We commonly think that to forgive, we can, in delinking the act from the person, forgive the person without needing to forgive the crime; or that by overlooking the misdeed we can begin to pardon the wrongdoer. We may also think that if we understand the wrongdoing or put a time limit on claims of wrongdoing, we can start a process of reconciliation. Through a reading of French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch’s work, this essay examines what constitutes true forgiveness and clarifies some of our common misconceptions. 

Psychological studies suggest that when we feel empathy for the wrongdoer, our feelings for revenge will be replaced with forgiveness.  However, in these instances, we may believe that it involves forgiveness when we are in actual fact, excusing the wrongdoer. Jankélévitch defines excusing as a process where we attempt to achieve an understanding in order to forgive. It involves taking “a position on the wrongs of the culprit of whom a fault is reproached” in order to appreciate the wrongdoing it excuses.[1] To achieve an understanding in order to excuse is also a process of reasoning and deliberation which presupposes that there are no wrongdoers and victims involved. It is also a prolonged process that takes time and sustained attention.[2] True forgiveness on the other hand, is an event that is “initial, sudden, and spontaneous,” a decisive moment in which the victim grants a gracious gift to the wrongdoer.[3] As it does not occur after a process of reasoning or deliberation, it is considered a gift.

This conceptual clarity is essential for understanding what Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) are able to achieve. Desmond Tutu, the chair of the TRC of South Africa was tasked to investigate past human rights abuses. He advocated unconditional forgiveness in the form of restorative justice as a way ahead for reconciliation in South Africa. Instead of granting a general amnesty where these atrocities will be forgotten, the TRC granted “amnesty to individuals in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought” as a way of bearing witness to and recording these crimes.[4] Another example is the Gacaca Community Courts set up after the Rwandan civil war to establish the truth about the genocide-related crimes against the Tutsi. President Paul Kagame encouraged forgiveness on a national level after establishing individual perpetrators’ accountability for their crimes, and stressed that the perpetrators must “show courage and to confess, to repent, and to ask forgiveness”.[5]

For South Africa, all parties agree to granting amnesty in exchange for a full confession of crimes to achieve reconciliation. In the case of Rwanda, prisoners confess their crimes in order to have their sentences reduced, but they expressed no regret or remorse, nor undertook any personal responsibility, and did not ask for forgiveness. By exchanging justice for truth, amnesty is not forgiveness. Given that the starting point for both cases was the attempt at arriving at an understanding so that the wrong can be excused and the wrongdoers be granted a pardon, genuine repentance, remorse, and apology were not necessary. Excusing their wrongdoing already presupposes that there are no wrongdoers or victims so as to achieve an understanding for reconciliation purposes.

The limitation of political amnesty in playing a role in forgiveness remains obvious even today and this points us to the second feature of true forgiveness – that it must take place in the context of a personal relation with another person. In political pardons, the party that grants clemency is indifferent to the wrongdoer, whereas in true forgiveness, there is a personal relationship between victim and wrongdoer. The victim releases the other “from his punishment or from a part of his punishment, or to liberate him before the completion of his punishment”.[6] True forgiveness also entails a sincere attempt at converting the wrongdoer.

Jankélévitch reminds us that it is in this personal relation between victim and wrongdoer that true forgiveness can take place. If victims were to adopt a negligent and casual attitude towards the wrongdoer and treat the misdeeds thoughtlessly and superficially, they will not be able to overcome their resentment and sincerely convert the wrongdoers. It may appear to be less hurtful at times by not confronting the misdeed, by pretending the past never happened, or that there is no wrongdoer to forgive.[7] But by not treating the misdeed seriously, victims not only trivialise and overlook the wrongs they suffered, but give up what is within their rights to justice and fail to deal with their legitimate resentments and memories of the hurt. They may continue to hold a grudge and hence become incapable of granting true forgiveness as a generous person.

Thirdly, true forgiveness must not decay through time according to Jankélévitch. At a fundamental level, true forgiveness requires the memories of a past wrongdoing to forgive. It is also the case that in the present we can only neutralise the effects of a past wrongdoing, not destroy the fact of the wrongdoing.[8] More importantly, we must be warned against indifference to wrongdoings, against collective moral amnesia and the general superficiality of a pardon. In other words, one can forgive but one must never forget. In his response to the question of whether there should be any statutory limitations put in place to begin the process of pardoning Nazi war criminals, Jankélévitch argued that not only does time not have “a diminishing effect on the unbearable horror of Auschwitz,” but to “forget this gigantic crime against humanity would be a new crime against the human species.”[9]

True forgiveness is therefore a gift from the victim with a sincere aim of converting the wrongdoer, without forgetting the fact of the wrongdoing. There is but one more basic condition necessary for true forgiveness which we have seen in the examples above: a wrongdoer who admits his guilt. Jankélévitch argues that for forgiveness to be meaningful in the first place, there must be “the guilty person,” one who “instead of protesting, recognise[s] himself as guilty without pleas or mitigating circumstances, and especially without accusing his own victims”.[10] Without a guilty person, “the entire problematic of forgiveness becomes a simple buffoonery” since “unrepentant criminals themselves are precisely the ones who have no need of forgiveness.”[11] Thus, when we return to the call to forgive the unrepentant Rwandan and Nazi génocidaires, we can agree with Jankélévitch that they are to be treated as “sinister joke[s]” because “[t]o presume to be pardoned one must admit to being guilty, without conditions or alleging extenuating circumstances.”[12] For him, “pardoning died in the death camps” because there are no wrongdoers that need forgiving in the first place.[13]

If we were to forgive unrepentant wrongdoers unconditionally, we will be undermining the very idea of morality itself. We would not be able to establish accountability and personal responsibility for actions, and we would not be able to appropriately integrate unrepentant wrongdoers who do not recognise and acknowledge, or feel remorse or regret their wrongdoing into our community. We must in other words, guard against a hasty response to the call for unconditional forgiveness by not granting forgiveness too easily. There must be genuine repentancefor forgiveness to be morally appropriate. For some, this includes some if not all of the following conditions to be present: an acknowledgement, an expression of regret, and a repudiation of the misdeed; an expressed sympathy and understanding for the suffering experienced by the victims; an acceptance of punishment; a commitment to not repeat the misdeed; and the ability to provide an account of the misdeed as well as the self in the context of the misdeed.


[1] Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Forgiveness. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. p. 58.

[2] Ibid., pp. 62-3.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Tutu, Desmond. Cape Times, April 17, 1997.

[5] Kagame, Paul. Address at Urugwiro Village in Kigali (June 18 2002) quoted in Thomas Brudholm and Velerie Rosoux, “ The Unforgiving: Reflections on the Resistance to Forgiveness after Atrocity,” Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 72, No. 2, 2009. p. 42. Accessed on February 16 2016. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1514&context=lcp

[6] Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Forgiveness. op. cit., p. 10.

[7] Ibid., p. 99.

[8] Ibid., p. 48.

[9] Jankélévitch, Vladimir. “Should we Pardon them?.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 22, No. 3 (1996), pp. 553,557.

[10] Ibid., pp. 157-8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jankélévitch, Vladimir. “Should we Pardon them?.” op. cit., pp. 566-7.

[13] Ibid., 567.


To cite this article:
Jennifer Ang, "What True Forgiveness Means," in Paradigm, June 21, 2019, https://paradigm.suss.edu.sg/what-true-forgiveness-means/.

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