Over the last decades the notions of forgiveness and reconciliation have increasingly been expressed in the public sphere in many countries. There is a pervasive trend towards public apologies, forms of national introspection and public appeals to grant forgiveness.
Archbishop Tutu's motto that “there is no future without forgiveness” is well known. He has argued that forgiveness is the only way to liberate oneself from the prison of past animosity and rancour. Partly due to Tutu's efforts, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has become an important model and source of inspiration for many other countries that want to deal with their past grievances and internal conflicts. For others, however, to speak of forgiveness in politics is inappropriate and risky. What is more unforgivable than the atrocities of the powerful? Forgiveness is seldom a servant of justice, some claim.
The opposition between proponents and opponents of public forgiveness raises conceptual, philosophical, empirical and practical questions: What does ‘forgiveness’ mean, how does speaking in terms of ‘forgiveness’ function, and under what conditions can it foster transitional justice processes?
Section 2 will start with some philosophical questions regarding the meaning of ‘public forgiveness’ and we will relate these to questions about the conditions under which the oratory of public forgiveness does occur. We will elaborate two positions, one labelled ‘minimalist’, in section 3, and the other ‘maximalist’, in section 4. In section 5 we will discuss the notion of ‘invitational forgiveness’ and the question whether a forgiving attitude is a necessary aspect of mitigating a confrontational social climate. In section 6 we will pay attention to some cultural and religious contexts in which public forgiveness may occur. Which conditions do promote or impede that process?
WHAT IS PUBLIC FORGIVENESS?
Philosopher Trudy Govier stated: “Some find the notion of forgiveness in politics naïve to the point of absurdity.” An extension of the use of forgiveness to the public realm does indeed evoke many questions. What exactly is “forgiveness”? Do we have to distinguish between different kinds of forgiveness? To what extent is it bound to “face-to-face” relationship between individuals? Under what conditions can people grant forgiveness or ask for it?