The theme of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, was for a long time among the themes discussed mainly by the Greek philosophers who lived before the birth of Jesus with Socrates at their fore front (470 BC to 399BC).
When Jesus of Nazareth started his earthly ministry this theme was central to his teaching. And he tacked it with the kind of mastery that left his audience complaining. “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mk. 1; 22).
Since his teaching, the theme of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation became mainly the concern of philosophers and theologians.
In the post modern period, the concepts of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation seem to have fallen under the academic microscope as well. Political science dealing with conflict resolution and political transition in societies coming out of conflicts has to preach repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation too.
A simple and brief study of International Conflict Researches, debates about truth commissions and different round-table resolutions show that there has been already a shift from focusing on the investigative aspects of the truth-telling process and the traditional cataloging of human rights abuses to considering their social impact:
Issues such as healing, reconciliation, apology, acknowledgment, and forgiveness are becoming central to our present day justice debate.
Obviously, this too continues to raise very difficult issues to answer.
Is intergroup forgiveness possible? Shall we forgive and forget without endangering our human dignity? When you forgive someone who has not asked for it, will not that lead to false reconciliation?
Such hard questions are complicated the more by the human factor which makes asking for forgiveness at times an awfully difficult thing.
Hannah Arendt, a great twentieth-century political philosopher, makes the situation even harder when she cautions us on the hardship which is in forgiving: ‘Humanly speaking there are some stores of bitterness and woe that are too precious, too deeply a part of the fabric of injured dignity, that are not worth foregoing for the sake of civility’.
But on the other hand she argued that Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness were among the most important teachings on the political realm ever to be produced.
For her, Jesus has the way forward; his insistence on forgiveness went hand in hand with an appreciation of the value of civic life: a people who cannot bury the hatchet is a people without a future. The same people shall never achieve a stable and healthy public life.
In fact Hannah Arendt is right because for Jesus the practice of constant and wide-ranging forgiveness outweighs many other claims.
And the church still echoes this teaching in her liturgy as shown by the readings of this third Sunday of Lent: Exodus 3:1-8; 13-15; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9.
The theme of our readings is so categorical: forgive, repent and reconcile or perish.
Hannah Arendt goes on to observe very rightly that for Jesus the capacity to forgive and reconcile outweighs every other human claims: ‘So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Mt. 5: 23-24) As far as his contemporary Jews were concerned, Jesus seemed to be going far off!
Peter who knew well that the maximum requirement of tolerance in forgiving is three times, in order to save the situation in front of the teachers of the law, he put a hypothetical question to Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?
Up to seven times?” No comprise; Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Here Jesus meant ‘always’.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu uses this point of Jesus in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), formed to address the countless crimes against humanity committed in apartheid’s dark history.
Faced with the endless criminal trials, wherein the accused are constrained to defend themselves against the threat of imprisonment and victims can only expect the state-mandated retribution as a form of justice; he proposed that the TRC convenes the victims and the accused in Gacaca and give them an opportunity to simply tell their stories and reconcile. The title of his book on the issue tells the whole story: No Future Without Forgiveness.