The Recent emergence of the notion of historical repentance and the accompanying requests for forgiveness pose troubling questions. It is something of a novelty in political and international life. Justifications are not given, and it installs itself in our attitudes quite naturally, as if its rationale were self-evident. As it so happens, however, it is not self-evident. My intention here is to propose an explanation, tentatively, as any explanation of a new phenomenon is open to dispute.

Forgiveness is individual. And it is individual even if culpability may be communal, may belong to society, as Karl Jaspers wrote in Die Schuldfrage. Forgiveness concerns a wrong inflicted by one individual on another, not simply objectively, but also felt as such by both parties. The party responsible for the wrong asks his victim to forgive. He does not ask him to forget. Only that he turn to a new page in their communal life. In this sense, forgiveness is a gift, a kind of remittance of fault, on condition that the fault is confessed and regretted. This is understood on the personal level by the two parties. The perpetrator and the victim are there, face to face, alive, and in full possession of the memory of the wrong inflicted and suffered. In this sense, the practices of political repentance and forgiveness to which we have been bearing witness for some twenty years are strange, for they bring into play collective entities that are extremely large (entire societies), and therefore vast in space as well. But they also concern entities that are vast in temporal terms: the victims have often disappeared, as have the perpetrators. It is the descendants of the perpetrators who are asking the forgiveness of the descendants of victims. Those who are repentant are not those who committed the wrong. Those who are asked their forgiveness are not those who suffered the wrong. They both represent members of a historical cultural community to which they claim to belong.

It is worth interrogating this collectivization of repentance and forgiveness. For in principle, when shame is expressed, it is the culprit who feels shame and no one else. It is a profoundly inner sentiment, the private conscience, nourished from within by memory and guilt. One cannot feel guilt in another’s stead.

There is another aspect to this affair that is quite astonishing. We have a menagerie of transgressors (or rather representatives of transgressors, proxy culprits) asking forgiveness, while the victims do not reply. Indeed the victims themselves are quite unable to reply, as they belong to the generations of the past. But their descendants, from whom one now asks forgiveness, in general are not summoned to respond. In general the person seeking forgiveness finds no peace until he is “accorded” forgiveness. Here, however, the request for forgiveness itself seems to suffice as a sort of ritual.

In the end, one sees quite clearly that this new practice is common only among cultures that make facile requests for the forgiveness of others or ask forgiveness amongst themselves, while other cultures do not do the same for them, not because they have no wrongs to confess (what historical group is without blemish?), but simply because they do not play this game. Why? Muslims or the Chinese do not repent the transgressions of their past. This has become established practice only among Occidental cultures, and perhaps in Japan, a country that has been Occidentalized, given the circumstances in which it found itself with respect to the Occident in the disaster of the Second World War (I am thinking of Japanese repentance with regards to China). Thus it is here, in the Occident, where the questions regarding this new comportment arise.

Two forms of the request for collective forgiveness emerge, quite different in their ends and the spheres concerned.

In countries in which great human calamities took place, desired and fomented by agents acting quite deliberately, the return to normalcy is accompanied by a desire for reconciliation between the perpetrators and the victims. For it is absolutely necessary for a society to relearn how to live together, and if one cannot erase what has been done, the relationship between the camp of the perpetrators and the camp of the persecuted must be revived. The possibility to live together can be the result of justice or the result of forgiveness. Regarding justice, the criminals are accused, taken to trial, judged, and punished in some manner. This allows for a sort of amends, even if perhaps on shaky foundations (since we are dealing with crimes for which no compensation is possible). Examples include Nuremberg, the Czech Republic following the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the cases in which the International Court of Justice has created an ad hoc tribunal. But forgiveness accorded by the group of victims can also be a condition of reconciliation. This was the case in South Africa after apartheid, or Romania or Poland (the politics of “drawing a thick line”1) following the fall of communism.

Furthermore, we are bearing witness to the emergence of a practice of forgiveness, whether internal (within a given country) or external (one cultural group pardoning another), that neither concerns recent human disasters nor represents a response to a desire to live together after a tragedy in which one side bears blame, but constitutes rather a tribute paid to history. Examples abound, including the repentance of the Canadian government or Australia for the abuses inflicted earlier on the autochthonous populations, the repentance of the French government for the deportation of Jews during the Second World War, the many gestures of repentance of Pope John Paul II for forced conversions, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the mistreatment of Jews, etc.

This second case of historical forgiveness that has no bearing on the restoration of a society is particularly interesting. In effect, it has no a priori raison d’être. It seems entirely gratuitous, and one might even see in it a form of self-flagellation. I would thus examine this latter case.

The most salient fact is that this practice appears in the bosom of the culture that has grown out of Christianity, and nowhere else. Pardon is in its origins a Judeo- Christian concept. It allows for a remission of wrongs under certain conditions (the guilty party must be conscious of his guilt, the victim must be willing to renounce his resentment). In the strict sense, forgiveness is granted by God or his intermediaries (“all your sins shall be forgiven”), and thus is part of a culture of transcendence. In this sense, the phenomenon of historical forgiveness is a manifestation of an extension of individual pardon in a culture accustomed to repentance, which makes human improvement possible. Here forgiveness signifies (for instance in the case of John Paul II) repentance for the wrongs committed in the past by the community of the faithful, accompanied by a sincere desire that these wrongs not be wrought again in the future. We are speaking of a sort of historical act of confession, which differs only in its scale and distance from the individual confession known to Christianity.

And yet this is the first time that such historical confessions have been made in the culture that has grown out of Christianity. Until now, barbaric acts could be regretted afterwards, but more often they were legitimated by circumstances, and victims were asked merely to forget, but not to forgive. In 1524, a few years after the bloody conquests of Hernán Cortés, twelve Franciscan monks were sent to Mexico to attempt to convert natives who had survived. We are only coming in the cause of peace, the monks said to the natives, and to those who then asked why so many of their kin had been slaughtered, they explained that God had known them to be sinners and had therefore allowed the massacres. In the 15th century, after the terrible wars against the Hussites, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund sought to efface the past with the oblivion of forgetfulness. Henri IV did much the same thing a century later with the Edict of Nantes, which granted Calvinist Protestants in France significant rights, but not without explaining the alleged reasons for which they had been persecuted, reasons due to the circumstances of the age. Why then this exigency today for forgiveness instead of forgetting, and the concomitant refusal to consider any justification, on the basis of historical circumstances, of the barbarous acts that have been committed for many centuries? Moreover, the promises that such acts will not be committed again are surrealistic. The Crusades ended a long time ago. They are distant now, and there is hardly any risk that they will recur, whether we repent or not. The same is true in the case of the wars over religion, for our religions have ceased to be fanatical, for many reasons. This repentance, then, is not an indication of a will to renew communal life, and it bears no practical aim in the sense of everyday morality.

Historical repentance is more a manifestation of a metamorphosis in our way of seeing the world. It reflects the institutionalization of new modes of thought.

The present age, which has been inscribed in what is called “post-modernity”, is characterized by the predominance and even the monopoly of morality. The ethic commandment has permeated all domains. It has appropriated politics, it pervades the domain of the arts, it has become a substitute for truth, which earlier had been its foundation, and as far as our topic is concerned, it has become detached from visions of the world of which it had previously been an integral part. Earlier ethics emerged either in religious or ideological visions of the world, where they then took root. One obeys a moral commandment either to follow in the path of Christ or in the hopes of a brighter future.

The widespread conviction in Occidental societies is that structured truths, or visions of the world, or if you prefer “grand narratives” are naturally bearers of fanaticism and sooner or later will end by destroying human life in the name of an idea or a truth. This is paradoxical, since in principle ideas are allegedly in the service of humanity. The response is to liberate oneself from visions of the world, religions, ideologies, dogmas of all kinds, and allow oneself to be guided by morality alone, which claims to serve humanity with no other mediation.

To cite an example, the story of Abraham has become the target of revulsion (I have even heard people say it should not be retold in schools), for Abraham prepares himself to murder a child in the service of truth, and in this sense he appears as a precursor and representative of all our crimes to be rejected.

The age in which one inflicted harm in the name of an ideal has come to an end. It is thus not that there was a sudden awareness of certain barbarous acts. But a number of cruelties, regarded as such, were justified in the name of higher ideals. Christianity affirms, “truth will set you free”. Postmodernism replies, “truth will destroy you”.

Subjugated to this monopoly of morality, which is imposed with incredible force, Occidental societies that still harbour visions of the world, be they religious or secular, must pass through the arcanum of repentance. They must avow that the acts of cruelty that were committed in the past in the name of truths were illegitimate and shameful. This all takes place as if the price to be paid in order to maintain truths (human rights, religious faith) were the denunciation of their past barbarities.

In other words, there is a will to maintain a continuity of thought with our ancestors, from whom we inherit historical beliefs (human rights when it is Jacques Chirac who repents, the Christian religion when it is the Pope). The government that asks forgiveness does so in the name of his cultural community in the long term. He feels solidarity with the deeds of its ancestors. It is not a matter of rejecting cultural belief, but rather of admonishing and amending it: it has given damning testimony against itself by acting thusly, and hence the legitimacy of repentance. A culture that defends human rights contradicts itself when it sends Jews to the Vélodrome d’Hiver.2 A Christian culture contradicts itself when it persecutes native populations or the faithless.

Repentance and the request for forgiveness are therefore means with which to rehabilitate or save beliefs by ridding them of immoralities that might destroy them – for today, immorality is redhibitory. It is a question of settling debts in order to save the château.

And yet even if this attitude, which is more or less a matter of strategy (which does not mean it is bereft of sincerity), has any use at the moment, it leaves a plethora of underlying meanings in obscurity.

Repentance signifies that the wrongdoings in question, or other, comparable acts, will not recur. And one could in effect assume that never again will Jews be sent to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, or aboriginal populations massacred. And yet other cruelties will be committed of which we as yet have no inkling, or even are committed today without us realizing (let alone repenting). Morality cannot be the exclusive and monopolistic watchword of social life. It cannot replace politics, which is founded on other laws. It cannot subdue entirely attachments to convictions or collective identities. We would be angels if we were capable of acting solely in the name of timeless, eternal virtue.

Moreover, the moral act is inscribed in circumstances and in a specific situation. These circumstances are social, political, mental, cultural, and spiritual. No one can judge a moral act without inscribing it in its situation, and this is the role assigned to the lawyer and the so-called “mitigating circumstances”. A Christian who repents implicates his individual life, in the recent past. In this case, the person who repents is one and the same, without being very different at different times of his life, and besides, he would not repent for acts that earlier circumstances would seem to have justified, explained, or excused.

Things are quite different, however, in the case of historical repentance. The crimes were committed long ago, yet we repent as if they had taken place yesterday, as if we were plunged in the same situation. This is frankly absurd. Should the Greeks and Italians repent slaveries of ancient times? Should we hold a posthumous trial of Socrates for having defended slavery? This is the paradox to which we do not pay heed: slavery is a crime in itself, everywhere and always, if we believe in the inalienable dignity of man, and yet those who defend slavery in history are only criminals from the moment there is an awareness of the crime. One could cite numerous examples. The case of paedophilia is interesting. Even in recent times, when communities counted more than individuals, petty authorities exercised their powers arbitrarily over the weak with the blessings of all, and children were considered little animals not yet grown into part of humanity, paedophilia was a crime, of course, but it was not regarded as such by most of its perpetrators. Thus it is debatable whether we may pass judgement on these criminals after the fact as severely as if they had actually been aware of the gravity of their acts. Repentance is no less debatable. The Church could simply have repented not having discerned before civil society the point at which the wrongdoings were criminal according to our communal beliefs, but this is something quite different. Indeed the Church was ahead of civil society in the question of the atrocities committed against aboriginal populations in the age of Bartolomé de las Casas, while in the case of paedophilia it has done little more than trail behind the recent indignations of the times, which is disappointing.

But what does this strange desire signify, this urge to look at crimes that date back several centuries as equally liable to prosecution as crimes that were committed yesterday?

There is in this a form of Utopian thinking, no doubt inherited from the Utopian ideologies from which we have barely emerged, now centred around a morality without mediation (totalitarian Utopias use politics and social reorganization as their mediators). Historical forgiveness is inscribed in a Millennialism that today must come to its full realization. It resembles the desire to accomplish Promethean thought: universal values (human rights in every sense of the term) must become a reality, and their universalism is to be understood not simply in spatial terms (every people must respect them), but also in time: through repentance, one must reject episodes of history for having disavowed them. Thus collective forgiveness resembles a desire to reset the meter to zero and recommence history on new foundations.

This all takes place as if it had become possible for us to change the world. The present era, the postmodern age, expresses a tremendous zeal to eradicate all barbarities (definitively – an aspiration palpable in the turn of phrase “never again”3), beginning with the barbarity of war, then the patriarchy and petty hierarchies, then intolerance, the internal violence of communities, moral violence, etc.

As I mentioned above, visions of the world founded on faith do not count anymore, only the dignity and well-being of humankind here and now. And furthermore from now on the dignity of the individual takes precedence over the honour and survival of societies small or large: one no longer sacrifices an individual to a larger entity.

In essence, evil no longer has any meaning. Earlier it could be explained, justified as the “lesser of two evils”, at the heart of a cosmology or religion or ideology. The effacement of all visions of the world deprives evil of all meaning. In this respect, historical pardon indicates that we have been mistaken from the start, that we have collectively led ourselves astray. Barbarities are presented as the consequences of a variety of beliefs, and barbarities and beliefs should be effaced together and yield their place to morality. We are returning to the Utopia of unending peace, or the era of the monastics of Joachim of Fiore.4

This underlying desire to eradicate barbarism cannot be expressed except in an excessive and oppressive manner, for it is a question of purifying the world by an insidious form of coercion: it should be noted here that the authorities of the Occident (governing bodies, the Church) see themselves as compelled to repent. This indicates a very peculiar type of forgiveness, and indeed it is no longer really forgiveness, for forgiveness must be conceded freely. Otherwise it is not forgiveness. Who is the agent of this constraint? Public opinion, international bodies, the conformism of the time. Pressures are exerted. Authority senses that it will be disavowed and will lose credibility if it does not submit to this public confession. One takes the case of John Paul II. After the publication of Memory and Reconciliation, which contains seven pontifical requests for forgiveness for a number of sins committed by the Church in the past, other groups not mentioned in the document launched an outcry, demanding that the Church ask their forgiveness as well. Or, in the case of the repentance of Japan for acts committed in China, China has embarked on a campaign of indignation, denouncing the inadequacy of these “excuses”.

Thus what is sought is a complete purification. Does this exist in the human world? Can we purge the world of wrongdoing once and for all, as the International Criminal Court seeks to do? “Never again”: do we know what this means? One should quote this in Spanish, for the Spanish version is most telling in this regard: it is not “nunca”, but “nunca jamás”, not “never”, but “never-never”. What pretension on our part! The aim is Utopian, the approach is totalitarian – a natural fit. In the systems of communist allegiance, Christian forgiveness was recuperated by totalitarianism and transformed into obligatory self-criticism. It was no longer a question of regretting one’s past misdeeds in order to move closer to personal self-improvement, as was the case in the Christian world. Quite the inverse, the essence was to expunge the world of the past in order to present oneself as a person of the future, a figure of an earthly parousia.

Collective forgiveness is situated well within the totalitarian (or inquisitorial) sphere of influence, because the request for forgiveness is often imposed, and it is imposed by this Utopia based on the eradication of evil. And at the same time because these procedures are accompanied by a Manichean worldview, as if the victims were intrinsically innocent (when for example they demand more complete repentance without repenting of anything themselves) and the guilty were intrinsically guilty (which explains why their requests for forgiveness are never granted, as if their penance were always insufficient).

Have we not finished with Utopias? It seems the answer is no, even if the phenomenon of which we are speaking resembles the trail of a comet, the last trace of a dream, perhaps the last manifestation of Occidental Prometheism. Is it possible that our world today has ceased in its quest for perfection? Are we really better than our ancestors? We tirelessly reproach our forbearers of “having known” what was taking place at Auschwitz and having done nothing. Do we not know what is taking place in North Korea? Are the people of North Korea any less deserving of dignity than the Jews or the Gypsies or the Homosexuals persecuted and murdered by the Nazis? We wag our fingers at the ecclesiastical families and communities that practiced paedophilia through the abuse of authority, and at the same time crown here a minister and there a cinematographer who boast of having done the same thing, and we turn a grinning eye to the sex tourism in which our compatriots indulge, to the detriment of Thai children. Are the children of Pataya less deserving of dignity than the choirboys of the 1970s?

These comparisons suggest two conclusions. First and foremost, we would do better to see the beam in our eye than the beam in the cadavers of our ancestors. It would be more prudent to address that which is taking place before our very eyes (deeds in which we are, therefore, more or less complicit) than that which is past and therefore beyond reform. Moreover, perhaps it is because we do not really wish to reform at all, because we believe ourselves to be perfect, that we condemn the dead in order to expunge them from history. Thus Michelet condemned the Middle Ages without appeal, though his era was hardly any better, but he was the only one to ignore this. We should ask rather what our descendants will reproach us of tomorrow. We should not see ourselves as the ultimate judges. In human history, he who passes judgement will be judged, and we have not yet exited from history.

Finally, we should not believe that the marginalization of visions of the world, religions, and ideologies will allow for the eradication of barbaric acts. Many peoples of history never lived in the name of a structured system of beliefs, and in each century they committed barbaric acts in the name of identities. When humans do not commit violent acts in the name of a God or an idea, they commit violent acts in order to gain territory or power. The forswearing of structured systems of thought, so-called “grand narratives”, will not produce eternal peace, but rather will give their place over to wars of identity.

It is worth underscoring, in conclusion, the peculiarity of the historical forgiveness sought by religious bodies. In fact, in all other cases (leaders of state asking pardon in the name of human rights) we are in the Utopia of the eradication of barbarism.

Church authorities, in contrast, cannot confirm any kind of earthly perfection. But they nonetheless play the game of the day, as it were, giving it an entirely different interpretation. Since they have also had the self-criticism of (soft) totalitarian obedience imposed on them, they submit, considering this practice for themselves as a Christian confession. They do not make their declarations with thoughts of “never again”, for they know the finiteness and imperfection of the world. Rather they are thinking of possible and indefinite improvement through the path shown by Christ. They confirm that equality in dignity, ontological and inaugural affirmation, is only realized progressively, as successive groups gain recognition as equal in dignity. In the 15th century American Indians were recognized, and a little bit later the peoples of Africa. The gesture of doing penance for anti-Semitism or paedophilia signifies that Jews and children, who were able to avail themselves of an ontological equality of dignity, were not accorded this dignity until then. This recognition marks a conquest, for it is a question of an accord finally realized between rights and realities.

Thus historical pardon is a recuperation by secular bodies of the Christian notion of forgiveness that uses this notion in the service of the last Utopia. In the meantime, Christian bodies, called on to submit to this ritual, restore it to its original world.

Translation by Thomas Cooper

(The essay was first published in French in Revue Internationale de Sociology.)


1 This expression was used by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki in his first speech in the Polish Parliament (Sejm) in 1989: “We draw a thick line on what has happened in the past. We will answer for only what we have done…”. (Editor’s Note.)

2 In 1942, French Jews were rounded up and confined by the French police collaborating with the occupying forces in the Paris Winter Velodrome before their deportation to German concentration camps. (Translator’s Note.)

3 “I know that I speak for Members on all sides of the House today in offering to Japanese Canadians the formal and sincere apology of this Parliament for those past injustices against them, against their families, and against their heritage, and our solemn commitment and undertaking to Canadians of every origin that such violations will never again in this country be countenanced or repeated.” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s remarks to the House of Commons, 22 September 1988. (Author’s Note.)

4 12th century theologian who thought the world was on the cusp of a third age when the words of God would finally be clear to humankind. (Translator’s Note.)

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