Always forgive your enemies.
Nothing annoys them so much.
(Oscar Wilde)

(this sort of follows the yellow pad stream of consciousness of Tuesday morning, much of it basking in the sunny end of an otherwise too-cold barn)

Convivial Questions seem to open floodgates of thought and association, though I often begin with a feeling that I have little to contribute. Brian's forgiveness question followed that pattern—initially, I thought that I had myself very little experience of forgiving or being forgiven, and no back catalog of harms-done that I need to atone for, so my contributions would be anthropologist-as-observer.

My first stab at "what is forgiveness anyway?" was to think of ritual defusing of harm-done, an exercise in pardoning or seeking pardon, a restoration of balance in a relationship. And every language that I know anything about has an array of formulaic ask-and-grant phrases for the trivial/workaday business of mutual acknowledgement of /it ain't no thang/. There's fine tuning of the ask and the grant, according to level of infringement, to relative social status, to formality, etc.. An intrusion is acknowledged and negotiated.

French: je m'exuse [I excuse myself] ; de rein [it's nothing] or pas de problem [in a different register]

German: Entschuldigung [Schuldt = 'guilt'; 'de-guiltification' or Es tut mir Leid [leid = 'suffering, sorrow'==> 'It makes me regretful']

Turkish and Swedish and Malay on request...

This impulse to make ritual exchange is forgiveness lite, and it's everywhere in social interaction, sort of graphite in the hinges of a squeaky door. We all have a lot of experience.

But the New York Times article is about greater harms, which may call forth (or demand, or advise) ritual acknowlegement of and attempting to defuse a harm done in the past. On my first reading, the article seemed to be more about "restorative justice" for an unresolved grievance

...and I went down the path of thinking about Attachment to Slights, and seeking redress, and came to rest with "an ignoble exercise in passive-aggressive ritual compassion", an uncomfortable relationship to be in, vis-a-vis someone else.
So I backed out of that Rabbit Hole and read the NYT article again and followed the path toward Apology and Restitution, and to thinking of such grand-scale and un-forgiven (unforgivable?) harms as *slavery and *genocide, which blight the last 400 years of OUR nation's history. And so arises the question:
?How can the actions of our ancestors be 'forgiven'? Is there anything we can say, any action we could take, to redress the present consequences of those actions? And is our acknowledgement of the wrongdoings of the past of any real use, except perhaps to make us feel better to have carried out the ritual acknowledgement?
These are difficult and awkward questions, ranging from (and there's much more to the landscape of ritual answers).

And then it occurred to me to wonder about particular cases-in-point of the un-forgiven, and the first that came to mind was Wounded Knee in 1890 ("the end of Native American resistance..."). I vaguely remembered a news story about a descendant of two of the officers who commanded the US Army troops who carried out the massacre, RITUALLY APOLOGISING and being granted FOREGIVENESS by a Lakota elder.

A bit of searching turned up these two searing examples, truly worth your time to watch:

(Buffy Sainte-Marie)
(see lyrics, from Wounded Knee Massacre: Never Forget, Never Forgive)


(Albert White Hat Sr. Quiet Desparation)

From here there are many branching paths. The next step might be to AIM, the American Indian Movement.

(and see Free Leonard Peltier)

...and on to the history of displacement to Reservations (Kate's current map documents the process of land cession in GA and AL by the Creeks, and their eventual relocation to Muskogee OK), and on to the Education of the Indians, the residential schools, etc. etc. And then why not a leap to Australia, to take in Rabbit Proof Fence... and then north a bit to Ambon, in the East Indies, for an encounter with 17th century Dutch merchants, laid out in The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis... and on to myriad other examples of enslavement perpetrated by our ancestors in search of enrichment, which all went into making the world into the mess of the present. It's all one Story, those 600-odd years of European conquest and domination and profit, and prompted me to re-read Immanuel Wallerstein on the Modern World-System...

So what are the responsibilities of we whose comfortable and opulent lives are lived BECAUSE of *injustices of the past... and, while we're at it, *injustices of the present.

To whom could/might/should/must we apply for forgiveness and absolution for our part in all that?

See the landscape of difficult and awkward questions above: Rinse and Repeat. Ample territory for denial and hypocrisy.


To forgive is to set a prisoner free
and discover that the prisoner
is you
(Lewis B. Smedes)


See also
Forgiveness in Native-American Experience (Nancy Babbitt) and
Timothy Keller at Comment Magazine) Comment Magazine