Ashley Belohlavek: Forgiving Violent False Narratives

Over the course of this seminar, I have been forced to think very critically about a lot of complex scenarios involving forgiveness. Sometimes, forgiving someone for stealing a prized possession isn’t comparable to forgiving someone for harming you or someone you love. Who gets to decide when something is forgivable or not? Can an entire group of people forgive someone that hurt them as a whole? None of these questions are easy or simple, but we have attempted to answer them. Whether looking at these questions from a religious or secular point of view, there are no right or wrong answers, which makes them so complex and interesting and unique to each person. In my final analysis of forgiveness for this class, I will focus on forgiveness of those who perpetuate a false narrative to erase the historical suffering of a group of people, in this case, forgiving people who deny the true destruction of the Holocaust against the Jewish people as a whole.

There are so many aspects and nuances within forgiveness that make it so complex. For one thing, forgiveness is not always two sided. One person may forgive but the other has not reconciled, or someone feels immense guilt but the victim refuses to pardon them. The former scenario, unconditional forgiveness, can lead to unforeseen problems like the wrongdoer committing future harm and repeating their actions. I have always considered forgiveness to be a two-way street, but philosophical nuances can illustrate a much deeper, situational landscape to the very definition of forgiveness.

Arguably, it is hardest to forgive when someone who has wronged you refuses to admit their wrongdoing. Recently, the Press Secretary of the United States openly said that Jewish people were not assaulted with chemical weapons during WWII. As a very basic fact of the Holocaust and the immense suffering of the Jewish people, this is incredibly insensitive and a complete disregard for outright injustice against human beings.

For an unfortunately long list of injustices, great effort to erase all traces of tragedy has been spent. Holocaust denial is only one of these instances, as Trudy Govier explores another occurrence of this behavior in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Govier talks about the concept of collective harm, or the idea that an individual can be harmed indirectly by the direct harm to someone of the community or group they are both a part of.[1] Some might think that once the harm of the injustice has been done and those who perpetuated it or were hurt by it directly are gone, the wrongdoing has then been corrected or taken care of. I reject this notion based on collective harm as one reason. Even though those directly affected by the Holocaust are mostly gone now, we still have hate crimes against Jewish people, and the possibility of being harmed because of your faith is a valid terror in Jewish people today. An injustice that happened almost a century ago is still wreaking havoc in our society today and Jewish people still fear for their lives because of it, whether they have been physically victimized or not.

Going off of this idea of collective forgiveness, there is an entire layer of emotional impact that needs to be considered. Besides the direct harm of physical damage, there is still some form of emotional deterioration that has happened because of this tragedy that happened so long ago. This is comparable to the effects of slavery on the black community today, as evidence of inherited PTSD has been discovered in black folks today, despite slavery having been more or less ended for a couple centuries. That is why this idea that, “it’s over, so get over it” isn’t logical. Genocide or mass enslavement doesn’t just cease and all of a sudden everything is okay again.

Holocaust denial might not be nearly as big of a deal if it were just one individual spewing hateful rhetoric, however, that’s not the case. Anti-Semitic hate crime is still rampant today, which makes the denial of the original genocide all the more serious. Attempting to eradicate the historical oppression of Jewish people puts them all in even more danger, further perpetuating the violence against them. This is why we cannot forget the actions of Nazi Germany. Not yet, at least. We cannot forget because traces of it are still present in our society today.

David Rieff has some similar thoughts on this topic, more or less arguing that until we as a society have developed a narrative with as little bias or falsehood as possible, we cannot simply forget tragic “mistakes” of groups or nations. Rieff actually uses Holocaust memorial in order to explain his position, one most memorable quote being this: “As one first enters the museum and before one has seen a single image or artifact of either Nazi atrocity or Jewish martyrdom, one must first walk by the serried battle flags of the U.S. Army divisions that liberated some of the concentration camps (there are no British or Russian standards, even though a great many of the museum’s exhibits concern Bergen-Belsen, liberated by the British, and Auschwitz, liberated by the Soviets).”[2] This may seem like a small observation, but it speaks volumes about the narrative that the West has created surrounding the events of the Holocaust. At the end of the day, we see it as an attack on Jewish people who were ultimately saved by the United States. The problem is that the very first thing one sees are the flags representing the “saviors” of the Jewish people and others victimized by the genocide. Rieff also notes that we equate the flourishing of the Israeli state as proof that anti-Semitism is in the past, yet Jewish community centers in the United States get bomb threats on a daily basis and occasional upheavals of graveyards.

In the spirit of Rieff’s writing, I see our current age as an age stuck in a sort of purgatory. We should have been able to move on from this tragedy by now, but we are unable to because since we still have top officials in this country denying the true nature of the slaughter of Jews during WWII, anti-Semitism is allowed to continue to exist, making it unable to be ignored in good conscience. He frames his arguments in a way that criticizes how Western powers specifically have reframed historical events in which they are the victim or the savior, erasing much of the plight of other groups. In doing this, we are altering tragic events without doing them justice. And an event cannot be forgotten if it has not received its justice. This may just be my own personal interpretation of Rieff, but I think this points out a lot of hypocrisies in the narratives the West has crafted for so many historical tragedies.

What I find incredibly interesting is this idea of collective forgiveness. This concept is often used in the case of mass injustice like the Holocaust or Apartheid, to name a couple examples. There is much thought focusing on how that kind of forgiveness could work, but a question I think is more pressing is if it can work. How can an apology undo the pain that genocide, brutal oppression and constant fear have created for so many? Of course, forgiveness is possible, but forgiveness as an expectation is asking for a lot. I think that Professor Nasr’s class lecture has some interesting points concerning this issue. Nasr inquires, “What would it mean if the relation between peoples, civilizations, and nations can [be] based more on forgiveness and friendship than self-interest and revenge.”[3] While I agree that a society based on forgiveness and friendship is most ideal, I think that the struggle to forgive does not come from a place of self-interest or a need for revenge, and I think that the issue is much more complex than Nasr is generally framing it. For instance, both Islam and Christianity speak often of giving to those who have not been given the same advantages as others, such as the poor or historically oppressed groups, so the idea of reparations in order to produce genuine forgiveness is not a selfish request. In my opinion, reparations beyond words of regret are actually a duty of the ancestors of those who wronged the original victims. This issue is obviously not black and white and there are so many things to considerate in any individual case, but I think there is a sort of middle ground or a different perspective that is not often considered here that should be explored through extended research and discussion.

Anthony Bash briefly mentions this idea of mass forgiveness when he questions if Jewish people could ever forgive Germany for its supremacist attitude and its genocidal actions. Bash, however, does not answer this question or consider its possible responses. I think this would be highly interesting and thought provoking for future study. Bash perceives international forgiveness as a necessary peacemaking tool, keeping tensions between countries low. The key that, in my opinion, nations struggle with is admitting that they have done wrong to another nation and need to renounce those unethical actions. As long as nations are unwilling to look upon themselves critically, peace and forgiveness will become increasingly difficult and unattainable. Bash uses this situation as an example of why forgiveness, originally a religious concept (and heavily Christian, in his opinion), is necessary in the political, everyday sphere, not just the religious community.

Govier has a lot to say about the nature and consequences of revenge, which relate a lot to Bash’s comments on peace. Govier considers the point of view of a party that has wronged another, keeping in mind that there is a good chance that the wrongdoers do not actually see themselves as having done something wrong. Govier envisions the unintended circumstances that seeking revenge could spawn in this situation with his explanation, “…if we bring harm to them in revenge, they will think that we wronged them and feel in response a desire for revenge themselves.”[4] He then goes on to state that not only is revenge an immoral concept but it is often extremely short-lived and not worth the cost at which it comes. Govier entertains the idea of instant gratification that revenge can bring for someone scorned, but he uses the high cost of revenge to deem it not worth the brief satisfaction that it may bring. Bash notes that study conducted at the University of Wisconsin—Madison showed results of improved mental health and more “positive therapeutic outcomes” for people who chose to forgive someone who hurt them in some way. In other words, forgiveness brings long-term happiness while revenge creates a very short-lived, distorted sense of satisfaction. Both Bash and Govier’s arguments point towards a more favorable long-lasting outcome in choosing to forgive someone.

Griswold makes an interesting statement in criticism of “unconditional forgiveness.” He compares unconditional forgiveness to that of gift-giving, but notes that even gifts, “come with expectations of reciprocity attached.”[5] This is a strange idea to me, since it is possible for one to forgive someone who does not wish for forgiveness, but it can still bring the victim peace. I think a more important criticism of unconditional forgiveness would be not “Is it conceptually valid?” but instead “Is it just?” Initially my instincts tell me that, no, it is not just, as the perpetrator of the injustice receives no inconvenience for their crime against someone, but this too is yet another debatable topic.

Many religions regard forgiveness as a virtuous and honorable act, but it is not actually required. In Islam, for example, when one has been victimized by another, they have the option to seek rightful revenge for the wrongdoing by legal settlements or even execution if the crime is severe enough. The moral thing to do in this situation is to simply forgive the perpetrating instead of exacting revenge, but no decision is obligatory according to Islamic tradition. In Christianity, forgiveness is similarly advised but not mandatory in any given situation. It is just stressed that God will always forgive the sinner if they repent their bad actions. We forgive in order to try to regain peace and at least some level of friendship if the relationship cannot be fully repaired to its previous state. So how can we value both accountability and peace equally?

An interesting thought suggested by Digeser is that under an unjust governmental regime, morally unacceptable actions cannot be blamed on the perpetrators, since the whole system is fundamentally flawed, and likewise, a fundamentally just system welcomes the disavowal of unjust actions.[6] Of course we can all agree that in a just society, immoral actions and ideas ought to be rejected, but why would accountability be diminished under a less than just system? If anything, I would think that this requires more urgent opposition towards the immorality of the regime in place in order to bring change to an incredibly unjust system.

In Desmond Tutu’s evaluation of the outcome of exercising forgiveness towards South Africa’s white oppressors, he notes that the practice of forgiveness in this situation has been shown to hold very low standards of accountability for colonists there, which continues to perpetuate the damage done to South African natives in their tainted homeland. Continuing off of discussions that I started in my last response paper, surrounding the topic of national forgiveness in the face of mass injustices, I wonder what is more urgent: seeking immediate reparation for South Africans hurt by the rampage of Apartheid or focusing on keeping the peace. Upon careful consideration, peace is likely the more urgent of the two, as continued fighting could easily result in more carnage and loss of life. This is, of course, an incredibly complex situation, though unfortunately it is not uncommon.

An example of institutionalized peace can be the Nobel Peace Prize, an award given to those who have made outstanding strides within peace building and conflict resolution. A concept that we have no really institutionalized, however, is friendship. In my opinion, remembrance is incredibly important, especially when remembering the great struggle of people in their effort for liberation. We have museums to remember the struggle of Jewish people during the Holocaust. We still to this day, have a moment of silence for those who perished on 9/11 from terrorist attacks. Honoring the bravery and perseverance of humankind is important, but there are few museums or institutions dedicated to celebrating the positive aspects of history or the strides of minorities through tough situation after tough situation. We have Black History Month, for example, but do we really even contribute to bestowing sufficient honor upon brilliant and heroic black Americans, especially as non-black citizens? What are ways that we can improve the way we commemorate positive historic events and create more national recognition of the history of peace and friendship itself?

This is obviously a complicated and broad question. There is no one single solution. But through analyzing the ways in which forgiveness is possible, we can deduce how we can honor forgiveness without losing the importance of accountability and retribution. Glen Pettigrove says, “The recognition of even a modest flaw can chafe against love’s native impulse. Nevertheless, learning to deal with this sort of chafing while continuing to love the other is part of maturing as a lover.”[7] This concept is so important because even within friendships, people are going to make mistakes and we must all own up to these mistakes in order to continue a healthy and fair relationship. When a nation commits a crime against humanity, they have the responsibility of admitting that they have done an injustice. We have the responsibility of accosting them and acknowledging that they did something wrong. That is step one. We have reached this step in certain situations, such as Japan apologizing for its destruction of Pearl Harbor, and Spain has apologized for expelling Jews (though not Muslims) from the Peninsula with the Spanish Inquisition. This does not undo the damage, but again, it is step one: admitting one’s mistake.

From both Islamic and Christian perspectives, at least attempting to forgive one who wronged you is a duty, even if fully accepting an apology is not. Al-Ghazali says that if one gives 70 excuses for his bad actions and you are unable to accept any of them, then the problem is you.[8] This suggests that you must make a great effort to bring yourself to forgive the person who wronged you before you throw forgiveness out the window. Similarly, Bash explains, “Although, most certainly, there is not a moral duty to forgive in the New Testament, there is, I suggest, a moral duty to do all that one can so that one is able to forgive if it is possible—and this includes even the unrepentant.”[9]

With so many instances of mass injustice, it’s hard to say where exactly to draw the line for justice. So many people have been harmed and their pain can never be undone. But at the same time, continued violence and fighting will result in more harm, maybe even on those meant to be avenged. Institutionalizing friendship, however, could help with this dilemma. We cannot pretend that wars and genocides never happened (for instance, Holocaust denial is incredibly insensitive and can lead to even more trauma), but we can spend more time and energy focusing on the positive things that have happened, lives that have been saved, and friendships that have been made. We don’t have to erase the evil parts of the past, but we ought to raise up the good parts as well.

According to Islamic ideology, if God were to punish all those who have sinned, no one would be left unpunished. In other words, all of us have done something wrong or something that requires forgiveness, whether that be horizontal forgiveness (from another human being) or vertical forgiveness (forgiveness from God). Or as Professor Mahallati likes to ask, would you want your worst mistakes to be included in your biography? Should we really seek justice on everyone for every mistake that they have made, or should we be merciful upon them and greatly consider their positive actions. It’s hard to say and it truly depends on the situation, but Islam certainly encourages a more compassionate and merciful attitude towards those when judging them; when deciding whether or not they deserve forgiveness. Christianity similarly looks at forgiveness, not as a requirement but as a virtue. It is so much better to forgive than not to. Ultimately, the greatest and truest forgiveness comes from God, but God is most pleased when we choose to forgive.

While there are so many thoughts expressed in this analysis, I think it summarizes our class as well. We have discussed so many concepts in forgiveness and we have not reach any permanent conclusions on many topics because no one feels exactly the same on the same topic as everyone else. Despite this lack of certainty, I can say that I think the most important step that we must take in order to reach some sort of forgiveness or ability to forget is to commit to constructing truthful narratives starting as soon as possible. The main reason we are continuing to have this conflict of Holocaust denial is because we have allowed a false narrative to be created and grow without challenging it. We try to cover up tragedies and let people or regimes get away with crimes, creating an incomplete or false narrative about what actually happened and why.

Works cited:

Govier, Trudy. “Forgiveness and Revenge”. Routledge: London and New York. 2002.

Rieff, David. In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies. Yale University Press. 2016.

Nasr. 2011. “A Speech on Forgiveness.” Lecture, Oberlin College.

Bash, Anthony. 2007. Forgiveness and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Griswold, Charles L. 2008. “Forgiveness and Apology: What, When and Why?” Academic Search Complete Vol. 23 Issue 2:21-26.

Digeser, P.E. 2001. Political Forgiveness. Cornell University Press.

Pettigrove, Glen. 2012. Forgiveness and Love. Oxford University Press.

al-Ghazali. The Duties of Brotherhood in Islam. The Islamic Foundation.

[1] Govier, 89

[2] Rieff, 81

[3] Nasr

[4] Govier, 9

[5] Griswold

[6] Digeser

[7] Pettigrove, 96

[8] al-Ghazali, 67

[9] Bash, 105