Forgiveness as Permission to Live

Originally published in Wounds that Heal: Theology, Imagination and Health, ed Jonathan Baxter, SPCK, 2007, pp79-98.

The Framework 

Words in the forgiveness family are used in many different ways. That needs sorting out. One reason why it does not get sorted out is that many assume they know instinctively what forgiveness is. So our talk goes on at cross-purposes. The confusion cannot be sorted out by laying down definitions of what is held to be ‘real’ rather than ersatz forgiveness; definition may be good for policing discourse but does little to set free reality-friendly imagination. Forgiving needs to be understood by discerning it in practice even where it is not named. The dictionary is not a reliable guide to forgiving, for in the messiness of life, forgiving turns out to be as needed as it is difficult. In pointing out the limits of definition, I am not supporting a lazy tolerance of an unclarified multiplicity of meanings. Forgiveness is too important for that. 

An alternative to proceeding from a definition is to explore a field which is marked out by various interacting considerations. Forgiving may then be discovered as it lives in various environments. Forgiving is not to be ripped out of the particular space wher it lives and works, but is to be observed in its active contribution and dependencies with all that goes on there. 

To explore forgiving we do need some initial idea of what we are looking for. Any idea is open to correction and development as a result of the search. What we started looking for may not be there: yet our searching may discover something unexpected but worth finding. Columbus looked for a way to the Indies and found what we call America. I have been thinking seriously about forgiveness for forty years. What I look for is not altogether the same as what I thought I was looking for when I began, though it is not another creature altogether, and I am sure it is there in the field. I am still looking, having a still provisional idea which is the outcome of years of looking. My idea of forgiveness and of the field in which I am looking for it is a search engine, not the capture of a definitive answer. 

Some sides of my idea collide head-on with opinions so widely held that they seem to be self-evident truths. For example, forgiving is not, in my approach, optional. We are commanded to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. Love includes forgiving because love of the actual neighbour breaks down quickly unless love works itself out in forgiving. But what if we do not believe in God, or make the mistake of thinking God’s command only applies to believers? There are other ways to decide that forgiving is not a matter of choice. Humanity requires us to be simultaneously and appropriately hopeful and truthful about human being. In that simultaneity is forgiveness. Of course, we can choose to abandon the project of being human; there is often much to make it implausible. In the same way, we can choose death, for ourselves or for others, but we may not. To give up the project of being human may seem to free us from the obligation to forgive, but unless despair becomes absolute, in spiritual death, forgiving is merely postponed, so that when we get round to it, forgiving will have more on its agenda. Forgiving will then have to bear the burden of our despair about humanity, and its practical consequences, and bring us back to start again, not just in truth but also in hope. 

Secondly, forgiveness is not essentially an intransitive or reflexive action, therapy for the victim, but transitive, releasing the wrongdoer from the moral and social consequences of wrongdoing. The hurt victim who decides to look after himself, and not to be consumed by bitterness may be on a path of healing wisdom but it should not be called forgiveness. The victim’s liberation from bitterness is only forgiving if somehow it contributes to the release of the wrongdoer. Forgiving is not to be assimilated to any therapy of selfhood (Jones, 1995, pp.35ff.). 

Thirdly, to forgive is not an exclusive possession or right of the victim, though the contribution of victims has a special potential. The right and duty of judging is not restricted to direct victims, let alone to indirect victims. Forgiving is a form of judgment. Judgment is not to be left to victims. 

Fourthly, forgiving is not to be seen as a dangerous alternative to justice, an easy let-off. It is not exceptional marginal practice, while justice is the norm, but it is an indispensable criterion and mode of justice. Justice without forgiving is unjust (Volf, 1996, p.224).

Fifthly, forgiveness is not merely personal or interpersonal, but is to be thought and practised politically.

Sixthly, forgiveness and healing are not synonyms, and are not as close as is often imagined. Healing is not a more accessible, contemporary word for forgiveness and their assimilation can be seriously misleading. In particular, there are vast areas of human living where the word healing arouses false expectations for some losses are irreparable and there are some hurts for which there is no healing. Where healing is not given, forgiving is still possible. The point of this argument is to distinguish healing from forgiving, not to restrict forgiving to the unhealable. There is much of life when both are feasible and they work together, but they are not the same (cf. Parker, 1993).

Seventhly, forgiveness is not adequately understood via models which present a simple innocent victim over against a simple guilty aggressor. Such models reflect what occasionally shows up in real life, but mostly, people on all sides of a conflictual history are, in varying proportions, victim-victimisers (McDonagh). To read complex situations by squeezing them into the simple model is not merely to render ourselves unable to deal with the reality, but may be an unforgiving device for discrediting the idea of forgiveness, making it seem unintelligible and impracticable. We need to face the sad truth that, sometimes, our thinking about forgiveness is shaped by a will not to forgive. To offer a simple model of forgiveness to help with the tangles of human relations can discredit forgiving. It loads too heavy a burden on to the artificially isolated victims and perpetrators. Forgiving words are uttered, but sound sentimental, without grip on reality or any light to guide action. 

Eighthly, in accord with the Gospel of Jesus and with our humanity, forgiving is to be practised on earth as in heaven, by human beings. It is not reserved to God. The Son of Man is given authority on earth to forgive sin (Mark 2.1–12). 

Lastly, forgiving is not to be understood, as it overwhelmingly is, in a primarily backward-looking way. Its essential move is not to write off the past (Arendt); nor is it a healing of memories (Falconer, Volf). Forgiving opens the door to new and livable possibilities (Ricoeur). The door opens out from a closed room where we are caught in the mess we have made of things. There is no help in messing about with the mess in itself. It is of course part of the terrible power of the mess that is mesmerises us, obsesses us, makes itself rise up above us like Giant Apollyon (Bunyan), all hope lost. If there is no door open, forwards from the mess, no Exodus, we will never be able to see the mess in a different way, and will not find the freedom which goes with forgiveness. Desmond Tutu argued that there is no future without forgiveness; it is equally true that there is no forgiveness without the future. This point is one of the main preoccupations of this paper. 

Forgiving is action in which there is achieved simultaneously truthfulness about and hope for human being. Forgiving frees the wrongdoer for a different livable future. But all the futures open to us in this world are imperfect. Forgiving does not alter this fact but is a way of living hopefully and truthfully with it. Here we encounter what might be called the constant regress of forgiving so that we have to pray: Forgive us our forgivings. No forgiving action is perfect, indeed it can only be sustained as forgiving if it is interpreted and followed up forgivingly. If we imagine that an action of ‘forgiving’ puts an issue to rest, safely insulates us from the past, and is a sure basis for a different simply happy good kind of life, we are working with an illusion. Forgiving is real change, opening the door to a different and better future, but because that future is connected to the still living past, imperfect, unfinished, finite, any act of forgiving is vulnerable, it can be judged to be wrong or empty. People sometimes have reason for so judging: because an act of forgiving does not solve the whole problem for ever, we despise it and say it is not real forgiving at all. And when we judge any act of forgiving out of an expectation of perfection, it comes to nothing. We despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4.10); we quench the smoking flax and break the bruised reed (Isaiah 42.3). We end up in fruitless sterile righteousness because we do not have patience with forgiving which is real and relevant, but weak and imperfect. So to forgive forgivings is indispensable. Everyone who receives any forgiveness, is thereby called immediately to pick up the work started, and to help it to thrive, just as the birth of a baby invites others to give themselves to the living of this new life. 

Any initial act of forgiveness is dependent on the way it is interpreted and built on by others. It invites a response from those who need forgiveness: repentance is best understood, not as a preparatory condition for forgiveness, but as accepting the opportunity provided by prior offer of forgiveness. Repentance therefore follows and is shaped by forgiveness. But it is not the wrongdoer alone whose response is crucial to the achievement of forgiveness. Much depends on people and agencies who constitute the environment of the infant forgiveness. If the surrounding culture, media and politics is hostile to forgiving or fails to understand the value and the necessary means of forgiving, forgiving people will struggle to get beyond the stage of wishful fruitless dreams. The act of forgiving is thus a practice of interdependence. Jesus’ command to forgive seventy times seven points us towards a community whose ongoing practice and spirit is forgiving. Spirit calls for embodiment, in standing process, in routine and institution. 

** ** ** **

The rest of this paper discusses forgiveness as the permission to live. This is a basic image of forgiveness, which encapsulates both its promise, as opening the future, and its vulnerability to being stifled on the grounds that it achieves so little. 

‘For the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 6.23). This is a central Evangelical text; at least it was in my upbringing, though I am not sure that it is now, when Evangelicals are well into abundant living understood in a hedonist culture of self-realisation. In this text, sin, judgment (wages), and death have weight; but grace abounds much more. Conservatives belittle the text, liberals shun it, both for the same reason: we have largely lost the capacity to live with the metaphorical complexity and flexibility of this language and experience. Death is simply the termination of this temporal life. When we have so dim a sense of living before God, talk of the second death, or the death of the soul, becomes thin and unimportant. We are left with physical death which we aim to postpone for as long as possible – except when we are dealing with the wicked we hate, fear and judge unworthy of life; or trying to ignore the many unnamed, uncounted victims of our allegedly necessary wars. 

We have good reason to abhor the punitive correlation of sin and death, which is not merely endorsed, but relished, by so much religion. Undoubtedly we go wrong, religiously, if we give unbalanced emphasis to the first half of the text. But it is foolish to refuse to meditate on the reality of sin and death. Their metaphorical depth gives them personal and social relevance: they illuminate dark places for us. It is dangerous work. How can we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, theologically, without being overcome by fear (Psalm 23; Hebrews 2)? The only ways to find a tolerable meaning are either to give up on God or to read the text whole: The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life

We should not read the text with a frightening or punitive intent. Rather we take the first part in the light of the second. God in the Bible, God in Christ, sets this relation of sin-death in a forgiving perspective and intention. ‘Sin-Death’ is not a detached principle, complete in itself, which can then be wielded by cruel punitive people, as a justification for their negativity or sadism – their refusal to love or hope for those they perceive as sinners. The correlation of sin and death calls us to consider the weight of sin, but it only enables true perception when it is itself seen and interpreted within the perspective of forgiveness. 

The Bible

The biblical narrative sets sin with death in the perspective of forgiveness. God said:You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree […] lest you die’. The Serpent countered: ‘You will not die’ (Genesis 3.3–4). God’s response confirmed the connection of sin and death, but human living on earth continues. Is that a sign that God has gone soft, and his word is empty? Or does it mean forgiveness under some guise is occurring? Personal bodily death does not follow directly upon the sin. While life will be limited, painful, sweaty – signed by the death towards which it travels – it also goes on within the inaugurated promise of victory and redemption. The serpent bites the heel of the woman’s offspring, but his heel crushes the serpent’s head. The truth and hope of humanity are together present in this promise. Expelled from the garden, Adam and Eve get on living the reality of what life has become within the promise. Their existence is not finally determined by sin, nor shut up to death, but has meaning and value and joy within the forgiving order God makes. 

We are invited by the Bible not to think of Adam and Eve as two individuals, with their daily ups and downs, as though they were celebrities arousing our curiosity. Rather, they are the parents of humanity, not in any creationist scenario, but in an anthropological-theological symbolism – especially is this so when they are read in the light of the second Adam, Jesus Christ (Romans 5.12-21; 1 Corinthians 15.45–50). The life that is enabled by God’s foundational forgiving in response to the first sin is the life of the whole human community. Adam and Eve do not die; instead, outside the garden, they become parents of the race. Life of all humans together is represented in them, and in their story, we see that life is permitted, although greatly complicated by what has already happened to it, by what human being has done. 

We are thus invited by this story to see the life of the whole of humanity as both permitted and enabled. It is not a life that is doomed to death without meaning and without delay. It is not a perfectly unblemished, satisfactory and competent existence. It is rather a forgiven existence. It is not therefore to be despised or belittled. Its sin is not to be counted against it. Forgiveness permits and enables us to live after the sin whose wages is death. 

The idea of being permitted to live is likely to irk us. Is not life our right? It does not depend on permission, from anyone or any organisation. Yet death does not respect our right. Is it only death that takes the liberty to suspend rights? Is God there too? If so, then the ground of the life we have is more like a permission than a right, which is intrinsic to being. 

Since they did not die, we may ask why the serpent was wrong to say, ‘You will not die’? Why is he counted as destructive seducer rather than as life-enhancing truth-teller? We might say, I think, that his fault was not that he invited them to believe they would not die, but that he turned the forgiving faithfulness of God into a cheap grace to be exploited, rather than respected. If they had known to ask, the serpent might have told why they could expect to get away with it: he might have anticipated the cynical assurance of Heine’s ‘God will forgive: that’s his métier’. But if they had known how to argue that much with the serpent, they would have known cheap grace is not worth the price. 

‘You will not die’ was said by the serpent with destructive intent. It is also heard in the story of David, in the mouth of the prophet Nathan forgivingly: The Lord […] has put away your sin; you shall not die’ (2 Samuel 12.13). 

Unlike Adam and Eve, David does not symbolise universal foundational forgiveness in human history. David is not the Father of the race, nor the Father of Israel. For Christians, Jesus is ‘great David’s greater Son’, but even so, David’s individuality impresses itself, from our first hearing of his meeting Goliath onwards. We are told enough of his life to get some sense of his character, his intentions and skills, his strong and weak points, how he dealt with other people and what God was for him. David lived a great life story in full colour, by comparison, Adam and Eve had a colourless, though significant, existence. David was of course an unusually gifted and lucky person, a hero even as a boy and a great King, at least in that little corner of the world. So the story of his sin and his being forgiven may tell us something about politicians and other really or supposedly great people. But the story of David’s sin and its forgiving has democratic potential. It is not only great men who have the leisure to see other men’s wives while their husbands are away working. Not only great men want the beautiful woman when they see her, and go to any lengths to have her. It is not only great men who go from one terrible invention to another to cover up their wrong-doing, to gain the freedom to live without paying for the damage they cause, protecting their ill-gotten gains. David’s action, and the spirit it reveals, is everyday moral squalor – there is not much that is great about it. 

What David did, displeased the Lord (2 Samuel 11.27). But the Lord did not strike him down immediately. He sent Nathan to him. Nathan did not come to pronounce absolution from all his sins – he was not an authoritative priest. Nor was Nathan a simple accuser, seeking to expose and destroy his victim. Nathan’s was a service of forgiving. Forgiving has to be done in the right way, respecting the link of sin and death. Forgiving does not spare the exposure of sin, nor euphemise the looming of death.

Nathan did not accuse David or attack him directly. He told a story which seemed to have nothing to do with David’s case. It was not about an adulterous king, but about a rich man – of whom there were many in David’s kingdom, under his rule. Nathan may have been helped by the fact that David had got to the point of being sure he was getting away with his sin – Uriah safely dead, no outcry for an inquiry, Bathsheba in his house and with their new baby thriving. David was not looking around him suspiciously. He was not oversensitive. He did not think, as soon as Nathan appeared, ‘The prophet has come to get me’. His conscience was quiescent, not accusing him. But his ruler’s sense of justice was still there, looking over his kingdom. So he listened to Nathan’s story not thinking about his own action, but as a king who was to give judgment for the poor.

Nathan put the case well. A guest comes to a rich man’s home. The rich man will not take an animal from his own huge flock to entertain him, but takes the precious lamb of a poor neighbour and kills it for his dinner party. David did not have to be a clever judge to see where right or wrong lay in this story. He was righteously angry. He pronounced death upon the man who did such a wicked thing. He had forfeited his basic right to life. David wished the world to be free of his presence. He would permit him no future. And the wrongdoer must make restoration fourfold. 

Nathan was thus on common ground with David: they shared an understanding of right and justice in their reading of the story. He gave David the story to enable David to articulate his principles and commit himself to act on them – even before he had an inkling of what he was doing. 

So Nathan had only to say: ‘You are the man’ (2 Samuel 12.7). He could tell David’s story to David relying on the leverage of David’s sense of justice. And just as David had said: ‘the man who has done this deserves to die’ (2 Samuel 12.5), Nathan went on: ‘the sword will never depart from your house, evil will always beset it, and you will see and suffer it’ (2 Samuel 12.10 – paraphrase). 

David acknowledged: ‘I have sinned against the Lord’ (2 Samuel 12.13). In the context, does that not imply David accepted his doom: he deserved to die? 

Nathan said: ‘The Lord also has put away your sin […] you shall not die’ (2 Samuel 12.13). David is forgiven, in the sense that he has permission to live even after such grievous sin. But this is not a permission to live any kind of life. Options for the future have been narrowed. Forgiveness cannot take David out of the narrative of his life up to that point. Forgiveness is permission to go on living truthfully and hopefully starting from where we are, from within the mess we have gotten into. We are in sin: the truth of it forbids hope. And we are in the Lord’s hands: there is hope in that full truth. 

David could not avoid living through the history he had made for himself. He was permitted to live – indeed, required to live through the dying of the child, which he took hard. Once the child was dead, he got on with life. The death had come and had to be accepted. And in the child’s death, David foresaw his own destination: ‘I shall go to him’ (2 Samuel 12.14–26). This openness to and acceptance of the judgment of God was characteristic of David. He did not look for forgiveness outside the judgment and the freedom of God. Sooner or later, David would come to death and he did not presume otherwise. So implicitly David had a profound sense of life as a gift direct from God.

There is something terrible about this forgiving. It is morally shocking. We might think we could do without it, if it is like this. The death is not prevented but suffered immediately by this baby, who did no wrong. And perhaps it was suffered by David, through the baby, not as David’s immediate death but as his loss of what he loved, the baby, and as a powerful reminder of where he was headed: to death. But before then there is permitted life: David is able to live with Bathsheba, comfort her, and father the boy he called Solomon, who was loved by the Lord, so that Nathan the prophet called him Jedidiah. One baby dies and is death for him; another is God’s loving permission to live. This forgiving is not merely an incomplete unstable fragment, it is morally questionable in its ramifications. 

David’s being forgiven is thus worked out in a narrative involving other people. It is not a pious individualistic story of David sinning against the Lord, and achieving some kind of inward change of heart. The account of sin and forgiveness offered in Psalm 51, traditionally taken as David’s penitential prayer after this great sin, is very different from the narrative in II Sam 12. The Psalmist says: ‘Against thee, thee only, have I sinned’ whereas Nathan makes it quite plain that David sinned against the Lord and against Uriah. The Psalmist confesses to being conceived in sin – but never confesses to adultery and murder. The Psalmist sees that God wants truth in the inward being, but never confesses truthfully anything like what David did in his public life. The Psalmist looks for cleansing of the heart, and for a willing spirit. This may invite us to see that forgiveness opens up, permits and enables a new life, but that is not spelt out here with any concrete detail. The penitent in the Psalm is not committed to live by working through the mess and sadness which is left behind by what he has done. Instead, his spirit is renewed in freedom so that he can teach sinners the ways of the Lord. And the Psalm at the end sounds as though the fruit of forgiveness will be the restoration of Jerusalem and God’s delight in animal sacrifices accompanying the acceptable sacrifice of a broken heart. Psalm 51 has done much to shape conventional religious views of sin and forgiveness, perhaps with a resulting loss in social and narrative realism. 

If we read ‘You shall not die’, as permission to live, it translates as a requirement that we live on, affirming life as a blessing full of hope, even though we are living after sin and within its reshaping of human being. After mortal illness, after accident, simply being alive comes to light as a wonderful gift – wonderful in its reality, but also in its precariousness and contingency. As never before, we see living as gift. So also, is it possible that the life which is still to be lived, after wrong done, may be found again as a good and precious gift? Forgiveness is the invitation to accept life, as it has become, in the present. Where it seems that life has become death, and is not livable, forgiving works to find and invent renewed possibilities. Forgiving gives courage to live. Forgiving is closely linked with resurrection (Williams, 1982, p.52). 

Forgiveness is life in the knowledge of sin, of wrong done, of consequent losses. But it is life given again, given in spite of all that has been done which is against it. The future flows out of forgiveness, and is shaped by it. Sin tends to bind and constrict the future. People who have done or suffered wrong are strongly and reasonably tempted to feel their options are determined by the wrong done: revenge is valid. Victims succumb or resist as avengers, but either way their resources seem to be deployed along the path imposed by the evil that has been done. Perpetrators often feel themselves committed to persist in the path they have opened for themselves, justifying it glumly besides their burned boats: ‘evil be thou my good’. Sin thus pretends to a sovereign, overwhelming control of life. But it is life not death that is sovereign; where sin abounds, grace much more abounds. Sin is given its true weight in shaping life only when it is known as forgiven sin. Forgiven sin is not sin denied or condoned. Forgiveness includes necessarily the exposure and judgment of sin as sin. ‘To forgive is to blame, not to punish’ (Volf, 2005, p.138, 170). Forgiving takes the sin into itself. As it permits and enables future living, the sin is disempowered to the extent that it no longer shapes, controls and commands the future. It becomes a problem to be dealt with, a burden to be carried, but has no veto on living and no right to say how or for what the future should be lived. 

This modest, sober view of forgiveness lives in the tangles of real life. It does not picture forgiveness in such a way that it can only be realized in special cases or conditions, in church, in heaven, or by moral heroes. Forgiveness meets and helps people whose living is always broken and falling short. If David is one example, Cain is another. Cain killed his brother Abel, out of jealousy which grew because Cain did not heed the advice of God. He refused to be his brother’s keeper, but Abel’s blood cried from the ground and was heard by God. Cain was punished: cursed from the ground where Abel’s blood was spilt, so that it is no longer his friend, Cain could only be a fugitive and a wanderer. This was more than Cain could bear: it means, he thought, that ‘whoever finds me will slay me’ (Genesis 4.14). His permission to live had been withdrawn. Being driven from the ground not only made him vulnerable to other people, but hid Cain from God’s face, excluding him from God’s care and respect. The prayer for blessing, ‘The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace’ (Numbers 6.26) was not to be said for him. 

The outright though just negative did not quite suit the God who forgives. Cain had to live on in the world he had made – and away from the presence of the Lord. But the Lord set his mark on Cain, not to make him a target for punishing avengers, but to protect him, so that he might live, even though he could never rest on the earth. Cain was punished, and yet there was a forgiving in it as well. 


I have come to this view of forgiving partly in the way by which Luther found his theology: ‘Living, nay, rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculation’ (E G Rupp, The Righteousness of God, p 102); partly by trying to think forgiveness politically rather than individualistically and piously; and partly by being a child of my times, reading novels. A novel may show us persons and predicaments in some detail. Slick polarizing approval or disapproval makes a novel dull and bad: in good ones, we see human beings in their moral and spiritual questionableness. Some lead us into the shadow of death: having accompanied people through hundreds of pages, we can see that for them there is no easy hope left. But (at least in a few novels I can make something of) our empathy is won for some questionable, compromised characters so that we want them at the end of the story to have permission to live, with at least Cain’s measure of viability. In such a story, we have been shown too much of the limits and maybe sin of the person to be deceived by a simply happy ending. The tale told has revealed the constricted options left to people. They have finite, even undermined capacity for living. But we still look for signs of a road opening and we are heartened by any hint that after the end of the book, they will walk it. So Milton ended Paradise Lost:

They looking back all th’ eastern side beheld

Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,

Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate

With dreadful faces throng’d and fiery arms:

Some natural tears they dropp’d, but wiped them soon;

The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.

They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way. 

So, in a thoroughly post-Christian idiom, Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2006) tells, on its last page, how Henry decides what to do in response to the day’s devastating encounters with Baxter. He will try to keep the dying man from being brought to trial, as he deserves, and then ending his days in prison, suffering the inevitable ‘descent into nightmare hallucination’ because of his incurable illness. Baxter has a ‘diminishing slice of life worth living’ before him: Henry will do what he can to secure it for him. A faint echo of permission to live is audible. ‘Is this forgiveness? Probably not, he doesn’t know and he’s not the one to be granting it anyway.’ Thus, Henry (and McEwan?) like many contemporaries, shies away from the word forgiveness, yet, at the same time, shows an alert sensibility to its possible relevance in a pressing and complex situation. I think this degree of shyness is unnecessary – we are inhibited by too narrow and rigidly defined conceptions of forgiveness (what it is, who may grant it). It is wiser, and more in tune with its intrinsic boundary-transgressing generosity and creativity, to notice and celebrate forgiveness even when it comes in fragments, shadows and improper disguises. 

Saturday is a very recent book. Johanna at Daybreak (1969/1983), by the profoundly Christian writer R. C. Hutchinson, has nourished my thinking about forgiveness for many years, since I first discovered it by accident on a railway bookstore. 

Johanna was married to Josef, who was a Jew, a wealthy industrialist. They had two children. She was tricked by Nazis and by her own weakness and fear into persuading Josef to return to Germany from Switzerland. So she was responsible for his death. She lost the children who suffered immensely. At the beginning of the story we meet her as a displaced person, after the war’s end, taking refuge in amnesia, in denial of a past so terrible she cannot get herself to face it. Johanna wishes no permission to live and sees none. She tries suicide. She tries detachment, just going away from life, from others, from herself. Repeatedly, in various ways, she is prevented from achieving this evasion. There is resistance deep within herself as well as from her inescapable social existence. She is repeatedly required to live, not given permission to die. But can this living become to her anything more than a death she cannot achieve? Even though it can never be a life without the memory and the record of the wrong she has done and its consequences, can it be life, rather than a living death? 

Albrecht, a relative of Josef, finds her and leads her, cleverly, forcefully, without her free or informed consent, to remember and face her past. As her amnesia is stripped away, layer by layer, she gets involved with members of Josef’s family, who are living in a hostel; she meets again her children, Felix now a hardened young man, and Ruth, a severely mentally damaged timid sweet child. Johanna’s ‘sedative pretence that I could go on living as if in a different universe’ was demolished (Hutchinson, 1983, p.238).

Towards the end of the novel, various strands of the story are woven together. She has a conversation with Felix, now the head of the family and its main provider. He makes it clear that she can stay with them, and be provided for; she is useful as a carer for the old invalid members of the family; but she can expect no emotional relation, no reconciliation, with him or with others (Hutchinson, 1983, p.303). She knew that ‘even if he proposed to annul the past, to forget that the crippling of his life resulted simply from my dereliction, I could not imagine myself accepting such forgiveness’ (Hutchinson, 1983, p.238).

At this point the word forgiveness is used in a way which indicates it means full personal reconciliation and coming to a freedom in relation with others, including those harmed by her. Forgiveness of that sort is ruled out by Felix: he says no one in her family can offer that – and she accepts it. 

She reacts immediately by deciding to flee again into detachment, this time with radical totality (Hutchinson, 1983, pp.305–306). She cannot go back to amnesia; but an irrevocable conscious break with her past and her roots is required. As she runs from all she is and all her connections, she is prevented first by a sense of terror at finding herself in the empty space of the city. She escaped from ‘one state of misery only to an infinite loneliness’: ‘there came a time that night when I found myself mouthing incoherent prayers as a terrified child would; but without the hopefulness of children; for when you cease to talk to fellow-creatures you put between yourself and any imaginable God a boundless and impenetrable silence’ (Hutchinson, 1983, p.309). So she wanders back towards the hostel, and as she gets near, she is given the news that Tilka died in the night triumphantly

That word ‘triumphantly’, spoken of this death, moves Johanna. To understand, we must go back to Tilka’s part in the story of Johanna. Tilka injects into the narrative of the whole novel, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in a properly veiled form. She was a profoundly Christian, life-loving, Polish woman, who in the post-war time of the novel is bedridden and dying. Johanna shared a room with her in the hostel for displaced persons and came to see her life as having been ‘nothing but goodness and courage’ (Hutchinson, 1983, p.251). That is a view of herself Tilka will not accept and will not allow Johanna to work with. 

To get Johanna to think more truly about her, Tilka gets her friend Lore to tell Johanna the story of the prisoners. In the war Tilka was nursing in an army hospital when she got the news that her husband had been killed. She was responsible for four German prisoners whose bomber had crashed. Tilka told them their friends had killed her husband so they would get no more nursing from her. She locked the door and left them to die. That was her revenge on the Germans and also – the novel is explicit – on God. ‘He had taken Wladyslaw – I meant to take four lives in return, to defy and insult Him’. As she was going away from the locked ward, ‘He met me in the passage and told me to give him the key. He said if I wouldn’t look after the airmen he must do it himself, in spite of his condition – and you could see the trail of blood where he’d come across the snow. So I had to give in and nurse them’ (Hutchinson, 1983, p.252). (‘He’, here, is the crucified Lord – who appears significantly, cryptically, in other novels by Hutchinson.)

Tilka was a forgiven person – she was not ‘nothing but (self-possessed) goodness and courage’ (Hutchinson, 1983, p.251). She knew in herself she could kill the Germans and defy God. She did not forget her sin. Her being forgiven did not come about through confession and absolution, so that her sin was washed away and she was clean. It came to her through the requirement that she enact forgiving. She responded to the permission to live, the command to live, for the Lord in the Lord’s way. The form and content of her being forgiven was to be a practical forgiver, embodying forgiveness in caring appropriately for others and so representing the Lord, to spare him having to do it himself. Since he was her Lord, since she was devoted to him, she was open to this command. Her discovery that she was not all goodness came when she decided to defy God by not forgiving and was met by the forgiveness of God, not in the form of the cheap grace of a let-off, but in the requirement to forgive even at cost to her own feelings and identity. Forgiveness in this form was of a piece with the whole of her being, as an invalid, with her carer Lore. The triumph Johanna saw in her did not consist in her courage only; ‘it was […] a special gift for being at once involved in the drudgeries of living and detached from their smallness, for watching even their own distress with eyes which contained a larger scenery’ (p.313).

Being reminded of Tilka, and understanding why she died triumphantly, gave Johanna a clue to the way forward for herself. So she returned to the hostel, found by Ruth, her daughter, who simply takes her hand – unlike Felix, Ruth can make no speeches or moral judgments. And this act completes the change for her: her path is clear. She has permission to live a certain kind of life, with a promise and a discipline

And that might be a better way of understanding forgiveness than the more common idea of being freed from the past sin or hurt. Johanna could not find escape in amnesia, nor could she find forgiveness as the restoration to relationships as they once were or might have turned out had nothing gone wrong. Nothing could alter the past, or give her the future that would have flowed from a different past. She had to accept all that and recognize what her life was in the present, with all its pain and difficulty. She had to accept it as her responsibility and then to get on with it. She comes to see she cannot expect forgiveness if it is understood as restoration which makes the past as though it never had been – invisible repairs. Instead, we read at the end: 

I echoed ‘Ruth’, and again, ‘Ruth’. But my body was slow to share in this meeting: it was she who, with a grave simplicity, stretched out to touch my hand. 

Side by side – our hands still touching – we went into the house, to be greeted by the fumes from a pan of milk which someone had let boil over and by the pervasive bickering of children. Enveloped in that orchestra of inveterate sounds and smells, I realised I was back on the painful course I could never finally escape from – itself my one escape from the despotism of the past; the only course which could lead towards an ultimate tranquillity; the harsh, acceptable, exalting road.

(p 314)

The permission, the requirement, to live without amnesia, without dehumanising detachment (in which the original sin of betraying her husband and family would simply be continued down to death), but also free from the ‘despotism of the past’ is the form forgiveness often takes in this present life, in this world where God comes to bring forgiveness of sins. (God does not take away the sin of the world by abolishing the world, does He?) It took Johanna a long time, a hard struggle, to come to this point. She accepted forgiveness as a belonging to a community which would always be, on one side, a silent accuser, because it is the community of those damaged by her wrongdoing. She accepts forgiveness through living truly who she is and has become: there is no more running from it into some dishonesty. She accepts forgiveness as a harsh road. But it is acceptable – it is a possible road for her; it does not ask an impossible repentance and transformation from her. But maybe ‘acceptable’ here does not mean merely that it is feasible for Johanna, but rather that it is acceptable to God – it is God’s will (Romans 12.2). And it is exalting, it is the road to ‘ultimate tranquillity’ – but not immediate ease. It is only by accepting and living in this painful course, indicated partly by the irksomeness of life in a family hostel, that she finds the reality of what I suggest amounts to forgiveness. 

It is significant that the novel is careful not to call it forgiveness at the end. Hutchinson reckoned with the fact that the word forgiveness is commonly understood as a taking away of all grievance and dissension, so as to make possible a full and unrestrained reconciliation. Forgiveness in that form was not plausible in his story. The deep realistic sympathy which informs its telling of all the people here was not to be voided at the end. We might judge that the way Johanna finds should not be called forgiveness. It does not fit many common images of forgiveness. But what other word shall we use? Hutchinson did not look for or find a single word to label the outcome for Johanna. He described it only by the proleptic narrative of the final paragraph, indicating the way Johanna could and would take, a hard, honest and yet hopeful path. The story would fail if the conclusion were advertised directly as ‘forgiveness’. Not being a crass incompetent novelist, Hutchinson did nothing like that. But as an enquirer, seeking to understand forgiveness, I find his conclusion illuminating, not only as a relief from the obscure superficiality of conventional uses of the word, but more as a clue to its active embodiment. There is much talk about forgiveness, which reflects genuine need and serious desire, but it is hampered because the word has been worn down by usage, like a stone staircase whose steps no longer offer a flat safe foothold. This is a family of words which cannot be used without exploring and explaining and renewing the meaning. And the explanation, let alone the renewal, cannot be achieved by explicit definition. It needs to go via exploratory and experimental narrative, fictional and historical, so that the word comes alive again and grows afresh. 

The permission to live is not a definition of forgiveness, but rather an angle of view and approach, by which we may search for it. Forgiveness cannot be found in the evasion or denial of life. It is clear from the story and spirituality Hutchinson gives us that permission to live puts forgiveness in austere garb. Where is the joy and freedom, the goal and the heart of forgiveness? Is forgiveness then no more than a hard path of discipline? There is more, in Hutchinson’s telling. It is still hidden for Johanna, still before her on the way. But nevertheless, in another segment of her story, the witness of Tilka dares the word ‘triumphant’. Johanna could not grasp such a word for herself, in herself. If she did, it would merely substitute the amnesia of triumphalism for her amnesia of grief; it would dissolve all that she has discovered and begun to enter into on her own way to forgiveness. But, for all that, it brings the light and lift of grace to her when she hears it. The austerity of her way is not a Sisyphean futility, hard labour without hope. The same Christ who met Tilka is there for her with costly grace. 


Hutchinson, R.C., Johanna at Daybreak. Zenith, 1983, (original edition, Michael Joseph, 1969). 

Jones, L.G., Embodying Forgiveness. Eerdmans, 1995.

McEwan, I., Saturday. Vintage, 2006.

Parker, R., Forgiveness is Healing. Darton Longmann & Todd, 1993.

Rupp, E.G., The Righteousness of God, Hodder and Stoughton, 1953

Tutu, D., No Future without Forgiveness. Rider, 1999.

Volf, M., Exclusion and Embrace. 1996.

Volf, M., Free of Charge. Zondervan, 2005.

Williams, R., Resurrection. Darton, Longmann & Todd, 1982. 

Willmer, H., Forgiveness and Politics. Belfast, 2003. 

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