"To err is human, to forgive divine.” But the old saying leaves out the hardest part — forgetting. Forgiveness even when considered by the most genuine parties is also closely linked to memory and this places even more demands on those who forgive—to forgive and forget trivial and grave offences alike.
This week Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina, confessed to involvement in an extramarital affair with an Argentine woman. The governor had lied about his whereabouts over the previous week and later emerged to rectify the matter. Sanford reportedly “teared up” as he delivered an apology. “The bottom line is, I have been unfaithful to my wife,” he said.
One should not underestimate Sanford’s courage in making a public admission of his transgression. There is nothing that men abhor so much as to be seen to totter or to admit failure in the face of difficulties. Brutal honesty, especially in such situations, is in fact a sign of strong character.
Meanwhile, the governor’s wife, Jenny Sanford, is reported to have asked her husband to leave the family in a trial separation that appeared to be part of a reconciliation process. In her statement, Mrs Sanford said she still believed their marriage was not beyond repair. “When I first found out about my husband’s infidelity, I worked immediately to first seek reconciliation through forgiveness and then to work diligently to repair our marriage.” She noted that the trial separation was agreed to with the goal of ultimately strengthening the marriage. Towards the end of her statement the governor’s wife maintained that she was “willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back, in time…”
One can read much sincerity in Mrs Sanford’s statement. But it is also entangled with contradictions that may work against her goodwill. How well does one unite or strengthen a marriage by trial separation? What message do we give a person when we tell them, “I forgive you, but I do not want to see you for two weeks”? Or, “I want to forgive you provided, in time, you prove worthy of forgiveness”?
Are we to forgive people provided their faults are not too frightful? Is diligence in this matter to do with what external remedies a troubled couple seeks, or does it mean looking for help to make a change of heart?
C. S. Lewis writing on forgiveness in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses has noted that, when we forgive we must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in our own heart—every wish to humiliate and pay the other person back. Lewis argues that, in order to forgive, we ought to remember the perhaps soft ground where we stand: that perhaps the other person was not so much to blame as we thought. I think no amount of guilt on the part of Mr Sanford can completely absolve someone who has lived with him for nearly twenty years from bearing some responsibility for the conditions under which he pursued an extramarital relationship. Often when relationships and marriages break down they do not do so suddenly.
Whether she bears any such responsibility or not, she certainly holds the key to the new beginning she has indicated with the words, “I believe Mark has earned a chance to resurrect our marriage.” Sanford most likely apologized to his wife before making a public confession. But what becomes of a prodigal husband who decides to run back to his wife only to be sent away to think about what he just did and how to make up?
Simon Wiesenthal in The Sunflower: On Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness has described his experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp in a volume that draws the reader into a world of unimaginable horrors. In a most memorable incident the author recounts a hospital bedside meeting with a dying Nazi who confesses his participation in a crime in which two hundred Jewish people were herded into a house and the house set on fire “amidst screams from within the house and fire leaping from one floor to another”. Rifles were readied to shoot anyone who tried to escape.
The dying soldier recalls a man with a child in his arms, followed by his wife, trying to escape, and him gunning them down. The soldier was later injured in a battle with the Russians when a shell exploded by his side and was now waiting for his own death. Images of the family he had killed continued to haunt him; but now he had found a Jew and would beg forgiveness. Wiesenthal listens to the soldier’s confession and offers acts of kindness. But he leaves the room without any reply to the soldier. The author later questions himself and his fellow prisoners as to whether or not it was right to deny dying man forgiveness.
In any case, it was too late to forgive that particular man, a mistake that Mrs Sanford would be wise not to make. Wiesenthal also recalled that, “when at last the hour of freedom struck, it was too late for so many of us. …[T]he survivors made their way homeward in groups. For me there was no home to return to." A trial separation for Mark Sanford means he has no home to return to yet.
Ruth Pluznick in an analysis of Wiesenthal’s book has noted that trauma can steal our hopes, dreams and purposes in life. These days are particularly difficult ones for the South Carolina governor’s family, but the disappointment and pain they feel should not blind them to the opportunity to teach a most important lesson to the children—a lesson in gratuitous love that opens its arms to people irrespective of their defects and without conditions.
Mrs Sanford quoted the Bible in her statement, alluding to the fact that children are a gift from God. She might ponder the words in a prayer she has probably recited for many years: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” To be a Christian, C. S. Lewis asserts, is to excuse the inexcusable, and this is the challenge for all of us.
One final thought. If Jenny Sanford has in fact forgiven her philandering husband, surely everyone can. Mark Sanford is not necessarily unworthy of political office since Bill Clinton and others before him have erred, thought better of it, and returned to their feet.
Charles Makanga Sendegeya is a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom.