Friday, April 21, 2006


"Holy Week is a time when traditionally the Christian world, and even heathen Anglicans like me, reflect on forgiveness," Minette Marrin writes. But she believes, at the title of her article says, that sometimes "forgiveness is an inhuman quality."

It's easy to see her point, in the wake of the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui which has been ongoing in Virginia. In fact, it's her exhibit A. The harrowing recording of the last minutes of United Flight 93, followed by "Moussaoui’s cold, contemptuous lack of remorse."

“We want to inflict pain on your country,” he told the American court. “You are the head of the snake for me. If we want to destroy the Jewish state of Palestine, we have to destroy you first.” What can forgiveness mean here?

What indeed. She writes of an English woman vicar whose daughter died in the London 7/7 Islamist attacks. The Rev Julie Nicholson gave up her parish duties "because she cannot reconcile her feelings with central Christian teachings on forgiveness. She cannot forgive the killers, nor does she want to."

She spoke of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan says, “I do not want the mother to embrace the torturer who tore her son to pieces with dogs! Let her not dare to forgive him! If she wants, she may forgive him on her account . . . for her limitless maternal suffering; but as for the suffering of her dismembered child, those she has no right to forgive, she dare not forgive his torturer, even if her child himself forgave him.” There are some acts, Julie Nicholson said, “which are humanly unforgivable, and rightly so”. I feel the same.

Like me, she approaches human behavior, even in its most intimate and psychological corners, with a secular and biological lamp for guidance, rather than a spiritual one. This may color her perception, and mine. But it allows her to find an alternative to the dichotomy of forgiveness and revenge.

We are all formed by complex interactions of nature and nurture, which science is only barely beginning to understand; our aptitudes are inherited, our infant brains are rewired by our experiences, particularly traumatic ones, our behaviour is moulded by culture and habit, good and bad. This view is often ridiculed as crude determinism, but I think it is neither crude nor easy to refute.

Forgiveness has always been seen in our culture as a most noble, generous-hearted virtue and I don’t underestimate the courage and magnanimity of those who are able to forgive others for terrible wrongs. And I can understand forgiveness as a social construct; personal vengeance and vendetta cannot be allowed in a civilised society and forgiveness has no doubt developed as an antidote to the toxins of revenge.

But withholding forgiveness is not necessarily the same as demanding revenge. I do not think Moussaoui should be mistreated or executed, because I think both are wrong and bad for the executioners. But I do not think it is for me or for anyone else on earth to forgive him.