Forgive, don’t forget

Ethicist, former PC(USA) seminary president featured in PBS documentary on forgiveness

April 14, 2011

When one considers the current political climate, whether within the United States or around the world, ‘forgiveness’ might not be the first word that comes to mind. But forgiveness, said the Rev. Donald Shriver Jr., an ethicist and former president of Union Theological Seminary, is exactly what’s needed.

Shriver’s insights on forgiveness will be featured in a two-part PBS documentary called Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate, directed by Helen Whitney. The program airs April 17 (Palm Sunday) and 24 (Easter); check local listings for affiliates’ show times. 

“In all honesty this is the only film that wasn’t my idea. I didn’t want to do it,” said Whitney, adding that the vastness of the subject of forgiveness was intimidating. “But I also feel that it comes with an aura of sentimentality, like a squishy valentine.”

What she found was that the topic of forgiveness is anything but that “baggy sock of a subject” that she had feared.

“I quickly discovered that it is complicated, contradictory and that there is no single accepted definition of what forgiveness actually is,” Whitney said.

She spent hours interviewing Shriver about forgiveness at the political level, especially in the case of modern day Germany as it has sought to move through its past. 

“I say that forgive and forget is a very bad motto,” Shriver said. “The better is to remember and forgive.”

When one does not remember what the evil is, and does not honor those who have suffered from it, then one has no right to get beyond the past, he said.

And Shriver should know — he’s written the book on forgiveness, so to speak. Both his most recent book, Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember its Misdeeds and his 1995 work, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics deal with the subject and are the basis for his interviews in the PBS documentary.

American culture, Shriver said, has a tendency to value the future in a way that sometimes obliterates our concern for the past.

“For social change to really happen you have got to take account of the past,” he said. It’s naïve to think that the past is ‘well and gone’ when evils (such as slavery, apartheid, or the genocide of the Native American population) have been committee that have not been identified and apologized for. Those legacies, if not dealt with, brought into the open and ultimately forgiven, will continue to burden the present with their baggage.

Shriver understands that some might consider forgiveness to be a naïve response to our current political ills.

“There is nothing naïve about forgiveness — in its full form it is hard as nails because it requires the courage to face the past and the courage to apologize for it.”

Naïve, he said, are the people who think the past is over and done with.

Shriver has also worked to move the idea of forgiveness — which is often associated with interpersonal relationships or in a religious context — into the public sphere. The greatest crimes of the 20th century were crimes of the collective, he said, pointing to Germany and South Africa as countries who have done the hard work to bring their societal evils out into the open and to work toward reconciliation across some very deep divides.

“The whole business of building bridges between people who have greatly harmed each other is a task that is monumental,” Shriver said.

Connecting the concept of truth to the concept of reconciliation is very important in talking about forgiveness in the political realm, and it is here that the church can have a role, especially within American politics.

“We the church ought to be something like the salt in our politics that keeps us morally humble about how righteous and magnificent our American history is,” Shriver said. We are in better shape as a country if we can acknowledge the crimes of our past — two of the major ones being the enslaving of black Africans and the near extermination of Native Americans. “It is something of which most of us ought to be duly repentant,” suggests Shriver. “Patriotism that only celebrates and never repents is a pretty slim patriotism.”

But America’s sins are not just in the past.

“We Americans celebrate riches and financial success in a way that tolerates ignoring the poor while many of us are very rich,” Shriver said. “We have a large ideological tendency to blame their poverty on them.” How is it, he wonders, that so rich a country can tolerate that one in four American children suffer from some degree of hunger? “Our priorities and our compassion are very weak at this point. I think it is the role of the church to call attention to that.”

Psychologists have taught us that repressing painful memories hurts the psyche but that talking about them frees one from burden, Shriver said, adding that this concept has translated into our personal and religious lives, but not into the notion of a healthy society. Thus, at a societal level, we carry around the heavy burden of our unforgiven past.

“We prefer to keep our heroes pretty clean and heroic, but as Christians we should know that none of us is completely clean — all of us are complicit,” Shriver said.

It is in that admission that we begin the process of unburdening ourselves, individually and collectively, of the injustices we have committed. It is not ‘forgive and forget’ but ‘forgive and remember.’

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.

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