To forgive isn't divine, it's deeply human
Sep 02, 2011
Listening to a programme on the radio about restorative justice a few years ago, I was reduced to sudden and copious tears by an exchange between a grieving mother and her daughter's imprisoned killer. The mother, though well aware she would never get over the loss of her child, was prepared, after long and painful self-examination, to offer the killer her forgiveness. He, though well aware that he could not undo what he had done, felt he had been given, through the forgiveness of the person to whom he had caused the most appalling suffering, a chance for redemption. His contrition and recognition of the hurt he had inflicted, a demonstration of the compassion so lacking in the commission of the crime, was an essential part of what had made the mother able to forgive.
The granting of forgiveness, especially in circumstances like this, is such a powerful and moving thing – such an essentially human thing – it's small wonder that virtually all religions have annexed it, as they have love, spirituality and the notion of truth itself, as a way to bind human beings to themselves. Some have made redemption, the seeking of or granting of forgiveness, the very core of their belief and practice. It should hardly need saying, but then again perhaps it does, that forgiveness and redemption are no more the creations or possessions of any religion than soul music is an invention of Adele.
True, religious traditions have produced some of the most beautiful meditations on forgiveness, and served as a way of reminding societies of its importance, but it does not belong to them. I'm no evolutionary expert, and I'm pretty sure that we have yet to turn up a forgiveness fossil, but it seems obvious to me that the human art of forgiveness developed as a necessary skill to ensure group coherence, in the light of the (also very human) tendency to do horrible things to other people in furtherance of your own interests. Human societies needed rules, and rules mean establishing what is beyond the pale, and forgiveness is the mechanism by which those who have gone beyond the pale may be brought back.