Difficult Forgiveness? Engaging Paul Ricoeur on Public Forgiveness within the Context of Social Change in South Africa

in International Journal of Public Theology
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In the context of public discourse in South Africa, this article engages Paul Ricoeur’s influential and thought-provoking work on forgiveness, also as it intersects with the work of Jacques Derrida. The article argues that Ricoeur’s discussion of ‘difficult forgiveness’ provides important conceptual clarification in the search for responsible discourse on forgiveness, and offers some brief remarks regarding the promise and pitfalls of using the notion of ‘difficult forgiveness’ in post-conflict situations marked by historical injustice, such as South Africa. It is argued that Ricoeur’s discussion of forgiveness helpfully demonstrates the complexities involved in forgiving in a way that resists cheap forgiveness, and that his nuanced attempt to make room for the spirit of forgiveness to touch institutions enriches the discourse on public forgiveness and its role in the humanization of polarized societies. Given the eschatological tone of Ricoeur’s discussion of forgiveness, the article also points towards the need for future-orientated memory to deal with historical injustices.

Difficult Forgiveness? Engaging Paul Ricoeur on Public Forgiveness within the Context of Social Change in South Africa

in International Journal of Public Theology




Desmond TutuNo Future without Forgiveness (New York: Double Day1999) p. 277.


Mark SandersAmbiguities of Witnessing: Law and Literature in the Time of the Truth Commission (Stanford: Stanford University Press2007) pp. 93–4.


Pumla Gobodo-MadikizelaA Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid (Boston: Mariner Books2004).


Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela‘Towards an Anatomy of Violence’The Mail and Guardian(15 January 2010) para. 21 <http://mg.co.za/article/2010–01–15-towards-an-anatomy-of-violence> [accessed 29 October 2014].


RicoeurMemory History Forgetting p. 457. For a study on how Ricoeur’s narrative trajectory contributes to ‘a pedagogy of pardon’ (with reference to the contexts of Ireland and South Africa) see Maria Duffy Paul Ricoeur’s Pedagogy of Pardon: A Narrative Theory of Memory and Forgetting (New York: Continuum 2009).


DerridaOn Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness pp. 31 32 (original italics).


DerridaOn Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness pp. 32 33.


Ibid. p. 45.


Ibid. p. 42.


RicoeurMemory History Forgetting p. 457.


Ibid. p. 467.


Ibid. p. 468.


Cf. DerridaOn Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness p. 29 and Ricoeur Memory History Forgetting p. 469. In light of Derrida’s comments on the ‘space of theatricality’ one can recall a scene from J.M. Coetzee’s award-winning novel Disgrace. The main protagonist in the novel David Lurie seduces one of his students Melanie Isaacs and is subsequently brought before the tribunal of the university on a charge of sexual harassment. In a conversation about the hearing with his daughter later in the novel Lurie reflects as follows on the hearing: ‘It reminded me too much of Mao’s China. Recantation self-criticism public apology. I’m old-fashioned I would prefer to simply to be put against a wall and shot. Have done with it . . . These are puritanical times. Private lives are public business . . . They want a spectacle: breast-beating remorse tears if possible. A tv show . . .’ (J.M. Coetzee Disgrace (Harmondsworth: Penquin 1999) p.66). Julie McGonegal comments as follows on this aspect of the novel: ‘In many ways the sense of the ridiculous surrounding the tribunal parodies the alternating responses of fascination and revilement to confessional discourse which was commodified and consumed in potentially problematic ways in the contexts of the trc. Disgrace registers the news-mongering and gossip that the hearing generates suggesting that there may be an embarrassing shameful element in society’s reaction to displays of shame displays that are often socially demanded in the first place’ (Julie McGonegal Imagining Justice: The Politics of Postcolonial Forgiveness and Reconciliation (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press) p. 159). Reading Disgrace against the background of the late 1990s one is indeed invited to read this scene of Lurie before the tribunal in the novel as a subtle critique against the spectacle and commodification of confession and forgiveness in South African public discourse.


Ibid. p. 458.


Ibid. p. 478. In his lecture ‘The Difficulty to Forgive’ Ricoeur also attends to the way in which the language of forgiveness can find a way to the friend-enemy relationship. The best that one can hope for Ricoeur argues is a form of ‘normality’. Ricoeur however continues: ‘Then what would the more specific marks of forgiveness be behind the mask of normality? I would lay the stress on certain gestures such as that of Willy Brandt kneeling at the foot of the Jewish memorial in Poland or the handshake between Rabin and Arafat following that between Sadat and Begin’ (Junker-Kenny and Kenny eds Memory Narrativity Self and the Challenge to Think God p. 11). In the recent South African context gestures of reconciliation between former enemies often received media attention and while one can be critical of misuses in this regard one should note their positive role as well in fostering an ethos of reconciliation. A well-known example in this regard is Nelson Mandela’s gesture—amidst racial polarization—to wear a number 6 Springbok rugby jersey (similar to that of the captain) when he appeared on the field during the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. For a reflection on this gesture see Robin Petersen ‘The Politics of Grace and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ in H. Russel Botman and Robin Petersen eds To Remember and to Heal: Theological and Psychological Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation (Cape Town: Human and Rousseau 1996) pp. 57–64.


RicoeurMemory History Forgetting p. 483.


Ibid. p. 483.


RicoeurMemory History Forgetting p. 493.


Gobodo-MadikizelaA Human Being Died That Night pp. 138–39.


John de GruchyReconciliation: Restoring Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress Press2002) p. 171.


Antjie KrogCountry of my Skull (Johannesburg: Random House1998). For an engagement with Krog’s book see Robert Vosloo ‘Traumatic memory Representation and Forgiveness: Some Remarks in Conversation with Antjie Krog’s Country of My SkullIn die Skriflig/ In Luce Verbi 46:1 (2012) 7 pages.


Cf. L. Gregory JonesEmbodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans1995).


TutuNo Future without Forgiveness pp. 278 279. Donald Shriver has also made the argument that if human enemies are to find some form of political association again they will ‘find themselves practicing a collective form of forgiveness’ (Donald Shriver An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (New York: Oxford University Press 1995) p. 3).


TutuNo Future without Forgiveness p. 282.


RicoeurMemory History Forgetting p. 457.


Ibid. p. 459.


Robert Vosloo‘Reconciliation as the Embodiment of Memory and Hope’Journal of Theology of Southern Africa 109 (2001): 25–40.

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