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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

The Possibility of Forgiveness

Ever since his encounter as a Jewish man with a Nazi soldier asking for his forgiveness, Simon Wiesenthal has challenged the world to ask, “What would I have done?” in the same situation [1]. In the face of the violence of the Holocaust, could a victim forgive a representative of the oppressive Nazi regime for his crimes? Desmond Tutu, the former Archbishop of Cape Town in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is one of the individuals who has taken up Wiesenthal's challenge. He answers as an individual who has himself faced oppression under the apartheid government of South Africa and has led the effort to reconcile white and black communities in the aftermath. His answer serves as a witness to the Christian reality that forgiveness, even in the face of extreme violence and injustice, remains a reality, yet he mainly looks to Christ as an example of forgiveness and does not provide a rich theological basis for the reality of forgiveness.


Tutu’s answer to Wiesenthal’s question is not a personal statement of what he would do, but is a list of examples of others he has seen offer forgiveness in similar circumstances to Wiesenthal. “I answer by pointing to the fact that people who have been tortured, whose loved ones were abducted, killed, and buried secretly-a young widow whose husband’s brains were blown out by a booby-trapped tape recorder, a father whose won was killed in a Wimpy Bar bomb explosion-can testify to the Commission and say they are ready to forgive the perpetrators. It is happening before our very eyes” [2]. He points to the example of Christ as the basis for forgiveness in the face of evil. “They say they follow the Jewish rabbi who, when he was crucified, said, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’” [3].


Tutu provides examples of individuals who refused their rights to revenge and recrimination. The only story he tells by name is that of Nelson Mandela who, as the first president of South Africa, did not use his influence to bring his jailer to justice, but instead invited him to his inauguration [4]. For Tutu, the essence of forgiveness is a rejection of retribution. “It is clear that if we look only to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future” [5]. Martha Stortz argues along similar lines. She delineates three steps in forgiveness: repentance, remembrance, and reconciliation. Specifically in repentance and reconciliation, individuals renounce their rights to revenge and recrimination [6]. The act of repentance for an individual’s own contribution to escalating violence ends violence’s continuation [7]. Reconciling requires moving beyond simple forgiveness, but to showing love to an enemy as Christ commanded: “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [8]. Rather than bearing hatred and ill-will towards those who have wronged, an individual choses to reach out in love to a neighbor [9]. Tutu’s response requires Stortz’s steps. Without ending cycles of violence and loving the enemy, forgiveness is not possible and, as Tutu says, “Without forgiveness, there is no future” [10].


While Tutu presents Christ’s act of forgiveness on the cross as an example to those who have forgiven in the face of violence, theologian Miroslav Volf goes much farther, arguing that Christ’s death creates the very possibility of forgiveness. Volf, drawing largely on the biblical epistles of St. Paul and on Martin Luther’s theological constructions, argues for a theological vision of forgiveness rooted in the atoning work of Christ on the cross and in His union with humanity. In His death, Christ bore the sins of humanity: “The One who was offended bears the burden of the offense” [11]. Through His crucifixion, not only is the penalty of sin completed, God separates sin from humanity. Christ is not merely united to God, but is also united to humanity [12]. All humanity is included in and shares in His death [13]. God forgives by uniting Himself to humanity and separating their sin from them. The mystery of the Incarnation is that God identifies with humanity and, in so doing, creates new possibilities for living as the humans God intended at creation. God’s forgiveness creates a new reality, a new relationship between human individuals and their sinful actions. For individuals to forgive wrongs done to them is to recognize the new reality enacted in Christ and to share in it. Individuals join God in offering the forgiveness accomplished in Christ [14]. Volf provides a poignant analogy for this dynamic: “We make God’s sending of the ‘forgiveness package’ our own’” [15]. Volf argues that Christ’s death offers the power to forgive and is not merely an example, as it is in Tutu’s response.


For Tutu, forgiveness must be possible in both his situation and in Wiesenthal’s. Without forgiveness, there is no life on the other side of injustice. To make room in society to live together without hate and continuing violence, forgiveness must occur. Tutu sees this possibility in the death of Christ who, while dying under another oppressive regime, forgave His enemies. Yet Tutu does not explain how Christ’s death makes forgiveness possible. Volf is required to expound the theological vision that, in Christ’s death, humanity’s sin was separated from individuals and forgiveness was made a reality. Individuals need only chose to join hands with God in extending forgiveness to those whose sin has been removed in Christ.

[1] Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower: On the Possibility and Limits of Forgiveness. Schocken Books, 1998. p. 96.

[2] Tutu, Desmond in Wiesenthal, The Sunflower: On the Possibility and Limits of Forgiveness. p. 267.

[3] Ibid. p. 268.

[4] Ibid. p. 267

[5] Ibid. p. 268.

[6] Stortz, Martha E. “The Practice of Forgiveness: Disciples as Forgiven Forgivers.” Word and World, vol. 27, no. 1, 2007, pp. 15-16.

[7] Ibid. p. 17.

[8] Matthew 5:44 NRSV.

[9] Stortz, pp. 20-22.

[10] Tutu, p. 268.

[11] Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Zondervan, 2005, p. 145.

[12] Ibid. p. 146.

[13] Ibid. pp. 146-147.

[14] Ibid. pp. 195-197.

[15] Ibid. p. 197.

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