It lies in the nature of conflict that we want it and don’t want it. If it becomes difficult, the person will suffer from the atmosphere which they themselves have created. This leads to an inner split between the need for consensus and the insistence on our own view. Sometimes we like ourselves in the acrimony because the person who engages themselves unwaveringly for a good cause receives recognition. That is why society likes to stage reconciliation. Political opponents joke in public when privately they have found common ground. In a college of teachers, too, the fronts have to be very hardened indeed if people don’t approach one another again at the meal after the meeting.
It is a different matter with forgiveness. The word unforgivable, like forgiveness, relates only to actions and does not occur as a dispositional mode or human characteristic in the way that being conciliatory does. With forgiveness the contradiction goes deeper. It is a more sustained division when we personally hurt someone in anger. We just had to voice the reproach, allowed ourselves to be carried away in a snub – now we are tormented by the consequences.
The other person in turn fears further hurt. Their trust has been damaged. On the one hand we want to forgive but cannot really do so or we don’t really mean it. And conversely: we could actually forgive but don’t want to because we are locked grimly into our victim role and are licking our wounds. Forgiveness must be genuine and come from the heart. A higher power is required to overcome our division; which reconciles us with our irreconcilability; which forgives us our non-forgiveness; and which pardons us when we attempt in vain to be magnanimous.
Only the individual person can forgive
The power of reconciliation which extends beyond a merely sentimental or strategic performance is connected with the nature of time. Time means transformation. Moral indignation relates to what has just happened: the Internet for example is a hive of spontaneous affects. Every substantial reflection or reassessment requires own inner activity beyond its cause. That is why forgiveness is worth more, it is more than just saying “sorry” or an improvement in the atmosphere.
Reconciliation is more general as if it concerned humanity as a whole. Reconciliation tends to live in groups, between communities. Only the individual person can forgive. It is an initial act which points beyond the ego – also the group ego – and touches on and needs the spirit. I am reconciled, the saying goes, with another person. But I forgive you – or myself. In reconciliation I can also act as a mediator – I can reconcile others. But can I appeal to someone to forgive, or indeed do it in their place?
Forgiveness is connected in a subtle way with the mystery of transience, indeed forgetting – which does not mean platitudes like “Time is the great healer” or “Forget it”. But there is also healthy, natural forgetting which refreshes us in the morning and makes us newly creative. Wounds are bound not just physically to heal. In a spiritual context a wound also binds the people involved so that their relationship can heal and be transformed. Some enmeshments reveal an already existing common destiny, a strained “karmic” relationship.
Observers then wonder why something keeps breaking open – or a special relationship forms for the first time in strife. This is connected with concealed soul and social dimensions. If I recognise and accept this dimension, the reconciliation which is naively hoped for by the mind or coolly calculated by reason becomes a deed in itself, something that comes from deeper layers and encompasses a significantly wider consciousness.
Religion means reconnecting
Religion educates us to contemplation and inner resonance, but also consciousness – wakens and deepens it. At work here is the power of the mind, the longing for a connection “despite everything”, and not the reference to dogmas or speculation about a reward in the next world. The religious person believes in the direct interpersonal relationship. From being rooted in the eternal, they are interested in the here and now, only here can the eternal be updated and prove itself. Being religious need not mean following a religion. Religions and nations may be able to be reconciled with one another. But only people can forgive one another out of individual religiosity.
A religion which presumed to forgive another one the way it is would be arrogant. Against this background, how could two sides approach one another who have hurt each other in their world views? Take a conflict which moved the emotions some years ago: the cartoon controversy. How could understanding be created between the Danish artist – and the newspaper which printed his cartoons – and a Muslim who felt himself demeaned by the parody of the Prophet? It is not possible within the ruling cultural and religious convictions – it is only possible when these no longer “rule” and something new arises from the feeling of impotence, ground zero.
Reincarnation: the empathy of the cosmos
Another earthly context would have to become spiritually feasible in which we realise the position of the other in body and soul, forget our own previous standpoint and now feel and incorporate something for ourselves which has never existed before, a view of God, of art, which was always far removed. Because the reality is that we have been “here” before and also in the future may face the apparent stranger at any time in intimate familiarity.
Reincarnation – because that is what we are talking about here – is empathy realised in time, is “extended” forgiveness. Reincarnation is the structural empathy of the cosmos. However, the religious part would not be to formulate the belief in this option as a must or expectation. On the contrary, the religious part is the inner attitude to encounter everyone in a comparable mood, in a fundamental openness. And making ourselves aware: “You are shaped by your community, I by my one, that is why we are in dispute, are removed from and hurt one another. But we only feel that we have to be hurt because we are shaped in this way, only the way we see ourselves makes us feel malicious! Does our I not stand above this?” That we are suddenly capable of forgiving because we see the action of the other from a new perspective can be an overwhelming feeling, the ability can come as a surprise to us.
But the claim to be religious and at the same time shout hate slogans in the street because our own religious feelings were hurt is self-contradictory. The person who is truly religious does not go to court. They do not celebrate their religion, they cultivate it in stillness.
Forgiveness as a free act
Enjoying discord or “evil” is different from feeling driven to do something bad by biographical scars. Where we are divided we are still emotionally involved and remain capable of sensing our own fault. Where we no longer have any conscience, any doubt but unthinkingly become one with our affects or the “sacred” cause – which thereby itself turns into an affect – only there does forgiveness become difficult, if not impossible.
The Gospel speaks of the “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 12:31–32) – the only one which is not forgiven, ever. What is the “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost”? What is so sacred to me today that when it is denounced it affects me in my innermost core? It is my I. It is when we deny one another permission to develop in freedom on our own terms. I sin against the other when I stigmatise them and chain them to things that belong to the past – be it their origin, their deeds or words – and reduce them to that. When I deny them the right to be different from what I think they should be or want them to be.
The casual attack on the inner diversity of my fellow human being is the real betrayal today, the true breach of trust. Trust no longer relates to content, it concerns the whole person. We are entrusted with the mystery of our fellow human being, their search, their ideal. What must be protected is the potential, the future development which no one yet knows about. I have to be alert to hurt in my soul so that I do not call a deed unforgivable “on principle” without seeking an empathetic understanding of the spiritual intentions and reasons associated with it. Trust – like forgiveness – comes from the future.
Forgiving conceals a gift: of imagination. Where we forgive we create something. I do not forgive because I have to or because it is easy but because it is a deed of my own. I do something that is unnatural because, paradoxically, I anticipate that something crucial will develop from it. It is not an obvious thing to do to forgive when we feel impotent and very hurt; it is the least likely thing to do. But only where we do not do the obvious do we move God – ignite the divine, holy spirit. We awaken it to life in our own spirit. Next to arrival, the word advent also contains adventure: forgiving is also an adventure.
About the author: Andreas Laudert studied scenic writing at Berlin University of the Arts as well as theology at the Free College of the Christian Community. Today he works as a freelance author and lecturer and teaches ethics at the Prenzlauer Berg Free Waldorf School.