On forgiveness

Toward the end of the third chapter of Noli Me Tangere, Crisostomo Ibarra barely avoids a quarrel with a combative Padre Damaso, and manages to make a hasty exit from the dinner party of Capitan Tiago. As he begins to wander the streets of Manila in the next chapter, he is accosted by an old lieutenant, Señor Guevara, who warns the young man to learn from the example of his deceased father, Don Rafael.  Upon realizing that Crisostomo does not even know that his father died in prison, Guevara endeavors to tell him the details. Among other things, Don Rafael had somehow earned the ire of Padre Damaso: the Franciscan friar accused his former friend of failing to go to confession. Such an accusation meant that the soul of Don Rafael continued to bear the burden of his wrongdoings—that he existed in a state of disgrace, that he had not been forgiven.

Forgiveness tends to be a recurring theme during the holidays, because, whatever else can be said for the shrill décor and the manufactured cheer of the season, family and friends do come together, and in so gathering, each of us is given cause to consider the quality of his or her life in the context of his or her relationships with others, as well as with time. Where interpersonal fractures and burns exist, these intensify, become more deeply felt, and, when coupled with a renewed awareness of mortality—especially keen when one is in the presence of children—may well produce the urge to grant or seek forgiveness, to promote a general healing of divisions, to infuse the word “reunion” with fresh energy and significance.

Guevara then recounts to Crisostomo what Don Rafael once said on the issue of confession: “‘Take this example: if I have killed the father of a family, if I have made of a woman a sorrowing widow and destitute orphans of some happy children, have I satisfied eternal Justice by letting myself be hanged, or by entrusting my secret to one who is obliged to guard it for me, or by giving alms to priests who are least in need of them, or by buying indulgences and lamenting night and day? What of the widow and the orphans? My conscience tells me that I should try to take the place of him whom I killed, that I should dedicate my whole life to the welfare of the family whose misfortunes I caused. But even so, who can replace the love of a husband and a father?'”*

This is not as unorthodox as it may seem at the outset. The Roman Catholic Church itself teaches that while confession leads to absolution, it is penance that satisfies divine justice. Thus, what Don Rafael proposes after his hypothetical murder is that he must undergo penance, albeit in a manner different from what a priest might usually prescribe.

Forgiveness, then, results only in the cessation of hostilities, the repudiation of acrimony, and the restoration of peace between the wrongdoer and the wronged. It does not exempt the offender from responsibility for his or her actions. Rather, forgiveness opens up a space within which the true penitent, liberated from the anger, hate, and bitterness of those who have been wounded, is obligated to mitigate, if not undo, the harm caused, and to ensure, as much as possible, that he or she will no longer inflict harm in any way, shape, or form. Penance, in Catholic theology, functions both as an act of reparation, and as an act of preservation—it is supposed to help prevent the further commission of sins.

Nor does forgiveness excuse the victim from vigilance. Although conventional (un-)wisdom has always posited that forgiving should be followed by forgetting, granting forgiveness does not—should not—mean that one automatically forfeits the right to require meaningful change, when it has yet to take place, or the right to demand justice, when it has yet to be served.

Letting go and moving on from an instance of abuse without a sustained call for restitution or reform is to tread down the path of self-destruction. This kind of uncritical, empty-headed forgiveness rewards the transgressor for his or her evil deeds—in the absence of consequences, he or she can be expected to commit exponentially worse acts. Consider, for instance, how far our ever hardworking and prayerful president has come: from breaking a promise not to run in the 2004 elections, all the way to the unconstitutional imposition of martial law against a monster that she herself created.

In her Christmas message, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo exhorted the country to “remember the lessons that we learned this year”. As we enter a new year, if there is one lesson that we must take with us from the annus horribilis that was 2009, it is this: to forgive is not to forget—not when there is still so much that the current regime has left unaddressed, not when there are still so many wrongs that it has left unredressed.

*This quotation is taken from the Charles Derbyshire translation of Noli Me Tangere, which is entitled The Social Cancer.

[This also appears in Filipino Voices.]

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