The impossibility of forgiveness

Next week’s The Essay on BBC Radio 3 discusses forgiveness. My essay, on the impossibility of forgiveness, goes out on Tuesday 25th Feb. An extract is in today’s Church Times. A taster:

HERE, then, is a clue. Put it like this: the things that most need forgiveness are the things that are most unforgivable. But being able to stay with that crux – and not short-circuit it in a bid to escape the pain – might bring us to a place where something higher or unexpected breaks through.

This different dispensation is illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger of two sons asks his father for his inheritance, and blows it all. He ends up eating pig food, just to stay alive. Then, he remembers his father’s servants. He resolves to return to his father, beg forgiveness, and live like the hired men.

But the striking thing is that the father does not forgive his son. Instead, he throws a party. He who was lost is found; he who was dead is alive, the father says – much to the annoyance of the elder brother, who descends into a sulk.

This brother is right, in a sense. Forgiveness is impossible. The younger son has done an inexcusable thing. But the father sees things differently, from beyond the rights and wrongs of his son’s actions.

He has not short-circuited the struggle with anger and agony. He thought his son lost and dead. But when the son actually returns, he can welcome him into a new life, grounded in the economy not of moral righteousness or rage, but of gratuitous love.

So it seems to me that the impossibility of forgiveness is actually an offer, although it is certainly difficult. At one level, it draws attention to the moral hazards of not really forgiving, but forgetting or excusing; to the important incompatibility of forgiveness with justice; to the mental ill-health that might originate when the moral imperative to forgive leads to repressing, not-feeling, not-mourning.

But, at another level, it points to the human experience that sometimes, with the most difficult aspects of life, the best course of action is not to try to fix things, but to stay with things.

In time, a radically different horizon might be glimpsed. It feels above morality and forgiveness – more like redemption or grace;gift, or love. That is what is promised by this apparently unpalatable truth: the impossibility of forgiveness.

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