When I read recently of the passing of Desmond Tutu, I went back to his book No Future Without Forgiveness and its hopeful yet clear-eyed message about how and why forgiveness and reconciliation are necessary.
Pondering anew Tutu’s life, vocation, and writings has driven home to me that forgiveness is integral to vocation. There is no vocation without forgiveness. This is true in our personal vocations, and I believe it is true in our public calling to justice and the civic good. Forgiveness and, where possible and safe, reconciliation, heal the past and liberate us from bitterness, resentment, anger, and the need for retribution. They also free us from the control of those who have hurt us. Without release from these toxic emotions, we cannot fully enjoy our gifts and our vocations. They will never give us enough success or enough happiness. Increasingly, research even suggests physical health benefits accompany forgiveness. Twelve-step groups for addiction, divorce, grief, trauma, as well as other types of recovery and counseling teach the necessity of forgiving others and forgiving ourselves for the sake of our futures.
To think about forgiveness is to think about the dark and painful areas of our lives that are so important to reading our stories and discerning our vocations. Callings are often connected to or shaped by those deepest wounds that forgiveness calls us to enter. We glean crucial insights about self and vocation in the process of forgiving as well as in those moments of wholeness that forgiveness can bring about. These moments, moments of “shattering and shalom,” as Dan Allender calls them, are part of every person’s story, and they hold important clues about identity and calling. This is why even as simple a thing as listing everyone and everything you resent (an Alcoholics Anonymous exercise) yields surprising insights. And the list is often much longer than we thought it to be.
Without the ability or willingness to forgive, “living vocationally,” to use Wadell and Pinches’ phrase, is difficult, if not impossible. The corrosive emotions we carry as a result of unforgiveness stunt our flourishing and chain us to misery. “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and then realize that the prisoner is you,” Lewis B. Smedes wrote. Voicing a similar idea, Tutu says “Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.” Virtue and vocation are patterns of living that lead us into flourishing ways of being and doing in the world. They provide a future by providing a good life in the present. Without forgiveness, however, we remain mired in painful, toxic patterns of feeling and acting. For Tutu, there is no future without forgiveness because warring groups remain stuck in endless cycles of “reprisal and counterreprisal” (260). It is the same in our personal lives. Without forgiveness, we will remain stuck and controlled by those who have hurt us.
So why don’t we free ourselves by forgiving and reconciling where reconciliation is possible? Because extending forgiveness to a perpetrator when wronged may be one of the highest, hardest, callings there is. Tutu acknowledges the difficulty:
Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end dealing with the real situation helps to bring real healing. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing. (271)Desmund Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness.
Aside from the difficulty and risk in either offering or asking for forgiveness, there is sometimes also the additional difficulty of feeling weak. However, as Tutu argues, “A readiness to make a concession is a sign of strength, not weakness. And it can be worthwhile sometimes to lose a battle in order in the end to win the war” (281).
Frameworks for forgiveness differ. In Tutu’s Christian framework with its attendant metaphysics, forgiveness is at “the heart of the universe,” and therefore “what each of us does can retard or promote, can hinder or advance, the process at the heart of the universe” (267). Tutu’s vision of forgiveness is not without its critiques. One of the most interesting to me is Martha Nussbaum’s in Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice. Nussbaum takes issue with the final chapter of No Future Without Forgiveness, which, she argues, introduces “a transactional and conditional strand of the Christian picture: not the behavior of the father of the prodigal son, but the behavior of the penitent and confessor” (242). In addition to Nussbaum’s framework for understanding forgiveness, one might visit the site of The International Forgiveness Institute for frameworks that attempt to accommodate any or no religious faith.
When discussing with students the risks and difficulties of forgiveness, I use the poem “Ceasefire” by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley. The poem was published just after a 1994 ceasefire in Northern Ireland was announced. “Ceasefire” recounts the clandestine meeting of Priam and Achilles that constitutes the climax of the Iliad. This meeting under cover of night is an uneasy, unexpected truce brought about by the recognition of the shared plights, suffering, and humanity of two enemies. Longley’s sonnet ends with the lines “Priam . . . who earlier had sighed: / ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done / And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.” This jarring couplet underscores the difficulties that must be surmounted in the process of reconciliation. It is not sentimental about “what must be done” to bring about a ceasefire.
The poem thus “rhymes” the Homeric “ceasefire” at the close of the Iliad with the Northern Irish ceasefire thousands of years later. How to bring about a cessation of revenge is in fact one of the oldest questions in western literature. The Iliad and the Odyssey are both concerned with the question of how to end cycles of retribution and move from retributive to restorative justice. From the rage of Achilles onward, the Greeks made a profound study of the role of anger, both good and bad, in personal and public triumphs and tragedies. Similar questions about revenge arise in literary works ranging from Beowulf to Hamlet to The Scarlet Letter.
So much of what we do when we undertake to forgive is vocationally healthy. Understanding the importance and the process of forgiveness is essential to helping us toward the inner freedom vocation requires. I hope the recent commemorations of Demond Tutu and the legacy he left behind will inspire new ways of incorporating forgiveness, truth, and reconciliation into our vocations and into our teaching of vocation.
Related posts: See The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken by Jason Mahn; Discontinued: Our Fragile Vocations by Lori Walters-Kramer; Finding Vocation in Loss, Suffering, and Death by Richard Hughes; Poetry as an Aid to Teaching Vocation by Paul Burmeister; and other posts by Jason Stevens.
Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions, and is currently at work on a book about Seamus Heaney, poetry, and purpose. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.