Studies in Christian Ethics Special Issue: 'Is Forgiveness Moral?'


While South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is widely regarded as a model of political ‘reconciliation’, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s introduction into it of Christian notions of forgiveness is the subject of heated debate. What appears as Christian common sense to some, looks like a short-changing of justice to others. To the latter, forgiveness is an inappropriate response to atrocious injustice. Put more sharply, it is immoral. This controversy raises a cluster of questions: Is forgiveness ever appropriate at a political, rather than an interpersonal, level? Do Christians actually agree about what forgiveness is, and when it is appropriate? And how do Christian views look to philosophers?

It was to consider these questions that in May 2010 the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life brought together theologians and philosophers at a conference, which adopted Northern Ireland as a test-case. Of those who made formal presentations, Thomas Brudholm is a philosopher who had written critically of certain Christian views of forgiveness and its political role; Nigel Biggar and Stephen Williams are Christian theologians who had already disagreed in print over the role of forgiveness in post-Troubles Northern Ireland; Anthony Bash and Geoffrey Scarre are the authors of, respectively, important theological and philosophical work on forgiveness; and Philip Barnes is a Christian philosopher, who has written on forgiveness and justice in Northern Ireland. The final and additional paper on this theme has been contributed by the Reformed theologian, Michael Beintker, whose study of redeeming the past sheds light on the problem of forgiveness in the German context.