We can't forgive, we can only pretend to

This piece was up at the Guardian’s Cif Belief last week. The headline’s not quite right, but anyway…

Forgiveness is impossible. This was the thought of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, and he has a good point.

There are some things that we say are easy to forgive. But, Derrida argues, they don’t actually need forgiving. I forget to reply to an email, and my friend remarks: “Oh, it didn’t really matter anyway.” It’s not that he forgave me. He’d forgotten about the email too.

Then, there are other things we say are hard to forgive, and we admire those who appear to be able to forgive nonetheless. The case of Rais Bhuiyan, who was shot by Mark Stroman, is a case in point. Bhuiyan says he forgave Stroman, and asked the Texas authorities not to execute him for his crime. But did Bhuiyan really forgive?

He writes of how Stroman was ignorant and had a terrible upbringing. He had seen signs that Stroman was now a changed man. So, it does not seem that Bhuiyan forgave his assailant. Rather, he came to understand him. He saw the crime from the perpetrator’s point of view. There were reasons for the wrongdoing. That lets Stroman off the hook. It’s not really forgiveness.

CS Lewis wrote: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” Which is again to imply that those who think they have offered forgiveness really find they don’t have anything to forgive after all.

The ancient philosophers appear to have thought that forgiveness is something of a pseudo-subject, too. They hardly touched on it, for all that they dwelt on all manner of other moral concerns. It is not on any list of virtues.

Take Aristotle. He wrote about pardoning people, but only when they are not responsible. “There is pardon,” he says, “whenever someone does a wrong action because of conditions of a sort that overstrain human nature, and that no one would endure.” When nature has not been overstrained, justice must meet wrongdoing. Forgiveness doesn’t come into it.

All this calls into question a theory in evolutionary psychology. Here, the argument is that forgiveness is essential to our evolutionary success.

It’s because we forgive one another that we are able to live in large groups. People in collectives like cities are bound to offend one another all the time, the theory goes. It’s because we are so ready to forgive and continue to co-operate that we don’t, as a rule, destroy ourselves in spirals of retribution.

But I’m not sure that’s right. Evolutionary doctrine itself undermines our capacity to forgive. Rather, it teaches that we learn it’s in our own self-interest to co-operate. We put up with others because, at some deep level, we know we serve ourselves in so doing. That’s not forgiveness.

Surely, you might be thinking, Christianity teaches forgiveness, a forgiveness that is real. But once more, that can be challenged. Take the parable of the prodigal son. You may half remember it as the paradigmatic tale of forgiveness, the father forgiving the son in spite of his profligacy. But read it again. Forgiveness is not once mentioned. The son does not ask for it. The father does not offer it. Rather, when the son returns, the father spontaneously throws a party.

It is as if the biblical story shares Derrida’s analysis. Forgiveness is impossible. Instead, what it reveals is another virtue in operation, the love the father has for his son. It is wildly extravagant. It gratuitously throws a party. The past is not forgiven. It is simply sidestepped.

Is this what God’s “forgiveness” is like too?

(Image: Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son)