Hochschule Heiligenkreuz. Her book on forgiveness is titled Verzeihung des Unverzeihlichen? Ausflüge in Landschaften der Schuld und der Vergebung (2013).

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