Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Miroslav Volf on Nietzsche's "Superhuman Forgiveness"

Having recently relayed some different "takes" on forgiveness I thought I'd return to the theme today with another. In the literature regarding the practice of forgiveness it is often described as an internal switch of mind in which the person is able to "let go" of or "rise above" an offence, experiencing personal therapy and opening up a social high road (which may or may not be travelled by the other party involved). Sometimes Christians will advocate such internalized forgiveness by saying that the forgiver is to act "as if" the offence had not occurred. This may have some credence on some levels, but seems an inadequate account of forgiveness, as is illustrated in the following assessment of Nietzsche, given by Miroslav Volf:

 "In The Genealogy of Morals Friedrich Nietzsche advocated a version of 'as-if-not' attitude toward transgression .... an attitude toward transgression untouched by concerns for justice as desert. He writes:

Friedrich Nietzche
'To be unable to take his enemies, his misfortunes and even his misdeeds seriously for long--that is the sign of strong, rounded natures with superabundance of a power which is flexible, formative, healing and can make one forget.... A man like this shakes from him, with one shrug, many worms which would have burrowed into another man; here and here alone is it possible, assuming that this is possible at all on earth--truly to 'love your neighbour.''

Such sovereign disregard for injuries from others demands extraordinary strength, almost that of an übermensch [superman].... [However], his example of the 'virtuous' [man] could not forgive because he had forgotten!... Nietzsche had little positive to say about [forgiveness] and tended to replace it with 'forgetting.'"

To my mind this seems largely inadequate for another reason, which is that it expects superhuman strength precisely from the one who has been victimized. Add it up and Nietzsche's sort of forgiveness is more like an argument for the politics of disregard, supporting the sequestering of power by those who are able to transcend their situation and carry on in the repression of others undaunted. In other words, it is the stuff of violence, and not of grace. We should watch that our Christian accounts of forgiveness do not take this form.

- See Miroslav Volf, "Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Justice," 
in Forgiveness and Reconciliation (Templeton, 2001), p. 36-38, and 
Nietzche, On the Geneology of Morals (Cambridge, 1994), p. 23-24

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