This essay is a revision of a chapter originally published in 2008 in Remembering to Forgive: A Tribute to Una O’Higgins O’Malley ed Enda McDonagh, pp141-148.
Una O’Higgins O’Malley was a remarkable Irish woman, who worked for peace and reconciliation in Ireland. She founded the Glencree Reconciliation Centre, where I met her in 1978 when I presented my initial venturesome but inadequate sketch of a ‘politics of forgiveness’. The concept and project resonated with her lifelong concerns, as is evident from her book, From Pardon and Protest: memoirs from the Margins (2001).
The title ‘remembering to forgive’ reflects the way discussion about politics, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation has been developed in Ireland, where communal memories are burnt in painfully, so that the healing of memories is both difficult and urgently needed. Alan D.Falconer and Joseph Leichty (edd), Reconciling Memories (1998)
‘Remembering to forgive’ is usefully ambiguous. It is commonly taken to mean that forgiving is a kind of remembering. Forgiving does not empty the memory, but sorts through the stored-up past so as to make a hopeful difference to it, even achieving the ‘healing’ of memories. Forgiveness transforms what is remembered, without denying the abiding ‘doneness’ of the past. It finds its active bodily social form in the present retelling of the past. Think, for example of old people: they are happy if they can look back on their lives with thanks; they remember to give thanks by telling their story over and over. In order to be grateful, they remember and share memories. Some – most?- people can only remember to give thanks if they remember to forgive: their story only bears telling if it is forgiven. What went wrong will be a source of bitterness blocking gratitude and joy, unless it can be told truthfully in a way that forgives, assuages grief, cleanses guilt, brings good out of evil, and hope beyond despair and shame. Remembering to forgive achieves forgiveness by the management of memories. Or it might be better to say, remembering is part of the substantial process of forgiving, because it involves going over memories, discovering new readings of them, new possibilities in them, so that they cease to be the handcuffs which the past puts on the present but rather, are found as hard grace, liberating love despite all that weighs against it.
Beyond this, the phrase ‘remembering to forgive’ has a second meaning. This becomes apparent when we move from gratitude in old people to gratitude in children. Children do not have long memories and they rightly do not spend much energy looking back. They are taught to say ‘Thank you’ when the occasion calls for it. We say to them, ‘Don’t forget to say Thank you.’ They must remember to say it until it becomes a polite habit. So too we all need to remember to forgive. To forgive requires a timely decision guided by sensitivity and vision. In situations where forgiving is most needed, it is specially tempting to forget to forgive, and then to justify that forgetting. Remembering to forgive is difficult; the reminder is needed repeatedly. Remembering to forgive, in this sense, is not a particular telling of a history, but a basic readiness of spirit which propels us to experiment with looking to the future in ways which is hopeful for peace, justice and reconciliation. The two sides of remembering to forgive are needed in practice and one is bound to affect the other.
As the civil war of the 1990s was ending, the Council of Churches in Sierra Leone facilitated reconciliation-writers’ workshops.1Sahr Kemoore Salia (ed) Friends Again Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, 2000 From them came a little booklet of poems and prayers, which was discovered by Stephanie Goins in the course of her doctoral research on forgiveness in relation to the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.2Stephanie Goins, Forgiveness and Reintegration: How the transformative process of forgiveness impacts child soldier reintegration, (Regnum Studies in Mission, Wipf and Stock) 2016 Most of the poems are short, in simple English, and without subtlety. The tone is hortatory rather than analytic. One is different: it has gripped me since I first read it in one of Stephanie’s drafts.3‘My Missing Hands’ by Edmund Nicol, Vine Memorial Baptist church, Makeni. It pictures forgiving in a succinct drama. It exemplifies both senses of remembering to forgive and reveals both the recreative splendour and the painful precariousness of forgiving.
Let us read it line by line.
O how I loved my hands:
They were useful to me
Leave aside the rare Narcissus: in olden days, most people had little chance to see their own faces until silvered glass was mass-produced. So each was ignorant of her own face which others scanned and interpreted. A person was dependent on others, whether truthtellers or flatterers, for a sense of what his own face looked like. My face makes me present to the world, but I do not see it: I cannot look at it directly with my own eyes. But our hands are different: we see them from babyhood. We play with them, enjoy making funny shapes, we have our fingers talk to each other, and learn all sorts of skills with them. By them, we feel and take hold of the world around us. We make friends with them, holding hands; we make enemies, raising our hands against others. The human hand is a prime material condition of being human. Life without hands is hard to imagine, we mostly take them for granted, since they live with us so quietly – until they go arthritic. It is no wonder we love our hands, though there are few poems that say so. We love our hands because they are useful to us. Hands are good for us because they break down the wall we set between the romantic and the utilitarian, between love and usefulness. This is a poem which starts from the good gift of created nature, to be valued and enjoyed.
Today they are no more – a stark line. The hands of this victim of civil war were chopped off. He not only has no hands now, but suffered physically in losing them. People he may have known, or strangers, willed irreparable damage with cruelty and hate and injustice. He has something serious to complain about. There is something to forgive. Perhaps it is too bad to be forgiven.
So he accuses. He does not say the amputation does not matter. He does not absorb the hurt silently. He resents with pointed denunciation. He does not at this moment remind himself to forgive, though, as we soon discover, he is ready for it. But first this must be said: the word, forgiving, makes no sense if there is no ‘wicked man’. The word ‘forgive’ contains in itself the recognition of wickedness and wrong. It does not encourage us to gloss over evil or pretend it is not as grievous as it is. The word ‘forgiveness’ simply goes on strike and refuses to do any useful work unless we attend to what makes it necessary. It only works when the wickedness or the hurt is noticed and named truthfully – neither exaggerated nor underplayed – and attributed to its true source, not pinned on a scapegoat or nebulous abstractions.
Come and show yourself to me
Restorative justice is so hard, because this is its essential requirement: Come and show yourself to me. It demands courage and grace for the victim to issue the invitation and for the miscreant to respond – or the other way round, the ill-doer wanting to meet and the victim opening themselves.
Come and show yourself to me is the invitation to truth – or at least to come into the place which gives us a sense that we might be coming near the truth even though it may prove to be beyond our grasp. We come into the light, not to see but to be seen, to know ourselves and to be known without being sure of ourselves. Come: let your guard down. That is frightening. Show yourself to me, your victim – who then will I meet? The man with the machete again? Or a man protecting himself by denying that he ever had a machete? Or a man distraught, who no longer has a self he loves or can pretend to understand? Can he come and show his shame and brokenness? He can bring his body into the light, but what ‘self’ can he show? It may be that others will see he is lost and broken.4Eric Lomax, The Railway Man (1995), pp 273,275. Gitta Sereny, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995)
He will be with others in the truth of his wickedness, but his being with others does not, by itself, achieve a sharing in a common distress and a common comfort. He shows himself, and so is shown up, picked out by a searchlight. Come and show yourself to me can be an invitation into lonely terror and despair.5For a biblical example of the uncertainty that besets the one coming to show himself, frightened about the reception he will get, consider Jacob’s return to Esau: Genesis 32 13-21; 33.1-4. And the prodigal son, Luke 15.11-32. Cf also K Barth The Germans and Ourselves (trans R.G.Smith) London, (1945), pp 25, 32f, 37, 40: Barth’s forgotten, unforgettable little pamphlet might serve as the orchestral part of a concerto, with this even smaller poem playing as the solo instrument.
Yet this poem is an invitation to forgiveness. The demand, Come, is the first step towards forgiving, but it brings us to a seesaw, rocking with uncertain balance. Is it accusation or is it forgiving?6M. Volf Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2005) pp 166,170
The uncertainty needs to be sorted. How can that be done? The next line is a clarification, but is it enough?
I will forgive you
So the intention is made clear: the forgiver says, I will forgive, even though he also accuses, Wicked man. Here where the wrong is named and unforgotten, there is not merely a remembering to forgive, but a professed and timely readiness to forgive.
We are reminded here of the importance of being willing and choosing to forgive. In forgiving, there is more than a passive letting go of resentment; we certainly are far from cultivating a superior indifference to hurt. Forgiving involves taking the initiative in creative action for and with the other. The Christian gospel is plain in its teaching and its spiritual practical training: we are commanded to forgive, so forgiving is not, as is often said nowadays, a personal option. We are committed to forgive, because we are forgiven.7Matt 5.43-48;6.7-15; 18.21-35; Eph. 4.32.
Forgiving is not achieved by the words I will forgive you. They are an invitation and a promise, vital but insufficient. The tense shows that the forgiving still has to be done. Forgiving is not in the wish or a mere attitude or feeling towards the other. There has to be action which somehow serves to liberate the wrong doer, enabling the wicked man to turn towards something beyond guilt (responsibility for wickedness), into someone else.
Pray with you…
Pray: so far we have seen only the handless man and the wicked man. They are big enough to fill the picture. But now there is someone else: perhaps on the edge, not seen, not named, but present for both. Victim and perpetrator will not come face to face without protection and without help. They will not confront each other as mere owners of what is in themselves, of their pasts and what they have become. They need not meet as though what they are in themselves, by themselves, defines the situation. They are not in bare spare shapeless space. I will pray with you means: I will meet you and see you in the grace and hope of God. God defines the place we are in with the freedom of forgiving. God remembers to forgive.
I will pray with you. Praying for you can easily pervert into praying against you. . Praying for people can be done comfortably in safe remoteness from their distress, where our freedom is unlimited by their confinement. With you carries one into the place of the other.8Cf Justification of the Godless
Praying together is not the end, not everything. If it were, we would be denying that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins and so would be losing the gospel and human hope.9Mark 2.10 Praying raises a matter to heaven, but it has to be done, played out, on earth. Thus praying prepares for the next step which must be taken.
With my missing hands
The image is numinous: mysterium tremendum. Forgiving shines forth frighteningly: is it intolerable and unworkable?
‘Embrace’ materially enacts the will to forgive.10M. Volf Exclusion and Embrace: A theological exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996) It reveals the enormous generosity of forgiving, the courage for risk, the astonishing potential for turning things round and for bringing good out of evil. At the same time, it keeps us on the see-saw. The wicked man may feel the embrace of missing hands as nothing but the persistence of accusation, the sword of revenge not yet turned away. To be embraced by missing hands may mean nothing but accepting the accusation, in a crushing humiliation and an end of hope. The wicked man is condemned by being caught in the dead end of his own act of power, the missing hands. Life does not blossom out into wide places. Rather, it is closed down and carried away in the embrace of the missing hands, the hands I took. I am gripped in the uselessness I made when I took the useful hands.11The words ‘missing hands’ echo the Ancient Mariner’s bald admission of his inexplicable evil act, ‘I shot the albatross’, so that he was left with the dead bird hanging round his neck. See Malcolm Guite, Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (2017), p.152: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Guite’s book are illuminating on remembering and forgiving. I am bereft of the love which was intrinsic to the hands I violated. I am embraced into exclusion.12Ulrich Simon says more on this point, in his profound and devastating commination of the executioners of the concentration camps:’they are self-condemned in the nothing which they are’: A Theology of Auschwitz, (1967), pp 73-75.
Forgiving is very fragile, very hard to give, to receive, to believe and to achieve.
The man without hands may be tempted to find closure in this fruitless triumph over the wicked man. A spurious moral superiority was all that Nietzsche could see in forgiveness. But the man without hands is not permitted to settle the affair in this way. He has said, I will forgive you, pray for you: so now he must find a way to make this embrace with missing hands genuinely forgiving. Somehow he needs to bring the see-saw between forgiving and accusing decisively down on the side of forgiving. The stuff of a history of evil, of what is present and available, must somehow be used to make a new story of freedom and friendship.
The Christian story suggests that God embraces us with missing hands and more. We are forgiven by God in Christ the crucified. The wounded hands and the broken body and the blood shed forever bring to remembrance what God gives in taking away our sin and forgiving us. The Christian story is gospel (good news) when it is told as the working out of God’s Come and show yourself to me: I will forgive you13 Isaiah 1.18: Come now and let us reason together, says the Lord; though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as wool. Cf. Hebrews 12.14-29, with its contrasting, ‘You have not come…’ v.18 and its ‘But you have come….’ v.22 but in many tellings it is not gospel. It is rather the pronouncement of condemnation upon the wicked, the unbelieving, the outsiders. The Christian story, from the beginning and even now was exploited to incite and justify vengeance against those others who could be accused of responsibility for the death of Christ. This potential has been realised not only in anti-semitism, but also in various forms of systematic punitive misanthropy perversely derived from a true doctrine of the universality and seriousness of sin. So work has always to be done on the telling of the story so that, in its totality, including its practical effects in life, the I will forgive you which God speaks in keeps on coming true, rather than being lost even in the act of proclaiming it. To embrace and pray with the ‘wicked man’ is to pray for ourselves, that we may not fall into the temptation of refusing to others the forgiveness by which alone we live.14Matthew 18.23-35
In the history of Christianity, we see that critical and constructive argument about the doctrine and theories of atonement has been one way of attending to this task. Any theory of atonement may be assessed by the way in which it makes clear that the ‘missing hands’ of God in Christ realise and communicate real forgiving, rather than some vengeful camouflaged alternative. Some theories fail adequately to consider the weight of sin – in effect, they discount the missing hands and heal the wound lightly; others make so much of the wickedness revealed in the killing of Jesus that forgiving is shut down.
The work to be done in ensuring that the I will forgive you at the heart of Christian faith and life is not stifled in practice cannot be left to the theorists of atonement or to other elites. It falls to ordinary people who in various ways have to respond to hurt and loss with whatever capacity they have. We could add to Paul’s catalogue of gifts in Romans 12.4-8: he urges that whatever gift we have is to be used to the full. So, if we have no more than missing hands, then let them be deployed in forgiving. Like Jacob, left damaged by his struggle with the angel to limp through life, we meet life with missing hands, if that is what we are left with. Can the embrace we then offer communicate forgiving rather than accusation?
The forgiver, whether God or human, can only make available to the wrong doer what he himself has; he can only act with what he has been given, including what he has been given through the suffering of wickedness. If he has lost his hands, he must act with missing hands. Losing his hands does not compel him to be vengeful: he may through it all find his way to the generosity and earthed creativity that forgives. He can only embrace with missing hands, but as he does so, he can say again: ‘This means I will forgive you. I know the accusation in the embodied memory of my missing hands. I feel tempted to give you no rest from the accusation, so I see how it disconcerts and frightens you. I do not discount how it shakes and destroys you, wicked man. I will come into that disturbance and fear with you, and I share my life and hope with you. I pray here with you. I can and will be friends with you if you let me, but only with missing hands. I give you what I have, which includes what I no longer have.’
‘But, how’ asks the wicked man, ‘can this ever be forgiveness? Where is the release into new life? You hold me in the rotten memory. That may be tolerable for you: it turns your loss into superior victim-virtue. But it is death for me.’
‘I will forgive you, pray with you. I can only embrace you with what I am left with. Praying brings us into the freedom of God, draws us towards a future we cannot make if we go our separate ways. Praying on our way together, add your now regretted wickedness to my missing hands.’
So we have the poem as a whole:
O how I loved my hands:
They were useful to me
Today they are no more…
Come and show yourself to me
I will forgive you
Pray with you…Embrace you
With my missing hands
I have not been able to find out whether this poem is autobiographical record or an imagined fiction in the first person. If it is the former, it reports a miracle of grace and hope. Forgiveness of this sort is rare. If it is the latter, which I think more likely, it shows how the vision of forgiving often depends on a wider range of actors and enablers than the two prime parties, the wicked man and the unhanded man. The poet, who does nothing in the poem to advertise his intervention, has the vision of forgiving and brings it to concrete expression. He effects the meeting and the conversation which invites people to forgiveness. It is a key part of the ministry of forgiveness to remind us to forgive, to help us to remember to forgive. We need help continually to discern the need and the feasibility of forgiving, to be truthful about its cost and precariousness and yet to be moved to reach for it. The alternative to forgiving is even less attractive for ‘we must love one another or die’.
- 1Sahr Kemoore Salia (ed) Friends Again Council of Churches in Sierra Leone, 2000
- 2Stephanie Goins, Forgiveness and Reintegration: How the transformative process of forgiveness impacts child soldier reintegration, (Regnum Studies in Mission, Wipf and Stock) 2016
- 3‘My Missing Hands’ by Edmund Nicol, Vine Memorial Baptist church, Makeni.
- 5For a biblical example of the uncertainty that besets the one coming to show himself, frightened about the reception he will get, consider Jacob’s return to Esau: Genesis 32 13-21; 33.1-4. And the prodigal son, Luke 15.11-32. Cf also K Barth The Germans and Ourselves (trans R.G.Smith) London, (1945), pp 25, 32f, 37, 40: Barth’s forgotten, unforgettable little pamphlet might serve as the orchestral part of a concerto, with this even smaller poem playing as the solo instrument.
- 6M. Volf Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2005) pp 166,170
- 7Matt 5.43-48;6.7-15; 18.21-35; Eph. 4.32.
- 9Mark 2.10
- 11The words ‘missing hands’ echo the Ancient Mariner’s bald admission of his inexplicable evil act, ‘I shot the albatross’, so that he was left with the dead bird hanging round his neck. See Malcolm Guite, Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (2017), p.152: Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Guite’s book are illuminating on remembering and forgiving.
- 12Ulrich Simon says more on this point, in his profound and devastating commination of the executioners of the concentration camps:’they are self-condemned in the nothing which they are’: A Theology of Auschwitz, (1967), pp 73-75.
- 13Isaiah 1.18: Come now and let us reason together, says the Lord; though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as wool. Cf. Hebrews 12.14-29, with its contrasting, ‘You have not come…’ v.18 and its ‘But you have come….’ v.22
- 14Matthew 18.23-35