On what we fail to understand about forgiveness

Nigel Biggar considers what it takes to forgive – both personally and politically. 



Nigel Biggar considers what it takes to forgive – both personally and politically. 

My view of forgiveness is that we – certainly Christians, and I think more broadly – we’re often quite confused about it, and that we conflate two different things. The first part of forgiveness, I think, is if you injure me in some way – you betray me, or you let me down – regardless of whether you ever say you’re sorry, I have a kind of internal task here. I have to stop becoming out of control in my anger against you, so I have to restrain myself. As a Christian, I’m also bound to remember that I too am a sinner, so I can’t rubbish you. What’s more – what’s even more – is I’m required in some sense to love you. So the first part of forgiveness is compassion.

But if you’ve injured me in some serious fashion, and you show no understanding what you’ve done is wrong, you don’t repent, I simply can’t trust you. Because if I carry on behaving as if you haven’t done me an injury and you don’t recognise you’ve done me an injury, you’re going do it again. So what I can’t do until you repent is say, OK, Simon, the past is past. I embrace you, we can carry on into the future. But that part of forgiveness has to follow repentance. The compassion part can precede it.

And in terms of political life, it seems to me there are not many occasions when states or even warring parties get to the point of saying, I’m entirely sorry for what I did. I forgive you. We embrace and go forward. For example, in Northern Ireland, no one has said yet – not the IRA, nor the loyalists, nor the British Army – no one has said, we should not have done what we did. They may have said, we regret that we were forced to do what we did. But that ain’t repentance. So there’s been no forgiveness as absolution, no full embrace of reconciliation. What there has been has been gestures of compassion, people on one side saying, “Well, I understand why you did what you did.” And there’s been accommodation. It is no small achievement that we have people who before were military enemies, are now merely political enemies. So they carry on their battles, but in the assembly. The bad news is, that’s not reconciliation. There’s no embrace. There’s still mistrust. The good news is, it’s not war.