Is it Time for Pandemic Forgiveness?
Forgiveness alone won't bring personal or political reconciliation, but it's an important step in that direction
In her classic work, The Human Condition, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt famously described the “faculty of forgiving” as the only remedy against “the predicament of irreversibility” of action. As Arendt noted, “without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever.”
Arendt’s argument implicitly focused on personal forgiveness—the act of forgiveness extended by one person to another. But her observations also have broader social implications. Several years ago, I wrote an article highlighting the relationship between personal forgiveness and “political forgiveness.” Drawing not only from Arendt but also from theological sources, I suggested that forgiveness can have broad political effects but requires both aggregated acts of personal forgiveness and a shared narrative framework that makes sense of them as a whole. And importantly, forgiveness alone does not reconcile. Reconciliation is only possible when forgiveness by the person offended is matched with repentance by the offender.
In the News
Earlier this week, Emily Oster caused quite a stir with an Atlantic essay titled “Let’s Declare a Pandemic Amnesty.” As Oster noted, the uncertainty and frenzy in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that people took different sides on almost every conceivable policy response. She observed:
And on every topic, someone was eventually proved right, and someone else was proved wrong. In some instances, the right people were right for the wrong reasons. In other instances, they had a prescient understanding of the available information.
Oster noted that those who ended up being right “may want to gloat” while those who got it wrong “may feel defensive and retrench into a position that doesn’t accord with the facts.” She suggested instead that we forgive each other and work on solving the social problems highlighted and created by COVID and the responses to it.
Reactions were swift and . . . unforgiving. Predictably, they came from both sides. Here is a representative (though relatively tempered) response from someone on the left unhappy about easing restrictions too early:
Meanwhile, on the right, conservative commentator Matthew Schmitz tweeted:
As my friend Michael Wear noted, these responses and many like them suggest that rather than seeing and admitting their own mistakes during the pandemic, people are more inclined to think “I’ve been wronged and I’ll never let them forget it.”
Wear sees the political implications of this personal mindset:
Oster is warning against what I see in communities all over the country: the continued cultivation of bitter resentment, yes toward government officials, but most troubling, bitter resentment toward their own schools; the businesses down the street that didn’t do what they should have; the family members who enforced precautions or refused to respect them.
And he predicts that while this political posture may “work” to strengthen our unity with those whose pandemic responses were similar to ours and solidify our antipathy to those who chose differently, it “will lead us to an increasingly desolate place, until we find ourselves in another crisis, in need of people willing to question the status quo, only to find everything’s still burning from the fire we set and nurtured.”
In My Head
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, forgiveness is only one side of reconciliation, which also requires repentance. I noticed an absence of repentance in Oster’s piece and wondered whether a differently framed essay might have better modeled the possibility of reconciliation. But like Wear, I was also struck by the lack of grace in the responses to her piece. For starters, Oster is clearly right that we’ve all made pandemic mistakes.
Still, I remain uncertain how reconciliation should unfold in the wake of this pandemic. It may be that public commentators and public officials should convey forgiveness and repentance to one another and, when appropriate, express repentance to their constituencies. Ideally, political consequences would follow from the more egregious and harmful policy decisions, including those from conservative politicians who ignored compelling evidence about COVID mitigation and liberal politicians who ignored compelling evidence about the relatively low risks of in-person schooling.
But perhaps it is more plausible—and more actionable—to think about forgiveness and repentance in our individual and interpersonal relationships. Like you, I have friends and family whose pandemic choices have complicated and in some cases wounded our relationships. In many of these cases, forgiveness is far preferable to holding grudges or keeping score.
I can also think of plenty of my own missteps. I was less than charitable when I tried to convince local institutional leaders to comply with local mandates. My wife and I had more arguments than I care to remember over whether I could meet outside with three friends in our driveway—an activity at one point absurdly prohibited by a county ordinance. I have grown angry at friends for their seemingly selfish pandemic decisions. And looking back, my pandemic posture has at times been much like my posture while driving—everyone moving faster than me is a reckless idiot and everyone driving slower is a lifeless killjoy.
Whatever the truth of the pandemic may be, it’s definitely not my truth, and it’s definitely not yours. The more we live like our own COVID missteps were justified and reasonable while those of others demand their repentance before we can forgive, the more we will harden ourselves, our neighbors, and ultimately, our society.
In the World
The interconnectedness between personal and political forgiveness is powerfully demonstrated in Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness. Tutu explores the importance of forgiveness to the Truth and Reconciliation process that unfolded in South Africa in the 1990s. Importantly, the failure of widespread repentance by white South Africans to match the costly forgiveness of black South Africans precluded genuine reconciliation on a societal level. But that political failure does not negate the importance of personal forgiveness in the South African story.
The title alone warrants the recommendation, but Tutu’s words and actions show why forgiveness has political as well as personal dimensions. Tutu notes the ways in which publicizing acts of personal forgiveness practically aided efforts to shape a national narrative. Drawing from the Christian theology that guided his approach, Tutu contends there is “a moral universe which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word.” As he noted elsewhere, these are “not just airy-fairy religious and spiritual things, nebulous and unrealistic” but “they are the stuff of practical politics.”