Show Me Forgiveness
It may be too soon to talk about forgiveness. The sins of the world are still so great, after all; and we are only now developing the language and the means to articulate our objections to some of its greatest crimes. Why should we now talk about forgiveness, when even now, the powerful are contriving ways to continue to avoid all possible consequences for their misdeeds? Should we not have vengeance first, and then see to forgiveness when sin is not the natural state of man?
It’s a compelling question, one that I ask myself even now as I write these words suggesting that any truly revolutionary vision of the world we want must include at least some element of forgiveness. I certainly understand the desire to punish those who have exploited us, cheated us, harassed and abused us, before we can be bothered to understand them or rehabilitate them or whatever we envision as the endgame of stripping them of their power to harm. And most certainly, we must address before anything else the systemic problems that not only protect those who prey on us, but which make the act of preying on us morally neutral or even acceptable; there can be no reform until there is recognition.
Even then, I think there are those who cannot be forgiven. For one thing, given the toll in human blood they have been willing to extract to protect even the tiniest share of their profits, I think that for the worst moguls of the capitalist class, there can be no end but the noose. I also believe that even if we achieve our dreams of prison abolition — that if we are able to reduce crime to its sparest vestiges by treatment, rehabilitation, care, and the abandonment of the pretense that property has the same rights as humanity — we will still have a rump of people, shattered and helpless as they may be, who will have had beaten into them the urge to harm and kill so deeply that they cannot be recovered. I don’t know what to do about them, but I don’t foresee the answer being an easy one on any of us.
We must, of course, radically alter our entire vision of what justice means for any of this to happen. Punitive justice is clearly a dead end, but rehabilitative justice has its own problems, and even restorative justice falls prey to definitional games and competing interests. We never encounter so many phrases in dispute as we do when discussing justice. But it is clear that we must redefine who it is who suffers harm; we must talk about victims as if they are of paramount importance while moving past the idea that only punishment can be used to deal with perpetrators; and we must, above all, be eternally aware of the social and environmental factors that make even the worst of us who we are. When Eugene Debs said that as long as there was a criminal class, he was among it, he was not exempting himself from the worst of that class. Reconciliation cannot happen without recognition. Reparations must be both specific and universal, for we have allowed so many to cause so much harm that it is hard to even know how to approach our misdeeds.
But we cannot leave forgiveness out of the equation entirely. We cannot have justice without the possibility of something beyond it. It is completely understandable for those aggrieved to ask for the former before the latter, but we must have at least some conception of both if we are to see a society that is not only different, but better than the one we have now. Justice cannot just be a war of words, a legalistic process in which competing visions of acceptable behavior slug it out until the most elegantly phrased or rousing one wins; it must be a practical matter in which every involved party has a vision of what they ultimately want, a destination to which we must work together in building a road. This is lacking in so much of our conversations about justice, whether it is based on race or gender or class. It is easier to talk about in terms of money, because even for those who do not admit that money is the ultimate arbiter of all disputes, we all know it behaves along predictable and calculable lines, and that makes it easier to use as a benchmark of achievement. But money can never alone bring justice, and more often than not, it serves only to further muddy the waters.
We are also hobbled in our ability to formulate a more profound understanding of justice and restoration by the nature of how we communicate now. The internet, never a place for subtlety or thoughtfulness, is now essentially a tool for rallying competing mobs; that’s pretty useful, actually, in the early goings, but there comes a time at which we will have to abandon the ease with which it encourages things like essentialism, absolutism, guilt by association, and the illusion that everyone has always known what we know now about everyone else. It is also a medium that encourages an academic style of dispute that judges intention by phrasing, a useful tool in literature but not something you’d want to depend on if it meant being hanged by the neck.
I have no answers; I have only questions that I keep throwing against the wide and vast injustice of being alive in 2017. I think we will probably have to get blood on our hands before we are able to wash them clean with water, and I cannot say that there are not many who don’t deserve it. But at some point, we will have to ask ourselves, if nobody else: What does forgiveness mean? For what sins is no apology sufficient? What deserves the possibility of rehabilitation or restoration, and for what are we demanding only punishment and why? We will have to hear Hannah Arendt calling to us from an even bloodier past, saying: “It is quite significant — a structural element in the realm of human affairs — that men are unable to forgive what they cannot punish, and that they are unable to punish what has turned out to be unforgivable. In contrast to revenge, which is a natural and automatic reaction to transgression and which, because of the irreversibility of the action process, can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted. It is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way, and thus retains something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely react, but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it, and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”