Does Forgiving Mean Forgetting?

An interfaith dialogue between the official faith chaplains of St Andrews University.

Dr Sam Pehrson – Hon. Buddhist Chaplain

Moral transgressions are sometimes understood to be like debts, from which the debtor can be released by the debt being cancelled – forgiven – by the harmed party. However, another analogy is that of planting seeds: positive and negative actions plant seeds that at some point will germinate, grow and bear fruits concordant with the moral quality of the action. Seeds, unlike debts, cannot be cancelled.

Racism is a poisonous seed that has been sown over many generations and continues to be sown. European societies and those they colonised are profoundly shaped by it. As a white European Buddhist whose ancestors brutally colonised much of the Buddhist world whilst exoticizing its cultures and ideas as curios, I need to be careful to remember this. Even if it were forgiven by the victims – and it is not for white people like me to comment on whether it should be – racism and its potential to bear harmful fruits will not go away. A poisonous weed can only be stopped by acting directly against it, repeatedly uprooting it, blocking the sunlight, and of course not planting any more. It will be hard work. However, if we recognise that, however well established, the poisonous weeds are not inherent to the soil, then we can persist in removing them however long it takes. The soil can then support nutritious plants instead.

This process is described in Buddhist teaching on the ‘four powers of purification’, which describes how to relate to one’s past wrongs and limit their destructive consequences. For many Buddhists, it is at the heart of daily practice. Although usually expressed in the context of personal mistakes and negative actions, the teaching might also give some clues as to how systemic injustice like racism should be dealt with. The power of ‘reliance’ would mean seeing that racism is a violation our nature rather than being inherent to it. We need to see that a world without racism is actually possible. The power of ‘regret’ is an open acknowledgement of the harm caused and understanding our own role in it, directly or indirectly, individually or collectively. It would mean white people listening to what contemporary racism is like from its victims’ perspective, and no more denial about its forms and effects in the present. The power of ‘antidotal action’ is the direct remedy for the damage done. For violence this could be safety and protection; for exploitation, justice; for humiliation, respect. Fourth, the power of ‘restraint’ is a firm commitment to abandon the action from now on, which I think speaks for itself.

The practice of the four powers is not a one-off event that draws a line under an injustice allowing it to be forgotten like a cancelled debt. It has to be done continually, developing over time with deepening understanding. So, while I don’t know whether or not forgiving means forgetting, purification, or perhaps we can say healing, certainly does not.


Leslie Stevenson – Hon. Quaker Chaplain

First of all, forgetting is not under our voluntary control.  I may forget something that I really wanted to remember but cannot now recall (a familiar experience!), and I may wish I could forget something awful but find that I simply cannot forget it (hopefully less familiar).

Secondly, forgiveness presupposes that some wrong has been done, it remains wrong, and cannot now be undone.  Nobody can change the past, but we can sometimes change our attitudes to the past.

Thirdly, one does have some choice whether to act as if some past wrongdoing has not happened.  In one’s future dealings with the person one may try not to take into account the wrong they have done (which one may not forget), though there may be aspects of one’s behaviour that are not under one’s conscious control. If one can see the situation in a wider context, perhaps of faith, one’s own conduct may be more consistent.  If the wrong was not very serious, and an apology has been offered, it may be relatively easy to forgive, and act as if one forgets. 

But if the wrongdoing was serious, things are not so easy.  How could anyone forgive that murdering policeman, let alone forget his deed?  Suppose he repented?  That would surely need more than just saying ‘Sorry’.  But if he came to realize that he acted out of emotion in the heat of the moment, blindly following the prejudice present in his background, if he accepted that he must suffer legal punishment, if he made what reparation he could to the victim’s family, and if he went on to do what he could to combat racial prejudice, then I (for one) would forgive, though I could hardly forget.

Such dramatic repentance is rare, but not impossible as long as someone lives (which is one reason for opposing the death policy).  There may be lesser degrees of repentance, posing the question of whether there can be degrees of forgiveness.  There is also the problem of how the putative forgiver, especially the family of a victim, can cope  with the situation, if the perpetrator does not repent, or dies.  There are sad cases of people being consumed with hatred, blighting the rest of their lives.  One cannot ask them to forget.  Can one ask them to forgive, at least in their own mind, for the sake of their own lives?  It is a very hard ask, but I believe there have been such cases.  Perhaps they can be assisted by some form of religious faith. Is there such a thing as being prepared to forgive, without forgiving?

Sandy Edwards – Hon. Humanist Chaplain

In order to forgive one must not forget what it is you are forgiving; is it the actions of the person or the person themselves. Are they one and the same? Probably the most quoted saying on this topic is from Alexander Pope who said “To err is human, to forgive divine”. Humanism promotes reconciliation, if appropriate, empathy and reason and would rather say “To err is human, to forgive is human”. We need to ask if forgiveness has to go with repentance and whether it is going to be used for good or bad.

We have to understand what makes us human; the product of upbringing, education, traditions, family etc. It is ever changing as our experiences and knowledge change with every conversation, every bit of reading, interaction with others and all life’s experiences. Remember that we all started as babies; not Christian nor Humanist babies, right nor left wing political stances, criminals nor benefactors. Forgiveness involves understanding what causes the person’s antisocial or criminal actions and misdemeanours.

So to forgive someone involves all of these attributes as well, some of which will have caused the actions which may require forgiveness. Humanists have a strong desire for forgiveness and reconciliation because we believe only people can better the world; there isn’t anybody else to do it for us. This does not negate religion’s use of forgiveness, far from it as it is of such great value; it is just that religion comes at it from a different direction.

Many concepts have religious origins but can also be seen in a secular context. An example might be atonement. In “The Railway Man” by Eric Lomax (also a film) we can understand the man responsible for terrible tortures in a Japanese POW camp seeking atonement and one of his victims seeking him out to offer forgiveness, but, most of all, understanding.

There are good religious and secular reasons for forgiving as well as reasons not to forgive. “The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age” by Marina Cantacuzino has stories from both perpetrators and survivors of crime and violence. She writes that not forgiving may cause us to hang on to resentment and bitterness and it may damage ourselves in the end. Forgiving makes us feel good. However there will be instances when it may not be the right thing to do; it can divide opinion and people. Understanding from both sides may help subdue anger and desire for revenge in the victim, but also anger in the perpetrator who perhaps understands what drove them to their actions and results in honest repentance. So the idea of forgetting and forgiving requires us not forgetting so that we can try to understand and be in a position, if appropriate, to forgive. It benefits both sides.

Barbara Davey – Hon. Quaker Chaplain

The preamble to this week’s prompt highlights the shocking murder of George Floyd and raises questions of society’s injustices and our complicity. These are issues of magnitude and complexity: in this short piece, I’d like to simply reflect on forgiveness, not that forgiveness is a simple matter…

Does forgiving mean forgetting? NO!

I’ve taken to sharing these prompts with a few other Quakers – I find it helps in grounding my response – and overwhelmingly Friends are telling me forgiveness is not about wiping the slate clean. I understand it more to be about transforming our relationship with the past, enabling us to live more fully in the future. Quakers might not share in notions of confession, penance and absolution but we are much concerned with learning how to live with love in a world of violence and hurt.

We need to begin with ourselves –

Bring into God’s light those emotions, attitudes and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace.

Quaker faith & practice Advices & queries 32


Forgiveness is about exploring and accepting our own frailties and vulnerabilities. It is also about truthfully naming the wrongs that we ourselves might experience and see around us in society. Sometimes it is about giving up all hope of a better past. It is about trying to face the dark, and if we dare

Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell

Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus

I could not take it upon myself to advise forgiveness to someone who has been deeply wronged, and I am uncomfortable with the notion of forgiveness resting in my hands, but I pray that, in making space for grace, I may be a channel for forgiveness. In humility I pray that I might be forgiven.

Forgiveness is about walking a path of healing. Sorrow can be a bitter companion. Sometimes it is stony ground: we struggle, we stumble. Others give us courage, such as the peace-building work rising from the massacres and conflict in Central Africa and the story of Gordon Wilson, whose daughter Marie died in the Northern Ireland Enniskillen bombing. Mary McAleese describes how his “words of love and forgiveness…shamed us, caught us off guard…they carried a sense of the transcendent into a place so ugly we could hardly bear to watch”.

And I have been inspired by conversations with Marian Partington. Her sister Lucy was murdered by Frederick and Rosemary West. Reflecting on Lucy’s life, Marian writes, Thank you Lucy. Your life and your death have deepened my knowledge of love.

Forgiveness doesn’t forget, but it can help prevent the future following the pattern of the past. Wrongdoing brings hurt and suffering: forgiveness can begin to transform that burden.

Let us then try what Love will do

William Penn, 1693 Quaker faith and practice 24.03


Mary McAleese ‘Unreconciled Being – Love in Chaos’ quoted in Desmond Tutu’s book ‘No Future without Forgiveness’
Marian Partington ‘If you Sit Very Still – A Sister’s fierce engagement with traumatic loss’
The Forgiveness Project : Stories have the power to transform
Sharing stories of forgiveness in order to build hope, empathy and understanding

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan – University Chaplain

Our forgiving, for Christians, flows from God’s forgiving. This forgiveness encompasses his embrace of our hostile, sinful humanity in the death of his Son Jesus on the cross, his continuing love for us and creation of reconciliation between human beings and God.

We who are forgiven, are invited to accept God’s vision of us as forgiven for ourselves. God does not condone our wrongdoing, including the ways in which we perpetuate or ignore injustices, but continues to love us in the face of these ways.

We are then invited to forgive others, as we have been forgiven, seeking to create that reconciled community one with another. This is at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer/Our Father – “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. This is not our prayer because it is easy, but because it is hard.

Does forgiving mean forgetting for God? The psalms in particular ask God not to forget us, in the sense of neglecting, or ignoring us. But the psalmist does ask God not to “remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us.” (Ps. 79:8)

Justice and forgiveness can be seen in tension. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was criticised for promoting reconciliation before justice. Desmond Tutu hoped that justice would flow from reconciliation, and he did not encourage forgetting. Rather, the truth had to be told, before reconciliation could emerge. How can we work for a fairer society without hearing the voices of those who have suffered unfairly, often cruelly, from the power of others?

And so forgiving need not mean forgetting. But forgiving implies our belief that those who perpetuate injustice are not defined by their wrongdoing, but remain objects of love – divine, and ours.

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